England’s First Silk Mill

This is from Highways & Byways of Derbyshire:

In the 18th century, Derby was reputed to be a town of gentry rather than trade. Nonetheless, it enjoys the claim of having ben the home of the first silk mill in England, The art of spinning silk by machinery was an Italian secret, very jealously guarded, until one John Lombe, of Derby, travelled to Italy and succeeded in obtaining by bribery and dishonest means – which he, doubtless, justified to himself as business smartness – models of the machinery then in use. On his return he built a mill on a little island in the Derwent, which was pulled down in 1890 by an unimaginative Corporation. Lombe had a hard struggle. Parliament had granted him a patent for 14 years, but as the industry was an entirely new one, and his mechanics had never seen the models working, endless modifications and improvements had to be made, with the result that the 14 years had almost expired before the mill began to answer Lombe’s expectations. He, therefore, appealed to Parliament for assistance, and received a grant of £14,00 on condition that he allowed a complete model to be made of his engines. They were the wonder of all who saw them. Defoe’s Tour speaks with awe of each Italian engine, containing 26,586 wheels and 97,746 movements, which worked 73,726 yards of silk thread every time the water wheel went round, and that was 3 times every minute. “One fire engine” we are told, “conveys warm air to every individual part of the machine, and the whole work is governed by one regulator.” Another Derby man, Thomas Roe, introduced the silk industry into Macclesfield, with machines built on the model of those of Lombe.

This is a huge amount of time and money, and no mention is made where the initial funds came from, but as the industry would have been of great benefit to the town, in providing work, especially for the poor, these large sums must have been provided in the belief they would reap significant returns. I’m not so sure about the end of the story:

Lombe’s fate was tragic. The Italians were so infuriated at his having discovered their secret that they sent over a woman to compass his death.. so the story goes… by means of poison.

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