The Smedleys and Lea Mill

John Smedley, the Wealthy Industrialist

By the mid 19th century, John Smedley (1803-1874) had become a wealthy man, having turned his father’s textile mill (Lea Mill, see right) at Lea Bridge, near Matlock, from the verge of bankruptcy into a very successful enterprise. His secret was to adapt the machinery to spin a yarn that was a mixture of wool and cotton. The yarn was outsourced to framework knitters in the surrounding area, and the resulting cloth was returned to the mill to be made into high quality garments such as shirts, dresses and chemises, as well as hosiery items. These products, in turn, were ‘finished’ by other home workers before being sold to local companies, such as Brettles at Belper. Despite this upturn in fortune, Smedley ‘lost interest in the mill’ following his father’s death in 1840. His health had become ‘greatly impaired’ after years of financial stress and hours of arduous work. And with the deaths of his elder sister in 1846, and mother the following year, he was left with no close relations. Now well into his forties, Smedley needed a new purpose in life.

Lea Mill at Lea Bridge

The Smedleys and Lea Mill

John Smedley’s grandfather, Thomas Smedley (1739-1800), inherited a small hand-operated worsted spinning and hosiery concern in Wirksworth which he, in turn, passed on to his eldest son, John (John Smedley’s father, JS senior 1764-1840). Thomas’s will also included lead mine shares, which were bequeathed to his six children, one of whom was Hannah (JS’s aunt). (Hannah later married Lea lead merchant John Alsop junior, whose father (also John) at the time (1807) was the manager of Peter Nightingale’s cotton mill at Lea Bridge). JS senior was impressed with Richard Arkwright’s mill at Cromford and, accordingly, gave some thought to the possible expansion of his own business. Such an opportunity arose in 1818 when he was able to acquire the lease of Peter Nightingale’s cotton mill (est.1784) at Lea Bridge. At the same time, the Smedley family moved from their Wirksworth home to Cromford Bridge House, which was also part of the Nightingale estate. The following year (1819), JS junior began a 7-year apprenticeship at Lea Bridge ‘in the art of a hosier and wool comber’.

Lea Mill was a huge undertaking for the father and son team, who had no previous experience of such a relatively large-scale operation using water-powered machinery. Furthermore, the latter was out-of-date, and competition was keen as the market was flooded with low-priced hosiery goods. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the mill ran into financial difficulties. The young John Smedley’s response was to ‘work long hours experimenting on the machines and improving the design’ and quality of his hosiery products, using Spanish Merino wool (obtained – reluctantly – on twelve months’ credit). His adaptation of the machinery to spin a wool and cotton yarn was eventually successful, and by 1828, the mill was in profit. Very soon, Smedley was able to extend the mill and install new machinery; and by the 1830s he was supplying yarn to over sixty framework knitters, working in their own homes. Between 1821 and 1841, the combined population of Dethick, Lea and Holloway grew from 492 to 879; an increase of 387, largely attributed to the expansion of John Smedley’s mill.

The Nightingale – Smedley Connection

The wealthy owner of the lead smelter at Lea, Peter Nightingale junior (1737-1803), was aware of Richard Arkwright’s achievements at Cromford and determined to build his own cotton mill. In 1783, he entered into a partnership with Benjamin Pearson, who had been employed by Richard Arkwright for many years; and possibly also with Thomas Smedley (John Smedley’s father). Nightingale’s Lea Mill was completed the following year (1784) with Pearson as manager. Unfortunately, there were some early problems. As Lea Brook did not supply sufficient power for the water wheel, Nightingale had to construct a five-acre reservoir, contained by a dam. And then the partnership with Pearson came to an end following a lawsuit by Arkwright regarding an alleged infringement of the latter’s carding machine patent. Finally, in 1785, flooding caused the banks of the supply reservoir to give way, resulting in severe damage to the mill itself. However, by 1792, the mill – now enlarged – had reopened, complete with a new dam and new manager – John Alsop senior, the father-in-law of JS’s Aunt Hannah.

Nightingale had considerable trust in John Alsop senior, who became one of his executors in 1803. As he (Peter Nightingale junior) was childless, his estate, including Lea Mill, passed via his niece, Mary Evans, to her son, William Edward Shore. Since William Edward was a minor, the mill was run by executors – William Shore (Mary Evans’ husband) and John Alsop (Hannah Smedley’s husband) – until 1815. Under the terms of his great uncle Peter Nightingale’s will, William Edward adopted the surname of Nightingale to become William Edward Nightingale (nicknamed WEN)*. He had ‘little interest’ in Lea Mill, and this consideration, together with the Alsop-Smedley family link, paved the way for John Smedley senior to take on the mill’s lease in 1818.

*It is interesting to note that WEN was destined to become the father of Florence Nightingale (right) (1820-1910), the medical reformer, statistician and founder of modern nursing, who is well-known for her her achievements caring for sick and wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-56).  

John Smedley and Caroline

As a child, John Smedley was brought up in Wirksworth, just four miles or so from Lea Bridge. No doubt he maintained his links with the town’s St Mary’s Church as he grew older, and as a result, would know the Reverend John Harward and his family. Indeed, he became very close with the Reverend’s daughter, Caroline, whom he married in 1847 (when in his 40s). Having entrusted the running of the mill to managers*, John and his new wife travelled ‘from spa to spa through France, Germany and Switzerland’. On their return, Smedley was ’in a state of bodily and mental collapse’. It’s possible that he was suffering from typhoid fever and/or malaria. He despaired of his doctors, whose medicines ‘only aggravated his condition’. At the time, medical science was very much in its infancy, with blood letting being a common treatment. As Smedley had suffered from ill-health for several years, it is easy to understand how he became critical of, and disillusioned by the medical profession; factors which led to his interest in alternative treatments.

*A later manager was Robert Wildgoose JP, who became the chair of the company which ran Smedley’s after JS’s death.