John Lombe

John Lombe – Sllk Weaver

Born the son of a weaver in 1693, John Lombe grew up in the textile industry as his family weaved silk and wool in Norwich, Norfolk. As the eldest, it was his brother Thomas that would inherit the family business and the younger John simply became an apprentice. As he worked his first job, it was clear that John had a talent for the industry and was he able develop the machinery and techniques to help improve the business. After their initial success, the pair continued in business together as they looked to further their trade and skills at their own spinning mill in Derby; a venture that would end with great success and tragedy.

Blue Plaque at Slik Mill

Blue Plaque at Slik Mill

The Lombe’s mill.
Together, the two Lombe brothers created their own mill on the bank of the River Derwent next to Thomas Cotchett’s 1704 mill, with much of the success due to the hard work of John and some help by the renowned engineer George Sorocold. The location was ideal because of the river’s fast flow and the nearby London to Carlisle road and between 1716 and 1722 they had successfully built an impressive structure that was possibly the first fully mechanised factory the world had known. John decided to build an island on the river where the mill could be constructed – which measured approximately 500ft long by 52ft wide – he assembled machines in the town hall and other local buildings and made them at a lower cost than the Italians to monopolise the industry. His hard work and knowledge in the construction of the mill was impressive and went a long way to the brothers’ success but it was not acquired simply by luck.

Thomas was keen to learn about using organzine thread for fine silk weaving, and the processes of the Italian mills that created it, so he decided to send a spy into the country – his brother John. Using the cover of employment at an Italian shop where they used a silk-throwing machine, John carefully worked at night to make diagrams of the machinery and learn about the Piedmontese processes. It seemed that John was quite skilled in espionage because he was able to bring the plans back with him in 1716 and use them with great success to help finish their mill; however, not everyone was impressed by his achievements.

John Lombe on Exeter Bridge

John Lombe on Exeter Bridge

John Lombe’s mysterious death.
While many will have applauded John for his work in Italy and his success in bringing back the designs, others were not so pleased – particularly the Italians that he had stolen from. Lombe’s Mill was finally completed in 1722 but John would not get to enjoy the achievement for long because that year he died under mysterious circumstances. The exact details and cause of his death are a little uncertain but the common legend involves a mysterious Italian women and poison. Apparently, on hearing of the brothers’ success, the King of Sardinia ordered a assassin to murder them and she successfully administered a slow poison on John. John died a bachelor and therefore had no heir to pass his business and wealth on to so his other brother William – or cousin depending on which report you read – briefly took charge before his own suicide due to a suspected depressive personality. From there, everything was left with Thomas and his family.

 Engraving of Derby's Silk Mill

Engraving of Derby’s Silk Mill

John Lombe’s legacy
It seems that John Lombe was always destined to be the lesser of the two brothers in both their working relationship and their overall recognition; whether his survival of the assassination attempt would have changed that is unclear. As the younger brother and essentially the apprentice to Thomas’ master he was always at a disadvantage and, after John had paid the price for his brother’s schemes, Thomas went on to achieve status and wealth with the finished mill and even received a knighthood.

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Thomas may be the one that history books remember as the successful Lombe brother but the people of Derbyshire have not forgotten the work of this hard-working mill builder and, in addition to the Bas relief sculpture that can found on the Exeter Bridge near the mill, there will be an interesting plaque. In April 2013, a joint plaque is set to be unveiled at the Silk Mill to two of its important figures – John Lombe and George Sorocold. This will be a worthy, final note of recognition for the man that made so many sacrifices and put so much hard work into making the mill a success.