Transport archives

A short guide to archives available for researching the history of transport routes and methods in Derbyshire, from roads to airports and vehicle manufacturing to hauliers and carriers. More detailed guides, including for roads, canals and railways will follow in the coming month.

No particular mention is made below of material in the local studies collections for researching Derbyshire transport history, but there are of course lots of books, journals and other published materials available for the general history of transport in the United Kingdom and Derbyshire and in relation to specific industries, enterprises and individuals. All are described in the onsite card catalogue, and descriptions for many are also available in our catalogue.

Bridges, Roads and Highways

Parishes and Quarter Sessions

In 1555 highways became the responsibility of individual parishes, under the supervision of the Justices of the Peace (see Police and Courts research guide). Parishes would appoint a Surveyor of the Highways to supervise the maintenance of the roads within the parish, and every parishioner was required to work for six days a year (specified by the Surveyor), with individuals owning land exceeding £50 in value to provide a cart and horse. As you can imagine it was a rather inefficient system, with the Surveyor having no experience and unwilling parishioners making poor repairs to damaged roads. Increasingly, the requirement to supply labour was commuted to a financial payment, which was then used to hire labourers to complete the work. The Tudor arrangement was ultimately replaced in 1835 with the hired labourers financed from a specific parish highway rate.

Surveyor of the Highways: surviving records usually consist of accounts, and can be found in the parish archive collection. The best way to find out what records are held is to search the catalogue identifying Church of England Parishes as the Organisation Type, and typing the parish name, e.g. Chesterfield, in the Archive Creator Name field.

From 1531, the county was responsible for the maintenance of many bridges within its boundaries that no one else was responsible for. The Derbyshire Quarter Sessions was unusual in adopting responsibility for so many – around 140 by 1889 when the county council was established. For more information see Derbyshire Record Society’s Derbyshire County Bridges 1530-1889.

County Quarter Sessions: the Q/AH series contains various records relating to their supervision of highways and bridges, all held under series , including:

  • bridge survey/maintenance records 1795-1893
  • contracts and bonds for repairing and rebuilding bridges, 1774-1846
  • specifications 1795-1817
  • presentments of highways and footways in need of repair, 1734-1868; and certificates of highways repairs, 1770-1865
  • Certificates for completion of public roads and highways following Parliamentary Inclosure, 1787-1856
  • Returns and costs of highway parishes, 1886-1889

Very few records specifically relating to highways survive amongst the Derby Borough Quarter Sessions (D3551). However, references are likely to be found in the minutes which survive from 1628.

Turnpike and Bridge Trusts

As the arrangements for highway maintenance under the 1555 act was so inadequate, the state of the country’s roads in the 17th and 18th centuries was notoriously poor. Although the arrangements were to continue until 1835, from the early 18th century, private Acts of Parliament established Turnpike Trusts that would build and/or maintain a particular stretch of road, to be financed through the collection of tolls. The first such trust in Derbyshire was formed in 1724, From 1871, the responsibility for these roads was gradually assumed by Highway Boards and parishes (see above) although records do not survive for all places. 

Between 1758 and 1839 three new bridges were built by authority of Acts of Parliament, their building and maintenance being vested in trustees and financed by tolls: Cavendish, later Shardlow, Bridge (1758), Harrington (1788) and Willington (1839).

A list of archive collections for Turnpike and Bridge Trusts can be found in the online catalogue, each entry linking to further information about that collection. From 1822, the Trusts deposited their accounts annually with the County Quarter Sessions, and these records are held under series Q/RT to 1876. See Derbyshire Record Society’s Derbyshire Turnpike Road and Bridge Trusts 1724–1896 for further information about the trusts.

County and District Councils

In 1889 the County Council took over all main roads within its area and in 1894 district councils (primarily borough and urban district councils rather than rural districts) became responsible for the remainder.  Of course, parish councils always maintain an interest in roads and streets in their area and although they do not have any responsibility for highways it may be worth consulting records if there had been any controversial matters. They do however, have responsibility for footpaths and bridleways (see below).

  • Derbyshire County Council: see DCC/SV for details relating to records of the Surveyors Department. For minutes and reports of the committees responsible for highways, see D919 before 1974 and DCC/CA after 1974.
  • Borough, District and Parish Councils: many of the parish councils and all the pre-1974 borough, urban and rural district councils have deposited records including council and committee minutes, and often records of their surveyors too. As with the parishes surveyors, the best way to the records for a particular place is to search the catalogue identifying the relevant Organisation Type, and typing the place name in the Any Text field (or if you know the authority name, you could type this in the Archive Creator Name field).


Canals were first built around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq and Iran. In the United Kingdom, they are especially associated with the Industrial Revolution from the 18th century, though at least some were built some 200 years earlier.

Did you know James Brindley, engineer and pioneer of canal building during the Industrial Revolution was born in the little hamlet of Tunstead in Wormhill, in the parish of Tideswell, in 1716.

By the 20th century canals had come into the ownership of the railway companies, and were nationalised along with them in 1948. The Transport Act of 1962 transferred responsibility for canals to the British Waterways Board and later to the Canal and River Trust.

  • Acts of Parliament: were required before a canal could be built. Although copies of most Acts relating to canals can be found in the family and business collections, we also hold a complete set of published acts from 1793.
  • Deposited plans: from 1792, plans of proposed public undertakings, including canals, were deposited with the County Quarter Sessions before an application could be made to Parliament. The plans are often accompanied by a book of reference with details of land and landowners affected by the proposed works.
  • Archives of Canal Companies: there are various collections for the Erewash, Cromford, Derby and Chesterfield Canals, including minutes, accounts, and permit books, but the overall survival of records is limited. Most of the surviving records we hold for the Nutbrook Canal can be found in the archive of the Miller Mundy family of Shipley Hall (D517). Many records are also held elsewhere, and the The National Archives Discovery catalogue provide further details. Minutes for the Cromford Canal Co. 1789-1852 are held at The National Archives itself under series RAIL 819.
  • The National Archives also holds records relating to canals amongst the collections for the Ministry of Transport: Inland Waterways Division MT 52 and British Transport Commission, usually under series AN.
  • Photographs: there are various photographs in the archives and local studies collections, with more also available from Picture the Past and the Derbyshire Historic Environment Record.
  • Newspapers are often also a good source of information about canals and activity around them.
  • Derbyshire Record Society has published three volumes of archives for Cromford Canal, Chesterfield Canal and Trent Navigation Companies, all of which are available in the local studies library.


The Stockton-Darlington line, the world’s first public steam railway, opened in 1825. The Liverpool-Manchester line, the world’s first public passenger steam railway opened five years later. Although plans had to be deposited with the county quarter sessions followed by an act of parliament, in the 19th century, building a railway was a private enterprise and by 1921, there were over 120 different railway companies which were amalgamated into four large railway groups. Nationalisation followed in 1948, and re-privatisation in 1993.

Did you know... the ‘Father of the railways’, George Stephenson (1781-1848), founded what later became the Clay Cross Company in 1837 after find large coal deposits when digging a tunnel for the North Midland Railway. He moved to Tapton House in Chesterfield where he died in 1848. He is also credited with giving us straight cucumbers and you can see his invention for growing them at Chesterfield Museum, not far from a statue of him outside Chesterfield station.

  • Acts of Parliament and Deposited plans: as with canals, plans and books of reference for proposed railways had to be deposited with the County Quarter Sessions and an Act of Parliament obtained before work could begin.
  • Railway companies: the complicated history of railways ownership, along with the fact that most lines ran through at least two different counties, makes it a little complicated to trace the archive of different companies. Records for individual lines and certainly individual companies, tend to spread across lots of different archives services, usually but not always with an obvious geographic connection to the line. A full list of the archive collections we hold, including in relation to individual stations and also British Rail from 1948, can be found in our online catalogue (link above). The National Archives Discovery catalogue is very helpful for information about records held elsewhere.
  • Records of the Board of Trade: Transport division from 1840, Ministry of Transport from 1919 and British Railways Board from 1963 are held at The National Archives. They also have records relating to many of the pre-nationalised companies as well as books and periodicals relating to railways. Their research guides relating to records of Railways and Railway Workers are the best place to start searching for relevant material.
  • The largest collection of research material relating to the Midland Railway is held at the Midland Railway Study Centre based at Derby’s Museum of Making.
  • The Railway Servants’ Orphanage, later St Christopher’s Railway Home, was established in Derby in 1875, and a very good collection of records, including minutes and admission registers are held at the record office in collection D3732.

There are also lots of other records amongst various collections, particularly the archives of local family and solicitors or land agents. The best way to find these items, including photographs and printed material is, to search the catalogue using terms such as railway, rail, station and train – remember to use the ‘Refine Search Criteria’ option if you want to search all of these terms at once.

Public transport

The archives include a number collections for local bus companies, as well as various other items in the archives and local studies collections relating to buses and trams.

Both Chesterfield and Derby Corporations ran public bus and tramway services, with at least some records for each in the respective borough council archive collections.


An RAF airport had been built at Castle Donington just across the border in Leicestershire in 1943. In 1964 it was purchased by a consortium of local authorities, including Derbyshire County Council, and opened for passengers in April 1965. It was extended in 1970 and by 1992, another major terminal extension was proposed, but the owning local authorities could not fund the development. They therefore made the decision to transfer this major regional airport to the private sector and the airport was purchased by the National Express Group for £24.3 million. See D6541 for East Midlands Airport minutes, reports, financial and other records from 1963.

Footpaths and Rights of Way

In 2015, the Rights of Way team at Derbyshire County Council managed almost 10,000 public rights of way across the county, adding up to over 3,000 miles. These rights of way are recorded in the County Definitive Map and Statement.

Here at the record office we have always received lots of enquiries about footpaths and rights of way, and with less than five years to go all unrecorded footpaths and bridleways created before 1949 must be recorded, we are receiving even more. The best sources to use for researching historic paths and rights of way are:

  • Historic maps – particularly the enclosure, tithe and land values maps
  • Derbyshire County Council – Definitive footpath maps and statements produced in the 1960s and 1970s (D3479), Parish Claim files 1921-1956 (D7033) and Parish Footpath Files c1953-c2004 (DCC/SC/2/3)
  • Highway and Footpath Closures and Diversions, 1773-1971 (Q/SB/9)
  • Minutes of the county, district and parish councils as noted above.

Other related records

We also hold a small number of collections for local Motor services (including petrol stations, engineers and garages, vehicle sales), Hauliers and carriers, Oil refineries and fuel manufacturers, and Vehicle manufacturers (including Rolls Royce of Derby and Ferodo of Chapel-en-le-Frith).

There are several driving licences to be found amongst family and personal collections, and although very few records survive relating to vehicle registration in Derbyshire, we have produced separate guide relating to Vehicle Licensing.

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