Jedediah Strutt was born of farming stock in South Normanton in 1726. He married Elizabeth Woollat whose family had a hosiery business in Derby. Jedediah’s early prosperity was based on his invention in 1759 of an attachment which made it possible to do ribbed knitting on an ordinary hand-operated knitting frame. This became famous as the “Derby Rib” and gave a great boost to the Whole East Midlands hosiery industry.
Some ten years later Jedediah was wealthy enough to risk giving financial backing to Richard Arkwright, the ex-barber, who had come to Nottingham to promote the commercial development of his cotton-spinning machine, the “Water Frame”. Their first factory the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill was set up at Cromford in 1771 and a second mill was built in Belper in 1776. This was the beginning of the association of the Strutt family with Belper, and the impetus for this small village to become, by 1801, the second largest town in Derbyshire.
Jedediah ended his partnership with Arkwright in 1781 but his own business enterprises flourished. In 1780 Milford was chosen as the site for his second mill and new buildings, mills and warehouses followed in both Belper and Milford every few years. The original North Mill was burnt down in 1803 and was immediately replaced by a new North Mill, the building which is still standing near the Belper Bridge. This was one of the earliest fireproof structures, designed by William, Jedediah’s eldest son. He used cast iron columns and beams, and the floors were of brick or, for the top floor, “Flower Pots” which combined strength with lightness. Jedediah died in 1797, leaving three sons, William George and Joseph to continue the very successful business interests in Derby, but Belper became the “Kingdom” of the Strutts.
Jedediah Strutt and his sons transformed the economy of Belper, the lives of the people and the appearance of the town. Apart from employing people in cotton spinning, the Mills, created job opportunities in the transport and building trades and brought about the need to improve roads and postal services. Shopkeepers and other small tradesmen benefited from the ever-increasing population.
Jedediah himself was a Unitarian and built the Unitarian Chapel in Field Row in 1788. The family were major subscribers to the building of St. Peter’s Parish Church in 1822 when then population outgrew the thirteenth century Anglican Chapel of education, first by Sunday Schools at their mills and, by 1811, in supplied milk and other produce to their employees at reasonable prices.
To attract and retain good workers, acceptable housing at a reasonable rent had to be provided. The first industrial housing was built near the mills in Long Row, Short Row and Mill Street, followed by the unique four-house blocks known as “The Clusters”, and other workers’ houses in Milford. Members of the Strutt family had their own grand residences Milford House; Bridge Hill House; Green Hall; Mackeney House; St. Helen’s House and Exeter House in Derby; also Kingston on Soar Hall. Their farms, Crossroads Farm near Belper and Moscow Farm between Milford and Duffield were models of up-to-date agricultural practice.
As wealthy employers and landlords, the Strutts played a dominant part in the lives of people in Belper and Milford, using their considerable power and influence to promote hard work, sobriety and respectability. It was to be expected that some people should resent their success and be critical of any assumption of superiority on their part. It could not be denied, however, that the descendants of Jedediah Strutt continued his tradition of public generosity. One such benevolent gesture was the presentation of the Arboretum to the people of Derby as a public park by Joseph Strutt in 1840. In Belper many improvements were originated and funded by the Strutts:- The MARKET place was paved in 1881; around the turn of the century a satisfactory water supply was provided for the town with the pumping station in the Meadows and Bessalone reservoir; land was given as a site for the Ridgeway Isolation Hospital on Crich Lane; Belper River Gardens were created as a public park; The Herbert Strutt School and the adjoining swimming baths were built and the newly created Belper Urban District Council was given its offices in King Street.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, cotton spinning in Belper and Milford has suffered the same set-backs as the rest of the cotton industry, with the competition from overseas and from man-made fibres. Spinning in Belper finally ceased in 1991. If Jedediah Strutt had not chosen to build his first mill in Belper it would probably have remained a village, declining even further as hand-made nails gave way to mass-production elsewhere.