In the late 17th century silk making expanded due to demand for silk as part of fashionable garments. In an attempt to increase production through the use of water power, Thomas Cotchett commissioned engineer George Sorocold to build a mill near the centre of Derby on an island in the River Derwent. Although the experiment was unsuccessful, it convinced John Lombe – an employee of Cotchett – that if water power could be perfected there was a market for its produce. He engaged in industrial espionage and gained plans of Italian machines. He patented the design in 1719 and built a five-storey mill 110 ft × 39 ft next to Cotchett's mill. By 1763, 30 years after Lombe's patent had expired, only seven Lombe mills had been built because the silk market was small, but Lombe had introduced a viable form of water powered machinery and had established a template for organised labour that later industrialists would follow.
As silk was a luxury good, the market was small and easily saturated by machine produced goods. The next innovation in machine produced textiles came in the cotton industry which had a much wider market and produced more affordable goods. Spinning cotton was a more complex process than silk production. The water frame for spinning cotton was developed by Richard Arkwright and patented in 1769. The machines could spin yarn continuously and replaced skilled workers with unskilled supervisors to make sure the machines didn't break. Water frames varied in size from 4 to 96 spindles. For these reasons, the water frame became popular and widespread. In 1771, Richard Arkwright took a lease on land in Cromford. By 1774, his first mill was operational, and in 1776 he began construction of a second mill at Cromford. During this time, he developed machines for pre-spinning and in 1775 took out his second patent. With spinning mechanised, the other processes involved in producing cotton could not keep up and also required mechanisation. He produced a machine for carding, the process which laid out the cotton fibres parallel, however not all his inventions were successful and cleaning the cotton was performed by hand until the 1790s when an effective machine was invented.
Arkwright sought financial assistance, and Peter Nightingale – a local landowner (and grand uncle of Florence Nightingale) – bought the Cromford Estate for £20,000. Nightingale also built Rock House as a residence for Arkwright, overlooking the mill, and gave him a further £2,000 to build the second mill and £1,750 for workers' housing. Between 1777 and 1783, Arkwright and his family built mills at Bakewell, Cressbrook, Rocester, and Wirksworth, spread across Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Jedediah Strutt, who was Arkwright's partner in the first Cromford Mill, built mills at Belper and Milford in 1776–1881. Thomas Evans, a land owner in Darley Abbey, in 1782 built a cotton mill in the village. The construction of Masson Mill in Matlock Bath began in 1783, instigated by Arkwright. Contemporaneous with Arkwright's expansionism was the entry of Jedediah Strutt into the cotton spinning industry. Strutt had the advantage that Arkwright had already done all the necessary experimentation with machinery, so he did not have to invest in researching new technology. He established a mill at Belper, completed in 1781. The site was expanded with the addition of a second mill in 1784. Strutt also built a mill in Milford. By 1793, two further mills were added for printing and bleaching. The Strutts estimated that by 1789 they had invested £37,000 in their mills at Belper and Milford, and had a return of £36,000 per year.
Arkwright had a reputation as a paternalistic employer who was concerned for the well-being of his employees and their families. A Sunday School was built at Cromford in 1785 and provided education to 200 children. By 1789, the Cromford Estate was back in the ownership of the Arkwrights, who actively influenced its structure and construction. Cromford was given a market place to act as a new focus for the village. Arkwright organised a market every Sunday and as incentive to attend, gave annual prizes to those who attended most often. After Arkwright died in 1792 his son, Richard Arkwright junior, took over and sold most of his cotton mills outside Cromford and Matlock Bath. Societies and clubs were created in Cromford. The religious affairs of the community were of less interest to Arkwright, and it was not until 1797 that Arkwright junior established Cromford Church; his father had envisaged it as a private chapel for the Arkwright family at Willersley Castle. The family's attempts to make Cromford self-sustaining through establishing a market was successful, and the village expanded until about 1840. This was even though the mills had passed their zenith and begun to enter decline in this period.
As Arkwright had done at Cromford, the Strutts provided housing for their employees. Belper was already an established village with its own market before Jedediah Strutt began building mills, so he was not required to have as active a role in developing the community into a self-sustaining entity as Richard Arkwright did at Cromford. The Strutts provided education, and in 1817 650 and 300 children attended Sunday Schools in Belper and Milford respectively. Compared with Cromford, whose population had plateaued at around 1,200 in the early 19th century, the population of Belper rose from 4,500 in 1801 to 7,890 in 1831 due to the prosperity of the business. Darley Abbey also expanded as a worker's settlement although it had no market place, so providing food for the inhabitants was problematic. The settlement doubled in size between 1788 and 1801, and between 1801 and 1831 the population increased from 615 to 1,170 with the addition of much worker's housing. A Sunday School for 80 children was established in one of the mills and a church and school were built in 1819 and 1826 respectively.
The Erewash Canal, begun in 1777, was intended to primarily transport coal. It flowed from the River Trent in Sawley to Langley Mill, 14 miles south of Cromford. In 1788, Richard Arkwright asked William Jessop to estimate the cost of building a canal connecting the mills at Cromford to Langley Mill. The figure Jessop came up with was £42,000 which was raised within a couple of weeks. Local mill owners Jedediah Strutt and Thomas Evans opposed the proposed canal, fearing it would interfere with the water supply for their own mills, but in 1789 Parliament granted permission to construct the canal. When the Cromford Canal was opened in 1794, it had cost nearly twice Jessop's original estimate. Between Langley Mill and Cromford Wharf, where the canal terminated in the mill complex, the canal crossed two aqueducts, traversed 3,000 yd of tunnel beneath some ironworks at Bull Bridge, and fourteen locks. Three quarters of the cargo transported on the canal was coal and coke, while the rest consisted of gritstone, iron ore, and lead. When the Derby and Nottingham Canals were completed by Jessop and Benjamin Outram in 1796, they provided direct routes to the important textile centres of Derby and Nottingham. The canal was successful until the mid 19th century when the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway extended its line south of the canal.
In the early 19th century, a canal had been proposed to connect the Peak Forest Canal, which terminated at Whaley Bridge, with the Cromford Canal, providing a direct route between markets in Lancashire and Derbyshire. However, costs were prohibitive and the plan was abandoned. Josias Jessop, the son of William Jessop, believed that a wagonway would be much cheaper than a canal. On 2 May 1825 an Act of Parliament for the construction of a railway from Cromford to Whaley Bridge was passed. The proposal – backed by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, Richard Arkwright junior, and several Manchester bankers – was ambitious; it was expected that steam locomotives would be used on the line, even though the technology was in its infancy and George Stephenson did not build his revolutionary Rocket until 1829. The south part of the railway, from Cromford Wharf to Hurdlow, south east of Buxton, opened on 29 May 1830, and on 6 July 1831 the rest of the line opened to Whaley Bridge. The first steam locomotive on the line was introduced in 1841; before that, the traffic had been made up entirely of wagons. The railway ascended from 277 ft above sea level at Cromford Wharf to a height of 1,264 ft above sea level at Ladmanlow, before descending to 747 ft at the wharves of the Peak Forest Canal. The changes in height, which would have necessitated many locks for a canal, was relatively easy for a railway. However, for a time the Cromford and High Peak Railway did have the sharpest curve out of all railways in Britain and the steepest incline for vehicles without steam power.
The Derwent Valley is considered the birthplace of the factory system. The machines developed in the Derwent Valley such as the water frame allowed continuous production. Richard Arkwright's Cromford Mill and the associated workers' settlement provided a template for industrial communities, not just in the valley but internationally. Richard Arkwright's Masson Mill is now a working textile museum with the largest collection of bobbins in the world. Leawood Pumphouse is now a working museum which still does the original job of pumping water from the Derwent to Cromford Canal, Open on selected weekends. At Belper, while much of the site has been converted to other business uses, the Belper North Mill building houses the Derwent Valley Visitor Centre. This features displays of machinery and other items associated with the history of the Derwent Valley textile industry. At the extreme southern end of the site, Lombe's Silk Mill now houses the Derby Industrial Museum.
Cromford Mills. There are disabled toilet facilities. Assistance dogs are welcome. Please note that, due to the nature of the site, access for visitors with disabilities and wheelchair users is restricted. In addition to the tour guides, audio guides are available for the visually impaired. Belper Mills. There are disabled toilet facilities. Assistance dogs are welcome. Please note that due to the historic nature of the site some parts of the mill cannot be accessed with a wheelchair. Audio guides are available for the visually impaired.
Location : Cromford Mills, Mill Lane, Cromford, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 3RQ
Location : Strutt's North Mill, Bridgefoot, Belper DE56 1YD
Transport: Cromford (Derwent Valley Line) 10 minutes. Bus Routes : 6.1 stops close by.
Transport: Belper (Derwent Valley Line) 10 minutes. Bus Routes : 6.1, 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4 stop close by.
Opening Times Cromford: Daily 09:00 to 17:00
Opening Times Belper: Wednesday to Sunday + Bank Holidays 11:00 to 16:00
Tickets Cromford : Adults £3.00; Tour guide £5.00; Children Free
Tickets Belper : Adults £4.00; Outside Tour £2.00; Town Walks £4.00; Children Free
Tel. Cromford: 01629 823256
Tel. Belper: 01773 880474