We tend to take Derbyshire for granted – but our county has got some incredible things to boast about.
It’s played a massive part in not just the history of Britain but the history of the world. America, in particular, has much to thank us for.
And yet, annoyingly, when we are on our travels around the world, or even around the UK, we often have to explain to people who ask where Derby is – or Derbyshire.
That’s possibly because we’re not boastful folk. Nevertheless, next time you come across someone who has never heard of Derby or Derbyshire, you might like to drop a few of the following into the conversation.
1. A Derby park was the public first in England AND inspired New York City’s Central Park
Derby Arboretum, also known as Arboretum Park and The Arboretum, is famous for being England’s first public park. It’s Grade II*-listed and inspired the design of New York’s Central Park.
The Arboretum opened in 1840, following the donation of the land by philanthropist Joseph Strutt who wanted to reward the working people of Derby for the part they had played in helping him and his family amass their enormous fortune.
Strutt commissioned John Claudius Loudon to design the park. In 1859, the Arboretum was visited by Frederick Law Olmsted while on a research tour of Europe. It is thought he incorporated features of Loudon’s work into his design for Central Park, in New York.
2. Derby is home to the first factory in the world
Derby’s Silk Mill is thought to have been the first factory in the world – and the first silk mill in England. Lombe’s Mill, as it was known, was built next to the River Derwent after John Lombe visited Piedmont in 1717 and returned to England with details of the Italian silk-throwing machines and Italian craftsmen.
It was one of the earliest known acts of industrial espionage!
3. Our county was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution
As well as the Silk Mill, in 1759, Belper cotton spinner Jedediah Strutt patented and built a machine called the Derby Rib Attachment which revolutionised the manufacture of ribbed hose stockings.
The first mill opened in Nottingham in 1770. In 1771, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt built the world’s first commercially successful water-powered cotton spinning mill at Cromford, developing a form of power that was to be a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.
This was followed by Jedediah Strutt’s cotton spinning mills at Belper.
4. Our thinkers led the Midlands Enlightenment
Derby brought together some of the brightest and most talented minds of the 18th-century – great thinkers in art, philosophy and inspiring scientific and technological breakthroughs.
They included artist Joseph Wright, known as Wright of Derby, who was known for his innovative use of light in his paintings, and John Whitehurst, a clockmaker and philosopher.
On top of that, Erasmus Darwin, doctor, scientist, philosopher and grandfather of Charles Darwin, founded the Derby Philosophical Society in 1783.
The Midlands Enlightenment formed a pivotal link between the earlier Scientific Revolution and the later Industrial Revolution as the great thinkers of the day exchanged ideas that enabled the technological preconditions for rapid economic growth to gain ground.
5. We have impressive Roman connections
The first human settlement of Derby was by the Romans who built a fort on high ground around Belper Road, overlooking the River Derwent, one of a line of forts seeking to protect the first boundary of their newly-conquered province.
Soon realising the importance of the area, around AD80, they moved across the Derwent and built a new fort on the east side, calling it Derventio. Gradually a civil settlement grew up around the camp and, in the 1970s, an industrial suburb of Derventio was discovered on Derby Racecourse, consisting of a 25ft wide road lined with timber buildings, two pottery kilns and a cemetery.
The great Roman Road of Rykneld Street connected the garrisons of the wild north with the civilised Roman towns of the south and passed straight through Derventio.
The Romans stayed for over three centuries so, yes, you may have some Roman blood in you. They were great engineers and plumbers too.
6. We invented holidays!
Thomas Cook, from Melbourne, created the forerunner of modern package holidays when he devised the first paid excursion in 1841. He charged for an 11-mile train journey from Leicester to Loughborough with the co-operation of the Midland Railway.
It was such a success that Cook began to pioneer his concept through rail excursions and, until recently before the company was bought out, the Thomas Cook brand still honoured his name.
7. We produced England’s first Astronomer Royal
John Flamsteed, who was born in Denby in 1646, became the first Astronomer Royal. He catalogued more than 3,000 stars despite a humble education at the free school of Derby during which he suffered chronic ill health.
Nevertheless, he was utterly brilliant and on March 4, 1675, Flamsteed was appointed the King’s Astronomical Observator – the first English Astronomer Royal, with an allowance of £100 a year. The warrant stated his task as “rectifying the Tables of the motions of the Heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired Longitude of places for Perfecting the Art of Navigation”.
Flamsteed calculated the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668 and was responsible for the earliest recorded sightings of the planet Uranus in December 1690.
8. Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed here
Bonnie Prince Charlie set up camp at Derby on December 4, 1745, while on his way south to seize the British crown. The prince called at The George Inn, in Iron Gate, and demanded billets for his 9,000 troops.
He stayed at Exeter House, Full Street, where he held his council of war. He had received misleading information about an army coming to meet him south of Derby. He abandoned his invasion at Swarkestone Bridge on the River Trent, just south of Derby.
9. The country’s first Wireless Club was formed here
In 1911, the Derby Wireless Club was formed by a group of Derby engineers and experimenters. It was to be the first wireless – or radio – club in the country.
10. We led an industrial boom
An industrial boom began in Derby when Rolls-Royce opened a car and aircraft factory in the town in 1907.
11. Our railway heritage is enviable
In 1840, the North Midland Railway set up its works in Derby and, when it merged with the Midland Counties Railway and the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway, to form the Midland Railway, Derby became its headquarters. We are a proud city of rail engineers and train makers.
12. A Belper man was the Father of the American Industrial Revolution
America has a lot to be grateful to Derbyshire for. Samuel Slater, who was born in Belper in 1768, the fifth son of a farming family of eight children, went on to become the Father of the USA’s Industrial Revolution.
He received a basic education and, at the age of 10, began work at a cotton mill opened by Jedediah Strutt. Slater was well trained by Strutt and gained a thorough knowledge of the organisation and practice of cotton spinning.
Slater was aware of the American interest in developing similar machines – and of British laws against exporting the designs. So he memorised as much as he could and departed for New York in 1789, aged 21.
Some Belper people called him “Slater the Traitor” but in America he was welcomed with open arms. He helped to create the first successful water-powered roller spinning textile mill in America and many more were built.
His original American mill, Slater Mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of Samuel Slater and his contribution to American industry.
13. An actor who was a true son of Derbyshire became ‘greatest actor in the world’
Sir John, who was knighted for his services to drama in 2015, was born in Chesterfield and grew up in Shirebrook and Woodville, where his father was a vicar. He was nominated for two Oscars and won four Baftas.
More recently, and until his death in 2017, Sir John was patron of Derby arts centre Quad and had also been given an honorary doctorate from the University of Derby, which he described as “more important than any award from Tinseltown”.
14. We can’t forget Sir Richard Arkwright
Sir Richard Arkwright was an inventor and a leading entrepreneur during the early Industrial Revolution who, though not born in Derbyshire, made his name here. He is credited with inventing the spinning frame, which, following the transition to water power, was renamed the water frame. He patented a rotary carding engine that transformed raw cotton into cotton lap.
Arkwright’s achievement was to combine power, machinery, semi-skilled labour and the new raw material of cotton to create mass-produced yarn. His skills of organisation made him, more than anyone else, the creator of the modern factory system, especially in his mill at Cromford, now preserved as part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. Later in his life Arkwright was known as “the Father of the Industrial Revolution”.
15. It has a town with the most famous crooked spire in the world
One of the most well-known sights in the town and why Chesterfield’s football team is known as the Spireites.
The spire of St Mary and all Saints is both twisted and leaning and various reasons have been attributed to its appearance. These include a lack of skilled craftsman following the Black Death, the use of unseasoned timber and insufficient cross-bracing.