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William Strutt

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1756-1830

1831 Memoir[1]

MEMOIR OF WILLIAM STRUTT, ESQ. F.R.S.

The subject of this memoir, was the eldest son of Mr. Jedediah Strutt, the ingenious inventor of the frame for making ribbed stockings, and the partner of Sir Richard Arkwright, a man distinguished for integrity and simplicity of character, and whose well directed industry and ingenuity, were the means of raising him, from a humble station to comparative affluence and distinction.

At the time of the birth of his son William, which took place on the 20th of July, 1756, at Blackwell, in this county, he was in the occupation of a small farm at that place; but a few years after, he removed to Derby, for the purpose of entering into the hosiery business, where he was of course accompanied by his family. His son William received his education, successively at the schools of Mr. Gregory, of Findern, Mr. Lowe, of Norton, and Mr. Wilkinson, of Nottingham; but he left school when he was about fourteen years old, and from that early age, 'till a late period of his life, he was actively and successfully engaged in business. It has often been remarked, in the biography of distinguished or ingenious men, that they were indebted for the most important part of their education to their own unassisted exertions; and this remark is peculiarly applicable in the present instance. For notwithstanding the most assiduous devotion to business, he contrived by great diligence, and especially by early rising, to find time for the cultivation of his mind; and it was under these apparently disadvantageous circumstances, that he succeeded in laying the basis of those scientific attainments, which in after life proved so valuable to himself, and so useful to the public, and which obtained for him the respect and friendship of some of the most distinguished scientific men of his age.

Amongst these, it is impossible not to mention that eminent physician and ingenious philosopher Dr. Darwin, with whom he lived on terms of intimate friendship, and in almost daily intercourse, from his first arrival in Derby, in the year 1781, down to the time of his death in 1802. It was in conjunction with Dr. Darwin, and a few other scientific friends, that he assisted in the formation of the Derby Philosophical Society, in 1781, and on the death of the Doctor, he was appointed to succeed him as President, which he continued to hold for the rest of his life. It may also be added in this place, that in 1817 he received the honour of being proposed, and elected without his knowledge, a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In his cultivation of the Sciences, Mr. Strutt was peculiarly distinguished by the ingenuity and the industry which he evinced by applying their principles to some useful and practical purpose. His active and inventive mind was almost constantly at work, devising new contrivances which might be serviceable in domestic econonomy, in public institutions, or in manufactures or the arts; or which might conduce to the comfort of his own family or friends, to the welfare of the town in which he lived, or to the general advantage of the public.

But before we attempt any explanation of the nature of these inventions, it will be convenient to give a brief sketch of the general objects of his public services, which were of so much importance to this town and neighbourhood, and which occupied so large a portion of his life.

It would be no easy task to give a full account of the public works in which he took a part, as it would be little less, than to describe the various improvements which have taken place in the town of Derby, for the last fifty years. The beautiful bridge over the Derwent, called Saint Mary's Bridge, was the first great work to the success of which he mainly contributed, and in which he lent no mean assistance, to the eminent architect, Mr. Harrison of Chester. All the other bridges in the town, he either personally planned, or contributed in a great degree to erect.

But the most important public work, in which he engaged in the earlier part of his life, was the obtaining and carrying into effect, the Act of 1792, for paving and lighting the town, and for laying out the district called Nun's Green. There are at this time, comparatively few of the inhabitants, who can recollect the state of the town previously to this useful measure, and who can therefore form a just estimate of the benefits which it was the means of conferring on the public; and there are still fewer, who are aware of the protracted difficulties with which its supporters had to contend. When it is recollected, that a powerful and violent opposition was raised against the bill, partly perhaps in consequence of mistaken views, and partly from political feelings; and when it is considered that every attempt was made to defeat it, by objections against the measure, in principle and in detail, and by every species of obstacle that could be devised; it must be acknowledged, that few individuals could be found who would consent to place themselves at the head of such an undertaking, and would voluntarily submit to so much labour, anxiety, and obloquy, with no other motive than the public advantage. Mr. Strutt had the satisfaction to see the act not only productive of all the advantage which he had anticipated, but its utility so generally recognized, that when, thirty-three years after, it was proposed, to apply for a new act, greatly to extend the benefits of the former one, the measure was received with universal approbation, and he for the second time presided as the Chairman of the Committee. Our limits will scarcely allow us, even to notice many of the less striking, but not unimportant improvements, which he was mainly instrumental in carrying into effect. We must therefore be content, only to mention that he took an active part in the erection of most of our public edifices in the widening and improvement of the streets and roads of the town and neighbourhood; in the establishment and management of the gas works; in the measures for relieving the lower parts of the town from the dangerous and destructive floods to which they had been subject; and in the establishment and support of various useful charities and public institutions, such as the Friendly Societies, the Savings Bank, the Lancastrian School, and the Mechanics' Institution.

But there is one Charity which has been more particularly indebted to his exertions, and which remains as a lasting monument of his ingenuity and benevolence; we mean the Derbyshire Infirmary. It was here, that he found full scope for his inventive powers, as all the arrangements of the building were conducted under his immediate superintendence; and by means of a well digested and judicious plan, and by the adoption of numerous original contrivances, to which we shall advert more particularly hereafter, he succeeded in producing a hospital, which has, in many respects, served as a model to similar institutions in England, and has obtained a well deserved celebrity even on the Continent.

Throughout all his public services there was no quality of mind which Mr. Strutt evinced in a more remarkable degree, than that perfect sincerity, independence, and singleness of purpose, which obtained for him the respect even of his warmest opponents. Whenever he was convinced that his judgment had been formed upon good grounds, he pursued his purpose, utterly regardless of opposition and misrepresentation; and not unfrequently did he stand out either alone or in small minorities, in the decided, and, as experience has proved, the well founded conviction, that his views must in the end prevail In short, to use the words of one of his friends on a recent occasion, " His powerful mind, and extensive scientific and moral attainments, were devoted for many years, through good report and through evil report, to the improvement of the town, the extension of its commerce, the establishment of its literary and scientific institutions, and the amelioration of the general condition of its inhabitants. This he did, with the most unwearied assiduity, uncompromising integrity, and singleness of heart which ever distinguished a philosopher and philanthropist."

Happily he lived to see his services duly appreciated by the public; and it was on the occasion to which we have just referred, that he received from his fellow townsmen, a testimony to his services, which was of all others the most gratifying to his feelings, in their unanimous election of his only son, as one of their Representatives in Parliament. We should have been anxious to give a full report of Mr. Strutt's scientific contrivances, but to enumerate all his inventions and improvements would exceed the limits of this short memoir. Perhaps it may be sufficient to notice generally, his very numerous and scientific plans for the improvement of domestic economy, of which a full account will be found, in the work on the Derbyshire Infirmary, by his intimate and ingenious friend the late Mr. Charles Sylvester. Amongst these we may more particularly specify his improvements in various kinds of cooking apparatus; in machinery to facilitate the washing, wringing and drying of clothes and linen; and numerous other arrangements tending to domestic cleanliness and order, and to great economy of fuel and labour. He bestowed much time and attention in devising plans for economising fuel in all its various applications, and we believe there are few who have made themselves so complete masters of this important and difficult subject.

His hot air stove, and the application of it to the warming and ventilating of large buildings and manufactories, is a most important invention; and it may be safely asserted that this contrivance, combining the advantages of great economy with complete ventilation, was the first, and is without doubt, the most scientific and effectual, of all the numerous schemes which have been attempted for this object. To the importance of complete ventilation, as connected with the warming of manufactories or apartments, occupied by numerous persons, he was particularly alive, fully aware of its beneficial effect, in promoting health and comfort, in a degree not in general sufficiently appreciated, but acknowledged by all medical men; and he deprecated the adoption of those plans for the warming of manufactories, where this most important principle, so essential to the health of the persons employed is overlooked. Amongst his other inventions and improvements, we may mention a self-acting mule for the spinning of cotton, (invented more than 40 years ago,) but we believe that the inferior workmanship of that day, prevented the success of an invention, which all the skill and improvement in the construction of machinery of the present day, has barely accomplished.

In conjunction with Dr. Darwin, he availed himself of a rude but original contrivance, called a Watchman's Tell-tale, and so improved upon it, as to form the present complete Watch-clerk. This machine, though in use above 40 years, is only now beginning to be generally known, and applied to the services of the public.

He was the first person who attempted the construction of fire-proof buildings on a large scale in this, country, and with the most perfect success. The great improvements made of late years in the formation of Castings in iron, have given great facilities to this mode of construction, which is now very extensively in use.

The connexion of the circumference of a circle with the center by suspension radii, is an invention entirely due to him. This principle combining great strength and lightness, has been most successfully applied to Water Wheels on a large scale, and is now coming rapidly into use in the wheels of carriages.

The invention of a machine somewhat similar in external appearance to the sun and planet wheels, which were formerly used in steam engines, and its application to clocks and machines, for indicating & registering, the revolution of rotatory machinery, was one of his latest efforts; and the simplicity, accuracy and complete novelty of this sort of clocks, will afford to the scientific world, sufficient evidence of his powerful genius and comprehensive mind.

The success which attended his efforts in these and many other mechanical contrivances, as well as in the superintendence of public improvements of every kind, naturally created a general confidence in his judgment, and a deference to his opinion. On the introduction of any new project his sanction was eagerly sought for; and "What does Mr. Strutt think of it," was a common subject of enquiry.

This biographical sketch would he imperfect without a brief notice of Mr. Strutt's political opinions, for although he was not placed in a situation to take a very active part in politics, it was a subject on which he felt the warmest interest, and his opinions were not without influence in the society and town in which he lived. He was through life a steady supporter of those liberal principles which have lately been gaining ground so rapidly throughout the civilized part of the globe. He was a warm friend to toleration, and a sincere enquirer after truth; and as such, he was a zealous advocate for the right of free enquiry, and free discussion on all subjects, moral, political and religious. He was always opposed to that system of restriction on trade which is now beginning to give way under the influence of a more enlightened policy. And lastly, with respect to the constitution of the legislature he was convinced that it was essential to the existence of a good Government, that the people should exercise an effectual control over the conduct of their representatives; a control, which in his opinion, the people of this country did not possess. The same sincerity and independence which distinguished his general character, was manifested in the uncompromising assertion of his political principles. During the American war he avowed his sympathy with the Americans, and his satisfaction at their successful resistance to the tyrannical measures of the British Government.

In the early part of the French Revolution, he sympathised with the French people in their efforts to obtain a constitutional Government; and he deeply lamented the revolutionary war which was quickly followed by the reign of terror in France, and which entailed so enormous a load of debt upon England. With equal consistency he was opposed to the military despotism of Napoleon, and sincerely rejoiced in its fall. And in his last illness, he was cheered by the accounts of the noble, and successful exertions of the French people, by which they secured their own liberties, and set a bright example to Europe. It is scarcely necessary to add, that he rejoiced in the triumph obtained by religious liberty, in the repeal of the Test Act, and in the Roman Catholic Relief Bill; and that he enjoyed the bright prospects which appear to be opening on the cause of parliamentary reform. As a friend to popular rights, he was convinced that the best security for order and good government, was to be found in an enlightened and well informed public ; and with this view, he was most anxious to promote all measures, for the diffusion of useful knowledge amongst the people, considering that no Charities were more deserving of encouragement than those which had this object in view. And with him, the due direction of benevolence was a subject for reason and deliberation, as he was conscientiously desirous on all occasions, to apply his charity with a proper regard not only to the wants of the object, but to the general interests of society. Of his conduct in the relations of private life, it is only necessary to observe, that it was in all respects worthy of the character which we have attempted to describe, and that it was perfectly consistent with that simplicity, integrity and benevolence which distinguished his general conduct. He was married in 1793 to Barbara, youngest daughter of the late Thomas Evans, Esq. of this place, whom he survived many years.

He died after an illness of several months, on the 29th of December, 1830, in the 75th year of his age.


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Sources of Information

  1. Derby Mercury - Wednesday 12 January 1831