Cromford Mill – surveying the ruins of the World’s first factory

I accompanied a group of Quantity Surveying students on a day trip to Cromford Mill yesterday. I was excited and in anticipation did some homework. In particular I was enthused by Darley’s (2003) and Cooper’s (2011) evocative depictions of the Palladian – classical – architectural style of the early flagship cotton Mills and Burton’s (2003: 78) exhortation that Cromford Mill is “ a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in the origins of the Industrial Revolution”.

However, on arrival, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Richard Arkwright – “the father of the factory system” (TASL n.d.) – built a number of mills along the Derwent Valley (and elsewhere) during his very driven and profitable life. Cromford was his first cotton Mill and was built in 1771. It lacks the ostentatious scale of what success subsequently enabled him to build (for example the nearby Masson Mill, which has Palladian frills in abundance). Cromford’s claim to fame, is however that it was the world’s first successful mass-production factory. For this reason it has the highest heritage building protection designation (Grade 1 Listed) and is one of the main reasons that the Derwent Valley mills were accorded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 2001.

The site is owed by a charitable trust, The Arkwright Society, and there are impressive plans to restore many more of the Cromford Mill buildings as an interpretation centre, ‘arts and craft’ workshops and restaurants. But at the moment the site has a modest level of occupancy and is mid-way between ‘ruin’ and ‘attraction’. I think this why it initially struck me as something of a disappointment, as it was uncomfortably neither one nor the other. To understand this, I’ve examined below what it was that initially made it underwhelming for me, and how I and the students then interrogated the site, and each made meaning from aspects of it. As such, this essay is a continuation with my wrestle with the ‘partial’ (but active) nature of engagement with (and signification of) place by each of us. In doing so, I am acknowledging the urge to exploration, authorship and embodied engagement with place that Edensor (2005) and Garrett (2011) advocate, but also foregrounding a role for contextual, interpretative and pragmatic ways of reading a place.

Bricks or buildings?

The students were at Cromford to practice their surveying (measurement) skills. After a morning’s context setting talks, looking at the site’s history and the master plan for its regeneration, the students set to work on their task of measuring one of the mill buildings. This exercise is a prelude to the students working up proposals for that building’s return-to-use. Watching the students in the morning presentations (politely attentive, but not showing much excitement about the ‘history’ of this place) and (literally) getting to grips with the building in the afternoon, once again reminded me that each person comes to the built environment from an pragmatic, interpretive perspective. The students were there to get a ‘project’ done. The building was a geometric artefact to be tamed and ‘known’ by measurement. A method would need to be devised to measure elevations using the tools to hand (tape measures, cameras, pen and paper). This required careful attention to the size and shape of the bricks within reach – were they regular? Could they be measured and then extrapolated as a way of finding the height of each elevation? Were the window bays actually the same? Was the site level? At first glance, and to any passer-by not of a QS mindset, the answer to each question would be ‘yes’. But given the project brief and these budding professional’s way of seeing and its focus upon ‘estimating quantities’ – scaling and pricing the number of bricks, the amount of glazing, the lengths of timber window frames – all of this was to the fore, and very important. By this process the history of the building, and even its overall character – as an architect might ‘envision’ it, faded from view. The building became the sum of its parts, and objectified in the measurement gaze.

But I do not describe the above in order to criticise or ridicule this objectification process. If you want to build or refurbish something you need to know its composition and dimensions, and accurately.

Scum, dirt and debris

Meanwhile, I wandered around the site doing my own meaning-making. In the morning’s briefing session’s my ears had pricked up when contamination was mentioned. Indeed when we had our orientation site tour the guide had pointed to the lead chromate residue within a large wooden drum sitting centre stage in the courtyard (and which some visitors evidently had assumed to be a rubbish bin during recent visits). During much of the Twentieth century this mill complex was a ‘colour works’, producing colour pigments for paints and dyes. The Arkwright Trust have so far spent at least £1.5 million addressing that legacy through removal of 16,000 tonnes of contaminated materials. And a further £750,000 has yet to be spent ‘hoovering’ and encapsulating the remains of this physical legacy in the building now earmarked to become the interpretation centre. I was captivated by this echo of a more recent ‘dirty’ use of this site and its remaining dangerous traces, but the students walked nonchalantly past. Why would stains on a bin be worth pausing for? Well, I spent years in my old job tracing liability risks through the sedimented layers of historic uses and their attendant contamination so it ‘rang a bell with me’, because of its resonance to my learnt sense of what is ‘useful’ knowledge for my life-world.

I also found the absence of machinery – an absence of a sense of human activity – rather underwhelming. Much is planned for the site to address this, but as it stands I found myself trying to actively energise the site. With the low Winter sun I could get some interesting photographs, and if I held my camera over the top of the hoarding hiding from view the ‘yet to be attended to’ original mill building I could spot something I wasn’t meant to see, some disorder that created a certain complexity to the eye. And I could also see the axle hole where the original water wheel would have powered the world’s first factory. As my colleague remarked, “there’s the hole that started it all”.

If you want to keep something secret…

During the morning’s induction we were told that Arkwright had specifically chosen this fairly remote, rural setting for his first Mill because it offered key defensive advantages. The site is enclosed on one side by a rock bluff, on all other sides the buildings are arranged as an enclosed, walled compound. There was a militia here, and cannons. Arkwright feared the anti-mechanisation mobs who would later coalesce as the Luddites. Arkwright also feared loss of his trade secrets. The most striking physical manifestation of this is evident in the design of the elevations of the buildings that face out of the compound (forming part of its perimeter). These facades are notable for one thing (and something easy to miss unless a guide directs your attention to it): there are very few ground level windows. Arkwright made his millions through patenting and licensing his cotton processing technologies. His patents were challenged, and ultimately overthrown in 1783, but Arkwright’s market dominance remained strong for a good while thereafter – in 1786 there were 143 cotton spinning mills operating in Britain with Arkwright machinery and Arkwright had a financial stake in 110 of them (over 70% of the market). He did not rely upon legal protection alone for his intellectual property. He also sought in the design of his buildings to defeat the outsider looking in. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that natural illumination would have been particularly important at a time when artificial lighting comprised only candles and oil lamps (and the ever-present fire hazard that they entailed in a factory environment comprised of wood, bales of materials and air thick with cotton dust).

Fire! Fire! : Change! Change!

Indeed, fire was a common feature of this site throughout its life. Fires destroyed portions of the complex in 1890 and (so my fire safety engineering expert colleague tells me) led to the World’s first fire retardant stair well being incorporated into one of store buildings. For the benefit of fire experts how might wish to foreground this feature (and it is an important aspect) here’s a photo:

In tracing the fires on the site I’m reminded of the dynamic, adaptive life of this Mill complex. A fire in 1929 destroyed the top two floors of the original mill building and it was re-roofed two storeys shorter. Should those floors be reinstated when the ‘first mill’ is eventually restored? And if the answer is ‘yes’ should the 1780s extension to that original (1771) building be removed in the name of authenticity? These are perennial questions for any restoration project – when (and what) is the ‘moment’ that the project is seeking to authentically resurrect?

Personally, I find myself drawn to noticing the absence of the subsequent uses of the site: the colour works, the brewery, the cheese store, the laundry, the trout farm. Maybe I’m being churlish, but I’d like to connect with these layers as much as the site’s late Eighteenth century ‘heyday’. The textile mill phase of this site was actually a relatively short period – the water power was derived from local lead mine drainage and as the mines dug deeper, the water came to drain elsewhere. By around 1840 the power supply had literally ‘dried up’ and cotton spinning ceased. From the 1840s onwards the site had a variety of other industrial identities. But to foreground and seek to valorise these later lives of Cromford Mill is probably heresy to the enthusiasts who purchased the derelict site in 1979 and have spent thousands of volunteering hours, and over £7 Million in their quest to ‘restore’ the Mill to its original state, including clearing away these subsequent accretions.

Burton, A. (2003) Guide to Britain’s Working Past, W.W. Norton: London.

Cooper, T. (2011) How to Read Industrial Britain, Ebury Press: London.

Darley, G. (2003) Factory, Reaktion Books: London

Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins, Berg: Oxford.

Garrett, B.L. (2011) “Assaying history: creating temporal junctions through urban exploration”, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 29(6) 1048-1067.

Palmer, M. & Neaverson, P. (2005) Industrial Archaeology: Principles & Practice, Routledge: London.

TASL (The Arkwright Society Ltd) (n.d.) Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills – Guide, TASL: Cromford:


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to Cromford Mill – surveying the ruins of the World’s first factory

  1. Karl Brown says:

    I started work as an excited 19 yr old on the trout farm (Cromford Mill Trout”) in 1981 and actually lived in the mill buildings, on my own, until Feb 1985. It was a VERY scary place on my own at night, I can tell you that there is no doubt that ghosts do exist. I saw something one day, also witnessed by my girlfriend at the time, that I can only guess was Richard Arkwright himself (obviously some sort of manifestation), clearly and unmistakenly, for approx 15 seconds, before literally “disappearing” before our eyes. If you wish to know more about this or other reminiscences of the period at the mill, please e-mail me,
    Kind regards,
    Karl Brown

  2. Pingback: Plasticity at Cromford Mills: Arkwright’s Brain, Water, Cotton and Fire via Malabou & Hegel | lukebennett13

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