George Sorocold and the Franceys family

Edited by Alan Gifford

(Note- For at least the past 10 years a group of researchers have been trying to untangle the various published information on Sorocold and to seek new data. This note is to bring up to date the current status of our studies – for more detailed, and more information, see )


On December 7th 1684 George Sorocold was married to Mary Franceys at All Saints Church, now the Cathedral, in Derby . Sorocold achieved national fame, and could be considered as Britain’s first civil engineer. He was called the ‘Great English Engineer’ by two of his contemporaries, and was the first non-military person to be styled as an ‘engineer’. In those few words we have described highlights of a great engineer but it has not been quite so simple to determine his life and career.


In various publications his place of birth, in the late 17th century, has been nominated as Derby, but equally there was a strong indication he came from Lancashire. The use of various search engines soon revealed there were many branches of ‘Sorocold’ in South Lancashire. In searching for him we have however found many spellings of the name. The problem appears to be that the word ‘Sorocold’ can be spelt in so many ways, possibly depending on the capability of a, maybe, semi illiterate cleric when writing the pronounced name?

The two-syllable name can be divided and we have ‘Sar’, ‘Ser’ or ‘Sur’ and there may be more than one r! The second syllable has been found as ‘cole’, ‘cold’, ‘cauld’ and ‘cale’; all leaving many combinations to investigate! The search was further complicated by the finding in Picope, (MS Vol 12, p228), a Sorocold tree with a ‘George Sorocold, bap 18th April 1658’, to which had been added in red ink, by persons unknown, ‘a famous engineer – he made the water works at Leeds in 1695 and many other places’. This however made him older than seemed reasonable in the light of other, later, professional activities.

Eventually by merging the will of James Sorocold of Ashton in Makerfield, gentleman, dated 17 June 1675, who had left his estate to ‘his only son George Sorocold’, with a secondary bequest to an illegitimate son Michael (who joined the clergy), we were able to match the church baptism records to George Sorocold, who was baptised in Winwick church, Lancashire, 19th March 1666/7 and we were we satisfied we had the right George.

A link between the Sorocold family and southern Derbyshire had already been established from before George's birth, possibly by his grandfather, who was a party involved in the assignment of the Manors of Etwall and Hardwick in the 1640s, both of which are located in the Derby area. This may be associated with the reason why George moved to the Derby area. Hargate Manor house remains, at the time of writing, as an old property on the outskirts of Hilton.

In May 1684, a George Serocold (or Sorocold) of Lancashire was admitted as a ‘Fellow Commoner’ to Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, although there is no real evidence that this was the future engineer. They still have an engraved silver tankard he presented to them -but he did not graduate. We have found no other evidence of his formal education.

Silver Tankard presented to University of Cambridge by George Sorocold c 1694.

The first solid evidence of Sorocold is provided by the record of his marriage to Mary Franceys, although it is not clear as to whose daughter she was from a number of closely related Franceys, including wealthy local apothecaries. The wedding took place on 7th December 1685, in All Saint's Church, Derby (now Derby Cathedral). His name however is recorded in the register as George Sorrowcald (another spelling!). The marriage appears to have been happy and successful and seven living children have been traced. In 1694 William Franceys, apothecary, was authorised, by the Derby Company of Mercers, to pay George Sorocold the sum of about £40 toward the cost of his Borough water works (see later) and the family ties are evident since it was his niece Mary that George had recently married! [According to Cambridge University Press - Franceys - A study of the English apothecary from 1660 to 1760 - iii_the_apothecary_as_progenitor.pdf]




Church Bells

Sorocold's close links with the town of Derby and with All Saint's Church, (where he married), are reflected in the first of his professional projects since he was commissioned to re-hang the church bells in 1687. Exactly how Sorocold came to win the commission is unknown, although during 1685 he had been elected a member of the Ancient Society of Collegiate Youths (ASCY), a bell ringing society that is still in existence today, as member number 185. On the wall in the vestry of Derby Cathedral is a polished brass plaque commemorating this work on the bells. John Baxter is named as the person who carried out the works, as directed by Sorocold. In their ‘Sorocold and Baxter’ wooden framing, the bells would continue to be rung regularly until 1926 when it became necessary to rebuild the frame in steel because of an attack by death watch beetles.

Domestic Water Supplies

Sorocold however was to make his mark throughout Britain in the development of urban water supply and distribution systems, in a form that we would recognise today, i.e delivered to the premises and paid for. The first of his systems was begun in 1692 in his adopted home town of Derby, where water was obtained generally from wells or via, men trading as carriers, bringing water from the river or cisterns. In 1691 Sorocold had offered the town’s Borough Council to provide an 'engine' to raise water from the River Derwent and to distribute the water around Derby in wooden pipes — providing a direct supply to private houses and businesses for appropriate payments. The town fathers clearly recognised the need for this service but were unable to finance it, so they took out a number of loans, including one for £41-16s from the Derby Mercers Company, a loan which has yet to be repaid! The total cost is unknown.

No direct illustration of the ‘water engine’ have been found but on a painting ‘ East Prospect of Derby’ c 1694 (John Keys) its huge water wheel is visible behind two corn mill wheels.

The following year it was agreed that the engine (a variable height waterwheel driving multiple pumps) should be installed on an island in the River Derwent known as the Bye Flatt, in the Gunpowder Mill, which was a building the Borough evidently owned. A deed to authorise the project was signed by both parties and work started soon afterwards. Water from the River Derwent was pumped in to a cistern located in the grounds of nearby St Michael’s Church (for which a rent was paid) and then distributed by gravity through some four miles of wooden pipes, made from bored elm logs. The bores were of varying diameters, up to about six inches, depending on location. This system must have been satisfactory since it was not replaced until about 1850, and then simply in order to meet the demand of a much larger population. One of his pipe lines was uncovered in 1928 during road works in the town.

Sorocold’s ‘engine’ was operated by a system of cranks and wooden levers working three or four pumps

A section of wooden pipe from Sorocold’s water supply was found in Queen St, Derby in 1928. There may still be more old pipes still buried under Derby’s older Roads.

Further ventures into commercial water supply quickly followed the successful completion of Derby Waterworks. In 1693, Sorocold installed a water storage cistern at Macclesfield for the sum of £50. Complete waterworks systems were installed in a number of English regional towns and cities, including Portsmouth, Leeds and Great Yarmouth in 1694, Exeter in 1695, Wirksworth and Bristol in 1696, Kings Lynn in 1698 and Bridgnorth in 1705. He also provided water pumping engines, or facilitated supplies, for private properties such as Blenheim Palace, the Sprotborough estate, near Doncaster, and , locally, at Melbourne Hall. Such works made Sorocold famous throughout the country and well known to the ‘gentry’ - and yet, no portrait of him has ever been found!

By the start of the 18th century, Sorocold was working in London, which was the location of perhaps his major achievements in the field of water supply. Certainly, two projects he was associated with there are famous — the waterworks installed under Old London Bridge on the River Thames (from 1702) and the New River water supply systems. Under London Bridge, presumably based on experience gained in Derby and elsewhere, Sorocold installed a large, quite complex, beam-operated pumping engine, powered by the flow of the tidal river. It was described in detail some years later by Henry Beighton in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions of 1731 (volume 37), complete with illustrations.

The ‘engine installed by Sorocold at London Bridge was much larger than the one at Derby and worked more pumps. Drawing by Henry Beighton , in 1731), omits 8 of the 16 pumps and beams for the sake of clarity.

The undershot waterwheel was some 6.1m in diameter and had deep floats, each 4.3m long. The wheel could be raised and lowered as tidal conditions demanded. There were 16 'forcing' pumps provided, each 178mm in diameter, operated by wooden beams and actuated by cast iron cranks turned by the waterwheel.

The ‘New River’ had been supplying London with water from Hertfordshire since 1613. Completed by Sir Hugh Myddleton (1560-1631), the 3m wide open channel is over 32km in length and much of it is still part of London's water distribution system. In Sorocold's time, the New River terminated at a circular reservoir in Clerkenwell known as the Round Pond.

View down from the Upper Pond to the ‘Round Pond’ showing Sorocold’s now sail-less water pumping windmill on the right.

The water was gravity-fed from the pond in wooden pipes to central London. But the city was growing fast and an additional head of water for gravity feeding an expanding system was needed to enable the company to match demand. In about 1707, Sorocold was approached by the New River Company, seeking a solution to this problem. He proposed that a new storage pond, at a higher level be constructed, with water pumped up to it from the existing round pond. To provide a power source for pumping , he proposed the construction of a six sail windmill alongside the existing reservoir at Clerkenwell and this would be used to operate multiple force pumps that raised water into the new, high level pool, which he called the ‘Upper Pond’ (completed 1709 and still used today as Claremont Square Reservoir), which was some 7.3m above the existing Round Pond. This arrangement offered considerable additional gravity-fed distribution possibilities, with more pressure available in the mains. Although the concept worked, the windmill proved unsatisfactory as source of power and was soon replaced aa a multiple horse powered engine. Eventually a steam engine was installed but the Upper pond concept still remained operational.

River Navigation

Sorocold's river navigation and dock projects count among his most significant contributions to British life. Rivers were indeed the major transport infrastructure schemes — constructed before the advent of large-scale canal engineering — and they were key to local and national commercial and industrial development. However, as with much of Sorocold's work, relatively little detail is known.

His earliest involvement with river navigation works dates from around 1694, when he contributed to improvements to the navigability of the River Derwent in Yorkshire between Malton and Barmby (where it joins the River Ouse). Sorocold worked on it early in the planning stages and undertook survey works along the Derwent in 1694 and again in 1699. The work progressed slowly (not as a result of Sorocold ‘s involvement!) and was not completed until 1720.

First conceived by Sorocold in 1702 , his scheme to make the River Derwent at Derby navigable to the River Trent was ground breaking , but implementation was delayed by vested interests. Eventually an Act to make the river navigable, between Derby and the River Trent, based on his plans, was eventually passed, in 1720!

Part of a plan prepared by George Sorocold in 1702 designed to improve navigation on the River Derwent, from Derby, by cutting out some of the river’s meanders and thus reducing the distance to be travelled. It was eventually adopted, in a slightly modified form, in 1720.

Works then soon began on improvements to the river, including the construction of a wharf at the Morledge in Derby. River navigation would remain a major transport route for goods to and from Derby until sometime around 1796 when Benjamin Outram's Derby Canal opened fully.

Dry Docks

In the first decade of the 1700s, Sorocold worked on the design of first Liverpool Dock. At the time, Liverpool was a relatively small town, with a probable population of under 1,000. A small shallow tidal stretch of the Mersey, known as the 'Pool' was used as a harbour, and larger vessels unloaded on the river proper but work was limited by the ships tipping as tide ebbed and flowed . With what would prove to be considerable commercial foresight, the town seized the chance of increasing trade with the American colonies by promoting the construction of what is said to be the world's first commercially-successful wet dock.

An Act was duly passed that enabled the construction of Liverpool Dock and located the dock on reclaimed land from ‘The Pool’ — a different position than Sorocold's plan. The enclosed dock opened in 1716 (now known as Liverpool Old Dock, constructed 1709-1715). Water was let in at high tide through its gates, which were then closed to maintain the water level and enabled continuous ship loading and unloading, regardless of the state of the tide.

Painting of the dry dock showing many sailing ships floating in the dock, with huge gates closed. These would be opened when tide rose and the boats could then sail out.

The actual work was however carried out by Thomas Steers, probably because Sorocold was engaged working elsewhere- but his contribution must have been significant because he was awarded ‘Freedom of the Town’ in 1709 for his much respected contributions.



Silk Industry

The first powered silk mill in England was built in Derby and was known as Cotchetts’s mill. The silk industry in England at the time was based on individual hand weavers producing cloth for merchants, usually in attic workshops, using imported thread. Italy had a monopoly on the associated technical mechanical advances of the period and all the higher quality silk thread needed by the British market had to be imported from their mills – a premium prices . Sometime between 1702 and 1704, a London-based silk merchant Thomas Cotchett (bap.1677 - c.1716), probably financed by his father Thomas ,who was born in Mickleover, Derby, started to build a silk mill in Derby, on the west bank of the River Derwent, very close to Sorocold's operational water pumping engine at the northern end of the town, on the Bye Flatt island. Cotchett is reputed to have obtained a lease on the water rights in around 1704. F Williamson*, in 1936, probably the most thorough and authoritative of all authors writing on Sorocold, appeared confident that Sorocold designed the waterwheel and maybe the associated machinery needed for this mill, but unfortunately gave no references to support his view and none have subsequently been found. The machines used to produce the thread were called ‘Dutch Machines’ and unfortunately either due to unsuitable machinery or expertise, poor raw material or bad management (or a combination of these factors), closed down by about 1712. William Hutton, the historian writing many years later (1795) reports that amongst the employees at Cotchett’s mill was a certain John Lombe. (*’George Sorocold’ Derbys Arch J, Vol LV11, 1936, pp43-93)


The huge 5 storey Silk mill, built c 1720 and owned by the Lombes, dominates the much smaller original mill built by Thomas Cotchett, c 1704.The role played by George Sorocold in their construction is shrouded in mystery.

The failure of Cotchett's Mill did nothing to quell the continued clamour by wealthier Britain’s for abundant supplies of silk cloth, at rational prices. Thanks to the Lombe family of Norwich, this small corner of Derby did in fact become the first successful silk manufactory in the country — indeed the first successful use of the factory system in Britain. It is well reported that the John Lombe, mentioned above, went to Italy and by various means obtained sufficient ‘know how’ to construct another, much larger silk mill, on the Bye Flatt, which was financed by his half brother Thomas. There are many reports that Sorocold was responsible for its building but actual details of his involvement are elusive. John Lombe had indeed obtained the much-needed knowledge which enabled the sophisticated silk thread, known as ‘organzine’ (used as warp in silk weaving), to be produced successfully. The process was patented in 1718 (for 14 years) by his half brother Thomas but sadly John died young and was not able to benefit from his contribution. The mill, at peak production, had some 300 employees and was the first successful ‘factory’ in England, where employees worked with equipment and materials supplied by their employer, and were required to be on site, working given hours, every week. The contributions role of Sorocold in this venture is however still very uncertain although much effort has been given to finding prime references to his involvement.


Sorocold was undoubtedly involved in mining and mine drainage, his supporting text to his plans submitted for the development of the Derwent river navigation (1702) quoted* “the transport of lead from the Peak District as benefiting from this venture” and it seems unlikely that his pumping expertise would not have been used in drainage of local lead mines. (*Source Williamson, DAJ 1936) This has not yet been fully researched.

The Earl of Mar had been impressed by Sorocold’s skills when in London and hence Sorocold was consulted regarding building of the Gartmorn Dam on the Earl’s Alloa Estates (in Scotland) to provide a better water power supply for the Earl’s existing mine drainage in the area. Sorocold was therefore working in Alloa in 1710 (50 pounds fee). He surveyed the area, recommended beam pumps were needed and also devised a new weir/ sluice at Forest Mill (appears his advice on pumping not pursued but he was commissioned to install the new weir etc.). The resultant Gartmorn Dam enclosed, at that time, the largest man-made lake in Scotland.

The last positive record of Sorocold working found to date was in a mention in a report headed ' Memorial', in 1714, from Sir John Erskine (of Alva) to Viscount Townsend (covering events from 1714 to 1716) and dated October 9th 1716, describing George Sorocold as having been consulted re mineral mining in Scotland, and bringing with him with two of his Derbyshire mine workers. (*Source: 1902 Calendar of the Stuart papers Vol 2, p 388)

We next find him in France in 1716 on April 30th contacting the Earl of Mar’s agent, Robert Leslie, in Fontainebleau, who wrote to Mar, who was in Avignon, having hastily left Scotland to go into exile on 4th of February 1716, as follows

‘’A gentleman is lately arrived from Scotland who desired me to present his duty to your Grace. He says his name is Saracol, and that he was engineer to you. I had no discourse with him, he being a perfect stranger to me..."

It seems therefore that Sorocold had therefore made a potentially hazardous journey to Catholic France to seek Mar, possibly in respect to outstanding debts relating to the Gartmorn project, or conceivably, if he had strong Jacobite allegiance, to re-establish that contact with the Earl, although that would have cut him off from his wife and family. No response to Leslie’s message has been found to date and no more further information on Sorocold‘s subsequent activities has been found, despite extensive searching. Equally, despite a detailed search, no record of his direct affiliation to the Jacobite cause has been established.

And the mystery starts here

We started with a mystery regarding his birth place but when, where, and how he died has proved to be even more elusive. It seems very possible that something happened to Sorocold whilst in France leading to him being described as an ‘ingenious, unfortunate mathematician’ by the Mayor of Derby in 1717. Mar’s involvement with the Catholic Jacobite movement led to his exile in France and the possibility Sorocold went there after him, seeking financial redress suggests a strong reason for the journey. He could have had an accident, been taken ill, or even been murdered over there, with his death going unrecorded in England.

We have described his numerous major water engineering projects and his association with gentry of the period but surprisingly it has proved impossible to find a sketch or a painting of him- even with the help of the National Portrait Gallery.

His involvement in Lombes mill has centred round a statement in Williamson’s 1936 paper, associated with Daniel Defoe’s 1727 assertion that Sorocold fell under a water wheel at the silk mill. Williamson quoted this occurrence but then said ‘presumably at the silk mill’, since that was the context of Defoe’s statement. However, Sorocold did fall under a water wheel at Derby but it was almost 20 years earlier, in 1699, and hence not at the Silk Mill! Thomas Surbey in his diary held by York City Archive clearly states that during his visit to Derby on May 30th, 1699 : -

"Note the following accts. [accounts]... Also Mr: Geo. Soracoall who Built the waterwork as he was Showing his Contrivance to a friend Chanced to Drop in above a Corn Mill wheele wch: [which] goong [going] Sucked [ him?} through but one ye: Ladles Breaking he was taken out of ye: water Below without any harm"

There were corn mills adjacent to his water works and ‘ladles’ were a name given to the paddles in a water mill – so clearly this incident does NOT in any way associate Sorocold as being involved with the Lombe Silk mill which was built about 1717-20! Unfortunately, it seems that Williamson’s supposition has been taken as being a FACT by most subsequent researchers! And this water wheel incident certainly did not limit his subsequent, well documented, extensive engineering portfolio.

Approached from another angle the earliest date that John Lombe could have started work on the massive Derby Silk mill would be 1717, and as we have seen above, the whereabouts of Sorocold at that time is subject to conjecture. It is all made more difficult to resolve because of the absolute secrecy the Lombe’s established regarding the building of their mill. No proper description of the building, or it construction , has been found until a hand written report*, by a later owner of the mill, William Wilson, in about 1739, contains considerable details of the mill and its workings! *contained in full in Williamson’s 1936 DAJ paper.

On the question of secrecy, it has so far proved impossible to find primary evidence, including data from Italy, of John Lombe actually working in a silk mill in Piedmont. He quite possibly saw one in operation and since he certainly brought some Italian workers back to England, which together with information from other Huguenot refugees already in the country, when coupled with own early experiences in Cotchetts mill, may well have had enough information to build the new mill.

Suggestions have been made that his journey could have been avoided if the sketches of the mechanism of a water powered Italian silk mill, drawn by Vittorio Zonca in 1607 and held at that time in the Bodleian library at Oxford, had been consulted. These have been carefully studied and this groups view is that, without more information on actual dimensions, speeds of rotation of various components etc., any effort to build a machine from the sketches alone would have been doomed to failure.

Finally a chance find in an early newspaper, the Daily Courant, in July 23rd and 25th 1720, produced the following notice, contained in the advertisements:-

Whereas about two years ago since a gentleman was enquiring after the family of Mr George Sorocold, late Engineer of Surveyor of the London Bridge water works, in order to impart something to their benefit :These are now to inform such person, that his widow may be heard of at Mr Henry Francis, an Apothecary in Derby'

Here we have very conclusive proof of the demise of Sorocold, sometime between 1716 and approximately 1719! Extensive search of other issues of the Daily Courant, both before and after the publication date, have failed to reveal any further information on the matter. There are no portraits or sketches of the man and any will has been just as elusive. Despite extensive searches no record of his will having been written or proved can be found. And yet we have someone of national stature, who had close association with the nobility of the day, who simply disappears! All very unusual.

We know however that his widow Mary, possibly the niece of William Franceys, still lived in Derby and was in fact buried in Derby All Saints church on April 13th 1728, but is simply recorded as ‘Mrs Sorocold ’, with no mention of her late husband.

So we have to conclude for the moment that our trail currently ends here. There is ample information on his water engineering projects and other activities but little to positively connect him with the silk mills, although his water engineering skills would have made him a prime candidate in the provision of the hydraulic powered mechanisms, but much less so for the myriad of small parts needed in such a venture!

We just have to hope someone, somewhere, finds what happened to him in due course!

Alan Gifford

October 2018. Up dated Nov 2019.

Thanks and Acknowledgements

This collaborative, voluntary research work has been ongoing for well over 10 years and a number of people have made major contributions. Initially local men Paul Sharrett and the late Robin Clarke were early researchers, and were later joined by John Taylor, of London, Margaret Stewart from Scotland, and Jane James from Derby Local Studies Library. Finally, and particularly in respect to the silk industry, David Purdy has made major inputs and introduced expertise directly from Italy in the shape of Prof Claudio Zanier. There have been so many blind alleys explored by the group and at times it has been hard to keep working towards the objective of this study which has been the career of George Sorocold. I thank all the forenamed for their contributions

Post script and an appeal

A key clue perhaps arises from correspondence in March 1717, to Baron Parker, from the Mayor of Derby and others, regarding an improvement scheme for the River Derwent. This refers to Sorocold, having earlier acted scheme surveyor, as, “the ingenious, unfortunate, mathematician”.

Thus ‘unfortunate’ may well relate to a significant adverse event for Sorocold, and it would seem reasonable to assume that all, or some, of the letter signatories would have known about. They were from Derby’s leading families at the time and were: -

- John Bagnold, Mayor

- Thomas Rivett

- Fra: Cokayne

- John Holmes

- Thos. Gery

- Thomas Gisborne

- Benjamin Blundel, Junior

All but one of the above signatories held the post of Mayor of Derby at some stage, and so anyone who thinks that they have , or find , any information from personal records of these men about George Sorocold between about 1716 and 1720 (or afterwards), please get in touch with the author via e-mail.

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