George Sorocold

Ingenious Engineer

The connection between George Sorocold and Derby is one that is particularly strong because he was born and raised there, had a large family of his own there – with eight children – and made his mark on the city’s development. Born in Derby in 1668 and educated in Cambridge, Sorocold returned to Derby in 1684 when he married Mary Franceys and began to work in the city as an engineer – a career that would take him across Britain and make him a highly regarded figure of his time.

Blue Plaque at Slik Mill

Blue Plaque at Slik Mill

George Sorocold’s career in engineering.
Sorocold’s career as a hydraulic engineer had a big impact on a number of towns and cities as he worked to improve the provision of running water in towns, from Exeter to Norwich and Leeds, and developed docks – most notably at Liverpool and London – all with machinery he had devised himself. He is also responsible for innovations that aided the drainage of mines, atmospheric engines and a new type of pump that worked with waterwheels and the level of the watercourse.

George’s work took him all over the country but some of his more notable achievements can be found in his native Derbyshire. One of his first jobs was the hanging of the bells and fitting of the clock to what is now Derby Cathedral. He was also responsible for drawing up the plans to improve the navigation of the River Derwent and the creation of Derby’s first silk mill for Thomas Cotchett and, while the former was not taken up and the mill was less than successful, it did prove to be inspirational for others in the industry. The use of Dutch designs may not have worked for Cotchett but two local brothers saw the potential of Sorocold’s talent.

George Sorocold's Wheel

George Sorocold’s Wheel

The Lombe’s Mill.
One of Sorocold’s more famous Derbyshire achievements was the Lombe’s Mill on the Derwent River, the first of its kind in the country. The two Lombe brothers were inspired by George’s work on his previous mills and hired him to build a larger, more impressive spinning mill for them based on the mechanics and designs of the Italians. The intricate and complex design was one of most challenging structures he had worked on, where thousands upon thousands of bobbins and spindles had to be powered by a single waterwheel, but he and John Lombe worked hard on the design and together they created a silk mill that would become a great source of income and inspiration and a tourist attraction from its completion in 1722 to the present day.

 Engraving of Derby's Silk Mill

Engraving of Derby’s Silk Mill

George Sorocold’s death and legacy.
It is not clear exactly when and how George died; records suggest that it was in 1738, although he was lucky to survive a serious accident many years before at the Lombe’s Mill. Sorocold was taking a group of visitors on a tour of the mill when he lost his footing and fell into the sluice. The speed and force of the water – a factor that had played a big part in the initial location of the mill – meant that he was quickly forced towards his large waterwheel but, luckily, it gave way and he escaped.

Following his death, Sorocold was revered as one of the best engineers in the country. One of Sorocold’s leading competitors, Thomas Savery, was keen to point out the unbeatable talent of the “ingenious” Sorocold and the founder of the Copley medal had nothing but praise for his London Bridge project. Today, memorials to his work can be seen across the country in his creations and engineering work, such as the mill he made for the Lombe’s which became the Derby Industrial Museum after reconstruction work following a fire in 1910. In 2013, he will also be awarded with a blue plaque in joint recognition with John Lombe at the site of their mill; a sign that it took more than the spirit and innovation of Lombe brothers to make the Silk Mill a success.

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Other sites that were considered for his own plaque were his waterworks and the Cathedral tower where he hung the bells back in 1687. It is debatable whether this site would have been a more fitting tribute but the fact that there was such choice shows the true impact of George Sorocold in Derbyshire.