Hipper Hipper Hurrah!

Words: Trevor the Ink

Pictures: Iain McGregor

The River Hipper is Chatsworth Road’s forgotten sister.

Chatsworth Road gets the attention, and the festivals and the bunting, and is known right across our region. The Hipper doesn’t get festivals – instead people dump beer cans and shopping trolleys in it. But the road and the river have a relationship which goes back years, and the Chatsworth Road area wouldn’t be what it is without the Hipper. Here’s her story.

Hipper Sick to Holymoorside:

The Hipper has its own connection with Chatsworth, beginning its journey on Chatsworth estate land on Beeley Moor in an area called Hipper Sick. Sick (or syke) is an old northern word meaning a small stream or rivulet, and there are various ‘sicks’ on the moors east of Chatsworth: Umberley Sick, Harland Sick, and others. The Hipper soon runs down to Holymoorside, through tree-lined channels past Hunger Hill and Cat Hole. The Hipper may get its name from trees on its banks, Hypa being an Old English word for Osier, a type of willow.


It’s in Holymoorside that the Hipper first became a working river. In the late 1700s the hot new industry was cotton spinning. Large mills were built employing scores or even hundreds of people, and with machinery powered by water. Some Derbyshire examples survive, like Arkwright’s Mill at Cromford, but there were many others including at Holymoorside. The village had two industrial mills, as well as a corn mill. One produced cotton and silk yarn; the other made dye. Both were originally water powered, with the Hipper feeding mill ponds which in turn fed the water wheels. The mills were a success, especially under the ownership of the Manlove family, and survived into the early 20th century having changed with the times into making bobbins of thread for sewing machines. Their closure was a major blow to the village.

Somersall and Walton:

The Hipper then flows down past Somersall Hall, a house dating in part from the 1600s, then through the modern and pleasant Somersall Park, and arrives at Walton. There it fills Walton Dam and it’s there that the Hipper’s relationship with Chesterfield’s history really begins. You can think of Walton Dam (aka Walton Mill Dam) as a control on the flow of the river, supporting a corn mill and the industries downstream. But it’s also been a place of entertainment continuously since the early 19th century. Often rowing boats were available to hire, and swimming was popular in warm weather. And when the water froze over people went skating. Sometimes there were even cricket matches on the ice – played entirely in skates – and curling matches as well as just skating and dancing. Winter entertainments at the dam in Victorian times sometimes lasted well into the night with the scene lit by bonfires and strings of Chinese lanterns, and with Chesterfield Band playing.

(Walton Dam wasn’t the only place you could go ice skating back then – apparently Chesterfield Sewage Works also let people skate when their ponds froze over. Not sure how popular that was!).

Starting in 1893 the Chesterfield Swimming Club held annual summer carnivals at Walton Dam, with swimming contests, record attempts by national champions, and ‘aquatic sports’ such as water polo and walking greasy poles supported above the water. For landlubbers there were foot races, music, band contests, and theatre performances (one was a farce called ‘Rescuing Ladies from the Deep’), plus lots of food and drink stalls. One year, for charity, the club brought and launched a genuine RNLI lifeboat; a retired boat, but one that had saved over 30 lives. The entertainment tradition at the dam long continued with Robinson’s regularly holding sports days and other events there.

Chatsworth Road and Goytside:

Below the dam the river supplied water and motive power, either via water wheels or as water for steam engines, to a range of industries along Chatsworth road. There were cotton mills, potteries, iron works, brick works, saw mills, chemical works, foundries, a colliery, a brewery, slaughter houses, and more. They all needed water and lots of it. Artificial ponds and channels like the goyt of Goytside (‘goyt’ is a northern word related to gutter) were created, and you can still see a decayed water wheel at Cannon Mill. That mill was where it all began: originally a corn mill, it was transformed in the 18th century to power machinery for John and Ebeneezer Smith’s iron works. Other industries followed.

All those factories and workmen’s houses changed the nature of the Hipper. One survey in the 1870s counted 112 outlets of ‘a sewage nature’, going into the river between Holymoorside and Boythorpe Bridge, mostly in Brampton, plus coal washings, tar, and industrial chemicals. But people still used its water for household purposes; people washed clothes in it, bathed in it, and people were even baptised in it. And, sadly, people drowned in it. Children playing or fetching water would fall in, and so would drunks staggering home in the dark. Many folks were rescued – but when the river is full it’s dangerous and has taken a good few lives.
Waste from industry – broken pots, rubble, and other detritus – raised the bed of the river, making it more likely to flood. Floods have always plagued the lower Hipper valley, with major floods in 1830, 1839, 1849, 1867, 1875, 1880, 1881, 1886, 1922, 1932, 1986, and 2007. The most dramatic was possibly the storm of 1830, with furniture floating down Chatsworth Road to Wheatbridge, and water getting into pottery kilns and causing explosions of steam. Floods often caused factory shut-downs and the lay-off of hundreds of workers.

Past Chesterfield to the Rother:

At Wheatbridge the Hipper meets the Holme Brook – which also used to be dammed to supply the forges – and flows through an area once called Maynard’s Meadows, now Queen’s Park, where it feeds the ornamental lake. It then used to turn north to meet the town, passing right alongside the Ragged School and the House of Correction. Near South Place it opened out to form Silk Mill Dam, which fed the wheel of a four-story mill that dated back to 1759. This stretch was famously smelly and unhealthy – but most of the pollution had come downstream from areas out of the control of Chesterfield Corporation: a problem and source of arguments for many years.
The last leg of her route, to the Rother, marked the south of medieval Chesterfield. Many of the old burgage plots adjoining the river had tanneries on them, and many centuries later tanning is still a local industry. Just before the Hipper met the Rother there was once a water mill, the Lord’s Mill – hence the name of the street – and a bridge with a chapel on the route to Derby. Road works and redevelopments have since moved the river south into a channel behind Ravenside Retail Park, but it still meets up with the Rother at much the same place as always.

Nowadays many industries have gone, and the Hipper is in retirement from its working life. It’s also less polluted, though it did recently turn orange for some reason. It’s channelled and culverted through town but when upstream it’s a pleasant feature and an important part of our local parks. Like many a half-ignored relation, it’s been more important to us over the years than you might have thought, and you might find you’d miss it if it somehow disappeared.

Except, of course, for the floods!


Pictures: Courtesy of Iain McGregor 2012.
Twisted tree roots as the river passes through Somersall, The Old Mill Works, Bridge at Walton, beneath Markham Road.