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Thursday, 2 April 2015

A Strut(t) Around Belper I

North Mill, Belper
My poor blogs have been neglected for a little while, as I've been working hard on my new book for Pen & Sword, Regency Spies, but I hope to be posting more regular updates now. Continuing my series of blog posts on some of the fabulous places in Britain which I visited last year, today's post is on Belper, a Derbyshire town with some amazing industrial heritage.
Belper nailmaker, North Mill.

Belper was traditionally home to the framework knitting and nail-making industries. North Mill, Belper has a wonderful collection of textile machinery, so do take the time to explore it if you can.  The museum has many more machines than I've been able to show you here, and some social history displays.

Stockings were formerly knitted from silk on machines, but the Strutt family invented an improvement to the frame so that ribbed stockings could be knitted from either silk or cotton (the Derby rib). Ribbed stockings were more elastic and easier to wear than former designs.
Stocking frame, North Mill.

Spinning Jenny, North Mill.
Good quality cotton yarn was needed to knit stockings, however, so Strutt helped to bankroll Richard Arkwright's initial forays into cotton spinning - Arkwright's waterframe was a great improvement on James Hargreaves' original spinning jenny.

Arkwright's first cotton-spinning mill was built at Cromford (1771);  Jedediah Strutt's own cotton-spinning mill (the South Mill) in Belper, powered by water, was founded in about 1776; the North Mill was completed about a decade later.

Arkwright's waterframe, North Mill.
In my next blog post, I'll take a look at conditions in the Belper mills for their women and child workers.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Church-going in Austen's Day

Chawton Church, Hampshire.
Pop over to my Jane Austen blog for my latest post, on Sundays in Regency-era Britain.

Terry Pratchett

I was deeply saddened by the news this week that Terry Pratchett had died. He was my favourite modern fantasy author, and he had a unique imagination and sense of humour. We have spent many happy hours in the car listening to his Discworld audiobooks, read by the inimitable Tony Robinson. A great loss to literature.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

A Stroll Round Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden takes its name from the saffron industry which grew up here around the late 14th century.

Saffron was an incredibly important product - it was used as a dye and as a spice.

The trade died out during the eighteenth century, but an enterprising farmer has recently begun growing saffron crocus again in the area.
Church St
The town is still home to many charming medieval buildings, some of which, e.g. the Cross Keys Hotel, have their original shop windows. Many of these buildings are adorned with pargeting, a type of moulded decorative plasterwork. If your surname is Pargeter, then maybe one of your ancestors was involved in this craft.               

In some ways the town reminded me of Chester, as there were a few Georgian buildings mixed in with the medieval ones (although of course Chester's shops are two-tiered - the famous Rows).
Saffron Walden is also home to a museum, built in the mid-1830s. It's said to be one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the UK, although sadly we did not have time to pay it a visit.

Saffron Walden museum.
Walsingham House.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Love and Marriage

Elinor makes Edward Ferrars the happiest of men.
If you are a modest young lady hoping that your own Mr Darcy or Mr Knightley will turn up one day, gallop over to my Jane Austen blog for advice on that all-important marriage proposal!

Friday, 6 February 2015

A Wonder of the Waterways

Top of Foxton Locks.

Last year I enjoyed a wonderful visit to Foxton Canal Locks and the site of its former boat lift. The staircase of locks at Foxton (on the Grand Union Canal, near Market Harborough) were a bottleneck for commerce as they were only constructed wide enough to permit one narrow boat to enter at a time. 
The bottom of the former inclined plane.
To speed things up, an inclined plane or boat lift was constructed. This major engineering feat, designed by Gordon Cale Thomas, opened on 10 July 1900. Two giant tanks of water, which counterbalanced each other, carried either one wide boat or two narrow boats per tank. A steam engine provided extra 'oomph' to power the lift. 

Sadly the boat lift became uneconomic to use, and it closed just over a decade after its grand opening. (The Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire had a much longer working life, and is now back in working order again).
The Foxton Inclined Plane Trust cares for the site’s preservation, and hopes to create a digital model of the boat lift. 

Top of inclined plane, looking down.
Unfortunately it seems most unlikely that this wonder of the waterways will be restored to its former glory owing to the prohibitive cost. 
Former boiler house, now a museum.

But the site is extremely interesting to explore.The museum (in the old boiler house for the steam engine) gives a wonderful insight into the days of working boats, and if you have canal ancestors you will really enjoy a visit.


The hull of this old boat (left) illustrates the level at which boats entered the lift.
Former lock-keeper's cottage, now a cafe.

When a canal was frozen over, an ice boat like the Gordon Thomas (left) was rocked from side to side by boatmen to break the ice so that traffic could resume.
All photos copyright Sue Wilkes.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Scotland's Industrial Past and Present

Map of Scotland, 1845.
Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys is back with a new series. This week on the programme he visited some industrial sites and we've been treated to some fascinating archive footage of workers. During the second episode he had a ride on the Waverley paddle steamer, and visited the David Livingstone Centre at Blantyre - I was especially interested as I did not realize that the famous missionary was a child worker in a cotton factory. Episode 3 was another treat as Mr Portillo visited a modern steel rolling mill, the Clyde Falls at New Lanark, and explored the Union Canal and the Falkirk Wheel, which I would love to visit one day. Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at some of the fabulous heritage sites I visited last year, but haven't had time to blog about yet, as I'm busy writing Regency Spies.