The Other Cromford - Visiting the Derbyshire village’s namesake in Germany
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 October 2018
Ann Hodgkin investigates a case of the sincerest form of flattery… or industrial espionage!
Catherine, a young Derbyshire friend of mine, has recently moved with her family to live near Düsseldorf in Germany. Whilst exploring the area with her son, Harry, she came across a signpost pointing the way to ‘Cromford’. Intrigued to find this very English name amongst unfamiliar German ones, they decided to investigate.
It transpired that like its English namesake it is home to a former cotton mill, in fact the first ever fully mechanised cotton mill on the European mainland.
In the latter half of the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Brügelmann, a merchant and entrepreneur, recognised that cotton was in great demand, and its spinning presented a very lucrative opportunity for business. Up until this time, cotton spinning had been done by hand. This was a very slow laborious process and the spinners could not meet the demands of the weavers.
Brügelmann had heard of Richard Arkwright’s machinery in his new mill in Derbyshire and had tried for years to get details of the carding machine. However, not only was Arkwright reluctant to share his designs but the British government would not allow its export. Brügelmann was determined to start his own mill, and persisted in attempting to get details of the water frame that Arkwright was using.
He is thought to have imported workers from the English factory, along with a model of the water frame. Like Arkwright, it took him a little while to find a suitable location where the mill could be powered by water, but eventually he found an ideal site on the outskirts of Ratingen, alongside the River Angerbach. He denied industrial espionage, but had the audacity to call the mill Cromford! Production started in 1784.
By 1794 the workforce was 400 strong – the business was the first to employ such a big number. At the peak of its production in 1802, the mill was employing 600 workers, including children.
The site was continually expanded throughout the 19th century. In later years it was occupied by various other trades, and in World War II munitions were made there but it finally closed in 1972.
Some of the 19th century additions were demolished in the late 1970s and housing was built there. Plans were afoot to demolish the five-storey ‘High Factory’, but it was saved and awarded listed building status because of its significance to the German cotton industry. The factory and the mansion were subsequently renovated and opened as an industrial museum, one of seven in Germany.
Similarities between the German and English mills continue, as both sites now provide interesting and informative venues for families to enjoy.
The first floor of the High Factory is dedicated to exhibits telling the story of the production of cotton, from importing the raw material from America to the spinning of the yarn. There are working replicas in action of machines used more than 200 years ago, so the process is easy to understand. The highlight for Catherine and Harry was being able to handle the cotton and learn how important spinning is in creating a usable yarn. Harry, who is studying the Victorians in school, was fascinated to see that health and safety was non-existent in the early days and throughout the Victorian era. Young children worked long hours and were exposed to the dangers of unguarded machinery, as well as suffering from health problems caused by breathing in the cotton dust. As in Derbyshire, the poor of Ratingen were willing to work in these difficult conditions as they were grateful for the employment and the accommodation provided by the mill owners.
Catherine and Harry were also interested to see a portrait of Brügelman, alongside a copy of the portrait of Arkwright by Joseph Wright. He is wearing similar clothes and even seated in a similar pose. There is certainly no doubt that he saw himself as the German ‘Arkwright’. He is even reputed to have said his cotton was ‘Made in Cromford’, therefore benefitting from the good reputation of Arkwright’s product.
The second floor houses the mill’s fashion collection. Around the 1800s stylish cotton clothes were very popular for women, and dresses from that time are exhibited alongside accessories and early fashion magazines.
The next stop on the tour was the mansion, the hub of the business and the family home for four generations of the Brügelmann family. Spread over 13 rooms, the story of each family member was told with the assistance of audio guides.
Upstairs, they marvelled at the opulent garden room. An almost circular room, its walls are adorned with large paintings and elaborate mirrors. The original wall paintings in the Chinese style – fashionable when the mansion was built but considered outmoded by the early 19th century – have been painted over with scenic views. The luxurious setting certainly highlights what a profitable business cotton spinning was. Once the centrepiece where the family entertained guests, it is now used as a wedding venue.
A walk in the park, to view the beautiful English garden, rounded off an enjoyable day out, and emphasised that Brügelmann was indeed intrigued by all things English.
If you do find yourself in North Rhine-Westphalia the mill is an ideal place to visit, holding special events and exhibitions throughout the year.
Most of all it is good to be reminded of the pivotal role that Arkwright, and Derbyshire, played in the world’s industrial revolution.