An embarrassingly long time ago, one of my school contemporaries gave me a book that had belonged to his late father – Roy Christian’s Butterley Brick: 200 years in the making (Henry Melland 1990). The title misled me. It sat for far too long on my pile of unread books because I’m not particularly interested in brickworks.
Roy Christian was one of the most lucid and knowledgeable Derbyshire local historians of his generation, and he named his book after only one of the three divisions into which the old Butterley Company had been divided in 1968 – Butterley Brick, Butterley Engineering and Butterley Aggregates.
Brickmaking only emerges in Roy Christian’s book at chapter ten, and much of his text is a masterly account of a now-vanished major industrial complex, based on a 1950 company history aptly entitled Through Five Generations and subsequent researches by Jean Lindsay and Philip Riden.
Bricks had been made around Butterley since William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805) engineered the Butterley Tunnel on the Cromford Canal in the early 1790s, and the two canal engineers founded Benjamin Outram & Co, in conjunction with a lawyer, Francis Beresford (1737-1801), and a banker, John Wright (1758-1840), to mine coal and iron and to manufacture iron goods.
The company was renamed the Butterley Company sometime earlier than 1809.
Of the descendants of these four founders, William Jessop’s son, also called William (1784-1852), led the company for forty-six years, and then its long-term success was directed by five generations of the Wright family, who owned 100% of the company’s shares from 1888 and remained in control until 1966.
They established an ironworks literally above the canal tunnel at Butterley and a forge further along the canal at Codnor Park, and purchased limestone quarries at Crich and elsewhere, so that they were fully in command of the necessary raw materials and the means of transporting them cheaply.
The district was not populous so the company built housing at locations along the canal – Ironville, Golden Valley and Hammersmith.
The most prominent memento of the company’s engineering prowess is the magnificent trainshed at St Pancras Station (1867), which bears the name “Butterley Company, Derbyshire” repeatedly cast into the ironwork.
But their handiwork is evident in so many other places, from the elegant Hospital Lane Bridge, Boston, Lincolnshire (1811), the surviving winding-engine on the Cromford & High Peak Railway at Middleton Top (1829) in Derbyshire and London’s Vauxhall Bridge (1906) to the Falkirk Wheel (2000) and the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmorth (2005).
In contrast, Roy Christian explains the Butterley habit of espousing unlikely, ill-starred inventions, ranging from William Brunton’s Steam Horse (1813) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jffVbuUhblc] to the Simm-Wulpa vertical car park (1962) [https://www.rdht.org.uk/all-things-local-august-2017].
There was a time in the early 1970s when Butterley could have become a tourist asset comparable with the Beamish Open Air Museum in co Durham and Blists Hill at Ironbridge, Shropshire.
Derby Corporation acquired the Britain Pit site, midway between Butterley and Golden Valley, to establish an open-air museum around the railway line from Pye Bridge to Butterley: https://www.midlandrailway-butterley.co.uk/history-of-the-midland-railway-butterley. Though the local authority stepped back quickly, the rail museum developed into the ambitious Midland Railway Butterley, but much of the industrial archaeology associated with Butterley Ironworks and Codnor Park Forge has been lost.
The Butterley Company was sold to the Hanson Group in 1968 and split up. The engineering works closed in 2009 and the ironworks site was sold in 2015.
To ensure that the memory of this once mighty enterprise isn’t completely lost, the Butterley Ironworks Trust has been formed, led by former company employees, with ambitious plans to make the most of what’s left: https://www.rdht.org.uk/butterley-ironworks-the-future.
Sheffield City Libraries is mounting Mike Higginbottom’s presentation ‘Waterways and Railways across the Derbyshire Peak’ in the Carpenter Room, Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield on Thursday February 9th 2023 at 11.00am. Admission is free. To reserve a place, please click here.