The Derby Cotton & Silk Mills

Updated: Tuesday, July 26, 2011   |   Belper Historical & Genealogical Website

This book extract describes the industry of Derby, in particular the mills. (It doesn't seem to be entirely accurate or truthful in my humble opinion!)


A Collection of Fragments
Illustrative of the History and Antiquities of Derby

By Robert Simpson
Vol II 1826 pages 777-795



The manufacture of Cotton, except what was used in making stockings, does not appear to have been introduced into Derbyshire, before the year 1770, when Sir Richard Arkwright established one of the first Cotton mills on the improved principles, at Cromford.

derby silk mills


In 1773, those two eminent benefactors to their country, whose industry and talents contributed so largely to the extension of its manufactures, the late Mr. Jedidiah Strutt, and Sir Richard Arkwright in conjunction with Mr. Samuel Need, made at Derby the first successful attempt to establish the manufacture of Calicoes in this kingdom.

This County therefore, as having been the cradle of some of the most important branches of the Cotton Manufacture, stands in the highest rank in point of interest, and may be reckoned almost the first with respect to the extent of its concerns.

in 1787, the number of Cotton mills in England, Wales, and Scotland, is said to have been 143 in England only, 119 of these 41 were in Lancashire, and 22 in Derbyshire. The number of Cotton mills in Derbyshire alone is now 112.

In China, Abyssinia, and the East Indies, Cotton wool is produced from an annual shrub, about the size of a currant bush, called gossypium, and which unfolds the cotton from a pod about the size of a common haste nut; though in the latter country the Arboreum or Cotton tree, is well known, and it is now cultivated in America and the West Indies to great advantage. The pod of this tree which grows to the size of a hen's egg, informs the cultivator of the proper time of plucking, by the bursting of the shell; after it is gathered, and the wool is separated from the husk, in a mill calculated for that purpose, the wool is put into bags containing from 300 to 360 pounds weight, and is trodden down in the same manner as hops are when bagged in this country.


The manufacture of Silk is carried on to great extent, and the number of hands to which it affords employment, is upwards of a thousand, including women and children.

The work is chiefly performed by means of machines or mills made for the purpose, but of various sizes, and somewhat differing in construction. The original mill called " The Silk Mill," to denote its preeminence, being the first and largest of its kind ever erected in England, stands upon an island in the River Derwent. Its history is remarkable, as it denotes the power of genius and the vast influence which even the enterprises of an individual have on the commerce of a Country. The Italians were long in the exclusive possession of the art of silk throwing, and the merchants of other nations were consequently dependent on that people for their participation in a very lucrative article of trade, and were frequently deprived of their fair profits by the exorbitant prices charged for the original material.

This state of things continued till the commencement of the last century, when a person named Crocket, erected a small mill, near the present works, with the intention' of introducing the manufacture of silk into England, but his machinery being inadequate to the purpose, he quickly became insolvent, and the design was for some time abandoned.

At length, about the year 1715, a similar idea began to expand in the mind of an excellent mechanic, and draughtsman, named John Lombe, Who though young, resolved on the perilous task of travelling into Italy, to procure drawings or models of the machines necessary for the undertaking. In Italy he remained some time, but as admission to the Silk mill was prohibited, he could only obtain access by bribing two of the workmen, through whose assistance he inspected the machinery in private ; and whatever parts he obtained a knowledge of during these visits, he recorded on paper before he slept.

By perseverance in this mode of conduct, he made himself acquainted with the whole; and had just completed his plan, when his intention was discovered, and his life being in extreme danger, he fled with precipitation, and took refuge on ship board. The two Italians who had favoured his scheme, and whose lives were in equal danger with his own, accompanied him and they all soon landed in safety in England* about the year 1717.

Fixing on Derby as a proper place for his purpose, he agreed with the Corporation for an island or swamp in the river, 500 feet long and 52 feet wide, at a rent somewhat below £8 per annum. Here he established his Silk mill; but during the, time employed in its construction, he erected temporary machines in the Town hall, and various other places ; by which means he not only reduced the price of silk far below the Italians, but was likewise enabled to proceed with his greater undertaking, though the expences amounted to nearly £30,000.

In the year 1718 he procured a patent to enable him to secure the profits, thus arising front his ingenuity, for the term of fourteen years ; but his days verged to a close, and before half this period had elapsed, treachery and poison had brought him to the grave, The Italians, whose trade rapidly decreased, from the success of the new establishment, were exasperated to vengeance, and vowed the destruction of the man, who had turned the current of their business into another channel.

An artful woman was sent from Italy in the character of a friend ; she was associated with the parties, and was permitted to assist in the preparation of the silk. Her influence was privately exerted on the natives who had fled with Mr. Lombe from Italy, and succeeding with one, she prepared to exert the long meditated plan of death. The victim lingered in agony two or three years, when the springs of life being completely exhausted, he breathed his last. Slow poison is supposed to have been the means employed to deprive him of existence ; and though suspicion was almost strengthened into certainty, by the circumstances that transpired on the examination of Madame - , the evidence was not decisive, and consequently she was discharged.

Her associate had previously fled to his own country. The other Italian, whose name was Gartrevalli, continued at Derby, and afterwards wrought at a Silk mill erected at Stockport, in Cheshire ; but died in poverty. The funeral of Mr. John Lombe was celebrated in a style of great magnificence. He died on the 16th and was buried on the 22nd March, 1722.

The death of this lamented artist did not, however, as the Italians vainly hoped, prove fatal to his patriotic scheme, for the machinery was in full action, and the business becoming more successful, gave employment to about 300 people.

John Lombe was succeeded by his brother William, whose melancholy disposition led him to commit suicide ; on which .the property descended to their cousin, Sir Thomas Lombe, Shortly afterwards, August the 29th, 1724, the lease of the ground was signed by the Corporation, for though the building had been long completed, the deeds had not hitherto been executed.

Previously to the expiration of the patent, Sir Thomas petitioned Parliament for a renewal, pleading " that the works had been so long a time in perfecting, and the people in teaching, that there had been none to acquire emolument from the patent." This statement, however, was notoriously untrue, since it appears that the Petitioner had al ready accumulated upwards of £80,000, but "Quid non rnortalia pectoxa cogis Auri sacra fames"?

The application made by Sir Thomas was not, however, altogether unsuccessful, for Government, willing to reward the promoters of national benefit, and at the same time to spread the knowledge of such a useful invention, granted him £14,000 in lieu of a new patent, and on condition that he should suffer a complete model of the works to be taken; this was accordingly executed and afterwards deposited in the Tower for public inspection.

Sir Thomas died on the 3rd January, 1739, having amassed a fortune of £120,000. On his death the Silk mill became the property of his lady, and was twice advertized for public sale ; but the trade being greatly decayed, through the erection of mills in other places, no bidder could be found, though the second time the works were put up as low as £1000. On the 20th February, 1739, the lease was assigned from Lady Lombe to Richard Wilson, Esq. and in July following the agreement was completed, and the property transferred to the latter for a sum not exceeding £4000. These premises were occupied for many years by Mr. Swift, who made various important additions to the machinery. The lease expired in 1803, the term for which it was granted being no more than 79 years.* (* Beauties of England and Wales. III).

The mill is now in the occupation of Mr. William Taylor.


The inventor of the Stocking frame was one Mr, William Lee, M. A. of St. John's College, Cambridge, born at Woodborough a village in Nottinghamshire about seven miles from the town of Nottingham.

He was heir to a pretty freehold estate; of whom the traditional story says, that he was deeply in love with a young townswoman of his, whom he courted for a wife, but she whenever he went to visit her, seemed always more mindful of her knitting than the addresses of tier admirer, this slight created such an aversion in Mr. Lee against knitting by hand, that he determined to contrive a machine that should turn out work enough to render the common knitting a gainless employment. Accordingly he set about it, and having an excellent mechanical head, he brought his design to bear in 1589, after he had worked awhile, he taught his brother and several relations. to work under him.

Having for some years practised this his new art at Calverton, a village about five miles from Nottingham, either himself or his brother James worked before Queen Elizabeth, in order to shew an experiment of this kind of workmanship, offering at the same time this discovery of his to his countrymen, who instead of accepting the offer despised him and discouraged his invention.

Being thus discountenanced, by his native country, and soon after invited over into France. with promises of great reward, privileges, and honour, by King Henry IV. he embraced the seeming fair opportunity, and went himself with nine workmen, his servant, and as many frames to the city of Rouen in Normandy, where they wrought with so great applause from the French, that in all likelihood the trade was to have been settled in that county for ever, had not the sudden murder of that Monarch disappointed Mr. Lee of his expected grant of Privileges, and the succeeding intestine troubles of that kingdom delayed his new suit, and at last frustrated all his hopes; at which seized with grief he ended his days at Paris.

After his death seven of his workmen (being left to shift for themselves) returned with their frames into England, two only remaining behind. These seven With one Alsop, who had been an apprentice to Mr. Lee, and by him was before left at home, and who also added .something to his master's invention did . lay the foundation of this manufacture in England ; and in the space of 50 years, the art was so much improved, and the number of able workmen became so great, that the heads among them thought it necessary for the better regulating their members and keeping this valuable business from spreading abroad, to petition Oliver Cromwell to constitute them a body corporate; which however; for what reason I cannot tell, they did not obtain at that time.

King Charles the II after the restoration granted them a charter; by which their Jurisdiction extended to ten miles round London. In process of time, when the trade spread further into the country, they also in proportion stretched their authority, and established Commissioners in the several principal towns in the Country where the trade was exercised, there they held courts at which they compelled the country frame-work-knitters to bind and make free, &e. whereby they for many years drew great sums of money : till some person of more spirit than others in Nottingham brought their authority in question, and a trial ensuing, the Company were cast.

Since that time the Stocking Manufacture has continued entirely, open in the Country. There are besides the Capital  England, ten towns in the County where this manufacture is carried on; viz. In Nottinghamshire, Nottingham and Mansfield : in Leicestershire, Leicester, Mount. sorrel, Loughborough, Hiwitley and Ashby-do-la Zouch In Northamptonshire, Towcester Surrey, Godalmin, and in Derbyshire, Derby.*

This manufacture was introdueed into Derby in the eighteenth Century. The manufactures of Derbyshire acquired additional celebrity by the ingenious discovery of Messrs. Jedediah Strutt and William Woollatt, who introduced a Machine for making ribbed stockings about the year 1756.

This species of goods acquired the name of the Derby ribs. A rude imperfect idea of it had been furnished by a common workman named Roper ; but it was owing to the labour and ingenuity of the above mentioned gentlemen, that it was ever brought to full maturity, and in recompense for so important an improvement, a patent was granted them for the exclusive use of it for the term of fourteen years.

This machine is prefixed to the stocking frame, and in connexion with it produces stockings exactly the same as those produced upon the common knitting pins. Long before the invention of the stocking frame, our fair knitters had introduced the plan of reversing the stitches in straight lines down the stocking ; and from the wales thus reversed lying lower than those knitted in tie ordinary way, the stockings so knitted were called ribs. Hence sprang a desire in the breast of many of those engaged in the frame work knitting business to produce an imitation. In this the tuck ribs failed as they bore no resemblance to the original ribs, except in the different shades. The practise of making turned clocks in plain stockings first suggested the plan of making what have since been termed Derby ribs ; and indeed, many plain stockings were actually converted into ribs, by the tedious process of letting down alternate stitches, and turning them up on the rough side of the stocking long before the invention of the rib machine.

It is said that a stocking maker of the name of Wright, of Ilkeston in this County, about the year 1730, made a pair of ribs this way, and sold them to a tinker for half a guinea. In this, as in almost every other invention, public opinion has been divided respecting the object on whom to conferer the honor ; an old stocking maker of the name of Bowman, who resided at Dale Abbey, it has been said by many, was the original projector of this machine, but knowing that the claim was a divided one, I wrote to William Strutt, Esq. of Derby on the subject, and from whose answer I will give the following extract.

It was Jedidiah Strutt, my father, who invented the Derby rib machine in the year 1758, or thereabouts. About that time he settled in Derby for the purpose of carrying on the manufacture of ribbed stockings in conjunction with his brother-in-law Mr. Woollat, who was then a hosier in that place, and which partnership continued till the death of my father in the year 1797.

A great part of the time during which the patent was in force, Mr. Samuel Need of Nottingham was a partner under the firm of Need, Strutt, and Woollatt. The patent right was tried twice in Westminster Hall, first with the hosiers of Derby, and afterwards with them of Nottingham, from which time it was enjoyed quietly to the end of the term.

Mr. Strutt did not give me the date of the patent, which I understand was in 1759.

From this slender though fortunate, beginning of an industrious and ingenious workman, for I understand Mr Strutt was a wheelwright, have several most extensive fortunes been realized.

This machine has suggested many other improvements in the manufacture. From it has arisen the art of making the open work mitts, in imitation of French mitts, a curious sort of lace for caps, aprons, and handkerchiefs, and a great variety of figured goods for waistcoats. Mr. Pilkington states that in his time the number of stocking frames employed by the hosiers of Derby was 11564.

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