This post first appeared on Derby Telegraph. Read the original article.
How to make the best of Derby's river is a question that has vexed its leaders for decades.
Millions of pounds are currently being spent on a flood defences that will make it much more feasible to develop areas around the River Derwent.
But the feeling that the river area should be Derby's finest, and is not, persists.
Recently, the Derby Telegraph has run several stories about criminal activity in Derby's Riverside Gardens. That may or may not point to a consistent criminal problem in that area but it certainly doesn't suggest the family picnic spot it was intended to be.
Some 75 years ago a Derby politician, who wanted to see huge areas of the town centre swept away and massive rebuilding undertaken to accommodate his dream suggested prioritising the riverside because it was Derby’s “greatest asset”.
In December 1942, Alderman William Raynes was asked by the editor of the Derby Telegraph to share with readers his vision of how Derby might look. He came up with a series of stunning ideas that would have changed forever the centuries’ old character of the town.
It is interesting that the matter should have been debated at all, given that the Second World War was at its height. But after Dunkirk, and the fall of Singapore, by the end of 1942 came the first indications that the war might be turning in the Allies’ favour.
Rommel had been defeated in North Africa, the Russian army had the Germans encircled at Stalingrad, and the Derby Telegraph felt it time for a bit of local optimism as well.
It was also perfectly natural that they should turn to Will Raynes for a view of how life in Derby might unfold after victory was secured. He had long been passionate about the redevelopment of his hometown, calling it one of his “pet themes”.
A former pupil of Wilmorton School, Staffordshire-born Raynes had been active in the Trades Union movement since 1897. In 1911, at the age of 40, he was elected as one of Derby’s first Labour councillors. Four years later he became full-time secretary and organiser of the Derby Labour Party, and, in 1921, Derby’s first Labour mayor. The town’s first Labour alderman, he was granted the honorary freedom of the borough.
Raynes also served as MP for Derby for two short spells, in 1923-24 and 1929-31, but it was in local politics that his strengths lay. He oversaw several key elements of Derby’s rebuilding in the 1930s, including the 1932 Flood Prevention Scheme and the building of Derby Power Station on Full Street.
Raynes was a key influence in the building of the Ring Road and in 1938 officially opened a section of this, named Raynesway in his honour.
Raynes’ plan for Derby owed as much to his social conscience as to his aesthetic desires. He wrote of the “mad materialism of the 19th century, with its sordid outlook and its greed of gold” which made “our great industrial centre crowded, unhealthy, festering sores on the face of our fair land”.
He proposed that all future developments, while coming out of local ratepayers’ contributions, would remain public property. He called on Derbeians to grasp the opportunity to “keep in in the march of progress. If we do not do it, we are going to be left behind”.
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“First, I want the riverside beautiful. The river is our greatest asset from the point of view of health and recreation, and it will become the centre of our finest architectural and landscape attractions.”
Somewhat optimistic? Perhaps, but his suggestion of “broad open boulevards with gardens on both banks, throughout the entire length from Darley Park to the Five Arches Bridge near the LMS Station” might well have been something present-day Derbeians would be fighting to preserve.
In a precursor of some incarnations of the much-debated Riverlights scheme, Raynes suggested the construction of a “residential hotel” on the riverbank.
His passion was for a uniform town plan, for buildings that flowed from one to another, architecture that blended seamlessly together, rather than the existing intriguing mixture of heights and widths, of styles and forms – the result of centuries of alterations.
Even a cursory glance at a street map shows that Raynes’ suggestions for the shopping district would have meant wholesale changes in the streetscape, the demolition of almost everything pre-war and the restructuring of street plans that owed their origins to ancient track ways.
“I would like to stand on The Spot and, looking down St Peter’s Street, get a clear and unimpeded view of the beautiful tower of the Cathedral” ridding the town of “the present jumble of buildings (some old and inadequate, some extremely ugly) all making a skyline like an old broken-toothed saw”.
The boulevard would be at least 150ft wide with two-way traffic divided by trees, flowerbeds and “rest shelters and covered bus queue stands”. Pavements on each side would be lined by “a few large blocks, with ample ground space surrounding them, rising to six or seven storeys, fairly uniform in height and conformable in architecture”.
A quite dramatic change, but there was more to come. A similar shopping street would run from the Morledge to Friar Gate and Raynes wanted to be able to stand at Northcliffe House, then the offices of the Derby Evening Telegraph, and previously the Corn Exchange, and enjoy an unimpeded view of Friar Gate railway bridge.
The demolition of much of Derby’s historic centre aside, today’s Derbeian might well consider tempting the creation of tree-lined boulevards, although Raynes could not have imagined the impact of the motor vehicle on the latter half of the 20th century.
Will Raynes’ modernist ideas were intended to create an impressive and coherent “city centre” which would serve Derby for decades to come, but it would also have meant the wholesale destruction of many of the buildings Derbeians fight hard to protect today.
Perhaps Raynes’ proposals might have been too sweeping and dramatic for his cautious, conservative successors but his over-riding sentiment still speaks to us: “Make Derby Beautiful” - especially it's riverside. No one would argue with that.