History of Castle Donington in the county of Leicestershire


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Some history of Castle Donington

Castle Donington is a pleasant small town with the character of a large village [many of the residents seem to prefer calling it a village] that has a varied stock of attractive buildings. I took the photograph below as I was walking from the church towards Clapgun Street with Church Lane on the left. This view encapsulates the pleasant houses and shops of yesteryear, a key characteristic of Castle Donington. The town has many architectural delights, mainly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but some of greater antiquity with their timber-framed structures and thatched roofs. I am talking here of the old centre. But times are changing and Castle Donington is being increasingly pressurised in terms of development, mainly to the north and west of the old town.

Church Lane and Clapgun Street at Castle Donington [2002]

Despite the close proximity of East Midlands airport, it is modern roads that seem to be creating the main impetus for commercial development. With construction starting in 2018, a relief road to the west of the town was largely funded by developers building hundreds of new homes. In some respects, it is history repeating itself because it was Castle Donington's excellent communications that led to its growth in the late 18th century. In addition to being close to the confluence of the rivers, Soar and Derwent, into the Trent, Castle Donington benefited from being close to the points where two key routes crossed the river. Historic roads connecting Leicester and Derby, along with the route between Birmingham and Nottingham, brought trade and supported new industry in the area. This would be compounded by the arrival of the canal and rail networks.

The Ferry at King's Mills near Castle Donington [c.1906]

The Trent has played a fundamental role in the history and development of Castle Donington. Here you can see the ferry that once operated at King's Mills to the west of the town but within the parish. Operated by chain, the ferry offered a river crossing service until the mid-20th century. This, along with the ferries at Weston Cliff and Wilne, were important links across the river. There was also a ford crossing at King's Mills but I imagine that this was only used in the summer when the water levels were low. I have stood on the river bank at King's Mills when the river has been in flood and, believe me, it is a daunting sight. The ferry boat was wrecked on a number of occasions when the river became a raging torrent. Severe flooding in the summer of 1910 ripped the iron chain from its fastening buried in the bed of the river. The ferry boat was sunk, and altogether hidden from view and part of the landing stage was wrecked.

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King's Mills is mentioned in a charter issued by Æthelred the Unready in 1009 and a mill was recorded here in the Domesday survey. Further mills were sited here and belonged to the Crown up until the 17th century - hence the name. King James I was certainly recorded as owner but they were sold in 1609. There were as many as five mills that utilised the water source. Together, they were employed in malting, paper-making, corn grinding and fulling. It is thought that banknotes were produced here at one time and there is evidence of a button factory where, today, a row of cottages are located. Visitors can still wander around the foundations of the mills that finally closed after a fire in 1927. Take great care however because the brickwork is very slippery and the river rushes past at a frightening speed. Although it's exciting to stand close to the water, you certainly wouldn't want to fall in here! The river provided the power for the corn mill and grist mill, though steam engines were introduced at the paper mill around 1830.

Note the large building that can be seen in the photograph above on the opposite side of the river bank. Erected in ecclesiastical-style architecture, probably by Lord Hastings at the turn of the 19th century, this is known as the Priest House and is thought to have been built on the site of a monks's chapel. It was once the home of Dr. William Lloyd, a member of the Birmingham banking family that had acquired the grist mill in 1840. The Lloyd'ss had previously installed another Quaker named Joseph Bowman as the mill'ss manager.

Mill Wheels at King's Mills near Castle Donington [2002]

King's Mills was the scene of a bloody skirmish in the English Civil War. The river crossing was strategically important and a key route for moving troops and munitions. Indeed, ford and ferry crossings generally increased in importance during the Civil War as bridges could easily be demolished. The Royalists gained control of King's Mills and secured the crossing with a large number of troops forming a small garrison. However, Sir John Gell, the Derbyshire scourge of the cavaliers, led a charge down the steep hill and drove them out. The register of Weston-on-Trent has and entry dated 1644 which reads: "Some souldiers buryed of ye Garrison."

The Boathouse at Castle Donington [c.1910]

Not far from King's Mills was The Boathouse, part of the Donington Hall estate. A peaceful retreat, this may have also been used for fishing. The river around King's Mills was particularly noted for angling. In former times, perhaps dating back to the monks' chapel, eels were caught on the weirs next to the mills.

Donington Hall dates from the late 18th century. Designed in a fanciful Gothic Revival style by the plasterer and draughtsman William Wilkins, the hall was built in 1793. It is not the original hall. An earlier edifice was built by the 4th Earl of Huntingdon who was also responsible for the demolition of Donington Castle. However, following the death of the tenth earl, this was also razed and today's hall built by his successor, Lord Rawdon, the first Marquis of Hastings, who was Governor-General of India after the Battle of Waterloo.

Donington Hall and Park by Thomas Allom and engraved by William Watkins [1830]

Donington hall went into steep decline with successive generations of the Rawdon family who became famous for their wild extravagance. Indeed, the 4th Earl, Harry, was a regular in the national press who reported on his incredible spending sprees and 'rock and roll' lifestyle. I wonder what musical genre would fit the bill for him during the 19th century£ His most famous blowout was in 1866 when he gambled and lost £140,000 on the Derby. Can you imagine how much that amount of money is worth today£ The Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix of his age, things caught up with him and he was dead by the age of 27 leaving massive debts. On reporting his death, The Times wrote that he "was as extravagant as his public gambling, and he was as prodigal of his honour as of his wealth." Donington Hall remained empty for many years and fell into some decay. During the First World War it was appropriated by the government and used as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured German officers. Two of them managed to escape by tunnelling under the walls.

The hall was later used as a centre for 'displaced persons' before being converted into a hotel and later as a centre for British Midland Airways. Part of the hall's former estate will be familiar with motor racing fans because it was converted into Donington Park Race Circuit. At the edge of the arena stands the Museum for the Donington Collection. Accumulated over forty years by founder and owner, Tom Wheatcroft, this houses more than 130 historical vehicles from the racing world. At the entrance to the Donington Collection stands a memorial to Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna, two of the legends of Formula One. The motorsport connection continued when Stuart Garner, owner of Norton Motorcycles, bought Donington Hall when British Airways relocated the offices of British Midland Airways to Heathrow.

Key House on Donington High Street [c.1910]

Castle Donington itself is a town with a bypass before such a term was coined. The High Street, which passes through the west side of the town centre, was formerly a major road before the widening of the A42 which relieved Castle Donington of heavy traffic. There are a number of interesting buildings along the through road including the charming timber-framed Key House. It has an attractive two-storied porch but a closer inspection reveals it is not bonded with the original structure but added at a later date. On the opposite side of the road is a strange potpourri of a building called Hall Farm. Strange because, although it is made of Georgian brick on the upper floors, the ground level is of 17th century stone.

The road was improved during the coaching period. The road was taken over by a Turnpike Trust in 1760 and Castle Donington became a popular stop on the road from Tamworth to Nottingham. Coaches originally had to cross the river at Wilne Ferry before the construction of Cavendish Bridge in 1771. The turnpike resulted in a number of taverns and hotels opening along its route. Built in the 1790's, the Rawdon Hotel was the most exclusive of these establishments and featured large stabling for the coaching trade. The Moira Arms and Turk's Head also benefited greatly from passing trade.

Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr at Castle Donington [c.1912]

The junction near the Turk's Head formed the gateway into Castle Donington and the old market street. The area in front of the Methodist Church is typical of an old Bull Ring and is fronted by a few good Georgian buildings, notably the bank. Market Street and Borough Street are lined with a few shops that have changed little over the years. Retaining their individuality, they add great charm to the town. The archway to the church dedicated to Saint Edward King and Martyr nestles between shops in Borough Street and forms a particularly unique scene.

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The church dates back to the 13th century and is a grand-looking structure with a tall needle spire dominating the surrounding countryside. The structure has many features almost exclusive to Leicestershire and the art historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, drew comparisons with it and the church at Stoke Golding. Inside, there is an effigy of a priest with his head below a nodding ogee canopy and dates from 1330. In addition, there is a tomb chest with Brasses of Robert de Staunton and his wife who died in 1458. Another tomb chest with shield carrying angels and seated bedesmen is almost identical to one in Saint Andrew's at Clifton Campville in Staffordshire.

Castle Donington Museum occupies the ground floor of a 17th century stone house which was originally a farm building. The conversion of the house, barn and garden for use as a museum began in Spring 1999. It forms an exhibition and study centre for visitors and students of the archaeology and history of Castle Donington.

Market Street in Castle Donington [c.1910]

Cavendish Bridge is included here because, historically, it has been within the parish of Castle Donington. If you visit Cavendish Bridge you end up doing a bit of border hopping because it is intrinsically linked with Shardlow, across the river in Derbyshire. This was part of a network of river crossings and an ancient highway passed through the village and north to Wilne where The Derwent had to be negotiated. The Derwent and Trent meet just a few hundred metres to the east and it is here that one of the most incredible discoveries was made in 1985. An 11th century timber bridge was found on the old line of the River Trent and a full excavation of the site was conducted in 1993 by Leicestershire Museums, Arts and Record Service's Archaeological Unit. Built as a crossing point for the London to Derby road, Hemington Bridge is one of the largest timber structures known from 11th century Britain and contains unique structural forms and joints. Subsequent excavations led by Dr. Salisbury revealed the site of a Norman mill dam thought to date from 1120 along with a second bridge.

Cavendish Bridge and the River Trent [c.1910]

The river crossing to the south of Shardlow was via a horse drawn ferry and the old settlement on the river was mentioned in the Domesday Book as Wilden Ferry. However, this was replaced in 1771 by a stone bridge paid for by the Cavendish family and the settlement that grew around the new construction borrowed its name. The bridge caused massive friction with the river boat operators. At one end of the construction there was a couple of keeps housing a military guard posted on the bridge to defend it against the ferrymen who often attempted to ram the supports as they were being embedded. There were many restrictions in the channel which forced James Brindley to re-route the Trent and Mersey canal to avoid the river tolls charged by the bridge operators. This resulted in an extra mile of water being added to his new navigation. Consequently, the community of Cavendish Bridge grew up around the road, the old coaching inn dating from 1758, the former ferry and the river warehouses, many of which can still be seen. A toll was levied on those wishing to cross the river. A stone displaying the toll charges is still on display on the roadside approaching today's Cavendish Bridge. This was built in 1956 following the collapse of the original structure in 1947 following some of the worst floods Britain has witnessed.

High Street at Castle Donington [c.1956]

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Castle Donington Pubs

Bell and Crown Inn
Bricklayers' Arms Inn
Castle Inn
Cavendish Bridge Inn
Cross Keys Inn
Crown Inn
Donington Arms Hotel
Jolly Potters Inn
King's Head Inn
Lamb Inn
Moira Arms Hotel
Nag's Head Inn
New Inn
Ship Inn
Swan Inn
Turk's Head Inn


Map of Castle Donington [1901[

Windmill at Castle Donington [c.1914[

Genealogy Connections

If you have a genealogy story or query regarding the Castle Donington area you can contact me and I will post it here in addition to including your message within the website pages for Leicestershire Genealogy.

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Bram Stoker

"Before I left the castle I so fixed its entrances that never more can the Count enter there Undead."
Bram Stoker

Newspaper Articles

"James Morgan, farm labourer, of Key House, Castle Donington, was find £1 at Melbourne today for driving an uninsured motorcycle, and 5s. for not illuminating the rear identification plate. Superintendent Ridd said Morgan was riding his brother's motorcycle."
"Motor Cyclist"
Derby Daily Telegraph : March 8th 1933 Page 1.

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