Lessons for sustainable energy from the early factory system?

Photo by Harrison Symonds

Photo by Harrison Symonds

Last week we started our first factory visits in the Derwent Valley Region, along with 23 Masters and M Arch students who will also be exploring the intersection of factories, making and energy in the region. The Derby Silk mill welcomed us onto the site, and Andrea Mercer, Daniel Martin and Tony Butler gave us an excellent insight into the history and future of the site, and their inspiring approach to co-production.

We then caught the train to Matlock Bath to visit Masson Mills and Cromford Mill, where  a very knowledgable volunteer Keith explained the evolution of the factory system in the region, and the particular significance of the site in terms of the changes to working practices and social relations.

Water Wheels, introduced into Britain in the first century by the Romans, were used in the Derwent Valley to pump water, grind corn, mine lead, and, power forges in cottage industries. This was an ideal form of power as there was a reliable, vigorous and abundant flow of water. Networks of trade and transportation grew, which would be central to the birth of the factory system.

In the 18th Century waterpower was successfully harnessed for textile production in the Derwent Valley for the first time, leading to the development of the factory system. Due to its isolated location, Arkwright created a small town for his employees, seeking to attract large families, and particularly employing children, and over time these settlements grew. This led to a radical reorganisation of local labour in both space and time, with machines running day and night and new housing, agriculture and infrastructure being built.

Thinking about the history of the Derwent Valley and how the factory system emerged is not about a yen for a ‘return’ to a different way of life, nor a desire to replicate a system from before, but to learn from the intersection of economics, politics, relationship with landscape, skills and social relationships. The birth of the factory system brought with it radical social reorganization.

The kinds of bottom up innovation associated with the development of the factory system is potentially incredibly important, because it enables excellent understanding of local context, both in terms of demand, resources, landscape, local skills and know-how. Could we learn lessons form this context that will enable us to develop approaches to energy that are more viable and resilient, than those that would require massive external investment?


BELLABY, P., FLYNN, R. & RICCI, M. 2010. Towards sustainable energy: are there lessons from the history of the early factory system? Innovation–The European Journal of Social Science Research, 23, 333-348.


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