EMIAC 87: Chesterfield: The Centre of Industrial England

Chesterfield, 10th May 2014

Conference Details


Until quite recently, a traveller arriving at the Chesterfield Boundary would be greeted by a sign reading Chesterfield - The Centre of Industrial England. This reflected both the central location of the town within England and its important role in the development of many industries. This conference will examine some of these early industries before considering the challenges and opportunities presented by the legacy of the town's industrial past.


Organised by North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society and was held on Saturday 10th May 2014 in Chesterfield.

The conference programme:

09:00 Registration with tea/coffee

09:30 Welcome and Introduction

09:40 Chesterfield before rail

10:25 Fireproofing in early industrial buildings

10:50 Break

11:10 The Smiths of Chesterfield, 1775 to 1833

11:55 The future development of of the Walton Works site

12:15 EMIAC Business Meeting

12:40 Lunch

13:45 Guided historical walking tour of the Brampton area of Chesterfield, about 1½ miles on level ground with a shorter option available. The tour will include visits to significant early industrial buildings (subject to access restrictions at the time) which will involve some stairs.

Note: A torch will be useful.

16:00 Tea and departure

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A cotton mill listed for its late-18th/early-19th century fireproof construction
A cotton mill listed (II*) for its late-18th/early-19th century fireproof construction.
Plaque on the wall of the Cannon Mill
"Cannon Mill" on the site of the historic Smith’s Griffin Foundry cast cannon and ball from the 1770s used in the American war of independence and Napoleonic wars. It also supplied iron structures for use in Britain's earliest fireproof buildings.

Images courtesy of North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society.

Conference Report

Philip Riden

Whilst Chesterfield has been described as the Centre of Industrial England, it only acquired this reputation after the railway had arrived. Until then it was a market town and trading centre. It had two market places: when the old market outgrew its site north of the church, a new larger market was created, still claimed to be the largest in the North of England.

During the 17th century there was a decrease in the leather trade, which had been prominent in Chesterfield since the Middle Ages; it was being replaced by the trade in lead - red, white and pig lead. Chesterfield's problem was that all goods had to travel by road. A scheme to open the River Rother to navigation failed to materialise.

It had to wait until 1777 for the Chesterfield Canal to be completed; but then only as far as Tapton Lock. Whilst this was a vast improvement that lead to a growing manufacturing industry, it too had its drawbacks: It was a 'narrow' canal that linked into a network of 'broad' canals; it was heavily locked with a long summit tunnel; it was never connected to any other canals at its western end and therefore never enjoyed any 'passing trade'.

During its first 50 years, the total annual tonnage carried by the canal increased from c.36,000 tons to 100,000 tons. Lead exports rose from 2,500 tons in 1777 to 3,000 tons in 1787 but then declined to 1,000 tons over the next 15 years as seams were worked out and cheap imports became available. By 1790 coal exports had reached 50,000 tons from an itial value of 10,000 tons and thereafter fluctuated about a value of 40,000 tons until 1822. It was argued that the Rother Valley iron works would have died out during this period if were not for the canal being used for transport.

In contrast the canal brought in such items as groceries; wines, spirits and porter; hemp and flax; cotton, wool and yarn; and other small packages. Corn was another important commodity transported on the canal increasing from 2,000 tons in 1777 to 18,000 tons in 1825. Much of this was malted barley for the brewing trade.

With the coming of North Midland Railway in 1840, the canal went in to terminal decline.

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Pat Strange

The Griffin Foundry (see below) supplied cast iron pillars and beams to "fireproof" Strutt's West Mill, Belper. In this construction the floor is supported on cast iron beams resting on cast iron pillars. The space between the beams was filled with a brick and plaster barrel roofing; a wedge-shaped timber located within the beam's web provided a support for the first row of bricks in the arch. This timber was then protected by a covering of sheet metal. A wrought iron tie-bar passes through each of the beams to prevent them from 'spreading'. Building 10 of the Bump Mill uses the same fireproofing structure.

An article in the [American] Mechanics Magazine of 1825 provided an alternative method of fireproofing, which was widely adopted. In place of the cast iron beams, large cross-section timbers supported by cast iron pillars were used; the flooring comprised thick (3" to 4") boards. This approach resulted in a 'slow burning' structure giving its inhabitants time to escape the fire.

Peter Hawkins

Although entitled the Smiths of Chesterfield, Peter's presentation covered the history of the Griffin Foundry from 1775 to 1833.

The Smiths can be traced back to the late sixteenth century to a certain William Smith ( -1627) living at Grenoside near Sheffield. Alongside his farming activities he also had a cutlery business. His son Henry ( -1646) took a greater interest in the cutlery business, becoming a member of Cutlers' Company in 1629.

Henry's grandson John (I) (1684-1753) was the real founder of the family's fortunes: Apprenticed to Master Cutler John Winter he had the fortune to not only marry his master's daughter but, by virtue of the marriage, also obtain a share of Winter's fortune - an established business, which he continued to run. His eldest son John (II) (1728-84) continued the family cutlery business and the iron works on The Moor, Sheffield.

In 1775 John (II), with others from Sheffield, acquired two works in Brampton, just outside Chesterfield's borough boundary: A boring mill and forge were leased from Samuel Johnson, Edward Wright and William Robinson, grandfather of John Bradbury Robinson, the founder of Robinson & Sons Ltd, whose works now cover much of the area under discussion. These premises were later known as Thompson's Forge.

A furnace and foundry, the Old Griffin Foundry, were leased from James Shemwell, who operated near-by Nether Walton corn mill. This was probably the first blast furnace to be built in Derbyshire. To manage the foundry, John Bale became a partner in 1776 and in 1777 John (II) moved to Brampton.

After his death in 1784, John(II)'s sons John (III) (1752-1814) and Ebenezer (1756-1827) ran the Griffin Foundry. During the period 1788 to 1791 two new furnaces were built adjacent to the cornmill, now part of the lease, together with a new casting house, now known as Cannon Mill, was erected. Its main output was armaments and munitions, though following the Napoleonic Wars their demand decreased. During a similar period there was a strong demand for Newcomen engines, which were also cast at the foundry. Cannons and steam engines were produced until 1833. The foundry also supplied cast iron pillars and beams for fireproofing buildings including the Walton Bump Mill in 1800.

With local supplies of ironstone running out, the foundry went into decline and it was too far from the Chesterfield Canal with its cheap transport costs. By now both of Ebenezer's sons, William Cater (1784-1866) and Ebenezer (II) (1785-1852), were running the foundry; it is conjectured they were less able businessmen than their forebears.

The Griffin Foundry closed in 1833 and the corn mill sold back to James Shemwell, whose grandfather had leased it to John (II) in 1775. The site was bought by Robinson & Sons Ltd in 1886 for £1,020.

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Jacob Amuli

As Conservation Officer for Chesterfield Borough Council, Jacob Amuli outlined progress to date on securing the development of the Walton Works site, which was ooccupied by Robinsons until 2003. The Walton Bump Mill, listed as Grade II* in 2004, is significant because of its fireproofing construction.

Building No 7 utilises the same fire-resistant structure as Strutts warehouse of 1792/3. Building No 10 includes a slow-burning construction; only two other surviving mills have the same type of structure. The mill has been on the Heritage at Risk Register since 2008.

The Walton Works is part of the Chatsworth Road Conservation Area, which was formally adopted on 6th May 2014.

Various plans for housing development have been proposed and rejected. The latest application, lodged in May 2012 by Robinsons preferred developer, inlcuded refurbishing the works, possibly for use as workshops, mixed retail units and private housing. To date this application has not yet been determined by the planning authority.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

Fireproof structure in Building 10, Walton Bump MillWalton Bump Mill
Fireproof structure in Building 10, Walton Bump Mill. A wrought iron tie-bar can be seen in the lower right hand corner of the image.
Walton Bump Mill
Walton Bump Mill.
Cannon Mill
Cannon Mill.
remains of the waterwheel of Cannon Mill
The waterwheel remains of the Cannon Mill.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

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