Belper is home to an extensive retail scene, recreational gems such as the Ritz Cinema, and numerous former industrial powerhouses. This small, former Georgian market town is located in the centre of the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site and still has one of the former 19th century cotton mill, the North Mill, standing in the centre of town; this grade-II listed mill now acts as the Derwent Valley Visitor Centre, an exhibition explaining the town’s industrial past.
The contentious figure, Samuel Slater, known as ‘Father of the American Factory System’ in America -and as ‘Slater the Traitor’ in Britain – was born in Belper in 1768, and history can also be learned about at the North Mill exhibition.
Belper also has several other industrial-era buildings and structures to marvel at throughout the town, including: the 18th century Horseshoe Weir, which stretches across the River Derwent; the imposing 19th Century red-bricked East Mill; and the 1834 George Brettle Warehouse.
Belper offers tranquillity at several access points to the Derwent River, most notably, the Belper River Gardens, which offers a picturesque location to relax near the riverside amongst flowerbeds and shrubberies.
Belper is also a Peak District retail epicentre, with an eclectic mix of independent purveyors, specialist stores, and a regular farmers market. This diverse shopping scene won the town the Great British High Street Award in 2014.
The oldest structure which still stands in Belper is St. John’s Chapel, which dates to 1250 and was originally dedicated to St Thomas.
Several forges dating back to the 13th century suggest Belper’s original source of income was mainly based in ironworks; this production was minor though, as by 1740 Belper had a mere population of 500. This changed with the arrival of Jedediah Strutt, a business associate to Richard Arkwright, who brought serious industry to the town, namely, cotton. Strutt put Belper on the map by constructing the second water-powered cotton mill in the world. By the end of his tenure in the town, Strutt had constructed a total of 5 water mills, turned the town into a textile powerhouse, and, incidentally, increased the population to 8,000 by 1830. The original North Mill perished in a fire in 1803.
The booming cotton industry brought the North Midland Railway line through Belper in the year 1840. Belper had been the first town in the whole of Britain to receive gas lighting in the year 1820, which later saw the formation of the Belper Gas and Coke Company in 1850.
One man employed by Strutt was Belper’s own Samuel Slater, who would go on to become a significant influence American manufacturing, at the cost of betraying Britain. At the time, so that Britain to maintain a monopoly on the processing of cotton, it was made illegal for British manufacturers to immigrate to America, in case they gave away valuable processing secrets. Disguising himself as a farmer and travelling to America by boat, Slater disclosed Britain’s water mill blueprints, and in turn became one of the main instigators of the American industrial era.
Belper Monthly Market – taking place on the 2nd Saturday of every month (except January) on the town’s Market Square, this farmer’s market serves the very best in local produce, including meat, cheese, bread, and cakes. It’s only open between 8.30am and 1.00pm, so get down early!
De Bradelei Shopping Village – This shopping centre is where you’ll find an extensive selection of menswear, womenswear, and homeware. De Bradelei is found within the historic George Brettle and Co. building, one of the main manufacturers in Belper, which was originally constructed in 1834. It has been a shopping centre for over 20 years now, featuring a restaurant and café.
The Ritz Cinema – This is the perfect place to view both blockbusters and independent movies under one roof. This Art Deco hall was originally built in 1882 and has had many usages over the years, including a meeting hall, a library, and even as a court. It first became a cinema in 1919 and was updated in 1935 to seat 500 people. Popularity dwindled throughout the 20th century and, after having changed ownership several times, eventually closed its doors in 1991. It re-opened in 2006 with a restoration of the original auditorium, which now seats 117, with a fully licenced bar and bingo hall downstairs.
Belper River Gardens – This pleasure garden dates back to 1905 and today boasts a number of fascinating shrubberies and flowerbeds. Originally devised by a descendant of local mill owner, Jedediah Strutt, entrance to this tranquil riverside landscape is free, and features a children’s play area and boating facilities.
Strutt’s North Mill Museum – Explore the history of Belper’s industrial past inside one of Strutt’s original cotton mills. The site was home originally to Strutt’s first ever cotton mill, which was constructed 1786, and unfortunately burned down – a frequent occurrence in the production of cotton – in 1803. Jedediah Strutt’s son, William Strutt, erected the innovative fire-proof replacement, which opened in 1804 and is where the current exhibition takes place. Employing over 2000 workers at its peak, this mill museum offers a real opportunity to understand both the innovation of the industrial era, and also the strife of the people who made Belper what it is today.