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A Research Framework for a World Heritage Site

An innovative approach  to studying the cultural heritage of the Derwent Valley Mills.

18th century painting of Cromford Mills.
The Cromford cotton mills, as depicted by Joseph Wright (1734‒97). © Derby Museums Trust

The Derwent Valley from Derby to Matlock was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001 in recognition of its pivotal role in the growth of the factory system. Innovative building types were developed to house the machinery used in the manufacturing of textiles, initially at the Derby Silk Mill and subsequently for spinning cotton at Cromford, Masson, Lea Bridge, Belper, Milford and Darley Abbey.

The need to provide workers’ housing and other facilities resulted in the creation of early factory colonies by the owners: the Arkwrights at Cromford, the Strutts at Belper and Milford, and the Evans family at Darley Abbey. These have survived in a remarkably intact state.

Map of Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site
The World Heritage Site is divided into ‘core’ (red) and ‘buffer’ (purple) zones. The key mill complexes are numbered: 1 – Masson; 2 – Cromford; 3 – John Smedley; 4 – Belper; 5 – Milford; 6 – Darley Abbey; 7 – Derby Silk Mill. © Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and database right 2016; compiled by Steve Malone

The research framework is one of the first to be developed for any of the eight industrial World Heritage Sites in the UK and pioneers an innovative stakeholder-led approach that could be applied to other sites on the World Heritage List, both in the UK and beyond.

It fulfils the UNESCO requirement that World Heritage Sites develop robust research frameworks and, by its focus upon research topics and strategies identified during stakeholder workshops, provides a rare example of a framework developed by rather than for the local research community.

It was commissioned by Historic England and the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership in April 2013 and was published in August 2016 (Knight 2016).

The Research Framework was developed in close liaison with stakeholders in the Derwent Valley, and is modelled upon the innovative template that was developed for the updated research agenda and strategy for the historic environment of the East Midlands (Knight et al 2012).

Like that work, it has two key elements: a synthesis of current views on the priorities for research (the agenda) and an account of the measures required to advance understanding of these (the strategy). It is, however, much broader in its scope, extending beyond the historic environment focus of that framework to consider the wide variety of historical, literary, artistic and other data that assist study of the area’s cultural heritage.

The cover of the World Heritage Site Research Framework.
The cover of the World Heritage Site Research Framework. © The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership; cover image © Derby Museums Trust

The project was guided by a steering group comprising representatives of a wide range of organisations  with a strong interest in the World Heritage Site.

It also benefited from the input of a specialist advisory panel comprising individuals who could give their input on such diverse subjects as the impact of the Enlightenment, mill architecture, workers’ housing, the role of women and children in the mills, and representations of the valley in art and ceramic artefacts.

Black and white photograph of Round Mill at Belper.
William Strutt’s Round Mill at Belper, photographed in 1959 prior to its demolition. © Derbyshire Record Office

Defining the agenda

Discussions with stakeholders identified 11 key research themes, including:

  • assessment of the impact of the Enlightenment
  • the growth of industry
  • trade and settlement before the creation of the factory system
  • the evolution of factory-based industry and its subsequent metamorphosis
  • the changing relationships between factory owners, the landed gentry and the middle classes
  • the contrasting urban and rural labour forces
  • the role of transport, power and public utilities
  • the built environment
  • landscape and environmental change
  • the national and global impacts of developments in the valley

Lidar visualisation of Lower Derwent Valley landscape
Lower Derwent Valley, showing the potential of lidar survey for studies of landscape change: yellow outline – palaeochannels; green outline – ridge and furrow. © Environment Agency

Within each theme, stakeholders identified up to 10 topics as priorities for investigation. The breadth of coverage may be illustrated by a summary of those established for the Enlightenment theme.

Here, consultees highlighted the importance of topics such as:

  • the contribution of 18th-century studies of the earth sciences and antiquities to perceptions of the valley’s past
  • the impacts of Enlightenment philosophies upon valley communities
  • changing interpretations of the Derwent Valley as a result of artistic depictions of the region
  • and the social and economic impacts of 18th-century tourism and consumer culture

18th century painting of landscape and people angling, boating and riding at Hopping Weir
18th-century angling, boating and riding at Hopping Mill Weir, Milford, as portrayed by Thomas Smith (1720–67). © Derby Museums Trust

Developing the strategy

Once the agenda had been established, four stakeholder workshops were convened with the aim of agreeing strategies for each research theme.

The resulting measures for advancing understanding, or strategic objectives, form the heart of the research framework. It was recommended, for example, that built environment research focus upon:

  • the functional, social and cultural factors that impacted on textile mill design
  • the influence of mill owners on the planning of industrial settlements
  • the impact of pre-factory industrialisation on the architecture of domestic buildings and associated structures
  • the potential of laser survey for analysing variations in machinery layouts and the circulation routes of factory workers
  • the impact of industrialisation upon farming, including agricultural processes, building traditions and the layout of farms

Laser survey visualistation of interior to Long Mill, Darley Abbey.
Long Mill, Darley Abbey: laser survey showing in red/magenta the slight pathways on the floor eroded between machine locations, which are shown in green/blue. © Derbyshire County Council

The agenda and strategy will be updated regularly as research priorities change and as investigations shed light upon the various topics that need study. The framework is not intended to be prescriptive, but is a tool to facilitate research on topics judged by the valley’s stakeholder community to be of particular interest. We have every expectation that both the priorities and the strategies it contains will change as knowledge advances , and as survey and analytical techniques develop.

The authors


David Knight

David Knight

David Knight DPhil FSA MCIfA is Head of Research for Trent and Peak Archaeology (part of the York Archaeological Trust). He was closely involved in the development of the East Midlands Historic Environment Research Framework and is active in research into the archaeology and landscape of the Derwent Valley and the Peak District. He has recently been involved in Historic England projects to investigate the potential impact of climate change on the historic environment of the Derwent Valley and to establish a research framework for Peak District farmsteads.

Mark Suggitt

Mark Suggitt

Mark Suggitt, MA FMA has been Director of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site since 2011. He has previously been Head of Bradford Museums and Galleries, Director of St Albans Museums, and Assistant Director of Yorkshire and Humberside Museums Council. He was also Keeper of Social History at York Castle Museum and Assistant Keeper of Social History at Salford Museums and Galleries. He has been a Board Member of the Museums Association, ICOM UK and World Heritage UK. Mark has published and lectured widely on museums and cultural management throughout Europe.

Further reading

Knight, D (ed) 2016 Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site Research Framework. Matlock: The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership.

Knight, D, Vyner, B and Allen, C 2012 East Midlands Heritage: an Updated Agenda and Strategy for the Historic Environment of the East Midlands. Nottingham: University of Nottingham and York Archaeological Trust. Available from the Archaeology Data Service.

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