Once described as ‘the finest Georgian church in England’, Derby’s iconic place of worship was not granted cathedral status until 1927 but its history goes much further back. Mike Smith explores this wonderful landmark and discovers its fascinating backstory.

Although the parish church of All Saints was not designated as Derby’s cathedral until 1927, it possessed a 16th century tower that was more than worthy of being the crowning glory of any cathedral.

With a height of 65 metres, this magnificent example of Perpendicular Gothic is one of the tallest church towers in England.

Every component of the structure seems to have been designed to accentuate height. The supporting buttresses are so thin that they are almost hidden and the tower, which is made up of three tall stages, is topped by battlements and long, spike-like pinnacles.

When the deterioration of the fabric prompted the vicar, Dr Michael Hutchinson, to order the demolition and re-building of the church, he allowed the tower to remain.

The architect chosen to draw up plans for the new body of the church was James Gibbs, who was receiving a great deal of praise at that time for his highly original design for St Martin-in-the-Fields, the new church that had just been completed in Trafalgar Square.

Great British Life: The 16th century tower of Derby Cathedral from Iron Gate, also showing the monument dedicated to Joseph Wright The 16th century tower of Derby Cathedral from Iron Gate, also showing the monument dedicated to Joseph Wright (Image: Mike Smith)

The finest Georgian church in England

Describing the new nave that he designed in 1725 for the church in Derby, Gibbs said, ‘It is more beautiful for having no galleries, which, as well as pews, clog up and spoil the insides of churches, the plainness of this building makes it less expensive and renders it more suitable to the steeple.’

Despite these self-congratulatory comments, Gibbs’ design divided opinion. Some writers criticised the simplicity and plainness of the nave. Others thought that the interior of the church, which has only one storey of side windows, was too low.

On the other hand, many others were quick to hail the re-built All Saints as ‘the finest Georgian church in England’.

Because most visitors catch their first glimpse of the cathedral when they see the great medieval tower standing tall at the head of Iron Gate, they are likely to be surprised by the restrained appearance of the interior.

However, they are equally likely to be completely bowled over by the simple beauty of the nave, which is brightly illuminated by light flooding in through the large, clear-glazed side-windows.

Great British Life: The pedimented canopy over the altar viewed through Robert Bakewell's wrought-iron screen The pedimented canopy over the altar viewed through Robert Bakewell's wrought-iron screen (Image: Mike Smith)

Delicate as lace

It is possible that Gibbs may have been demonstrating some slight misgivings of his own about the plainness of the interior when he decided to ask the master craftsman Robert Bakewell to add a decorative touch by designing a wrought-iron screen.

Intended to be a device that would separate the chancel from the nave without obscuring the view of the altar, the screen exceeded all expectations by covering the full width of the interior, including the aisles.

With wrought-iron decoration described as being as ‘delicate as lace and as intricate as a fugue’, this remarkable installation ranks as one of the greatest treasures to be found in this or any other cathedral.

Great British Life: The stained-glass window, designed by Ceri Richards, at the head of the South Aisle The stained-glass window, designed by Ceri Richards, at the head of the South Aisle (Image: Mike Smith)

20th century additions

The addition of bright colour to the interior had to wait until 1965, when Ceri Richards was commissioned to design the cathedral’s only stained-glass windows.

As well as being very colourful indeed, the two windows, which are positioned at the head of the aisles, are strikingly beautiful.

Their rhythmic abstract patterns are said to have been inspired by the artist’s great love of poetry and music.

In 1973, the east end of the cathedral was extended by the construction of a new back-choir (‘retroquire’).

Designed by Sebastian Comper, this includes a huge pedimented stone canopy suspended on Corinthian columns over the high altar.

Looking like a classical temple that has been dropped into the church, this could be seen as an incongruous addition to an interior notable for its understated beauty.

Alternatively, it could be praised as a bold and imaginative way of greatly improving what had been a very bland east end.

Other artefacts that are likely to catch your eye are the various memorials and brasses dedicated to the memory of well-known Derbyshire people, including Joseph Wright, Florence Nightingale and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Most visitors are particularly keen to seek out the tomb of Bess of Hardwick in the south aisle, where the brightly painted recumbent effigy of Bess is a vivid reminder of the colourful life of one of the most famous figures in Elizabethan England.

Great British Life: The tomb and effigy of Bess of Hardwick The tomb and effigy of Bess of Hardwick (Image: Mike Smith)

Worldwide fame

When you leave the cathedral, you will want to take a last look at the church’s medieval tower, not only to marvel again at its great height but also to catch a glimpse of the peregrine falcons that often make it their home.

As part of the Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project, a nest box has been constructed for the birds and webcams have been installed to allow them to be observed.

Because the webcams have already registered four million hits, the cathedral is becoming well known throughout the world. This is the sort of attention that this beautiful building deserves.


Whilst you are enjoying walking around the city and taking advantage of its great opportunities for shopping, you will come across memorials to some of Derbyshire’s most famous people. These include:

Great British Life: The Statue of Florence Nightingale on the 'Boots Building'The Statue of Florence Nightingale on the 'Boots Building' (Image: Mike Smith)

Four effigies on the ‘Boots Building’

A multi-gabled building, which was built in 1912 for Boots and is now occupied by a Costa Coffee shop, still retains four effigies which look over the corner of St Peter’s Street and East Street. They represent:

John Lombe, co-founder of Derby Silk Mill; Jedidiah Strutt, a cotton mill owner and the inventor of a new kind of knitting machine; William Hutton, poet and historian; and Florence Nightingale, social reformer, statistician and the founder of modern nursing.

Joseph Wright of Derby

This brilliant artist is remembered for his masterful ability to capture light and shade. This is best illustrated in his famous painting of onlookers staring in wonder and fascination at an orrery, which is a model of the solar system illuminated by an oil lamp acting as the sun. The fitting memorial to Wright on Iron Gate comprises a plinth topped by a representation of an orrery.

Great British Life: The Derby Ram The Derby Ram (Image: Mike Smith)

The Derby Ram

A statue standing at the junction of East Street and Albion Street is unusual in representing a well-known non-human figure – the Derby Ram, which is celebrated in a traditional folk song that tells of an enormous ram that was ‘ten feet high’. On ceremonial occasions, soldiers of the Mercian Regiment march behind a real-life ram of more modest proportions. Derby County are known as ‘The Rams’.