Benevolent despots

Darley Abbey, Derbyshire

Of the late-eighteenth century company settlements that distinguish the Derbyshire Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, Cromford, Belper and Milford are well-known, but visitors tend to pass by Darley Abbey.

Thomas Evans, who had lead-mining interests in Bonsall and iron-slitting mills at The Holmes in Derby, founded a bank in Derby in 1771, the same year that Richard Arkwright, Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need began their cotton-spinning enterprise at Cromford. 

Arkwright banked with Evans, and in 1783 they began a partnership using Arkwright’s patent to run the Boar’s Head Mill – named after the Evans family crest – at Darley Abbey, where there had been a paper mill in 1700. 

Before his death in 1814 Thomas Evans had bought out all the partners who were not members of his immediate family.

The Boar’s Head Mill stood on the east bank of the Derwent, drawing its head of water from a magnificent six-foot-high weir stretching 360 feet across the river.  The original mill was burnt literally to the ground in 1788, but its replacement was back in production within a year. 

Apart from an abundant head of water, the site was near enough to Derby to provide connection with the Derby Canal and a supply of available labour, just as Cromford drew on the workers of the declining lead industry and Belper had an existing community of nailers and knitters. 

However, like Arkwright and Strutt, Evans saw the need to provide housing and community facilities to promote a stable workforce. 

On the opposite bank to the mills, connected by a bridge, grew a community of three-storey cottages,– Brick Row, Flat Square, Lavender Row, Mile Ash Lane, North Row and West Row,– until by 1830 over five hundred employees worked at the mills, the majority of them living in nearly two hundred cottages in the factory village.

The Evans family had a high reputation as enlightened employers and landlords.  Sir Richard Phillips (1767-1840) praised their “unwearied philanthropy” and remarked that their “kindness and rewards are constantly bestowed in promoting cleanliness and neatness, and in stimulating industry and good conduct”.

Of course, Evans’ mill and its adjuncts provided almost the only available employment in the village, and the housing belonged to the company, so workers’ discipline was firm.

Like the Arkwrights and the Strutts, the Evans family provided a full range of community facilities at Darley Abbey, largely financed by the disciplinary fines – a playing field, the parish church of St Matthew (1819) and the village school, hot dinners for the aged and infirm, medical treatment, convalescent opportunities, and when all else failed, burial and a free gravestone.

Brian Cooper in his book Transformation of a Valley:  the Derbyshire Derwent (1983;  Scarthin Books 1991) tells of the lock-up at the entrance to the village, where “a watchman was stationed…every night, whose task…was to arrest and imprison any boisterous revellers and enter in a book the names of all women returning from Derby later than ten o’clock.  According to legend, the girls were more successful at evasion than the men.  On seeing the watchman, they pulled their skirts high above their faces and ran for the village…”

Darley Abbey Mills remained in the hands of the Evans family until 1903, and continued as textile mills until 1970.

Since then diverse uses have kept the buildings intact and recognisable.

The mills and the village are connected by a bridge across the river, and are easily accessible from the A61/A6 intersection at Allestree, north of Derby city centre.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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