The Ripley and District Heritage Trust has released a new documentary film on the rise and fall of the world famous Butterley company and its role in engineering the last 200 years of the town’s history.
The work of Butterley’s men and women can still be seen in the roof of St Pancras station, the Falkirk Wheel and the Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth, but their legacy says just as much about Britain’s industrial decline.
Mike Frost, 77, who made the film in collaboration with Tim Castledine, said: “It’s just over eight years since the company closed, and we want the film to be a reminder of what happened here.
“As time passes, there are more and more people who will be unaware of Butterley’s importance to Ripley and the Erewash Valley.”
The documentary charts the 219-year history of the company from its beginnings in 1790 to its final years of asset stripping, financial mismanagement and closure.
A giant of the Industrial Revolution, Butterley built locomotives 16 years before Stevenson’s Rocket, steam engines which drained the Fens and powered the Russian Navy, plus bridges and ships all over the world.
Mike said: “At its peak, the company had the foundry, brickworks, farms and coal mines, and employed around 10,000 people.
“The Wright family, who owned Butterley for five generations, were philanthropists, building churches and schools. and new villages for the workers at Ironville, Codnor Park and Ollerton.”
He added: “Without Butterley and the Wright family, Ripley would probably still be a quiet hamlet. It was like an isolated little empire, and the Wright family were the welfare state of the 19th Century.
“It was like Mitsubishi in Japan. The company had its tentacles in everything. It was the be-all and end-all.”
For all its achievements, the company’s story is not without its dark notes. Butterley played a key role in suppressing the Pentrich Revolution of 1817, while Francis Wright—in charge from 1840-1890—lived a life of splendour but imposed his evangelical zeal to correct what he saw as the failings of the working class.
Mike said: “He thought he had to educate them out of being naturally lazy and drunkard - and the only way to do that was to work them harder and make him richer.
“His descendant Lesley Wright was so aristocratic he would walk through the site and never look at the workers. It’s difficult to imagine those kind of attitudes.”
He added: “It was a hard life, and often poorly paid. You can still see that in the faces of those who worked there, but they have so much spirit too. You can also see how a way of life grew out of it which is still here. I think that shows cohesion in the community.”
The film tells how the company’s demise began with boardroom decisions in the 1960s, when John Wright looked to modernise it but faced internal opposition.
Important contracts on dockyards, ferry ports and nuclear power stations carried it only so far.
Mike said: “The company didn’t close due to a lack of ability or opportunity. Some of the owners just wanted to make a quick buck.
“Many people are convinced the company could have had a prosperous future manufacturing 21st Century products such as wind turbines.
“Some towns have managed to find new industry, but Ripley has not been so successful. It’s left a huge hole in society. That’s the decline of British industry - not because of workers, but because of short-termism.”
Backed by a Heritage Lottery Grant, the 67-minute film combines archive footage as old as 1908, photos, and new interviews with former workers and John Wright.
Copies of DVD are now available for £5 and can be obtained either from Clarkes of Ripley, Amber Valley CVS, or direct from the Ripley and District Heritage Trust’s website at www.rdht.org.uk.