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The town of Belper, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 16:11 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013

Belper Mill

Belper Mill

Built by a benevolent industrialist for his workers, there's still no lack of entrepreneurs today.

Belper stands at the heart of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, which stretches from Matlock Bath to Derby. Its townscape is dominated by East Mill, a seven-storey factory erected in 1912 by the English Sewing Cotton Company. With its chunky tower and its massive red-brick walls, the building looks as if it has been airlifted out of a Lancashire cotton town and lowered into a Derbyshire dale.

However, appearances are deceptive in two important respects. Firstly, cotton-spinning on an industrial scale was actually exported to Lancashire from Derbyshire, rather than vice-versa. Secondly, East Mill may be the most visually prominent symbol of Belper's manufacturing era, but it has far less significance than North Mill, the much smaller factory that stands alongside it.

The first cotton mill in Belper was built by Jedediah Strutt, who began his working life as an apprentice wheelwright in Alfreton but progressed to become a partner of Richard Arkwright at Cromford, where the world's first successful cotton-spinning factory was built in 1771. Five years after Arkwright's mill was constructed, Jedediah moved to Belper, where he not only founded his own cotton factory, but also built a whole new town to house his workers.

When Jedediah's mill was destroyed by fire in 1803, his son William set about building North Mill as a replacement. Determined to avoid another inferno, he used cast-iron columns, rather than wood, to support the internal structure of the new factory. As well as being the world's first fire-proof building, this innovative structure provided the blueprint for the construction of America's first skyscrapers.

North Mill is now the home of the Derwent Valley Visitor Centre, run by manager Sharon Cooke and a team of 31 volunteers, including Patricia Bohn, who showed me working examples of the machines that enabled the early mill-workers to convert raw cotton into yarn. She was especially keen to introduce me to the Derby Rib, a device invented by Jedediah for making the sort of tight-fitting ribbed stockings that were essential fashion items for both men and women in the late eighteenth century.
As well as giving rise (literally) to America's skyscrapers, North Mill was the model for the very first cotton mill to be built in the United States. In 1793, one of Jedediah's employees, Samuel Slater, set sail across the Atlantic with enough trade secrets to enable him to establish a pioneering cotton-spinning factory at Pawtucket, on Rhode Island. Like everyone else in Belper, Patricia cannot decide whether Slater was a hero or a traitor.

Just before I left the visitor centre, local historian Mary Smedley told me that Belper began life as a village in the royal hunting forest of Duffield Frith and was known by the Normans as 'Beaurepaire', or 'Beautiful Retreat'. In order to judge whether the town's beauty had been destroyed by Jedediah's coming, I walked across an elegant eighteenth-century bridge to the north bank of the Derwent, where I could look beyond the perfect crescent of a large weir to the two mills on the south bank. As I gazed at their enormous bulk, I made a surprising discovery: even factories become things of beauty in a Derbyshire setting.

When I set off to explore the settlement built by Jedediah to house his mill-hands, I fully expected the grandeur of the factories to be counterbalanced by the meanness and inadequacy of the workers' village. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The residential areas were planned with care and well serviced with churches, swimming baths and a school. The workers had the opportunity to attend dancing classes or join an orchestra, which was conducted by a member of the Strutt family, and they had access to free milk and day-release classes.

The first building in the workers' village is Christ Church, a Victorian structure that now stands alongside the busy A6. It is popularly known as a 'high church in a low place', in order to distinguish it from St Peter's, which has a very different liturgical tradition and is known as 'the low church in a high place'. The noted topographical writer Henry Thorold described Christ Church as an 'attractive great barn-like building'. He also noticed how the large oriel window in the adjacent vicarage acts as a focal point for the streets that meet here.

This prominent window looks onto Long Row, a cobbled street that is very long indeed and is lined on both sides by terraces of workers' housing, some built in brick, others in stone. The terraces on the south side are limited to two storeys, presumably to allow sunlight to penetrate the three-storey dwellings on the north side. Every house was provided with a garden, making Long Row seem like an early prototype for the garden villages of the twentieth century. It is said that those workers who did not tend their gardens adequately were dragged into Jedediah's office on Monday morning.

The Strutts also made strict demands when the North Midland Railway arrived in Belper in 1838. In the manner of the great landowners who required the railway companies to place their tracks out of sight of their grand houses, the Strutts insisted that the railway line should run through Belper in a long cutting. Gashes had to be made in the terraces of Long Row and many other streets, in order to allow a series of bridges to be built over the sunken line.

The large school at the foot of Long Row was built by Herbert Strutt in 1909 and the Unitarian Chapel on Field Row, to the south-east of Long Row, was founded in 1788 by Jedediah, who was a committed dissenter. At the time of my visit, former minister Rev. Derek Smith, his wife Pauline and church member Muriel Bolshaw were clearing up after serving refreshments at one of the chapel's monthly open days. Muriel is a relative newcomer to Belper, having lived at one time or another in every Midland shire, but Derek and Pauline were able to act as knowledgeable guides to the beautiful grade II-listed chapel.

I learnt that the building's two wings are an extension to the original chapel. Rather surprisingly, one of them was constructed over Jedediah's grave. After these additions, the interior arrangement of the church was then turned through 90 degrees, leaving the pulpit in a central well between banked tiers of box pews in each of the wings. The balcony clock, constructed by John Whitehurst of Derby, is a survival from the original chapel and all the cast-iron pillars closely resemble those in North Mill.

On my return to the A6, I noticed one of the many poems that have been placed on plaques throughout Belper in memory of Beth Fender, who lived in the town for the last twelve years of her life and founded two poetry groups. I also passed a tiny nailer's workshop, a reminder of the main cottage industry in the days before Belper became the world's second mill town. On reaching the main road, I couldn't help noticing the gun embrasures on a bridge connecting two mill buildings. It seems that even the benevolent Strutts were worried about possible attack from Luddites - and were prepared to take action!

The A6 carries a never-ending stream of traffic through lower Belper. It is also flanked by an impressive range of independent shops and eating places. I called in at the Tea Tree, an inviting tea and coffee shop opened last September by Lesley Tombs, who hankered after a job involving daily contact with the friendly people of Belper after she had been made redundant at Derby Cables. Her two-storey, glass-fronted premises have previously served as a clothes shop, a hairdresser's and even a brewery. Although other shops on the main street have also changed hands with some frequency, there seems to be no shortage of entrepreneurs in Belper who are willing to set up new businesses, even in these difficult times.

Belper's other main shopping street is the partially-pedestrianised King Street, which runs away from the A6 at an angle and makes a steep climb to the Market Place. It is a street that seems to have something for everyone, whatever their age. One shop in particular has customers that range in age from toddlers to nonagenarians. This is Sweet Memories, run by Pete Guilar, a former member of the Army Corps, who sells Barley Sugars, Midget Gems, Dolly Mixtures, Gob Stoppers and all those other sweets that invite those who munch them to chew over happy childhood moments from their past.

The Ritz Cinema, in the higher reaches of King Street, also caters for the nostalgia market. In addition to screenings of the very latest releases, there are showings of 'Ritz Classics' and 'Silver Screen' sessions aimed at people over fifty and introduced by our very own Ashley Franklin. As if to emphasise the all-age appeal of this revived picture house, the box-office was being staffed at the time of my visit by two sixth-formers, Michael Feldman, who plans to study Psychology and English at university, and Tom Beddoes, who has worked as an instructor in an activity centre and may well pursue a higher education course in drama.

King Street terminates in the sloping cobbled Market Place, which is the setting for a splendid farmers' market on the second Saturday of each month, which happened to coincide with my visit. One of the regular stalls sells the products of a Lincolnshire ostrich farm and another sells stone-ground flour, wholemeal bread and other fine products from the restored Heage Windmill, which re-opened in 2002. Tony Cooper, who was being assisted on the stall by co-volunteer Vera Bridges, gives guided tours of the mill between April and October.

When I told assistant town clerk Rosemary Bridges how impressed I was by the farmers' market, she flagged up the even more ambitious annual Food Festival, which will spread all the way down King Street on 5th July. Despite appalling weather during the last two festivals, the event has been hugely popular. With the weather forecasters predicting a 'barbecue summer', it could attract even more visitors this year.

As secretary of Belper's well dressing committee, Rosemary is hoping that the current renovation of the town's popular River Gardens will be completed in time for well-dressing week, which begins on 12th July. She also told me of Belper's success in various East Midlands in Bloom contests and the special effort made throughout the town with flower tubs and hanging baskets.

Above and beyond Market Place, there is an area known as The Butts, where all able bodied men were once required to practice their archery after Sunday service. The 13th-century church of St John has survived to the present day, although it is no longer used for worship. One half of the little building is home to the town council, while the other half carries displays of local history and is used by various groups. At the time of my visit, it was hosting a WEA course in neo-classical and romantic art, run by Bob Moulder, who has a day-job as an illustrator.

After descending from the heights of the upper town, I returned to the A6 and walked to the southern perimeter of Belper, where there is a Morrison's supermarket, a Focus store, a Macdonald's restaurant situated in a surprisingly delightful little building called the Orangery, a factory outlet store housed in the former premises of George Brettle and Company, which produced stockings for Queen Victoria, and a fine Methodist church, which is fronted by a large notice board bearing a proud reminder of the chapel's two claims to fame: it once played host to John Wesley and it now stands in a World Heritage corridor.

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