EMIAC 92: Cromford Threads

Cromford, 6th May 2017

Conference Details


Cromford Mills, begun by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1771, has been described as the most importants preserved textile heritage site in the world. Now owned by the Arkwright Society, its significance along with that of other sites nearby led to this part of the Derwent Valley being designated a World Heritage Site. This conference, organised by kind cooperation of the Arkwright Society, will explore some of the lesser known connections which led to this small part of Derbyshire assuming such a pivotal role in industrial history.


Organised by the North-East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society and held on Saturday 6th May 2017 in Cromford.

The conference programme:

09:30 Registration

10:00 Welcome and introduction

10:10 From Silk to Cotton: The early factory system in the Derwent Valley

10:45 Lead Mining in Wirksworth and Cromford

11:20 Break

11:35 The Life and Times of the Arkwrights

12:10 Johann Gottfried Brügelmann - the Cromford Ratigen story

12:45 EMIAC Business Meeting

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Site visits:

either visit the new Arkwright Experience (entry included in cost of event.

or      a virtual tour of Cromford.

or      visit Cromford Church, the burial place of the Arkwrights.

16:30 Close of conference

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The culvert carrying the Bonsall Brook under the 1771 mill extension
The culvert carrying the Bonsall Brook under the 1785 mill extension.

Image courtesy of the North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society.

Conference Report

Prof. Stanley Chapman

By 1700 the Italians were the most technologically advanced silk spinners in Europe having developed two machines capable of winding the silk onto bobbins whilst putting a twist in the thread.

Having visited an Italian silk mill in 1717, John Lombe returned to England with details of the mill's design and some Italian craftsmen. With his brother Thomas he designed his mill and new spinning machines, for which he was granted a 14-year patent, to be built on the west bank of the River Derwent in Derby.

Completed in 1721 it was the first successful silk spinning mill in England and probably the first fully mechanised factory in the world. The Italians subsequently placed an embargo on the export of raw silk. When the patents lapsed in 1732, other mills were built in Stockport and Macclesfield.

With his silk mill Lombe had demonstrated the concept of a factory system: capital intensive for the machinery; water power to provide the motive power for the machinery and a cheap disciplined labour workforce of women and children. This concept would be developed further by Arkwright.

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Dr Lynn Willies

Until the early 18th century lead exports from Derbyshire were second only to those of wool. In the Cromford-Wirksworth area the two mines of interest were the Dovegang and Godbehere Veins. Before discussing these, Dr Willies recounted an interesting tale about Wirksworth church.

The church is noted for its Anglo-Saxon carvings, in particular the Th' owd Man, the oldest known representation of a miner with his pick and kibble (bucket). As the church was not endowed, it survived solely on its lead tithes. He showed a sketch plan of the churchyard in which an enterprising vicar had opened its own mine and called it Parsons Vein.

After outlining the mining process, Dr Willies discussed the major problem affecting all mines: that of water ingress and how to dispose of it. The Dovegang Vein had become unworkable due to flooding so in 1632 the Dutch engineer Vermuyden drove a sough (drainage channel) into the vein taking nearly 20 years to cover some 3,900 ft through the hard limestone.

The Dovegang Vein was thought to terminate near a shale outcrop until 1652 when its eastwardly extension known as the Godbehere Vein was discovered. By 1657 Bates Sough was planned to dewater the Godbehere Vein. Working about 250 feet below the surface, the sough miners were able to cut along the shale-limestone interface, a task made relatively easy by the soft shale. This enabled the veins to be drained to a much deeper level.

The Cromford Sough, which also drained the Dovegang Vein, was started at a much lower level at about the same time and took some 30 years to dig. It was extended a century later to power Arkwright's mill and to feed the Cromford Canal.

With the ability to drain the veins lead mining flourished into a large scale industry.

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Darrell Clark

Born in 1732 Richard Arkwright was apprenticed to a hairdresser and later moved to Bolton to work as a wig-maker. In 1755 he set up as a barber-surgeon. Having taken on the Black Boy pub in Bolton in 1762 he continued his wig-making business and travelled the North-west and Peak District buying hair.

He was also developing an interest in clocks and mechanical devices, particularly in relation to improving the strength and speed of the spinning process. Arkwright came across Thomas Highs who was trying to make a roller-spinning machine and worked with Highs developing the machine. The Spinning Frame was completed in the spring of 1766 and Arkwright raised enough money from friends to obtain a Patent.

His first spinning mill in Nottingham was powered by a horse turning a capstan. However Arkwright decided that water offered a more effective power source and remembered his earlier visit to Cromford looking at water sources.

Having rented a site on Bonsall Brook he set about building his first mill in 1771, extending it in 1785. A second mill followed in 1776. Other mills were built to maximise his income before his patents expired; he also earned royalties by licensing other mills.

When he was knighted in 1786 he began to build Willersley Castle, though he died before it was completed. His son, also Richard, took over the business interests moving into banking, property, finance and money lending.

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Peter South

Just as Arkwright had introduced the fully mechanised cotton mill to England so did Brügelmann for Europe. Brügelmann was born in 1750 into a wealthy merchant family in Elberfeld that had a controlling interest in the yarn market in the region. His father was the mayor of Elberfeld, now part of Wuppertal, Germany.

Having heard of the spinning mills of England, in the 1780s Brügelmann wanted to set-up his own fully mechanised spinning mill. Because his plan proved unpopular with his business colleagues, he decided to look further afield for a suitable location that had a good water supply, cheaper labour than in Wuppertal and close proximity to Düsseldorf with its Rhine connection. Ratingen fitted the bill.

With the help of his wife's capital he had founded his own business in Elberfeld in 1777 to make spinning machines like Arkwright's, without ever having been in England himself, but without success. Unlike Arkwright he had little technical experience or knowledge. To make matters worse there had been a ban on exporting any machinery involved in manufacturing cotton and material from England since 1735. This was later extended to people with detailed knowledge of the machines.

However with the help of friends who had acquired detailed knowledge of the spinning machines during visits to England he was able to draw plans and make models of the required machinery. Thus Brügelmann was able to open the first fully mechanised spinning mill, which he called Cromford, in Europe and went on to expand his business and become one of the richest men in the Rhineland.

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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

Arkwright's first mill at Cromford
Arkwright's first mill at Cromford built in 1771. The 1785 extension over Bonsall Brook is on the right, water from Bonsall Brook drove a waterwheel mounted on the end wall.
Water from Cromford Sough entered the mill between these two buildings
Water from Cromford Sough entered the mill on an aqueduct between these two buildings to drive a waterwheel mounted on the first mill on the right. The wheel's tailrace joined Bonsall Brook. Machinery in the five-storey building shared the power from the waterwheel. This building was connected to the first mill by a bridge link over the aqueduct.
Cromford Mill Basin
Cromford Mill Basin. Located between the two mills, this weir was added in about 1777 as part of the second mill development. It was adapted in the mid-1790s to provide water for the Cromford Canal through a culvert beneath the yard. The sluice in the centre takes excess water to the River Derwent near to the church. In the background left is the old road bridge over the Bonsall Brook.
Wheel pit for Arkwright's second mill
The wheel pit located in the centre of Arkwright's second mill. The tail race continues into a long deep culvert to be discharged into the River Derwent some ½ mile distant.
Warehouses, Cromford Canal Wharf
Warehouses, Cromford Canal Wharf. The canal arm on the left is fed from Cromford Mill Basin and joins the main canal out of picture bottom. The area between the two branches of the canal was used for stacking limestone and outgoing material.
St Marys Church, Cromford
St Marys Church, Cromford. Started in 1786 by Sir Richard Arkwright as a private family chapel, completed by his son in 1797 and opened for public worship.

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

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