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The History of Derby Silk Mill: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

By Jeremy Swan - 25 November 2016

In 1717, a young man named John Lombe left England on a covert mission to the Italian state of Piedmont. He had been tasked by his older brother, a wealthy man and MP, with learning the secrets of the Italian silk industry, in what may be the first example of industrial espionage.

“The silk manufacturing process and the associated machinery were closely guarded secrets in Italy,” says Daniel Martin, Curator of Making at Derby Museum. “So much so, that espionage was punishable by death. It was an extremely hazardous expedition.

“When John Lombe arrived in Italy he managed to bribe a priest to find him work in a local silk manufactory, where he worked as a machinery mechanic by day. By night, in collusion with some Italian colleagues, he re-entered the manufactory and drew the machines by candle-light. He would then smuggle the drawings back to England in bales of raw silk.”

What drove him to such lengths? William Hutton, an eighteenth-century historian who worked in Derby Silk Mill as a child, explains: “The Italians had the exclusive art of silk-throwing; consequently an absolute command of that lucrative traffic. The wear of silks was the taste of the ladies; and the British merchant was obliged to apply to the Italian, with ready money, for the article at an exorbitant price.”

A manufacturing wonder

Eventually, John Lombe’s cover was blown and he was forced to flee back to England. “There are all sorts of variations of the legend,” says Professor Paul Elliott, Reader in Modern History at the University of Derby.

“According to one, he was pursued by the King of Sardinia’s ships, trying to prevent his escape. But he made it back to England and began construction of the Derby Silk Mill.”

“In time, the Silk Mill became celebrated as a model of manufacturing wonder. People started to come to Derby just to see it.”

One such tourist was Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, who visited Derby in the 1720s. He describes the Silk Mill as “a curiosity in trade worth observing, as being the only one of its kind in England”.

Story of success

It was so successful that other silk manufactories began springing up in the area, says Professor Elliott. “Derby was renowned as a town of streams and rivers, so there were quite a lot of mills. Macclesfield on the other side of the Peak became a silk centre and the silk industry survived in Derby into the twentieth century.

“The other legacy of the Silk Mill is that the design inspired later cotton manufactories in the area, such as Richard Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford in the 1770s. It seems clear that he partly modelled the design on the Derby Silk Mill, particularly the idea of using a large waterwheel to drive a whole series of manufacturing processes.”

Yet despite the success of the Silk Mill, Lombe would not be able to enjoy the benefits for long, as Hutton explains: “But, alas! He had not pursued this lucrative commerce more than three or four years, when the Italians, who felt the effect of the theft from their want of trade, determined his destruction.”

Seeking revenge, the Italians sent a femme fatale to Derby who succeeded in gaining the trust of one of Lombe’s workers. “By these two,” says Hutton, “slow poison was supposed, and perhaps justly, to have been administered to John Lombe, who lingered two or three years in agonies, and departed.”

The Derby Lock Out

Not only was the Silk Mill one of the first – and possibly even the first – true examples of modern industry, but it also played an important role in the development of class consciousness in British society.

“The Derby Lock Out of 1833-4 is considered to be one of the key moments in the development of a working class identity,” says Daniel. “Led by the trades unions, the Derby Lock Out was the first practical national example of the workers seeking to wrestle back a degree of control from the mill owners.

"The initial strike over the firing of one employee eventually grew to include 2,400 works and brought national attention to the unionist cause for the very first time."

“It started at another mill in Derby, but the Silk Mill was chosen as the symbolic focus of the lock out to its significance. The initial strike over the firing of one employee eventually grew to include 2,400 works and brought national attention to the unionist cause for the very first time.

“Unfortunately, after five months of bitter conflict, the trades unionists were forced back to work on the masters’ terms, but this was an important step on the way to what would become the labour movement.”

Derby Silk Mill, an enduring legacy

“Part of the significance of the Silk Mill is that it is the gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills,” explains Professor Elliott, “which has since been recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Not only did the Silk Mill play an important role in Derby’s story, its influence can be felt in the wider world too.”

Daniel agrees, “For me, the Silk Mill is central to Derby’s evolution from a merchant town to becoming what the Derby Corporation would later call the ‘Hub of Industrial Britain’. The Silk Mill may only represent the first step on this evolutionary path, but it is the single key development.”

This article was first published in the University of Derby Magazine.

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About the author

Jeremy Swan
External Relations Officer

Jeremy is a former External Relations Officer at the University of Derby and a regular contributor to the award-winning University Magazine.