Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Future Works Library item 17 Mar 2017

Interview with Mary Smedley

Mary Smedley is a Trustee and Former Manager of the Strutt's North Mill Museum in Belper, Derbyshire.

Mary spoke to the 'Future Works' team in March 2015, sharing her wealth of knowledge about the Strutt family legacy and telling us how that proud industrial heritage continues to shape energetic stories in the Derwent Valley today.

Interview Transcript - Key

M: = Mary Smedley

[time e.g. 5:22] = inaudible word at this time

[IA 5:22] = inaudible section at this time

[word] = best guess at word

… = interruption in sentence, trailing off or short pause

M: I’m Mary Smedley. This is Belper North Mill which is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and I was the Manager here, I’m now a trustee. I’ve been here since day one, despite the fact I only came, because I thought it wouldn’t work and I thought I should tell them, and here I am almost 20 years later, living here almost, so I think it was a success!

Jedidiah Strutt was one of those very early industrialists, like the members of the Lunar Society, and they tended to all be non-conformists because they were barred from university, and therefore they formed these amazing groups and developed ideas by sharing their ideas. Now Jedidiah wasn’t actually a member of the Lunar Society, but he was very good friends with many of the members, like Erasmus Darwin, and Priestley, and endless names that you know, but he had a mechanical turn of mind, he just needed a problem to solve. He was a wheelwright by trade, his father had apprenticed him as a wheelwright, and during the time of his apprenticeship he’d had to lodge with a family who were framework knitters, so it showed him a different way of life. Eventually he married their eldest daughter and, after they were married, her brother came saying, ‘If only we could get these machines to knit in rib, we could make a fortune, but it can’t do it, it needs something else.’ He’d had a workman working for him who had an idea, but it wasn’t a properly formulated idea, he needed the expertise of mechanics to get it in action. So Jedidiah said, ‘Leave it with me, I’ll see what I can do,’ and it did take him three years, to be fair, but that’s how he made his first fortune. It was out of his invention of the Derby Rib and as I say, it’s only an attachment, but to this very day that’s why your socks stay up, so what a remarkable thing. It’s not always the big inventions that make the difference to day-to-day life.

But because he’d come up with that solution he needed thread and what he was getting was very hit and miss for quality. So he thought, ‘Nothing else for it, I shall have to produce my own thread.’ The silk mill in Derby had been built and that was the very first factory ever to be built, the first time they put all the workers together under one roof, and Jedidiah copied that idea and built his own silk mill, to provide the yarn, thread, whatever you want to call it, for his hosiery. Greatly successful and he was increasingly successful over the next 10 years, he got a patent for the Derby Rib and his fame and fortune grew.

Well, it was 10 years later when Richard Arkwright was looking for somebody to back him with his ideas. Now, no Dragons’ Den to go to, so where was he going to look for backing? His bankers had turned him down, John and Ichabod Wright, so he came to Strutt and Strutt had a partner called Samuel Need, an elderly man who had made his fortune early in life. He had the business expertise, he was the guiding light for the business, and they said, ‘We’ll have a look at it and see if we think it’s any good,’ and Jedidiah Strutt sends a wonderful letter to Samuel Need saying something to the effect of, ‘You may close with Mr Arkwright without any fear. With a little adaption of the wheels one to another,’ by which he means the gears, ‘It will be a success.’ Well it was.

They took him into their partnership and they built a mill at Nottingham, using horse power. The trouble is the horses get tired, so you’re always stopping the work to change the horses, and after a short spell of that Jedidiah said, ‘I’m using water power for my mill in Derby,’ he was using the Markeaton Brook, ‘Why don’t we find a site that has water power?’ And so they built the first water-powered cotton spinning mill at Cromford. Although they were in partnership for 10 years, 5 years into that partnership land was becoming available at Belper, because it was the time of the Enclosures, so Strutt took the opportunity and started buying plots of land. The mill site here is actually five separate plots, obviously he didn’t buy them all at once, he didn’t need to build a whole range of mills, he built one mill, so he bought a plot and built one mill. And he’s still in partnership with Arkwright at Cromford, it’s not affecting that at all, but 5 years on from starting to buy land here, Samuel Need died and so the partnership was dissolved on his death. And with the money that Strutt got from the partnership, he started buying land and sites at Milford. Milford did not exist, there was no place called Milford, but he bought the site of a forge and I think it was five or six cottages and then the rest followed on. So Milford in its entirety was a mill development, unlike Belper, which had already existed. And the Strutts ended up with more mills under single ownership than anyone else at all, so that was remarkable.

And the great thing about the Strutts was each generation added to what the previous generation had done, so five generations they were just developing Belper and Milford and even Derby, and they connect all the way down what is now the World Heritage Site, because even at Darley Abbey where the Evans had their mills, Jedidiah’s eldest son married Barbara Evans, and when you look at one of the mills at Darley Abbey, it could be this mill, it’s identical, so you know he had the plan to build the mill. And his sister, Elizabeth, married two of the Evans brothers, so at every site within the Derwent Valley, it’s Strutt-related. But what I like about the Strutts, and I know this because they left all their letters behind and all their notebooks and everything, it would need lots of lifetimes to get through it all, but they remain a very [pause] humble maybe isn’t the right word, but very ordinary people.

And I had the privilege five years ago to go and meet the last remaining offspring of George Herbert Strutt and she was 93 when I went to see her. And I had this dreadful sinking feeling when I got off the plane, thinking, ‘She might not like me and I might not like her, and she might ruin all this vision I have of the Strutts having read all their letters.’ But actually she was exactly what I was wanting and expecting and what a joy she was, and she let me record her for days [laughs] and that was a real privilege.

But here we are in 1896, cotton had been in decline for years and they were really struggling because of foreign competition and so on, so 14 companies came together initially to form English Sewing Cotton Company, there were more at the end, but 14 initially, and they managed to keep it going for another 100 years. I think it was 1992 when the final closure came here and the mill was empty, all the mills were empty, what did you do, who was going to take on these monstrous buildings?

But the fellow who bought them in the first instance, he wasn’t big money or anything, his brother-in-law was a builder and so after work each day, they would come to the mill and make divisions on each floor and create office suites and when they’d let one floor, they would finance the next one with it and so on. And we took a lease on this ground floor and the basement, because we thought the story was too important not to tell it. However, I, for one, was very sceptical of the idea in the first instance, but despite the fact I’m born and bred in the town I’d never been inside the mills, so I had to come along and just see the inside when they had a public meeting. It might have been my only opportunity and they might have demolished the mills. And here I am 20 years’ later, almost living here!

But we’ve had the most fantastic team of volunteers over those years who have researched, they have laboured, they’ve had vision, they’ve created, I can’t tell you how invaluable those volunteers have been. Every volunteer brings some sort of nugget to the project and we’re a World Heritage Site. We got World Heritage Site status in, I think it was ’01, and that just blows my mind, because when we opened here we didn’t have a single thing to show the public, we had two floors of a building and a story to tell and we could talk about a bricked in square in the wall for 10 minutes, because we’d nothing else to talk about.

So we explained the heating system, which are these blocked in squares, because when William Strutt, who was Jedidiah’s eldest son, rebuilt the mill in… 1803 was the disastrous fire which destroyed the original and so it was 1804 that he actually rebuilt. And his contemporaries all seemed to wax lyrical about this heating system he had in to keep the mills at a constant 65 degrees Fahrenheit, because apparently cotton works best at that temperature. But actually it’s the building which is the main exhibit, because this iron-framed building begins skyscrapers throughout the world; what a wow that is! And when you walk in you see iron columns and, ‘Alright, so what?’ But it’s tremendous. There’s an older iron-framed mill at Ditherington near Shrewsbury, but they got things wrong with that, so this is the improved version, this is the one that worked.

And to think that we’ve influenced building throughout the entire world, because what city do you go to now that doesn’t have tall buildings that are on metal frame? We had blocked-in squares in the wall and they were the doors to the ducts that carry the warm air central heating through the mill. In the basement we had a big, blocked up hole and, in I think it was 1999, we had a huge survey done that went into every minute detail of the mill. We had cherry pickers that looked at the roof, we looked in the basement, we looked at the structure, everything was examined in minute detail, but we had this blocked in hole and it was big, and it was curious. So I really wanted to see what was behind that. The two fellows who were doing all the labouring work as it were, with their apprentice, said it wasn’t on their list of things to do, but they were with me for several weeks and I did keep pointing out how nice it would be if we could just make a hole in it and have a look, shine a torch. And eventually they did it and that was a magical moment and it revealed where the heating system source was. And I now understand about warming the cockles of your heart. I know where the cockle was: it was suspended over a furnace, which is the furnace heated the cockle. Fresh air was brought in through side vents to form a warm air vacuum around the cockle, and as we all know, warm air rises, so there were vents taking it up from the basement, through the mill, and these bricked in squares were originally little doors in the wall that took the warm air through the mill, so constantly supplying the mill with warm, fresh air. And it was the success of the age. I know the Romans had done it before, but we’d forgotten how, hadn’t we? So it was the thing that William Strutts’ contemporaries were writing about.

Now he had built the mill as an iron-framed mill to reduce the risk of fire. He had no vision of skyscrapers that were to come, this was just about protecting the mill against fire, so there was no wood used in the structure, no wooden beams, brick floors, everything was overcome with other means, anything but wood. So that was an immense success, it’s why this is a Grade 1 Listed Building. Belper North Mill is a really prominent building within the World Heritage Site; this and the matching mill at Darley Abbey. But what I hadn’t realised in all my years of living at Belper, was that we had hydroelectricity in place. I was amazed to find that, and it was using the watercourse that Jedidiah Strutt had created in 1776, how amazing is that, that it is so modern and yet it was ordered in 1776? And of course it is the flavour of the month these days, so everybody is looking for sustainable, green energy and why, when we’ve got all this water in the country, are we creating wind farms everywhere? Surely we can put the water to better use. I know when the English Sewing Cotton Company were working they were still using this hydro-electricity, of course we had a period of steam like everywhere did, but even when we got steam power in 1854 to the mills, Strutts were still using the water power, because that was free, the steam cost money! [Laughs] So they continued to use water power unless the river was in flood or too low, which was seldom. And English Sewing Cotton Company were using that same power for hydro-electricity and I can’t remember now how much electricity it could create, but it was something like half, if the river was in full flow, half the power the needed to run all the mills on both sides of the road, it was created by that same watercourse. Incredible, magical! So now, of course, it’s fed into the National Grid. We periodically have an open day and people talk about such things, Ian Jackson has collated all the information; lots of people had little bits of information but nobody had ever put it all together, so now the Water Board consults Ian when they need advice, which is wonderful.

But the last Managing Director of English Sewing Cotton Company told a wonderful tale about a local man who was employed each year to take the leaves at autumn, all the leaves drop in the river, they all come down the river and they block up the system, so he was employed to take them away from the site. And this would happen for about a fortnight in the autumn, but one year it went on three weeks, four weeks, and they couldn’t understand why, until they discovered he was actually taking them three miles upriver and dumping them in the river and they kept coming back. But of course it was things like this, clearing out the watercourse that created holidays, no one had holidays prior to the mills being built and them needing to keep the water flowing in just the right way into the mills, which is all absolutely wonderful.

But you see Strutt in the first instance needed the idea, which he’d got; he needed a site, which came available with the Enclosures; he needed the money, which he’d already made out of his Derby Rib; but finally he needed the workers, so he created a community; and people go to Saltaire and Port Sunlight and wax lyrical about these wonderful housing complexes created, but Strutt did it first. So ours isn’t uniform and exact, it’s a bit higgledy-piggledy, but it’s the first, it was experimental and all the others learnt from Strutt, and consequently Belper grew. We only had 500 or so people when he came, but it seemed like every 10 years the population doubled, because of the cotton mills being built and more and more workers being needed. But not only did he build housing, but he put the infrastructure in place because after all, if he trained them up and they were good workers, he didn’t want to lose them, he wanted to keep them. So it was a two-way thing, he valued them and all that they could bring for him, but they valued Strutt, because he was providing education, leisure facilities, gardens, everything that they could need. And if you look round Belper today it’s still a Strutt legacy. If you’re looking at the British Legion, yes, it was built by Strutt; the lovely river gardens? Yes, Strutt gave us those, paved the market place, paid for the water system that when we turn our tap on the water comes out of our tap efficiently, because Strutt took over and put in place a very good water supply. So everything really in Belper, of any importance, of any note, is down to the Strutt legacy. Sadly we’ve no Strutts now, but it was a wonderful gift they gave us over many generations.

I trained as an accountant but it wasn’t my forte. I only ever wanted to farm, my parents farmed, I wanted to farm and eventually I went into partnership with my brother and we farmed. However, my husband didn’t farm and I’d always promised him that come the day he retired, I’d sell up and we’d have a normal life where we could go on holiday, because you can’t with a farm, and we’d be like other people. He then found he could get early retirement, which was a bit of a blow, because I hadn’t planned on it quite so soon, but I did what I’d always promised and convinced my brother that now was the time to get out, which indeed it was, because we were dairy farming and the bottom was going out of it. So we got out in just the right time, thankfully.

But I’d already got slightly involved here. As I say, I was quite sceptical about it and whether it would be a success, but I was just panning along with it. There was about eight of us when we first started and none of us knew if it would work. Reg was the Tourism Officer at the time and it was really his vision, and the Chairman of the Historical Society at the time was Cyril Maskery, and factories were still closing down, so we’d hear of a factory closing down that might have a machine useful for our exhibition. And we’d go and say, ‘Can we take one whole, if we dismantle it and put it on our trailer and take it back with us?’ and often they did. So we built up a collection slowly and painstakingly, but all the time, of course, it was getting me more and more involved.

I had finished with farming, I finished in the November. My husband retired in September, I’d sold up in November and in February I’d taken the job as Manager here. Now I knew nothing about any of this, none of us volunteers knew about it, but we were desperate to learn, because by now it was beginning to eat into us. So we went to libraries, we went to other places that were open to the public, to see how they ran, we coaxed information out of people, but we’ve spent 20 years just developing the knowledge that we needed for this. There was a lot to read, but what we found, the more we read, there was a lot of discrepancy in the information, so we had to start researching from source. There’s nothing like primary source information, is there? And so it involved lots of trips to Manchester, because a lot of the records were up there, because that’s where English Sewing Cotton Company had had their headquarters, and they’d taken all the Strutt papers with them. I think we almost wore a track between here and Manchester, but now it’s mainly in the Derbyshire Records Office, which makes it so much easier and we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, there’s so much more to discover and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

And the development of the hydroelectricity, I should tell you, they are looking to put a hydro plant in at Masson Mill and at all the mills down the Derwent Valley, which is quite exciting for the future. And it ticks all the boxes when we have school groups, because they love the idea of sustainable energy. And I often think that the money that Jedidiah spent on creating that watercourse, and it must have been a lot because he altered the riverbed quite a lot, and whatever it was has certainly paid for itself over the years; it’s just wonderful.

I didn’t even realise that it was all working, because it looks old, it is old, and it sits by the water and the water affects it over the years and you think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s just from the days when they had water power.’ But one day I had the most magical experience, I think we’d been open about four years and I’d got a class of eight-year-olds and when we have schools in because we think it’s important that they understand the power, we always take them on a walk round the watercourse and see how it fed into the mill. And so there I was explaining this to them, not really knowing what I was talking about, but I did know that it was all controlled by a green box that’s out there, so I was pointing out this green box and it all went into action; I was so excited! Of course the eight-year-olds thought I was Loopy Lou, but I was so excited. All these wheels started to turn and the gates lifted and it was just magical. Of course, I’ve seen it since, it still stirs me every time I’ve seen it. It doesn’t happen that often and periodically they also drain it out to clean it, which is a big thing, so we always go out with our cameras then and take pictures of the channels that the water’s fed through, but it’s wonderful to see it all working.

And there used to be a man employed by the Strutts who lived in a little cottage the other side of the river and it was his job to watch the water and when it was in flood he had to go round with his crank handle and crank the gates open, so the water could flow by and not flood the mill, and when the water was low he’d got to lower the gates, so it all came this way. And Strutts guarded their water rights above all else. There were many court cases where people were trying to interrupt the flow of the water, but he was using it here, he was using the same water again two miles downstream at Milford, so it had to be really efficient. Incidentally, it takes four days for the water passing the mill here to reach the sea. And I would get a call periodically from a water scheme that used to exist, saying, it was one of those automated voices, ‘In four hours your premises will flood.’ And I used to hold the phone and think, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ However, it did give you a chance to get the projectors out of the basement; but this man across the river had to control it manually. Well today, of course, it’s all controlled by a computer about 40 miles away and somebody presses a button and it all goes into action, so you don’t get any of that warning, it just happens and it’s the most magical thing.

I really don’t understand any of this hydroelectricity. Ian’s the man with the accumulated knowledge, so I think you need to speak to Ian about that. We think we invent things today, we don’t; we’re building on what previous generations have done. They’ve done the most magical things and particularly during the Industrial Revolution, I think that must have been the most amazing time, but they wouldn’t realise it at the time, it’s only with hindsight that we’ve seen how great this is. We are a World Heritage Site and sometimes the locals scoff at the idea and they say, ‘Oh yeah, it compares with The Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.’ Well, yes, it does, and in my book it’s more important than that, because we didn’t build something and make it look amazing, although I think these mills are amazing, but what happened was a handful of men changed the working life of every person in the world; now how great is that? Nobody in the world did not have their life altered by this handful of people making these astounding developments, and they did it by sharing ideas and developing new ideas and their achievement was beyond measure. And we’re now going back to those early days where they were developing the water system, we’re developing it with hydro-electricity, we’re looking for sustainable energy. This is a magical time, but we’re only building on what they did 200 or more years ago, it was incredible and I’m full of admiration for those people.

Where could I start? I have so much to ask! If only I had a time machine and could keep going back and asking these questions that I don’t know the answer to, but on the other hand I’d never be at home, you see, because there’s so much to ask.

At the moment, for the past couple of years we, as a Trust that is developing this visitor centre and museum, have been really struggling; we have limited funding, everybody’s a volunteer, we have one paid staff, that’s the Manager, and the Managers haven’t been staying very long, that have taken over since I left, so we really have been in difficulties. But now we’ve had Heritage Lottery Funding which enables us to look at our governance and how we can improve our action and look at ways forward that are sustainable for us in the future.

We’re in the process now; it’s a very exciting time again. I think I’m getting too long in the tooth to be of any use to it, but it’s wonderful to think that action is being taken and that all the hard work that the volunteers have put in for 20 years isn’t going to be destroyed because we’ve run out of funds. We are going to find a way forward, I am sure we will find a way forward and that we will sustain our future as well as the energy. It’s all a wonderful time.

[End of Interview]

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