10 Derbyshire people who made their mark on the world

Portrait of industrialist Richard Arkwright (c) Getty Images

Portrait of industrialist Richard Arkwright (c) Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

England’s counties have given the world notable characters who have changed the course of history. Derbyshire is no exception.

For a medium-sized county, Derbyshire has perhaps provided the world with more game-changing people than most; consistently punching above its inventive weight.

Here, we highlight ten Derbyshire characters who, in chronological order, have changed the course of history through their inventiveness, enterprise and/or imagination.

It must be emphasised these are the author’s personal choices. Readers will undoubtedly have their own equally worthy contenders.

1. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Although born in Wiltshire, in the year of the Spanish Armada, Thomas Hobbes spent the last 20 years of his life as tutor to the Cavendish children at Chatsworth.

Hobbes is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy, perhaps best known for his monumental work entitled Leviathan, published in 1651. In it, Hobbes expounded what was to become an influential theory of the social contract, but also made significant contributions to other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology and ethics.

His De Mirabilibus Pecci: Concerning the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire, a long-winded Latin poem extolling the attractions of his adopted home, was first published in 1636 and was, in effect, the first tourist guide to the Peak District.

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2. John Flamsteed (1646-1719)

This Denby-born astronomer became the first Astronomer Royal when appointed by Charles II as the ‘King’s Astronomical Observator’ in 1675, on a handsome allowance of £100 a year. The royal warrant stated his task as ‘rectifieing 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 Perfecteing the Art of Navigation.’ In June 1675, another royal warrant provided for the founding of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Greenwich, and Flamsteed laid the foundation stone in August of that year.

Crippling rheumatism put an early end to Flamsteed’s education at Derby and Cambridge, but he continued to study the heavens with his telescope at home, correctly forecasting celestial events. This brought him to the attention of Sir Isaac Newton, and eventually to the king and to his royal appointment.


3. James Brindley (1716-1772)

The story of James Brindley, the illiterate farm boy from Tunstead, near Buxton, who rose to become the father of the English canal system, is surely one of the most unlikely in English history.

It was a fateful meeting with the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who was anxious to find a way of transporting coal from his Worsley estate to the port of Manchester, which sealed Brindley’s fame and fortune.

Educated by his mother at their home, Brindley soon showed his inventive skills when he was apprenticed to a millwright in Macclesfield, later setting up as an engineer and millwright himself in Leek. Here he was brought to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, who commissioned Brindley to build a canal, including the first-ever canal aqueduct at Barton, in 1761.

His fame soon spread, and Brindley was commissioned to build the Manchester-Liverpool and the Grand Trunk Canal, which linked Liverpool with Hull and Bristol, and later the Trent and Mersey Canal, among many others. There is a memorial to him on the village green at Wormhill, near Tunstead.


4. Jedediah Strutt (1726-1797)

Jedediah Strutt, one of the founders of the modern factory system, was born to a farming family in South Normanton in 1726, and in 1740 he became an apprentice wheelwright in Findern.

Strutt’s brother-in-law, hosier William Woollatt, had an idea for an attachment to the stocking frame to knit cotton ribbed stockings, but he lacked the capital to develop it. Strutt and Woollatt turned the device into a viable machine and took out a patent for it in 1759. Their machine became known as the Derby Rib machine, and the stockings it produced soon became popular.

Meanwhile, Strutt had been introduced to Richard Arkwright in around 1768, and they cooperated in the building of a cotton mill at Cromford, using what was known as Arkwright’s water frame. This was the first of its kind in the world, marking the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Strutt opened his first in Belper in 1778 and opened another at Milford in 1782. He built substantial houses for his workers, all of which now form part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.


5. Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)

When knighted by George III in 1786, Richard Arkwright apparently offended some toffee-nosed courtiers with his uncouth manners, to which he responded: ‘Gentlemen, can you pay off the national debt? No? Well I can!’ At his death in 1792 at Rock House, Cromford, aged just 59, he left a fortune of £500,000 – worth about £75m at today’s values.

Although he was born in Preston, Arkwright, known as ‘the father of the modern industrial factory system’, is forever associated with Derbyshire, where his Derwent-powered mills at Cromford housed the first mechanised cotton spinning frames in the world.

Described by historian Thomas Carlyle as ‘a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection’, Arkwright was one of the founders of the Industrial Revolution. He also built water-powered mills in Wirksworth, Matlock Bath, Chorley, Manchester and New Lanark among others.


6. Samuel Slater (1786-1835)

Although historically condemned as ‘Slater the Traitor’ by the townsfolk of his native Belper, Samuel Slater was also dubbed by President Andrew Jackson as the ‘Father of the American Industrial Revolution’.

Slater was born in a farming family in 1768, and started work aged just ten at the new local cotton mill, opened by the aforementioned Jedediah Strutt that year. Strutt used the water frame pioneered by Richard Arkwright at nearby Cromford and, by 1782, Slater was indentured as his apprentice.

By the age of 21, Slater had gained a detailed knowledge of the organisation and practice of cotton spinning and learned of the American interest in developing similar machines. But he knew it was then illegal to export the designs, so he memorised as much as he could and departed for New York in 1789.

The following year he signed a contract with industrialist Moses Brown to operate a mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which replicated the British designs. By 1793, Slater and Brown had opened the first successful water-powered roller spinning textile mill in America, and at the time of his death in 1835, Slater owned 13 mills and was worth $1.3m, the equivalent of around $35m today.


7. Joseph Paxton (1803-1865)

It was typical of the man that, in 1826, Joseph Paxton arrived at Chatsworth to start his new job as head gardener so early that he had to climb the kitchen garden wall to get in.

He’d been employed by the 6th Duke of Devonshire to plant and maintain the new gardens which had been designed by Jeffry Wyatville. Bedfordshire-born Paxton soon set to work constructing the Great Conservatory, the Arboretum, the Emperor Fountain and the Pleasure Gardens enjoyed by thousands of visitors today.

The Great Conservatory, demolished after the First World War, was the inspiration behind what was perhaps Paxton’s greatest achievement, London’s Crystal Palace, centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851.


8. Thomas Cook (1808-1892)

The recent demise of the Thomas Cook holiday empire saw the end of a near 180-year-old business, founded by the eponymous Cook, who was born in the south Derbyshire village of Melbourne in 1808.

It was while on his way to a Temperance meeting in Leicester that Cook, a keen evangelist, hit on the idea of using the newly-created railway system to take people to these meetings. It was on a July day in 1841 that he arranged to take 570 people on a shilling (5p) ticket from Leicester to Loughborough on a specially-hired train, inaugurating the first of many Cook’s Tours.

The Great Exhibition at Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London of 1851 provided another enormous boost for the business, and the company took 165,000 people to see it. Cook had struck on the desire for travel just at the time when it became affordable for ordinary folk, and the firm grew into the international travel company it became.


9. Samuel Fox (1815-1887)

Given our usually somewhat soggy summer weather, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Samuel Fox, the inventor of the folding umbrella frame, came from the Hope Valley village of Bradwell.

The son of a shuttle weaver, he started work as an apprentice wire-drawer in Hathersage in 1831. He went on to establish his own wire-drawing business in a former cotton mill at Stocksbridge in 1842.

In 1851 his company, Fox Umbrella Frames, developed the ‘Paragon’ folding umbrella frame, and umbrellas with Fox frames were eventually sold worldwide. His business later expanded to include furnaces and rolling mills, producing crucible steel.

Fox died in 1887 but throughout his life was a frequent visitor to Bradwell, and regularly sent money to benefit the poor of the village.


10. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

It was entirely appropriate that the new temporary hospitals set up to deal with the current coronavirus pandemic were named after Holloway’s Florence Nightingale, who transformed nursing to a more efficient and professional vocation.

She gained her famous nickname of ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ from soldiers wounded during the Crimean War (1853-56) for her night-time rounds of the wards at Scutari. Appalled at the conditions in the fearful old barracks when she arrived, she revolutionised the conditions at the hospital, undoubtedly saving many lives.

On her return to England, she set up the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1860. Now known as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, the school is part of King’s College, London.

A grand civic reception in London had been planned for Nightingale when she arrived back from the Crimea, but it was typical of her that she avoided all this fuss by travelling unannounced back to her home at Lea Hurst, Holloway.


Outside the Top 10...

Just failing to make the list is Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, usually known as Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608), who rose to the highest levels of English nobility; in the process becoming enormously wealthy through four advantageous marriages.

Initially alongside her second husband, courtier Sir William Cavendish, Bess is credited with building up Chatsworth House, having purchased Chatsworth Manor for £600 in 1549.

Bess had close associations with the likes of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots and built the present Hardwick Hall between 1590-97, its skyline proudly featuring her initials “ES” (Elizabeth Shrewsbury).

While she may not have made contributions on the world stage, her influence on the county of Derbyshire makes her worthy of a mention.

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