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  • A-Z of Derby by Maxwell Craven

    Derby, Lowell & Joseph Wright

    Derby has a long-established but little known connection with the American mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, stemming from the Derby family of Francis Boott. He was a market gardener, florist and seedsman with premises in Derby Market Place and a house in Queen Street. He died suddenly in middle life leaving seven children, amongst whom was Kirk Boott (1756-1817). In January 1783, the artist Joseph Wright’s elder brother John decided to accompany his life-long friend Kirk Boott to America too seek their fortune. They proceeded to London, where they appeared to have enjoyed two months enjoying the high life, before Boott took a ship to Boston, but leaving Wright behind. He arrived on 13th June 1783 and shortly afterwards married Mary Love, daughter of the Captain of the ship Rosamund on which he had crossed the Atlantic.

    Why John Wright stayed behind is something of a mystery, but the explanation probably lies in those two months socialising in London. It would now seem that he had been offered a job, and indeed, he became a banker, rising to a partnership in the concern of Messrs. Smith, Wright and Gray, Lombard Street. It is well known that he stayed in touch with Boott, for the latter named his eldest son John Wright Boott (born 1788) after him. Like the Derby Lunar Society luminary John Whitehurst FRS, whom he undoubtedly knew well, John Wright later corresponded with Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, Whitehurst may have arranged an introduction when Wright decided to remain in London. It is possible too that he was able to provide the finance for his friend Boott.

    Joseph Wright: The Indian Widow… (1785). (c. Derby Museums Trust)

    According to Brad Parker, Kirk sent enthusiastic letters back to John Wright and his sister, Mrs. Horrocks, from the time of his arrival, most of which appear to be lost but their contents is to some extent reflected in his journal. It also seems likely that he also sent artefacts in exchange for saleable goods. That some of the earliest letters may have well included the material that inspired Joseph Wright to paint The Indian Widow, completed by 1785, carries more conviction than the suggestions floated by Benedict Nicolson, and concur with his asseveration that some of the detail of the picture – tomahawk, knife, head-dress – may have been painted from life.

    In Boston, Boott established an import/export business, which included introducing the US elite to Derby Porcelain, compass dials (of which the latter could well have been products of Whitehurst’s Derby works) and many other mainly local products. He was naturalized a US citizen in November 1787 becoming very wealthy, leaving at his death in 1817 five sons and four daughters

     The most important outcome of this migration lay in the career of Boott’s third son, Kirk (1790-1837). Whilst the eldest son initially returned to London to run that end of the family business, Kirk II  was sent to England to be educated, going to school in Ashbourne and then Rugby and making numerous visits to family in Derby. After returning to study for three years at Harvard, he went back to Britain to join the army, seeing action in the Peninsula campaign 1812-1814 before getting a peacetime posting at Sheffield Garrison as a Captain in the 85th Regiment.

    He visited Derby frequently at this time, staying at St. Helen’s House with William Strutt, the Wrights, and his aunt, Mrs. John Horrocks. In 1818 he married Anne, a daughter of Alderman Dr. Thomas Haden, physician and protégé of Erasmus Darwin, who had been mayor of Derby in 1811 and 1819. Dr. Haden had been painted by Joseph Wright (as Edwin) when a child (and, as an adult, by Reinagle in 1813), and had been the junior partner and successor of Joseph’s second brother Richard in his medical practice in St. Alkmund’s Church Yard. Kirk Boott himself visited the local textile mills in 1817–18 as the guest of their co-proprietor, Strutt. Once married, however, he resigned his commission and returned to America. Anne and her sister Sarah Haden had been painted as children in 1796 by Joseph Wright, but Mary, Mrs. Francis Boott (née Tunaley of Derby, wife of Kirk Boott II’s elder brother) later had it copied by Wright’s friend John Holland of Ford in 1803 and from that had an engraving made. In 1954 the Ford copy was with Mrs. Robert Haydock of Dedham, Mass. a descendant and her kinsman, David Richardson of Charles River Mass., apparently owned the original.

    From 1821 Boott was co-founder with Francis Cabot Lowell, Nathan Appleton and Patrick T. Jackson of a new settlement at East Chelmsford, of the confluence of the Merrimack and Pawtucket rivers in Massa­chusetts. This was to be a cotton-spinning city, and Boott’s role was to set it up and run it. He had hoped to call it Derby, but the sudden death of Lowell led to its being given his name instead. Lowell himself had been the scion of a patrician family of Boston merchants and he had also visited Britain and originated the idea of a model textile industry in New England to rival Samuel Slater’s Pawtucket Mills, set up a little before using ideas pirated from the Strutts at Belper. Boott, on the other hand, had the support of the Strutts in his enterprise, which was an important difference.

    Kirk Boott of Lowell, unknown artist. (Collections of the Lowell Historical Society, A-Z of Derby, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1824, Boott appointed Rev Theodore Edson as incumbent of his new settlement and personally designed St Anne’s Church, which he based on St. Michael’s, Derby, in which he had been married, whereas the dedication was in honour of his wife. It will come as no surprise that the Edgeworths (offspring and sister of the Lunar Society maverick Irish landowner Richard Lovel Edgeworth, who had extensive American property) kept William Strutt fully informed of Boott’s enter­prise, which appear to have continued to have Strutt’s blessing.

    Like Strutt, too, Boott was a competent architect, designing not only the church but workers’ housing, mills and municipal buildings, some of which survive. In the end, the City of Lowell was a great success.

    Francis, a son of the Boott’s eldest brother, who had returned to London, later married Kirk Boott’s daughter, Eliza Haden Boott, and their daughter Mary married her English cousin Charles Sydenham Haden, thus squaring the Derby circle yet again. One of the entrepreneurs attracted to the new city by Boott was George Washington Whistler, who set up a works to construct railway locomotives there in 1832. His son was the eminient London based impressionist painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler, later brother-in-law – and eventually, as with most of his friends, sworn enemy – of Boott’s nephew Sir Francis Seymour Haden, etcher and eminent surgeon. Boott himself was killed in a street accident in 1837, but his legacy – and posterity – continued.

    Exactly how much of Strutt’s own idealism and ingenuity went into Lowell and its extensive mills it is impossible to say, but the Derby intellectual revolution of the 18th century was a fundamental inspi­ration at Lowell and if it should prove to have been international in its consequences no one should be surprised. After all, had not Bostonian Benjamin Franklin been a friend of Darwin’s, a frequent guest of Whitehurst’s and eminence grise of the Lunar Society?

    Whilst Kirk Boott the elder imported and sold the products of William Duesbury’s Derby China factory, the two families seem to have remained in touch, for much later the under-rated William Duesbury III (invariably portrayed as a talentless ne’er-do-well by China enthusiasts) sold his interest in the china works in 1815 in order to set up a white paint factory at Bonsall using a new process of his own devising, omitting the toxic lead element. Indeed, Duesbury was a formidably talented chemist, but ahead of his time by about 150 years. The business at Bonsall failed, after which he went to America, following in the footsteps of his scallywag of an uncle, James Duesbury. Having known Boott from his Derby days, he settled in Lowell almost from its foundation as an industrial chemist working on dyes for the fabrics being manufactured there. He was a convinced Universalist also like Boott and William Strutt a competent architect, designing for his sect a fine chapel in Shattuck Street, Lowell. Once ensconced in the Massachusetts city he also married again – perhaps bigamously, for we do not know the fate of his first family in Derby. He duly fathered more children, before, tragically, doing away with himself for reasons that remain obscure, on 12 December 1845. Apparently, he was by no means the last migrant from Derby to settle at Lowell, the city’s textile mills attracting a significant proportion of their workforce from Derby and its region.

    Needless to say, this and many other well-known and not-so well-known aspects of Derby’s rich heritage are to be found in the pages of An A to Z of Derby.

    Maxwell Craven's new book A-Z of Derby is available for purchase now.

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