New Mills Local History Society


A Brief History of New Mills

Little is known about north-west Derbyshire before the Domesday Book of 1086, when the New Mills district was on the southern edge of the king's estate known as Longdendale. The Domesday Book records that a thane called Ligulf had formerly held land in "Tornesete" (Thornsett), the earliest record of a local place name. By the thirteenth century, the area now known as New Mills was being administered as part of the royal forest of the Peak, which occupied much of north-west Derbyshire. Although New Mills came into existence in the late eighteenth century as an industrial village involved in cotton textiles, its name is derived from a hamlet which grew up around a fourteenth century manorial corn mill, 'the New Mylne', enclosed by a loop of the river Sett, which was located near the site of the present Salem Mill (at the bottom of High Street). Soon after 1391, if not before, the mill became known as New Mill ('Newmylne'). Here there was also an ancient bridge which provided an easy crossing of the Sett just before it enters an impressive gorge known as the Torrs.

By the late sixteenth century the name New Mill was in use as a place name for the cluster of houses which had grown up around the corn mill. Together with a number of other places, such as Hayfield and Chinley, the settlement was part of a large administrative area known as Bowden Middlecale which consisted of the ten hamlets. Ecclesiastically, all these hamlets, together with Mellor, were in the ancient parish of Glossop. But because of the extensive and hilly nature of the parish, chapelries were established at Hayfield and Mellor with their own churches and registers (dating from 1620). New Mills was split between these two chapelries until the new parish of New Mills was formed in 1844 (St Georges church, a 'commissioners' church, had already been opened in 1831) comprising the four hamlets of Beard, Ollersett, Thornsett and Whitle.

Before industrialisation and the coming of the textile mills, the area consisted of scattered hill farms, cottages and hamlets, all with names which we would recognise today. Following removal of the deer from the royal forest and relaxation of the forest law in the seventeenth century, a division was made between crown and commoners of the commons and wastes. The building of farms together with new tracks and roads marked the beginning of a period of new prosperity with much rebuilding of farms and halls, and the opening up of coal mines. A surprising amount of coal was mined on the upper moorlands in the eighteenth century, and with increased demand in the nineteenth century continued lower down in deeper mines.

In the late eighteenth century, with the introduction of water power, mechanisation and the factory system for cotton, there came a rapid and fundamental change. New mills based on water power were built in the Torrs, the natural gorge running through the town, on the banks of the two rivers the Sett and Goyt. The Torrs were particularly suitable for mill construction. Rocky waterfalls and cascades in the beds of the rivers allowed the construction of weirs and a steady supply of water; there were good sites on a rocky terrace a few feet above the water within the bends of the river; and the sides of the gorge provided sandstone for building. From the original nucleus of houses built around the 'New Mill', a new town quickly grew up, spreading up what is now High Street and over the fields of the Torr Top estate. A population of 1,878 in 1801 had almost doubled by 1831.

New houses and shops soon appeared. In the early nineteenth century as population rapidly increased many houses were built in cramped conditions on the steep slopes above the river Sett near to the mills; they were demolished in the l930s and l950s in clearance programmes. Since many houses in New Mills were built on steeply sloping ground it is common to find houses which rise to two storeys on one side but three or four storeys on the other. Even today, one household occupies the upper half of such a building while another occupies the 'underliving' in the lower half. Houses on Station Road and Meal Street are typical of these.

The creation of the new town and the building of new houses and streets, the construction of turnpikes and railways, the latter with sidings and goods sheds, viaducts over the Torrs, a new church and parish (dating from l844), schools and chapels, a public hall (later the town hall), the enlargement of mills and the introduction of steam power, growth of the calico printing and engraving industries, and the rise of a new industrial suburb, Newtown, with five new cotton mills - all this took place without an urban authority. It was not until 1876 that a municipal authority, the New Mills Urban Sanitary Authority, the first local board, met for the first time in January l876. From then onwards, the development of New Mills took place within the process of municipalisation and the modern stage in its history began to evolve.

In recent years the story is one of a thriving community which has continued to change in the post-war period as the traditional industries have disappeared. With increasing car ownership and two railway stations, New Mills, set among the attractive gritstone hills on the edge of the Peak District, has great attractions as a residential area. In recent decades a number of new estates have been built on the higher slopes around the town. Industry still has a place, of course, but on a smaller scale than in the past. As a result, as in other former industrial areas, the great natural beauty is being recovered. The Torrs have been developed as a 'park beneath the town', the Heritage Centre tells the story of the town, and there are splendid walks along the Sett Valley Trail, Goyt Way, and the spectacular Millennium Walkway in the Torrs. As we enjoy our historic landscape there is still much to remind us of the past.