Voices from the Archives


In one of our previous posts, we reported that the Future Works team, and MA students from the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture, visited Strutts Mill in Belper last month. We listened to a fascinating and inspiring talk by Ian Jackson from Transition Belper, about their involvement in developing a low carbon future for the town. Perhaps their most ambitious initiative is to explore the feasibility of creating hydro-electric power on the River Derwent. This scheme takes its inspiration and a great deal of its knowledge from the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, when a complex system of water power was created to drive the textile mills owned by the Strutt family. Transition Belper are thus reworking the past in new, relevant, challenging and important ways.

There is still much we can learn from the past history of water (and wind) power, its relationship to local communities, and how small-scale but no less significant changes have shaped and reshaped Britain’s energy-scape over time. Taking the long view, rivers have been utilised to turn water wheels to power mills, ensuring the reproduction of everyday domestic and industrial activities for centuries. The focus of this post is an early seventeenth-century document concerning a dispute over the tenancy of Hopping Mills in the Manor of Belper. The circumstances and nature of the dispute are by no means unusual: conflicts over mills, milling rights and access to water, were frequently heard in local and central law courts. But the case is interesting nonetheless, not least for revealing the memories and experiences of ordinary people who lived and worked in the landscape at the time.

What follows is a story based upon the oral testimonies of local people, many of whom were illiterate, recorded by the Duchy of Lancaster court in 1624. Taken together they recount a story of profound change in the local landscape. Witnesses referred time and again to the antiquity of an old water corn mill, which had existed by the River Derwent since time out of mind, before anyone could remember. Many recalled the time when the old mill was pulled down, and a new iron forge and houses for workmen were built on the site. They also talked about the changes made to the power of the water, which was achieved by widening and scouring the stream that fed the mills. It is a story of small-scale changes in a local landscape, of early milling and industrial activities taking place long before the ‘industrial revolution’. It shows the importance placed upon remembering the past within local communities, of handing on the knowledge that the landscape and riverscape provided sources of energy through which everyday life happened. Above all it is a story reminding us that rivers like the Derwent should remain a constant in our discussions about the future of energy.

Voices from the Archives: Hopping Mill, Belper (1624) 

Roger Bruckshaw of Belper (56 year-old gentleman). In my estimation the Mill Close contains about three acres, and is environed on the east side by the River of ‘Darwyn’ (Derwent) and on the west side with the mill stream being a branch of the said river.  The parcel of ground called the Forge Yard was enclosed about twelve years ago, before that time it lay open to the common. There are two other corn mills besides Hopping Mill within the Manor of Belper, called Little Mills, one of which is known as the Upper Mill. All the time of my remembrance the tenants and inhabitants have ground their corn at any mill they choose within the Manor.

Richard Swifte of Makeney (76 year-old dish turner). I know very well the parcels of ground called Hoppings wthin the parish of Duffield and near to Belper. I remember that upon those grounds there once stood an ancient water corn mill, of three bays in breadth. No one, not my parents, grandparents, or the village elders, could ever recall a time when it wasn’t there. I better know this to be true because about thirty or so years ago I helped to pull down the old mill. I then helped to build the new Iron forge in the very same place where the corn mill had anciently stood. I also worked to wattle and daub the house where the clark and workmen of the forge now dwell. It was the late Mr Low, as tenant of the mill, who made these changes. But of course the neighbours still needed to grind their grain into flour for their bread, and malt too for brewing their ale, and a new corn mill was erected near to the forge.

The water stream had anciently, and before I or anyone else could remember, turned the wheels of the old mill. But to power the new mills the stream was dug and scoured deeper, and its breadth widened by five or six feet, so that the water might serve as many as five wheels!

I remember the place, which is now used as the forge yard, when it was used as a winnowing place to separate the chaff from the grains of corn, ready for milling. But since the building of the forge and enclosure of the yard, it is now a place for storing goods. There is a stack of coals and ‘sows of iron’ to be seen upon the same.

Robert Butler of Belper, (husbandman about 58 years old). I know the corn mill called Hopping mill and a forge called Hopping Mill Forge, they are about eight or ten yards distant, the one from the other, and served by water stone work and timber work.

Henry Crochet of Howbrooke (75 year-old husbandman). Hopping water corn mill was an ancient mill and built beyond the memory of man and long before any other mill in Belper. I was a workman at the mills, and hath known the stream or gullet which now turneth the said mills has been enlarged five foot in breadth at the head on the north side.

John Norman of Howbrooke (76 year-old webster). I well remember some three score (60) years ago the ancient corn mill known as Hopping Mill, which has since been knocked down and replaced by the new iron mill or forge, stood next to a ‘sythe’ mill which drew upon the same stream. At that time one Mistress Ferne, then a widow dwelling in Wirkesworth, held the mills and grounds as a tenant to the late Queen Elizabeth. 60 years ago there were no other buildings upon the grounds save only the old water corn mill, the ’Sythe Mill’ and ‘Sythe Smithie’. I have many times passed by the said iron forge yard, both in Mr Low’s time and since, and have seen the stack of coals and sows of iron lying in the forge yard. Within my own lifetime diverse houses have been erected wherein the clark and workmen do now dwell.

Reference: The National Archives (TNA) DL4/74/2


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