Descriptions: A Topographical Dictionary of England 1848

Updated: Friday, June 24, 2011   |   Belper Historical & Genealogical Website

ATopographical Dictionary of England By Samuel Lewis (editor) pp. 203-207.



BELPER, a market-town and chapelry, and the head of a union, in the parish of Duffield, hundred of Appletree, S. division of the county of Derby, 8 miles (N.) from Derby, and 134 (N. N. W.) from London; containing, with nearly the whole of the ecclesiastical parish of Bridge-Hill, 9885 inhabitants. This place, at which were formerly a park and hunting-seat belonging to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was an inconsiderable village, inhabited principally by nailers, till the year 1777, when the cotton manufacture was introduced by Messrs. Strutt, since which it has risen into a considerable town.

It is pleasantly situated on the river Derwent, over which a handsome stone bridge of three arches was recently erected; the former bridge, said to have been built by John of Gaunt, having been destroyed, in 1795, by a great flood.

The town consists of several streets, is partially paved, lighted with gas, and amply supplied with water. There are five mills for the spinning of cotton, &c., belonging to Messrs. Strutt, who make their own machinery on the spot; two of these, and a bleaching-mill and dyehouse, are about a mile and a half lower down the river, over which the proprietors have built a neat stone bridge of two arches.

Here are also two of the largest manufactories in the kingdom for silk and cotton hose, established in 1790 by Messrs. Ward, Brettle, and Ward, [SEE BELOW] and now carried on by Messrs. Ward, Strutt, Sharpe, and Ward, and by George Brettle and Company, who employ more than 6000 persons, principally in the surrounding villages.

The nails made here, especially those for the shoeing of horses, are much in demand. The Midland railway has a station at Belper. The market is on Saturday, and fairs are held on May 12th and Oct. 31st, for horned cattle, sheep, and horses. The county magistrates hold a petty-session for the district every Wednesday; and courts for the manor are held when occasion requires, under the steward: the powers of the county debtcourt of Belper, established in 1847, extend over part of the registration-districts of Belper and Basford.

The parish comprises 2852 acres, whereof two-thirds are pasture, and the remainder arable, with a little woodland and some ornamental planting. The living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £158; patron, the Vicar of Duffield; impropriator, Lord Beauchamp. The present chapel, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was erected in 1824, at an expense of upwards of £12,000, which was partly defrayed by a parliamentary grant; it is a handsome structure, in the decorated English style, with a lofty pinnacled tower.

The old chapel, built by John of Gaunt, and the burial-ground of which is still used, is now a district church. Divine service is also performed in Bridge-Hill. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, and Unitarians; and a Lancasterian school, in which 500 children are taught, is supported by the proprietors of the cotton-works. Henry Smith, Esq., endowed two almshouses, and bequeathed an estate producing £30 per annum, directing the rental to be divided equally between the minister and the poor of Belper; two other almshouses were endowed by James Sims, with £12 per annum. The union of Belper comprises 35 parishes and places, and contains a population of 46,235.

In a field in the neighbourhood may still be traced the massive foundations of the mansion in which John of Gaunt resided.

Brettle & Ward 1799-1984 (Entry in the Derbyshire Record Office)

The firm of Ward Sharp and Company (established in 1801) had its origins in the hosiery business conducted at Belper, Derbyshire by the Ward family. It was formed by John Ward and James Sharp who also opened a warehouse in London where they could sell their products produced at Belper. Following financial problems, William Ward invited George Brettle (1778-1835) to join the partnership in 1803 and the firm was renamed Ward Brettle and Ward.

Prosperity soon returned and by the end of the decade, the firm was employing 1,000 people. Its wholesale warehouse accommodation became insufficient and new premises were taken in Wood Street, City of London to supply London's drapers with cloth, hosiery, haberdashery and blankets. By the 1830s, it was one of the biggest hosiery firms in the country.

The death of William Ward in 1833 left the firm in the hands of Brettle alone and he named the firm, 'George Brettle and Co.' The Ward family, excluded from the business but still in possession of the premises at Belper, set up the firm of Ward Strutt and Sharp.

George Brettle purchased a site nearby for his own warehouse in Belper. Brettle died in 1835, leaving the running of the firm to three friends until his three sons were of age to succeed to their partnerships from 1843. By 1872 all three sons were dead and, although steam power and mechanisation of production had been introduced, the firm had lost its dominant position to Wards of Belper.

Problems with labour supply and the workforce, growing competition from the German hosiery industry, and costly family settlements restricted the growth of Brettles over the next thirty years. From the 1870s, an increasing proportion of Brettles' output took the form of knitted underwear rather than stockings. The commercial side of the firm underwent little change beyond the employment of travelling company salesmen and it was slow to respond to the demands of the new department stores.

Following a succession of deaths and marriages, the Twyford family took control of the firm. In 1913, the firm was inherited by Lionel and Harry Twyford and a year later it became 'George Brettle and Co. Ltd'. Lionel died in 1920 but with Harry's skill and a boom in demand for hosiery and knitwear that began during the war, the firm was revitalised.

The factory at Belper was extended, a new factory was set up at Wirksworth, Derbyshire to tap a growing labour force there, and the firm began building its own machinery. The firm was organised into a number of departments including lisle, haberdashery, bandannas, manchester, outfitting, cotton, fancy knitted goods, gloves, cashmere, silk, and half-hose. By the late 1930s, the lisle department with its range of elastic ('Silkestia') stockings accounted for over half of the company's output.

In 1936, Brettles had become a public company. For its employees, the firm set up a pension scheme in 1928, and built sports grounds in Wimbledon and Belper for the firm's sports teams, the Oberon Athletic Club. Brettles growth declined in the general austerity following the war. This combined with the problem of finding a successor to Sir Harry Twyford led to a link with the Courtaulds textiles group for which Brettles became the main hose production in 1964.

In 1974, the firm was bought outright by Courtaulds and became Courtaulds Hosiery Limited. By the 1970s, the factory at Belper produced only knitted stockings and tights. In 1997, Chilprufe bought Brettles from the Courtaulds Group and moved production to Leicester. Production returned to Belper in 2002 when Brettles was sold to lingerie manufacturer, Slenderella by Chilprufe's receivers.

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