Mill History

Cromford Mill, the world’s first successful water powered cotton spinning mill, was built in 1771 by Sir Richard Arkwright.

From then until around 1790, he continued to develop the mills, warehouses and workshops, which now form the Cromford Mills site.  Considered as a whole, it presents a remarkable picture of an early textile factory complex.

Sir Richard Arkwright’s invention of the waterframe to spin cotton transformed the manufacture of cotton into England’s major industry and created a system of factory production that spread throughout the world.  The cotton industry was a cornerstone of the industrial revolution.

Arkwright took out a patent for his waterframe in 1769 and moved from Preston to Nottingham to set up a horse powered mill to run his machines.  Driven by the need for more power he searched for a site to build a water powered mill and settled upon Cromford, using the Bonsall Brook and the Cromford Sough.  In 1771 he set about building the first mill here.

In the next few years, the site grew rapidly, and Arkwright needed to attract more workers to the area; he expanded Cromford Village with the building of Derbyshire’s first row of planned industrial housing on North Street in 1776.  Arkwright later built the marketplace, the Greyhound Hotel, and further housing for his growing workforce to create the village you see today.

Arkwright himself started from humble beginnings as an apprentice barber and wigmaker and went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the country.  Keen to display his standing, he started to build Willersley Castle and St Mary’s Church, but sadly died before both were finished.  Willersley stands on the hillside overlooking the mills and Arkwright’s wider estate.  It was owned by the Arkwright family until the 1920s.

In the period between 1770s and the 1790s hundreds of Arkwright style mills were built around the country, using his machines and production methods.  Arkwright had shares in many of them.  His business partner, Jedidiah Strutt, built cotton mills in Belper and Milford, whilst Arkwright established Masson Mill in Matlock in 1783.  The whole of the Derwent Valley was soon spinning cotton and creating the communities it needed to support this industry.

However, problems with the water supply in Cromford around 1840 imposed severe limitations on textile production here and so the buildings were put to other uses. These included a brewery, laundries, and cheese warehousing.

Finally, in 1922, the site was used as a colour works, producing colour pigments for paints and dyes. It is remarkable that so many of the buildings survived this use and, by 1979 when the Cromford Colour Works abandoned the site, many of them were heavily contaminated with lead chromate.

It was generally believed the mills had reached the end of their useful life and must be demolished – all the key buildings had fallen into disrepair and many of the historic features of the site, including the principal watercourse, had been obliterated by modern development.  So degraded had the site become that the Local Authorities believed it had lost too much of its original integrity that it was no longer historically important.

It was not until the modern buildings had been cleared away and new historical and archaeological research had been completed by the Arkwright Society that the true value of the site was recognised.  This reappraisal led to an upgrading of the listing and the entire site now enjoys Grade I status and is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.

Further Resources