The sale of a horse for £5 was the unlikely catalyst for Jedediah Strutt (1726-1797) to become yet another Derbyshire industrialist who could lay claim to be one of the founders of the modern factory system.

Strutt was born in 1726 into an established farming family at Blackwell, near Alfreton. He was the second son of William Strutt of South Normanton and Martha Statham of Handley near Shottle.

In 1740 at the age of 14, he was apprenticed for seven years to a wheelwright, Ralph Massey, at Findern, near Derby.

At the time, Findern was the home to the largest non-conformist academy in the country, run by Ebenezer Latham, a doctor, teacher and minister.

Latham was an associate of the Woollat family, with whom Strutt had lodged during his apprenticeship. He was later to marry their eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

In 1754 Strutt inherited a farm and a small stock of animals from one of his uncles. In addition to the Blackwell farm, Strutt developed a business carrying coal from Denby to Belper and Derby.

The framework knitting machine had been originally invented by the Rev. Lee at Calverton near Nottingham in 1589. These were operated in the upper floor of cottages or in a shed with large windows to allow maximum use of daylight. They enabled the operator to knit 20 times faster than a hand knitter and produce small items of clothing such as hats and stockings.

In an attempt to improve his income after he married, Strutt had begun acting as a ‘putter out’ for the cottage industry of framework knitting. This involved taking out the yarn to the framework knitter and collecting the finished work to take to the warehouse.

Strutt was working closely with his brother-in-law William Woollat, who was frustrated by the fact that the knitting machine could not knit a rib and was therefore unable to successfully make hosiery.

Great British Life: Belper was just a small hamlet before Strutt revolutionised the area Belper was just a small hamlet before Strutt revolutionised the area (Image: Ashley Franklin)

Woollat employed a man named Roper of Locko, who had come up with an idea for an attachment to the stocking frame which enabled it to knit ribbed stockings. He had made one or two specimens which he showed to Woollat and his friends, though he lacked the finance to develop his idea.

Woollat conferred with Strutt, who immediately saw its potential and promptly sold one of his horses and paid Roper the princely sum of £5 for his invention.

Strutt and Woollat turned the device into a viable machine and took out a patent for it in 1759. Then they formed a partnership with Samuel Need, who financed and advised them as they set up their first hosiery business in Derby and built a silk mill to supply the yarn.

Cotton was growing in popularity because it was more comfortable to wear than wool and more hard-wearing than silk, but there were problems with spinning cotton thread as it has a shorter staple and is therefore more difficult to spin.

At the time, Richard Arkwright was trying to develop roller spinning for cotton but he also was unable to finance it and his bankers advised him to show the idea to Strutt and Need. Strutt thought it was worthy of investment and with a few alterations could be a success. Strutt and Need formed a partnership with Arkwright and began spinning cotton in Nottingham using a horse gin.

But horsepower had its limitations and Strutt suggested they find a site with waterpower, like his silk mill in Derby.

The first water-powered cotton spinning mill was built by Richard Arkwright at Cromford in 1771 and proved to be a huge success.

It was the building of the silk mills in Derby combined with the building of the cotton mill at Cromford that developed the factory system, this subsequently spread across the globe, changing the working life of people throughout the world.

Strutt and Woollat’s device became known as the Derby Rib machine, and the stockings it produced quickly became popular. Cotton was cheaper than silk and more comfortable than wool, and they soon found that demand was soon far exceeding supply.

In 1777 Strutt bought land for his first mill in Belper, which at that time was a small hamlet of framework knitters and nail makers.

In 1781 he bought the old forge at Makeney near Milford Bridge. Harnessing the power of the River Derwent, Belper Mill opened in 1778 and Milford Mill in 1782.

Great British Life: The Strutt family continued to act as benefactors to Belper and Milford (pictured) for five generations The Strutt family continued to act as benefactors to Belper and Milford (pictured) for five generations (Image: Ashley Franklin)

Following the enlightened example set by Richard Arkwright at Cromford, Strutt built substantial terraced houses for his workers, all of which now form part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. The Strutt family continued to act as benefactors to Belper and Milford for five generations.

Eventually, there would be no less than eight Strutt mills at Belper and the town would grow to a population of 10,000 by the mid-19th century, becoming the second largest town in the county after Derby.

In 1755, Strutt had married Elizabeth Woollat and the couple had five children before Elizabeth’s death in London in 1774.

Apparently, Strutt took a great interest in his children’s education and development. In 1781, Strutt married again, to Ann Cantrell, the widow of George Daniels of Belper, but there were no children from his second marriage. Strutt built a sturdy mansion named Milford House as their home.

The first of Jedediah and Elizabeth’s children was William (1756–1830), who married Barbara Evans, daughter of Thomas Evans, who invented the Belper stove. Their son was the Liberal politician Edward Strutt, who later became the 1st Baron Belper.

By all accounts and despite his enormous wealth Jedediah Strutt remained a plain-living man, faithfully adhering to his firmly-held Unitarian beliefs. His self-penned obituary, found after his death, declared:

‘Here rest in peace J.S. who without fortune, family or friends raised to himself a fortune, family and name in the world; without having wit, had a good share of plain common sense; without much genius, employed the more substantial blessing of a sound understanding; with but little personal pride, despised a mean or base action; with no ostentation for religious tenets and ceremonies, he led a life of honesty and virtue, not knowing what would befall him after death, he died in full confidence that if there be a future state of retribution it would be to reward the virtuous and the good. This I think my true character.’

Jedediah Strutt died in Derby in 1797 and is buried in the Unitarian Chapel in Field Row, Belper, which he had built between 1788-89.

Great British Life: Belper Unitarian Chapel, which Strutt founded in 1788 Belper Unitarian Chapel, which Strutt founded in 1788 (Image: Ashley Franklin)

His final home of Friar Gate House, Derby, which was designed by his son, William, is marked today with a blue plaque. There is also a statue of Jedediah Strutt on the Boots building in East Street, Derby.

Still standing at the northern entrance to Belper on the A6 is his son William’s imposing North Mill of 1804.

Constructed using pioneering steel framework fireproof technology, the mill today houses the Derwent Valley Visitor Centre – a good starting point for anyone wishing to discover the area’s textile history.

In the centre you can enter the lives of those who worked in the Strutt family mills, once described as ‘the best in England’.

You can also find out about the fines that were imposed for misbehaviour – including the forfeits for idleness, even for looking through windows and making noises in the counting house!

You can also join a tour of the factory settlement built by the Strutts for their workers from the 1780s, complete with their sturdy terraced houses, schools and chapels.

Great British Life: Strutt remained a plain-living man despite his wealth. He is buried in Belper Unitarian Chapel Strutt remained a plain-living man despite his wealth. He is buried in Belper Unitarian Chapel (Image: Ashley Franklin)