Thursday, 30 April 2015

Those magnificent men in their flying machines

A few weeks ago I visited Imperial War Museum Duxford. There's a massive hangar that contains some amazing exhibits relating to aviation and its history. There's even a Concorde! One of the first exhibits you see is part of the wing structure of the Wright Brothers' plane. Wilbur and Orville Wright developed a flying machine, making use of their own experience as engineers and cycle mechanics and constructed of materials available at the time. The Wright Flyer 1 was made of spruce with Pride of the West muslin for surface coverings. The mention of muslin in the interpretation information made me think of Belper North Mill, and cotton fabrics. This particular fabric was described as being used for ladies' undergarments, with a very fine close weave. Imagine my delight when I investigated further and discovered that this muslin was manufactured at Slater's Mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The same Slater who is still known locally as Slater the Traitor because he broke the terms of his apprenticeship and took cotton industry secrets to America, making his fame and fortune there. So we can trace the factory system, social housing, skyscraper building techniques and now aeroplanes back to Belper and the Strutts!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Necessity is the mother of interpretation

The gallery in Belper North Mill has been updated, thanks to a heritage lottery funded project. A series of small screens show films of processes and machinery, telling the story of the Mill and its industrial history in a very contemporary way. There's a heartbreaking piece of news film of the day the English Sewing Cotton Company closed, with interviews with some of the ladies who worked there. It's now 20 years since North Mill enthusiasts got together to preserve its heritage. Funding was scarce and displays were put together by volunteers with enthusiasm and their personal knowledge. Our Samuel Slater display is a good example. Jean Bellaby, one of the long term volunteers created it, putting Cindy, Ken and Barbie to good use.To some visitors it probably looks quirky and quaint but it tells an important story about the history of Samuel Slater, Belper and beyond. It's the story of the twin town links between Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Belper, and the establishment of cotton spinning in America, with all its implications. It also tells an important story of make do and mend, and the role of enthusiastic volunteers to share history and heritage, with no funds to speak of. Nowadays there are heritage consultants who specialise in interpretation in the museum sector. There is funding out there to make use of their skills, developing innovative and digital ways to share a story. Interactive online resources, user generated content, apps and android friendly formats. It's a long way from Ken and Barbie, even further from Samuel Slater. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the volunteers who were devoted to saving and sharing the story of the Derwent Valley Mills, they were eventually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not crumbling relics of a forgotten industrial past.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Farmers and markets

Last Saturday Belper North Mill took a stand at No.28 as part of Belper's Farmers' Market. It gave us an opportunity to publicise the North Mill, thanks to Pippa and George who run No. 28 as a community space and also support the Mill in other ways. There is a link between local farms and the North Mill. The Strutts turned their attention to the agricultural as well as industrial revolution, setting up model dairy and arable farms in the Belper and Milford area. These farms fed the workforce, now housed in specially built cottages in the town. Wyver, Dalley, Crossroads, Moscow, Shottlegate,and Chevin House Farms were built or redeveloped to incorporate innovations in design influenced by new factory designs. Jedediah Strutt was born into a farming family himself. The Strutts originally bought in produce for their workforce, responding to the huge rise in population of the town as a result of the mills. Payment for provisions was deducted from wages. Those of you familiar with the rise of the Co-op and the Co-operative movement will know that mill owners weren't always so enlightened. In Rochdale the provisions were of such poor quality that a Co-operative Wholesale Society was founded in 1844, based at Toad Lane. This was the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, to give them their full title. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Teasel frames

At this time of year Belper North Mill extends its opening times for the spring and summer season. We are now open from Wednesdays through to Sundays, and all Bank Holiday Mondays. Stately homes and National Trust properties also throw wide their doors to visitors. If you visit Chatsworth or Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, you will notice that some of the chairs have strange looking dried plants carefully placed on the seats! These are teasels. They are used as a gentle way of asking people not to sit on delicate old furniture. Not so gentle if you inadvertently sit on one in summer clothes, though I have known people in winter coats walk away from the chair, unaware that they have them attached! Teasels were originally grown for use in textile production.The spiky seed heads of Fullers teasels were used to raise the nap on wool and cloth, teasing out the fibres. They were set into frames like this one at the North Mill.By the 20th century metal tools were used,which didn't wear out in the same way as the natural teasel seed heads, but could damage the cloth. Teasels are still popular with some weavers.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Wheels and revolutions

The wheels of change have spun at Belper North Mill for many years. From the Strutt's family spinning business through to the twentieth century amalgamation of cotton thread manufacturers as the English Sewing Cotton Company. There are ghosts of water wheels and computer controlled sluice gates to be seen on site. Water power, steam power and people power all turning together to build an industrial revolution with a worldwide influence. In the last twenty years Belper North Mill and the Derwent Valley Mills have been turning those wheels of change in a different way. UNESCO has recognised the importance of the Derwent Valley as a World Heritage Site. Dedicated volunteers and enthusiasts have researched and championed the history, the buildings, the machinery and the archaeological evidence. Belper North Mill celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. What an achievement! Funding streams have developed in those decades, with Heritage Lottery and more recently Arts Council England getting involved in supporting heritage and museums. Local authority and other support is part of the picture of survival too. But right at the centre of this turning wheel are the volunteers. They keep it all running, as the millworkers did when the mills were first built. We are always looking for people to join us. We especially need people who are happy to dedicate a morning or an afternoon to welcome our visitors during our open season. If you think you can help, please get in touch.