In about 80 AD the Romans built a road from their settlement at Derventio (now Little Chester in Derby) to the River Trent, passing through Sawley, and there are traces of a marching camp probably built by Roman auxiliaries in a field close to the village. Draycott Road in Sawley follows approximately the alignment of the old Roman road.
However there are no indications of anyone permanently living in Sawley before Angles came up the River Trent, possibly at the end of the sixth century or early seventh century. They settled on the rising ground where the parish church now stands. Because the ground was originally covered with sallow willows, salh in Anglo-Saxon, they called it ‘Salloe’ or ‘Sallé’, meaning the hill with willows, and this eventually became ‘Sawley’.
Sawley became part of the Anglian kingdom of Mercia, which was Christianised from 654 AD. A church is thought to have existed in Sawley from 850 AD. The legend is that a party of monks rowed downstream from Repton to found the first church, which was made of rushes, and this was later replaced by a wooden building. An early Mercian king, probably Wulfhere, gifted Sawley as a manor to the Bishop of Lichfield.
Viking invaders, who used the River Trent to reach Repton from Nottingham in 854, may have attacked Sawley on the way and burned the church.
At some point, and certainly by the early 11th century, the church was rebuilt in stone.
According to the Domesday Book entry for Sawley the Bishop of Chester (the new title taken by the former Bishops of Lichfield) the Bishop’s lands in Sawley, Draycott and Hopwell are said to include 42 households (29 villeins and 13 bordars), a priest and two churches (Sawley and Wilne), a mill, meadow, woodland pasture and a water meadow.
Domesday Book entry for Sawley
In 1130 Bishop Roger de Clinton re-organised the finances of Lichfield Cathedral, and he created a prebendal manor of Sawley the profits from which supported the office of cathedral treasurer. The prebendaries either had to live at Sawley (the cathedral treasurership was only part-time) and take the services, or appoint a vicar in their place. Sawley became so prosperous that the manor was known in the Middle Ages as the ‘golden prebend’.
The remains of a water mill, dated to about 1140, have been found in gravel workings south of Sawley.
Sawley was important at this time not only because of its rich farmland, but also because it commanded a river crossing. The River Trent remained fordable at Sawley, except in times of flood, until weirs were constructed at the end of the 18th century. But fording the river was an inconvenience, and in the 12th and 13th centuries efforts were made to bridge the river. A timber bridge was constructed, and when this was washed away, a second timber bridge was built. After this in turn had been washed away, a masonry bridge was built, and this survived for some 80 years. The remains of the bridges have been found by archaeologists, again in the gravel workings south of Sawley.
The masonry bridge may have been destroyed in about 1320, because a Sawley Ferry was instituted in 1321, and this ferry continued to operate until the Harrington Bridge was built in 1790.
In a charter granted by King Henry III in 1259 to the Bishop, Sawley was granted the right to a weekly market and an annual fair.
In the same year, 1259, Ralph de Chaddesden became the prebendary of Sawley, and he set about enlarging the church, knocking down walls so as to add side aisles. In the next century a later prebendary, John de Gauselinus, knocked down the old Saxon church, except for its west wall, and rebuilt it as the chancel to the larger church. The Bothe family put in a clerestory storey to bring more light to the nave, and the present roof. The main entrance used to be from the south (the side away from the road), which is why the porch is there, though today most people enter through the 13th century north door. The tower and spire are probably 15th century. The rear choir stalls are from the Tudor period, and the rood screen from the Stuart period. The pulpit is from 1636. The clock on the spire was installed in 1880, and the organ in 1906.
The influential Bothe family mentioned above are commemorated in striking monuments in the church, and have also given their name to Bothe Hall, which in its present form is a Georgian mansion standing in its own grounds near the centre of the village. It ceased to be a private residence in the 1970s and is now the offices of a computer company.
Strip farming, whereby the tenants farmed strips of land in large fields, was the agricultural pattern in Sawley throughout the Middle Ages, and there are a number of fields showing the ridge-and-furrow which is the legacy of this pattern of cultivation. Enclosure began, with consolidation of some holdings, in the 17th century, but the major enclosure took place as a result of the Sawley Enclosure Act of 1787.
Improvements continued to be made to navigation on the River Trent throughout the 18th century, and the opening of the Trent & Mersey canal in 1777, which joins the river at Sawley, gave a big boost to waterborne commercial traffic. This was further enhanced with the opening of the Soar Navigation (joining the Trent opposite Trent Lock), the Erewash Canal (joining the Trent at Trent Lock) in 1779, and the Derby Canal in 1795 (which joins the Erewash Canal at Sandiacre). Another important step was the creation of the Trent Navigation Company in 1783 to take responsibility for improvements to the whole navigable stretch of the river. This led to dredging and consolidation of the main channel, improvements to the banks and towpaths, and erection of weirs. The two weirs at Sawley had to be bypassed by two short canals, or ‘cuts’, the Sawley Cut of 1793 and the Cranfleet Cut of 1795.
With the growth of industrialisation in the West Midlands the road from Nottingham to Birmingham, through Sawley, became busier and busier, and in 1759 the stretch between Lenton and Sawley became a turnpike, a road with an improved surface maintained by a private company compensated by the levying of tolls. The Harrington Arms became an important coaching inn, and there was increased passing trade in the other public houses, the White Lion and the Nag’s Head. The Sawley Ferry was seen to be inadequate and inconvenient for the growing traffic, and in 1790 the Harrington bridge was built in stone. It was replaced by the present cast-iron structure in 1905.
The east to west Nottingham to Derby railway line was opened in 1839. A station was opened on Sawley Lane, Breaston, and given the name Breaston, but because this name caused confusion with Beeston, the station’s name was changed to Sawley. When further railway lines, this time on a north-south axis, came into the area – the Derby to Leicester and Rugby line through Red Hill tunnel in 1840, and the Erewash Valley line in 1847 – the junction became congested, until in 1862 extra curves were put in and a new interchange station, Trent, created. Because Sawley station was a mile away from Sawley, demand grew for another station more conveniently located, and in 1888 this additional station was opened where the railway crossed the Nottingham to Birmingham road. This new station was given the name Sawley Junction. The older Sawley station remained open for regular services until 1930, and for excursions until 1936, but was then closed and demolished. Trent Station was closed and demolished in January 1968. Sawley Junction continues as an operational station, the only one of four stations in the Long Eaton and Sawley area (Sawley, Long Eaton, Trent and Sawley Junction) to survive. However, in 1968 it was renamed ‘Long Eaton’ following closure of the old Erewash Valley line station in the centre of Long Eaton.
The coming of the railway also brought to Sawley the Trent Sheet and Sack Works, which made and repaired tarpaulin covers for railway wagons and sacks for grain transport. The works, located by the side of the Erewash Canal, at one time had 200 employees. They continued in operation until 1963. The premises were sold by British Railways in 1966, and now form the basis of an industrial estate and a marina.
The first school in the village, run by the Church of England, was established in 1771. It was built on the main road where the church car park now stands. In 1859 it moved to a purpose-built school building on Wilne Road, known as the Sawley National School, and this school continued in use until well after the second world war. The buildings have been converted into a car showroom. But the Nonconformist tradition was very strong in Sawley, particularly the Baptists, and it was the Baptists who in 1843 established their own school; in 1891 the average attendance at the National School, which had room for 220 pupils, was 174 and the average attendance at the Baptist School, which had room for 150 children, was 131.
Sawley children now start their schooling at the modern Sawley schools on Draycott Road. For 100 years, from 1907 to 2007, New Sawley children went to the Mikado Road school, later called Lakeside School, for their primary education, but this school has now closed and the buildings are now used for other purposes.
The Sawley Baptists are one of the oldest-established Nonconformist organisations in the East Midlands. It is thought they were first formed in 1766, meeting initially in a private house. Their present church, a handsome building by any standard, was built in 1800 and extended in 1843. The New Sawley Wesleyan Church on Tamworth Road was founded in 1884.
What had started in 1894 as a one-man business making mineral waters, was acquired by Edward Carter, and then bought out after the second world war by A. J. Marmont, after which it grew steadily until its premises, opposite the church and going right through to Wilne Road, occupied a large part of the old village. In the late 1990s even this area was becoming too confined, and it moved to a greenfield site at Kegworth. The factory was demolished in 2000 and its site became a residential development called Churchfields.
What is now the White House restaurant was the Sawley Co-operative Society’s shop. The Sawley Co-operative Society had started in 1873 and existed as an independent society for 20 years. However, in 1895 it became involved in a dispute with the Long Eaton Co-operative Society as to which society’s area covered Trent Lock. So Sawley thereafter was part of the Long Eaton Co-operative Society’s area.
The Trent Valley Sailing Club was formed in 1886, starting on what was called Trent Lake, one of the railway ballast holes and now filled in – today it forms part of the Trent Lock Golf course. The sailing club moved to its present headquarters, a wooden construction that is one of the finest modern buildings in Sawley, in 1907.
Long Eaton, which very suddenly changed from a hamlet into an industrial town, largely because of the Victorian boom in machine-made lace, experienced a huge spurt in growth in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1919 the Long Eaton Urban District Council made its first bid to take over New Sawley and Wilsthorpe, but this was rejected. Long Eaton made it clear that it did not want to take over Old Sawley, which had virtually no mains water, electricity, fire brigade, recreati on ground or library, and used mainly pail closets. However, in 1921 a large part of New Sawley and Wilsthorpe did go into Long Eaton. Eventually, in 1934, Old Sawley itself was incorporated into the Long Eaton urban district, though much of the field land went to Breaston and the South-east Derbyshire rural district.
Sawley, apart from the area on higher ground around the parish church, has always suffered from periodic flooding. In the 20th century Sawley was flooded in 1932,and then twice in two years, in 1946 and 1947. After the 1947 floods new flood prevention works were put in place, and there has been no general flood since then.
The Sawley Toc H Boys Club operated from 1947 to 1951, meeting every Friday evening for talks and film shows, and turning out on Saturdays with cricket and football teams.
The Sawley Memorial Hall committee was formed in 1944 to create a war memorial in Sawley that would also be a practical benefit to the community – a village community hall. To help to raise funds it revived the pre-war Sawley Carnival. The first post-war carnival was held in 1949, opened by Richard Attenborough. The carnival the following year was opened by Richard Attenborough’s wife, the actress Sheila Sim. Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim returned in 1958 to perform the opening ceremony for the Sawley Community Hall, which still stands on Draycott Road.
In 1974 the Long Eaton itself disappeared as a local authority, and was merged with Ilkeston and some of the villages in between into the Borough of Erewash. This fragmented the cohesion of Long Eaton as a single district, and Sawley reclaimed its distinct identity. In the year 2000 Sawley was again given its own parish council.
The Sawley Historical Society was created in 1983.