Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, the Derwent Valley Mills are the birthplace of the factory system. Snaking 15 miles down the valley of the River Derwent from Matlock Bath to Derby, in the county of Derbyshire, the World Heritage Site contains a fascinating series of historic mill complexes. No less important are the watercourses that powered them, the settlements that were built for the mill workers and the remains of one of the world’s earliest railways – all nestling within a stunningly beautiful landscape that has changed little over two centuries.
Thanks to pioneering work by Richard Arkwright, Jedediah Strutt, the Lombe brothers and others, the essential ingredients of factory production were successfully combined. By the 18th century water power had been applied and successfully used for the first time on a relatively large scale. Not only was silk throwing and cotton spinning revolutionised with dramatic consequences for the British economy, the Arkwright model system also informed and inspired developments in other countries and industries.
Arkwright Water Frame (2019-09-16) by Adrian FarmerDerbyshire Record Office
The first stages of the factory system were set in motion when the Lombe brothers set up a silk mill in Derby in the early 1720s, based on examples seen in Italy. Built between 1771 and 1791 Arkwright’s Mills at Cromford were the world’s first successful water powered cotton spinning mills – a true blueprint for factory production.
Arkwright’s 1783 showpiece Masson Mills at Matlock Bath, seen here, are the finest surviving and best preserved example of an Arkwright cotton spinning mill. Further development of urban-based cotton mill technology happened in Lancashire rather than Derbyshire meaning that these early mills were not redeveloped and can still be enjoyed in their unspoilt landscape setting.
Born out of the Great Place Scheme, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, a dedicated group of local volunteers catalogued over 200 historic maps and plans of the World Heritage Site held at Derbyshire Record Office. Over 40 of these maps have been digitised to make them easily accessible to researchers.
Many of the maps featured are from the archive of the Strutt family who owned a large amount of land and property in the area.
Jedediah Strutt (1726-1792) established silk mills in Derby and cotton mills at Milford and Belper.
Vital Valley Mapping project volunteers.jpg (2018-01-22) by Adrian FarmerDerbyshire Record Office
Through these maps we see the expansion of the mills and communities along Derbyshire's Derwent Valley. Cottages on Long Row were built (1792-1797) by the Strutt family to house employees who worked at their mills in Belper.
Map showing part of the liberties of Belper, Duffield and Makeney (1805/1818) by James HickingDerbyshire Record Office
Long Row, Belper. Industrial housing built between 1792-1797 by the Strutt family for mill workers.
The Purpose of Mapping
Before the Ordnance Survey began mapping Great Britain in the 19th century, surveyors were paid, usually by a landowner, to produce a map or plan for a specific purpose. The surveyor only included the information the client had asked for, ignoring everything else. The size of a map was chosen by the surveyor, according to the demands of their client and their willingness (or ability) to pay.
This 1829 plan showing the route of the Duffield to Heage Turnpike road includes buildings and property boundaries along the road, but other roads are represented only by junctions.
Plan of the Turnpike Road from Duffield to Heage, showing properties along the route (1829) by Frederick SimpsonDerbyshire Record Office
Maps were often designed to be attractive as well as useful. This hand-coloured map of Willersley at Cromford, dated 1759, shows the lands owned by Edwin Lascelles. The land was bought by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1782, who had Willersley Castle built just to the north of Upper Holm and Far Holm.
Notice the title 'cartouche', the scale with drawing compass, the star-shaped rose compass and stylised buildings.
Plan of Willersley Farm belonging to Edwin Lascelles Esquire (1759) by William BrailsfordDerbyshire Record Office
Linking the present to the past
Historic maps allow us to reconnect with lost information, letting us experience the landscape as previous generations would have known it. This 1819 map of Belper shows that what is now Field Lane was once the Hutfall Field Footway. The Hutfall was the name for one of Belper’s huge village fields, but by the 20th century the name was no longer used.
In 2017 a new road and development off Field Lane was named ‘The Hutfall’, as a nod to Belper’s past.
Changing our understanding of the world
Maps help us to understand how the world changes. We may think that the Derwent Valley has always looked the way it does now, but old maps show that what we regard as the natural environment has been changed over the past 250 years to suit both industry and local communities.
This early 19th century map shows the route of the River Derwent through Belper before the need for large quantities of water to work the waterwheels in the Strutt mills led to the building of the Horseshoe Weir in 1797. The pink area shows the land flooded when the weir was created thus changing the landscape around the river through what is now the Belper River Gardens.
Plan of the River Derwent from Blackbrook to Lawn Farm, Belper (1810) by James HickingDerbyshire Record Office
Many of the Strutt estate maps were working maps, with additions made over time. The 1829 addition to this 1820 map shows in red the planned route for the railway (built 1838-1840), with a diversion for the river and for the road from Duffield to Milford.
Map of the estates of William, George Benson and Joseph Strutt in Belper, Milford and Makeney (1829/1840) by Joseph B H BennettDerbyshire Record Office
In the days before satellites and computers, accurately surveying land was a difficult process. Mistakes were sometimes made.
This 1792 estate map of Milford, created when the riverbanks were inaccessible, points out an error in the alignment of the River Derwent: “This part of the River was drawn by guess, before the Land on either side was bought or measured, and is all this wrong.”
Survey and plan of land etc. in Milford and Makeney belonging to Jedediah Strutt (1792/1818) by James HickingDerbyshire Record Office
In the 20th century the Ordnance Survey aimed to produce maps which were completely accurate. This involved detailed survey work: photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s show men using a hand held arrow to indicate precise points with a grid reference given in the image.
Photograph of Ordnance Survey Minor Control Point outside Mazza Ice Cream Store, Long Row, Belper (1948-05-05) by Ordnance SurveyDerbyshire Record Office
Extract of historic map overlaid on current Ordnance Survey map of Belper Market Place (1840/2019) by Derbyshire County CouncilDerbyshire Record Office
Digital copies of maps make it easier to see changes over time. We can layer the old map over a present day one.
Want to see more? Selected historical maps of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site can be viewed on the Derbyshire Heritage Mapping Portal:
Adrian Farmer, Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site
Items in this exhibition were digitised as part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site Great Place Scheme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England.