The story of Belper really begins as a small settlement in the Royal hunting forest of Duffield Frith when it was given the name of ‘Beaurepaire’ which means ‘beautiful place’. All this must seem rather strange reading to the motorist who has driven through the town on the over crowded A6 road, his only desire being to reach the other side as quickly as possible.
For those who have taken the time to explore, a completely different picture emerges - of a small town so rich in industrial heritage that it is not only of national importance, but occupies a pre-eminent position on the - world stage. Belper is indeed an important part of the Derwent Valley, which is universally recognised as the Cradle of the Industrial Revolution and now holds World Heritage Status.
In the mid 1200s, William de Ferrers, who was lord of the manor at Belper and several other manors, built a small stone church in a clearing, so that the foresters and their families would have somewhere to worship close to home. It was first dedicated to Thomas Becket, but re-dedicated to St John during the Reformation. Today, it has changed very little in appearance, but is now used for the joint purpose of Town Council Chambers and Heritage Centre.
The making of nails was Belper’s first main industry. Hunting was a regular pastime in the area and huntsmen used to bring their horses to Belper to be shod. The horsenails made in Belper were considered the best in the country and attracted hunting men from miles around.
Up until 1770, Belper was only a small village surrounded by fields with a population of just over 500 people. But, in 1771 Sir Richard Arkwright went into partnership with Samuel Need of Nottingham and Jedediah Strutt to develop water powered mills along the Derwent. This transformed Belper over the next few years, with mills springing up along the riverbank and houses and other service requirements being built to meet the demands of the rapidly increasing population.
The earliest written record of nailmaking in Belper goes back to 1260, but it is likely that nails were made there shortly after the Norman Conquest. The de Ferrers family, who were principal iron masters for William the Conqueror, introduced iron forges to the area. Originally the nailer worked for himself with the help of his family. The children would carry the coal, his wife work the bellows and he would fashion the nails. It was a hard life, the work hot and exhausting.
The nailers had a reputation as hard drinkers, often got into fights and many were imprisoned for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. They did not work on Mondays, which they kept as a day for celebrations, or recovery! In the 1800s the trend changed and larger businesses were set up, but wages were poor and strikes not uncommon. Competition from machinery sent the industry into decline and from a high of 1400 men and women the number of workers dropped to 38 in 1901. Nailmaking is no more in Belper, but the local football team’s nickname is ‘The Nailers’.
Rarely can one man and his family have created such a lasting impact on the economy of a small town as the Strutts did on Belper. Jedediah Strutt was born on a small farm at Blackwell near Alfreton. From a young age he had an obsessive interest in machinery, but when his uncle died and left him a small holding, he took it over and married Elizabeth Woollatt who he had met when in apprenticeship as a wheelwright. His brother-in-law, who worked for a hosiery firm in Derby, knowing of Jedediah’s interest in machinery, told him of the problems they were having in trying to adapt their machines to make stockings in a ribbed pattern. Everything they had tried had failed. Immediately, Jedediah set about the task of finding a solution.
He spent many hours in his attic experimenting, neglecting his farmwork in the process. At last he succeeded and the closer fitting stockings that resulted were a great success. He went into partnership with his brother-in-law opening a stocking factory in Derby and patented his ‘Derby Rib Machine’. Wishing to expand his business further, he went into partnership with Samuel Need and they later asked Richard Arkwright to join them and together they built mills at Belper, Cromford and Milford. On the dissolution of the partnership, Jedediah retained the mills at Belper and Milford.
Using the power of the River Derwent to drive the machinery, Jedediah built his first cotton mill, the South Mill, at Belper in 1776. This was followed about ten years later by the first North Mill, destroyed by fire in 1803. A compassionate man, he had strong religious beliefs and showed great concern for the welfare of all his employees. He provided them with houses, education and religious training. Row upon row of good quality houses, were built with three of the streets named after Jedediah’s sons, William, George and Joseph.
A strict disciplinarian, his employees were fined heavily for lateness, or bad behaviour and he insisted on them going to a place of worship on Sundays and that the children attended school regularly. Model farms were established at Belper and Milford, where food was produced so employees could be supplied at reasonable cost with credit facilities available. Jedediah ended his days at Exeter House in Derby, in 1797, and was buried at the Unitarian Chapel in Belper that he had built.
Jedediah left three very able sons under whose control the cotton mills at Belper grew to become the largest in the country. William, his eldest son, was a pioneer in making buildings fireproof, and he re-built the North Mill in 1803, which was considered at the time a masterpiece of engineering technology. The brick arch floors are supported on an iron frame and contribute to making the mill fireproof; it has its own ingenious warm air heating system, and a hoist between floors.
George’s grandson, Herbert Strutt, founded the school that bears his name. Joseph was mayor of Derby in 1835, and gave the Arboretum to the people of Derby as a public park. Modern Belper is largely a product of the Strutts, under whose influence the population rose from just over 500 to 10,000 in fifty years. All around the town are signs of their benevolence.
One of Jedediah’s apprentices, by the name of Samuel Slater, gained fame and notoriety, when after learning all he could in Belper, he set off for America in 1789. He knew many unsuccessful attempts had been made there to set up machinery to manufacture cotton goods. He carried all the information in his head, as persons leaving British ports were carefully searched for plans, to prevent industrial espionage.
On arriving in America he used his expertise to put the American cotton industry on its feet. He became a very rich man, having benefited from personal training by Jedediah, but repaid him by stealing his secrets and using them to set up mass production in the American cotton industry.
On either side of the gangway over the Ashbourne road, which connects the Old and New mills, are small gun embrasures, put there to ward off Luddites, but fortunately never used. North Mill is now the home of Derwent Valley Visitor Centre, where regular guided tours are arranged of this fascinating mill, the second oldest of its type remaining in the world.
It is now possible to walk from the Visitor Centre, past the semi-circular weir into the River Gardens with its flowerbeds, arboretum, bandstand, water gardens, children’s playground and boating facilities. East Mill, a seven storey red brick building of 1912, where surprisingly the bricks were laid from the inside, formerly occupied by the English Sewing Company, but now put to other uses, stands by the road north.
The first industrial housing in Belper was built in Short Row and the next in Long Row. Look for the gaps in Long Row, where the houses have been demolished to make way for George Stephenson’s railway, which runs through the middle of the town under no less than ten bridges.
Larger houses were provided in blocks of four for mill overseers in the Clusters, and just round the corner in Joseph Street is an old nailer’s workshop. St Peters Church, off Church Lane was built to meet the spiritual needs of a growing population, when St John’s Chapel became too small to satisfy the growing demand.
Near the chapel is an area known as The Butts, where archery practice once took place, and where horsefairs were held twice a year. The market place was at one time an area of wasteland, where in 1762, John Wesley preached. This leads down to King Street, the main shopping area.
Along Derby Road is the imposing Herbert Strutt School, built when a report indicated that the town needed a school of good standard for children of eleven years and over. This provided the impetus for George Herbert Strutt to provide the land and build the school. Across the road is the equally impressive looking Babington House, originally built as a workhouse, it was upgraded to an A1 Hospital during the Second World War.
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PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
St. John’s Chapel Heritage Centre: (Tel. 01773 822116) dates back to about 1250, contains an interesting collection of old photographs of Belper and memorabilia. Open weekdays 9.30am to 12.30pm. Also open the last Saturday in the month.
Derwent Valley Visitor Centre: (Tel: 01773 880474) situated in North Mill where superb displays of hand spinning wheels, Hargreaves’s Spinning Jenny and many more exhibits bring this old mill back to life. Please telephone for opening details.
Denby Pottery Visitor Centre: (Tel. 01773 740799) offers factory tours Monday to Thursday (booking essential). The museum, cookery emporium and factory shops are open daily. Restaurant facilities available.
The Strutt Arms Hotel (Tel. 01332 840240) standing alongside the A6 this attractive wayside pub is open daily and provides good food and seating outside in good weather. Meals served lunch time and evenings.
Chevin Coffee Shop (Tel. 01773 829830) a delightful little coffee shop situated on the first floor of the De Bradelei Mill Shop. Home cooked food served throughout the day. Open daily.
THE DISCOVER DERBYSHIRE AND THE PEAK DISTRICT GUIDE
Provides a wide range of features with heritage trails and detailed countryside walks, through some of the most scenically attractive countryside in the UK.
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This excellent walk takes you through ‘Strutt Country’, setting off from the Riverside Gardens past North Mill, along the Derwent Valley to Milford, before climbing up to walk along North Road with splendid views of the valley below.
The influence of the Strutt family is at its strongest in Milford. They owned the whole village and employed virtually all the inhabitants of working age.
For information on Belper and events in the town.
BELPER WELL DRESSINGS
Well dressing was first established in Belper in 1838, when the Mill Lane Well was dressed and in the following year four wells were dressed. The custom lapsed for The Second World War , but was revived in 1986.
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