Search is on to find Derby’s original Becket Well ‘before it is too late’

History experts also believe early Derby remains could still be under Debenhams building

It may not be quite on a par with finding Richard III buried under a car park but re-discovering a 12th century holy well linked to St Thomas Becket could be very important to Derby.

But concerns are growing among historians that valuable early medieval archaeology, including the original Becket Well, could be lost if plans to regenerate the Becketwell and Duckworth Square areas of the city go-ahead without proper underground exploration.

Dr Joan D’Arcy, of Derbyshire Archaeological Society, believes that a more extensive examination of the area needs to be carried out rather than the current desk-based assessment of the site.

A planning application has been submitted by St James Securities, which includes the demolition of the former Debenhams and the Central United Reformed Church, under which Dr D’Arcy believes there is a “high possibility” of valuable archaeological evidence of life in Derby from as early as the fifth or sixth centuries through to the 10th century.

The well could be at the bottom of this long drop under concrete (Image: Derby Telegraph)

The two buildings would be demolished to make way for 342 build to rent apartments in two blocks – one which would be 19 storeys, containing 246 apartments over a ground floor café and restaurant.

The other nine storey building would house 96 apartments, and includes plans for a convenience store underneath fronting onto Victoria Street.

There will also be access, car parking, servicing and a new public square created adjacent to the apartment blocks and on the site of the former church. Work to demolish the former Debenhams building has already begun and Dr D’Arcy believes its cellar could hold some valuable archaeological information.

An outline application has also been submitted on the hybrid plan for the demolition of the remaining buildings, except for some properties in Green Lane, and the building of a phased mixed-use development.

But Dr D’Arcy’s main concern is for the probable 13th century Becket Well – after which the area is named – and which was last seen in 1962 when the area was levelled to build Duckworth Square.

Dr Joan D’Arcy looks in vain for signs of the well in Duckworth Square (Image: Derby Telegraph)

She said: “Although it is Grade II-listed , it was partially destroyed but hopefully still lies under the surface on the eastern boundary of the Square, adjacent to Becket Well Lane.

“Research has shown that the well was in fact a holy well dedicated to St Thomas Becket and probably constructed within years of his death in 1170.”

In 1889, an investigation into the well was carried out by members of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society.

It was cleaned out and excavated. They discovered that the well was on two levels , with a seat or ledge included, and best known as a chamber well. Originally, water would would have been collected in a jar or bottle and used as a holy or curative well before it was attached to Derby’s water supply.

1767 map which shows the well marked as “spring”

A holy well often had a bathing bench and sometimes a canopy as raised over the well for protection and it is likely that this one was founded by Abbot Albinus of Darley Abbey in about 1173.

Dr D’Arcy said: “Derby was on a pilgrimage route and already had a couple of other wells – Normanton Road and St Alkmund’s – and it was possible there was a chapel to St Thomas a Becket where the Central United Reformed Church now stands.

“There have also been claims that the well’s water “cured eyes”.

“The well is clearly marked on a town Board of health map in 1852 and the 1883 OS map. There are rows of terraced houses which are historic interest.

“In 1962, a stone pyramid that head been erected over the well was removed from the site and found its way to a garden in Kirk Ireton.”

The pyramidal lid which covered the well but disappeared to Kirk Ireton (Image: Derby Telegraph)

Dr D’Arcy thinks that originally, the depth of the well was 14ft 6ins and following a site visit in September this year, it was estimated that during ground levelling to build Duckworth Square about 6ft 6ins of earth was removed.

She said: “So the greater part of the well should have survived.

“In responding to the planning application, the  Council for British Archaeology  advocates an investigation at the earliest opportunity.

“We agree that as this development is being marketed as Becketwell, it is absolutely necessary  to determine how much of the well remains in situ.

The Regeneration Of Becketwell

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    Hippodrome latest

“If it is still in existence, then there is a strong case for its restoration together with some form of designation.

“This isn’t quite Richard III under a car park but a 12th century holy well attached to St Thomas Becket is still a rare survival.

“Its rediscovery and restoration would help redress the grave mistake committed by the town in the 1960s when it allowed the destruction of a listed structure.

“So we would like to see a pre-determination, above ground, archaeological survey which includes test pitting and an open excavation of the well-site.

“We also suggest that a big development like this is worth a site visit as well as a desk-top survey and an inquiry at the local studies library at the very minimum.”

An 1852 map which shows the additional housing but the well can still be spotted on it

The developers have been responding to comments made during the consultation on the project and have already proposed some aesthetic changes to the main towers.

They have also commented on the archaeology criticisms and said that “areas of potential interest lie beyond the phase one boundary”, in other words they say the current development will not affect the potential site of Becket Well.

And a Derby City Council spokesman added: “Archaeology is one of the many facets for consideration in this part detailed, part outline scheme. It is a material consideration.

“The site of the well is in the outline part of the scheme so can be protected during the development of future phases. It is not affected by the proposed development on phase one.”

But Dr D’Arcy said: “I am concerned that the demolition contractors cabins are now parked on Duckworth Square and untold damage could be done as long as this well is not found and protected. We need to find it before it is too late.”