Smelting and Rolling Mills in the middle of Derby?

Our ancestors evidently saw that the presence of ‘heavy’ Industries operating close the centre of Derby was something to be proud of and which enhanced the prosperity of the town. At one of the Derby Heritage Group’s regular Tuesday meetings discussions centred on the industries on Holm Island in the River Derwent. Questions were asked as to role it played in bringing smelting and rolling mills so close to Derby, as shown on various maps. Of particular note was that one works was designated as being a ‘copper’ mill. Now there were no significant known copper mines close to Derby so where had the copper come from and what was it used for? The results of our investigations into the copper mills are the basis for this note

The Island

A portion of East Prospect of Derby, in 1728, showing the Holm Island

The Holm island (sometime spelt Holme) was a quite small, naturally occurring feature in the River Derwent which lay to the south of the present day Morledge, just beyond the outfall of Markeaton Brook, (now by the Council House). The brook may in fact have contributed to its formation during flood conditions in the long distant past. Holm is a Viking/Saxon word for an island, hence Stockholm. The island was about 675 yards north to south and some 250 yards east to west at the largest point, but little of it survives to today having been built up, or covered over. It is in fact submerged under part of the Morledge, the bus station, Riverlights, the County Courts and the Council house. The 1728 etching of ‘The East Prospect of Derby" (S&N Buck), at its southern end, shows the island as a grassy, tree lined area, with men and women walking and riding for leisure. Of note is the boats sailing in the west channel.
The clear channel to the west of the island resulted from the improvements made to the existing natural channel in 1721 which had been canalised and made it possible for boats to sail from the River Trent at Nottingham, up the River Derwent and into the centre of Derby, However in the 17th/18th century it was largely meadow land, connected to the north bank of the river only by a ferry, but its proximity to the river gave it access to a source of power- via water wheels.

The Holm, on early maps
Speed’s map of 1610 shows the island, but marks no features there. Burdett, in the 1791 version, includes a large scale map of the town and clearly shows the island separated from the ‘mainland’ on the west side, with a bridge leading to ‘copper mills’ and ‘iron mills’. A ferry house is marked on the east side to island. Moneypenny in 1791 also records those same items. By 1806, on E W Bayley’s map, ‘slitting and rolling mills’ and ‘iron works’ are still marked. The island has a new channel or canal right through, approximately south to north east towards a new bridge, the Long Bridge, to the east bank. In the 1852 Derby Board of Health map only the outline of the island is included but K P Archer’s ‘1852 Derby’ map/gazetteer book (2008) has filled in more detail ( based on various sources). This shows that the island has been partially built up as an extension to the Morledge, the copper and slitting mills are replaced by a colour works, although the iron works are still in the same location. A motley of other buisnesses, not subject to this investigation, have also appeared.

Some Records of the Mills
Most writers seem to have paid some attention to the mills. For example Pigots Directory of 1839 in its decryption of Derby notes:-

‘several works of magnitude have been established , a mill for slitting and rolling iron, a large furnace for smelting copper ore , with a machine for flattening and rolling copper into sheets’

Stephen Glover, the noted historian, recorded in 1843:-

‘In 1734 , the slitting, rolling and flattening mills were erected on the River Derwent, in the Morledge, Derby to prepare iron for various uses and for smelting, rolling and preparing copper for sheathing for the navy. These mills were the property of the late Thomas ’Evans esq. who successfully ran them for a number of years’.

Richardson records (Citizens Derby -!949) that

‘ On the Holmes (1737) a mill was built for rolling iron in to sheets or splitting them into strips suitable for the nail makers of Belper. Three years after a copper smelting plant , started nearby , made copper sheets for sheathing the hulls of wooden warships’

Whilst Frank Nixon, (Industrial Archaeology of Derbyshire - 1969) records:-

‘’By 1734 important works had been set up at the great weir at Derby, about 600 yards downstream from the silk mill. These belonged to the Evans family and later to Bingham and Humpston, rolled and slit iron sheets for nail making and rolled copper sheets for sheathing navy vessels. All that remains is an underground sluice and its controls which may have been connected with these works.’

Max Craven, a later writer, in his 1988 ‘Derby’ notes, quoting Hutton above,

The consequences of the Derwent Navigation included the founding of industries other than the Silk Mill. In 1734 a shadowy person, called William Evans, founded ‘slitting, rolling and battering mills on the northern most tip of the Holmes , opposite The Morledge. The function of these works was to prepare iron and later (1737) copper sheathing for HM ships. The copper apparently came from Wales, perhaps through connections of Evans.

And an advertisement in the Derby Mercury in 1840 gives some idea of the scale of the operations of the iron mill :-

‘To be sold or let. The complete freehold forge and Mill , called Holmes Mill, situated on the River Derwent in the town of Derby, considered capable of finishing 50 tons of iron and 60 boxes of tin plates and upwards per week. The works consist of a powerful water wheel with the command of the whole of the River Derwent , and a fall of 6 feet. Apply…..’

Parliamentary Records -House of Lords enquiry
The Trent and Mersey Canal was built in 1772 and its outstanding success led other entrepreneurs to seek further opportunities. One such scheme, the Cromford Canal, was built in 1788-94, and was the building of a canal from Langley Bridge, in Nottinghamshire, to Cromford in Derbyshire, with a branch north to Pinkstone (modern spelling Pinxton). The canal was to be used to transport coal and corn into the Cromford area whilst lime, stone and timber were to be exported from the district.
Even in those days the building of such a massive construction as a canal required authorisation, in this case by the passing of an Act of Parliament. In May and June of 1789 an enquiry was held in the House of Lords at which the supporters of the canal and its opponents met together, complete with various expert witnesses, to present their case for or against the canal.
Most of the concern of the opponents of the scheme was a perceived shortage of water to work the various mills on the River Derwent if the canal was permitted to be built and hence water to be abstracted from the river. They claimed to be always short of water in a dry summer. Amongst the mill owners consulted was Walter Evans regarding his Boars Head and Holm Mills.
William Snape, who worked at Holm Mills, stated that the water shortage problem had existed for over sixty years. He said that in 1785, over a period of seven or eight weeks, there had only been sufficient water to work two of the six water wheels at Holme Mills in Derby. He commented that sometimes in the winter they were also short of water because of frost.
Benjamin Outram gave considerable technical data on 9 different milling installations on the Derwent and in respect to Holm Mills said there were 6 water wheels on the site and the max head of water from the River Derwent was 4 feet 1 inch. He valued the plant at £7000 but said that it also gave an annual return of £7000 for the iron and copper mills.

The source of Copper used at Derby
Max Craven (above) alludes that the source of copper or copper ore may have been from Wales but offers no references to support this allegation. There is no doubt that large scale copper extraction did occur in both north and south Wales but transport to Derby of ores seems to be unlikely, with no waterway connections. None the less this might have been possible.

People have had a longer relationship with copper than with any other metal. The oldest known copper tools were found in Serbia and are 7500 years old. The earliest copper artefacts found in Wales are over 4000 years old, dating between 2500-2100BC.
From 2200BC metalworkers added tin and lead to copper to make bronze tools, weapons and ornaments. Around 4000 years ago, miners began to exploit copper ores from deep open casts sites in central and northern Wales, such as at Parys Mountain, Amlwch in Anglesey and at Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth. Both sites were re-exploited during the Industrial Revolution.

However there was a major source of the ore and of the metal itself in nearby Staffordshire, in the parish of Wetton at Ecton. Though known to have been worked in the seventeenth century, or even earlier, they were idle for many years until about 1740 when the potential of the area was recognised and a lease to work the site for 25 years was obtained from the Duke of Devonshire, The proceeds from the 25 year lease were very profitable indeed. When the lease expired the Duke in about 1760 saw the huge potential at time when demand was high and took over the operation of the mines himself. In 1760’s the annual profit was in the order of £8000 per annum.
The core of Ecton Hill over the years was removed making it into a huge cavern from which the veins of the ore , as chalcopyrities , had been removed, The ore was taken to the surface, often by child labour, and women and girls broke it up into small pieces, washing it in the River Manifold before sending it , by horse and carts to nearby Whiston, in Staffordshire, for Smelting, Transport from Whiston by the nearby expanding canal networks was a strong possibility.

L Porter and J Robey record that in 1777 and 1778, 172 tons and 164 tons respectively of smelted copper, were sent from Whiston to Derby for rolling before being sent on to London.
(The Copper and Lead Mines around the Manifold Valley, North Staffordshire. Ashbourne: Landmark.) Porter also reports (elsewhere) that all the Derby copper went from Whiston via Joseph Ride’s Ashbourne warehouse but so far this agent has not been traced.

The mines at Ecton were gradually worked out and finally closed in May 1889 and the site is now owned by a trust,

Sheathing of wooden Vessels
(Based on information from the '' website.)

From Roman times wooded ships had suffered from marine corrosion and in some warm waters a sound ship could be reduced to a hulk in a very short time. A common method was to cover the outer planks of the hull with sacrificial planks of timber which could be replaced from time to time. Lead sheeting was used but it was noted that there was often enhanced corrosion of adjacent iron fittings. This was due to the then unknown effects of galvanic action

Complete cladding with copper of the underwater hull of a ship had been first used on HMS Alarm in 1761 to prevent attack of the wooden hull by the Teredo worm in tropical waters. The copper was also found to reduce biofouling of the hull very significantly which gave ships a great advantage of speed when compared with those dragging round a vast growth of marine weed. The cladding kept ships in commission at times when others had to be dry-docked or ‘careened’ on a shore for hull scraping. This significantly enlarged the effective strength of the Navy.

On the ‘Victory’ the copper sheets were a nominal 4ft (1220mm) long by 14” (356mm) wide and overlapped at the joints, about 3,500 being needed. Some were smaller and shaped to infill contour changes. They were fixed with nails also made of copper to avoid bimetallic corrosion. At the bows the copper was usually of a thickness equivalent to 32oz weight of copper per square foot. Most of the sides of the hull were clad with 28oz copper but 22 oz sufficed for the stern. This wore sufficiently to need replacement every 20 years or so. They were originally all stamped with the government broad arrow mark at regular intervals along their length in order to reduce pilferage by the taking of offcuts. This is said to be the origin of the term ‘to half inch’ for ‘pinching’ or stealing. The copper sheathing weighed almost 13 tons and had the advantage that when replaced the removed damaged sheets could be re-cycled.

Galvanic corrosion was initially a problem with iron fitting and bolts e.g. Rudder attachments, but these were eventually overcome by replacing them using specially designed copper alloys which were mechanically much stronger and able to perform duties normally ascribed to iron.

There is information on sales to others for smelting elsewhere, and for smelting at Ecton Hill, in the mid-18th century (no mention of Derby). In 1760 the Duke of Devonshire built a smelter at Whiston near Froghall in Staffs and the canal network here. On page 107 of their book it is noted that in 1777 and 1778, 172 tons and 164 tons respectively of smelted copper, were sent from Whiston to Derby for rolling before being sent to London.
(Porter, L. and Robey, J. 2000 The Copper and Lead Mines around the Manifold Valley, North Staffordshire. Ashbourne: Landmark)

Further Reading
Harris Hellen, Industrial Archaeology of the Peak District, David and Charles, 1971
Cooper Brian, Transformation of a Valley, Heinmann Educational Books , 1983
TD Ford & JH Rieuwerts , Lead Mining in The Peak District, Landmark Publishing, 2000
The World of Copper – web site
JR Harris , Copper and Shipping in 18th C , The Economic History Review Vol19, No3 - 1966

The Holm, Burdette 1791

Brayley 1806

Board of Health 1852


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