Friday, 16 June 2017

The start of it all: Derbyshire's industrial heritage

Where would we be without the Industrial Revolution? 

Derby Silk Mill c.1910, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of factories changed our world beyond imagining.  People worked in different ways, ate different food, expected different lives, bought different possessions.  The effects were so wide-ranging that it's astounding to realise that it all came back to a few men in a few places on a small island in the North Sea.  Over the couple of centuries from 1750 to 1950, Great Britain burned coal, harnessed steam power, invented machines, built mills, and had an industrial output out of all proportion to its size.  Once you try and wrap your head around the magnitude of what happened here, it's just incredible.

And Derbyshire was in at the very beginning of all that.  The first factories, buildings made just to do one job, over and over again.  The development of the idea that one water wheel could drive all the machinery in that factory.  The employment of women and children to work to the rhythms of the machines, day and night.  The disputes between those who worked and those who pocketed the profits.  The heat.  The noise.  The injuries.  And the ideas which spread all over the world.


Most of the mills are quiet now.  Lumsdale Valley, near Matlock, is so tranquil that it's hard to imagine it ever being a hive of industry.  A cluster of stone buildings tumble down the slope beside a splashing stream.  Only their names hint at their previous existence: the paint mill, the bleaching works, the saw mill.  The earliest date back to the 1600s, probably; by 1780 things had really got going, and there were half a dozen small businesses drawing power off this one small section of the Bentley Brook.



A little further south, at Cromford, the entrepreneur Richard Arkwright also harnessed the power of falling water.  In 1772 he built the first successful cotton mill in the world.  His spinning machines ran 24 hours a day, attended by hundreds of women and children.  It made his fortune, and it made anyone else who was at all interested in this new technology sit up and take notice.  Everyone wanted a mill like Arkwright's mill.  And pretty soon, it must have seemed like everyone had one.



Meanwhile down in Derby, Lombe's silk mill had been running for years.  It was already a tourist attraction by the 1770s.  Making silk had been the Italians' closely guarded secret for a long time, but John Lombe had gone to work in the silk industry there, slipping downstairs at night to make drawings of the machinery, and come home to England to build his own silk mill.  The new building on the River Derwent, with its distinctive tower, was one of the first factories in Britain.  The Italians had their revenge, though: Lombe's death in 1722 was thought to be the work of an Italian assassin, sent to poison him.



Now the Lumsdale Valley is a pleasant walk, the Cromford Mills are a tourist attraction, and the Silk Mill is a museum, currently draped in poppies as a memorial to World War I.  The energy and the innovation of the Industrial Revolution has dissipated.  So has the smoke and the squalor.  But the legacy lasts, not only in these buildings, but in almost every way we live our lives.  Here was the start of it all.  And it hasn't ended yet.

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