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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Cannon Mill - The Oldest Industrial Building in Town!

Posted Saturday, June 23, 2007

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Cannon Mill

`An exciting project to preserve & restore an essential part of Chesterfield's industrial heritage'

An exciting project to preserve and restore an essential part of Chesterfield’s industrial heritage is currently being led by Mr. Richard Robinson of Robinson & Sons Ltd, who along with other members of the North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society, seeks to restore the ancient Grade Two listed Cannon Mill, its Water Wheel and original Mill Pond at Brampton for the use and benefit of the local community.

This area of the Robinson’s Works complex was the site of the massive Griffin Foundry which two hundred years ago produced cannon balls and ordnance for the Napoleonic Wars – and no less than a quarter of the total iron production in the county of Derbyshire, which at the turn of the nineteenth century was producing 25% of Great Britain’s total output!

Background to the legacy:

The changing face of the `Historic Market Town’ of Chesterfield is signified by the boundary signs on the main highway approaches which once announced, `Chesterfield – The Centre of Industrial England’; but with the demise of heavy industry during the latter part of the twentieth century, it is difficult to conceive that two hundred years ago this modern urban metropolis could also justifiably claim to be the industrial centre of England - with the hamlet of Brampton at it’s hub.

`In mid-Victorian times Brampton was a hive of industrial activity'

In mid-Victorian times Brampton was a hive of industrial activity with numerous old coal pits, two working collieries, a dozen potteries, six brickyards, a corn mill and the factories and mills at Wheatbridge - but by that time the Griffin Foundry was already a hundred years old!

The Griffin Foundry:

In 1776 John Smith and his two Sheffield partners leased the existing furnace, foundry, grinding mill and fire engine on the southern banks of the River Hipper at Wheatbridge from James Shemwell. Smith also leased the forge, boring mill, and two mill dams at Nether Whittingholme (now the B & Q site) using water from both the Holme Brook and the River Hipper, from William Robinson, grandfather of John Robinson, founder of Robinson & Sons Ltd.

At the time that Richard Arkwright was building his first factory at nearby Cromford, self-taught engineer Francis Thompson of Ashover (1747 – 1809) was helping Smiths Griffin Foundry at Brampton to drive the wheels of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution by building Newcomen engines and other steam engines and pumping machinery for use in lead and coal mines, and later, for the textile industry.

Smith’s Griffin Foundry made Newcomen engines designed by Thompson which were used at Mill Close Mine, Gregory Mine and Yatestoop lead mine at Winster. In 1791 they produced the famous atmospheric Newcomen engine for Boulton & Watt, designed by Francis Thompson, which was in continual use for 125 years, first at Oakerthorpe and then Pentrich Colliery, and which today is on proud display at the Science Museum in Kensington. The foundry also cast the pillars and iron beams for Jedediah Strutt’s West Mill at Belper, which is now part of the Derwent Valley World Heritage site.

`Cannon’ Mill

For thirty years, from the outbreak of the American War of Independence 1775 and through successive wars with Spain and Holland to the Napoleanic Wars in the early 1800’s, the Griffin Foundry was kept busy – and profitable - making ordnance, cannon and cannon balls for the British war machine.

In 1779 four cannon from Griffin Foundry were fired in Chesterfield Market Place to celebrate the acquittal of Admiral Keppel from court-martial following the escape of the French Fleet at the Battle of Ashanti.

In the interim, John Smith had died in 1784 and the business was taken over by his third son, Eberneezer. A survey carried out at the time by William Fairbanks confirms that what we now know as Cannon Mill was in fact the `New Casting House’, and with business booming under Eberneezer Smith, two new furnaces were erected along with three more casting houses between 1788 and 1791.

An 1806 survey of Iron Furnaces in Derbyshire puts the Griffin Foundry output at 1700 tons, on a par with the Outram Works at Butterley, although in 1809 Eberneezer Smith’s estimated production of 70 tons per week suggests a higher potential output of 3,500 tons per annum. Eberneezer also states that at it’s height, Smiths Foundries, including the family owned Newcross Foundry in Manchester, employed around 1200 people, some 500 – 600 of them in the Chesterfield, Adelphi and Calow Ironworks.

Eberneezer Smith died in 1827 and was buried adjacent to the east window at Old Brampton Church. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William Cater Smith, whilst his second son Eberneezer 3rd came from the Manchester Foundry to join the Chesterfield business and by 1829 the Griffin Foundry output was recorded at 3,600 tons per annum, one sixth of the Derbyshire total. But, as Richard Robinson points out:

“The Griffin Foundry declined and in 1833 the Old Forge and Boring Mill which stood on the current B&Q site were sold to Francis Thompson’s son Joseph for £400, plus £600 for stock & materials (compared with the value in 1776 of £3,400), and William Robinson 2nd re-purchased Wheatbridge House for £550 having previously sold it to John Smith in 1776.

Five years later the area to the immediate north of Cannon Mill was sold to John Hackett and became the Chesterfield Wire & Needle Works, and later, as Hackett & Kent, the business survived into the 1920’s making elastic webbing for corsets”.

Historical Significance:

The historical significance of the Cannon Mill site was recently highlighted by fresh evidence from archaeologist/ historian Dr. Philip Riden which confirmed that the Griffin Foundry was a coke-fired furnace in operation in 1777, ahead of Morley Park and thus, the first of it’s kind in Derbyshire.

In addition Mr Richard Robinson points out the importance of the site and its relevance to the early years of coal and ironstone mining in the area:

“Each ton of pig iron smelted required at least six tons of coke (or 8 tons of coal) and seven tons of raw ironstone, so that in 1805 Cannon Mill would have had to transport at least 13,600 tons of coal locally and 11,900 tons of ironstone. We have identified at least eighteen collieries within the Chesterfield boundaries between the early 1800’s and 1880’s – and there are at least nine hundred recorded shafts of ironstone, coal and clay in the area”.

This then, would account for the astonishing number of collieries, coal pits, potters and brickyards shown on the Ordnance Survey map of Brampton in 1876! Of course, Robinson & Sons Ltd have played a major role throughout the 250 year history of the old Griffin Foundry site, especially since 1839 when John Robinson, the founder of the firm gave up his Chemist’s Shop on Packer’s Row after 22 years in the profession and launched the famous pill-box business from his front room in Wheatbridge House!

In 1856 the remainder of the Griffin Foundry site was sold off to the Chesterfield Gas & Water Company, and thirty years later the Cannon Mill, then known as the `Green Mill’ was purchased by Robinson & Sons for £1020 in 1886.

“It is likely that the furnaces were demolished at or before this time, says Richard Robinson, `but the Corn Mill on the site was still in operation, and the last miller, Isaac Briggs was living there. The building must have been rented, but the flour milling business was owned by Thomas Townsend who in 1887 built the Flour Mill adjacent to Lordsmill Street & Hipper Street School which operated under the name T & F Townrow. The business was subsequently owned by Thomas Irving and the mill finally demolished during the late 1990’s”.

The Cannon Mill had further uses; in 1893 a cotton warehouse was built at right angles to the mill in the Cannon Mill Yard, and in 1907 this building was altered to make it into a new Cardroom with four cards, and as Richard Robinson explains:

“After the war the building housed a Willow Opening Machine which opened waste-cotton fabric for re-cycling into cotton-wool, and thousands of new employees started their training at the Cannon Mill. The foreman, who was appropriately nicknamed `Cusser’ Higginbottom asked new starters if they wanted their caps cleaning, and if so, to put them into the Willow Machine to be cleaned. Of course, when they came out at the other end, they had been shredded to pieces! The cardroom subsequently became the Electricians & Joiners Shop and was demolished in 1986”.

It is almost 50 years since Robinson & Sons Ltd refurbished the old Cannon Mill building and its water-wheel, but an architectural survey in December 2003 highlighted the urgent need for further work to save the structure, claiming “if nothing is done the building will be lost within a few years”.

With the old Griffin Foundry site cleared of redundant industrial buildings and substantial proportions of the surrounding area designated for Housing Development, Richard Robinson’s proposals represent a rare opportunity to preserve an integral part of Chesterfield’s industrial heritage, and to make the Cannon Mill with it’s prospectively picturesque water-wheel and mill pond into an interesting historic feature of Chesterfield’s future landscape.

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