Contributor: Philip Shaw
Description: Samuel Crosthwaite’s picturesque view of Cockermouth in Cumbria works hard to underplay the transformative effects of the transition from water to steam power that took place in the first half of nineteenth century Britain. At the centre of the painting sits Derwent Mill with its distinctive chimney stack. The correspondence between the smoke drifting to the left of the picture and the storm-darkened clouds to the right, set in pleasing contrast with the verdant fields and sun-dazzled water in the foreground, gives the assurance that human intervention in the scene is in keeping with the natural order of things. But as aesthetic propriety labours to reassure that all is well with the world, a contemporary viewer might have recalled the time when the mills drew clean, renewable energy from the rivers Derwent and Cocker, beneath skies unsullied by noxious fumes.
A recollection of Cockermouth’s water-driven history is given by William Wordsworth in The Prelude. Composed in 1799, the two-book version of the poem opens with a depiction of the infant Wordsworth lulled to sleep by the gentle ‘murmurs’ of the Derwent that ‘flowed along my dreams’, composing ‘my thoughts’ and giving ‘me knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm / Which Nature breathes among the fields and groves’ (I, ll. 1-15; passim). Within a few lines the infant has matured into a ‘naked boy’, bathing in the river’s ‘silent pools’ or plunging ‘into thy streams / Alternate, all a summer’s day’ (I, ll. 18-21), taking an active pleasure in the watery environment. And so, from the opening of Wordsworth’s poem two Romantic ideals are born: belief in the allegiance of nature and art (riverine murmuring blending with the child’s entry into language) and in the therapeutic benefits of wild swimming (the recent vogue for which shows no sign of abating, despite the best efforts of privatised water companies to despoil the UK’s rivers and seas).
A footnote in the Norton edition of the poem tells us that the Derwent ‘flows along the far side of the garden wall of the house where Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth’ but omits to mention how exactly the river flowed in Wordsworth’s youth when grain, paper and textile mills were powered by water wheels. As if to authenticate his early history, for the 13-book Prelude of 1805, Wordsworth altered the rusticated ‘silent pool’ to a ‘little mill-race severed from his stream’ (I, l. 293), a change that was retained for the 1850 publication. Readers might well glance over this ‘mill-race’, a term which refers to the channel that conducts water to a water wheel, but the phrase serves as a reminder of the Derwent’s role in powering the manufactories that brought wealth and prosperity to Wordsworth’s home town.
By the time that Crosthwaite came to paint his vision of Cockermouth in 1860, the town’s water wheels had long been replaced by the steam engines that would have such a transformative effect on the local economy, and, we might add, on the environment. In The Philosophy of Manufacturers (1835), in the midst of an otherwise celebratory report on the power of steam, the industrialist Andrew Ure offers a nostalgic vision of an English manufacturing village, at the heart of which eighteen ‘magnificent water wheels’ provide order and regularity while maintaining the harmony of an Italianate landscape untainted by soot, smoke, and the roar of furnaces. A sceptical reader of Ure’s tract, unwilling to forget how the old water mills provided a no less troublesome perspective on the relations between land, labour, and capital than the modern, coal-powered order, could well have brought to mind another passage from Wordsworth, this time from The Excursion (1814):
Then, in full many a region, once like this
The assured domain of calm simplicity
And pensive quiet, an unnatural light,
Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes,
Breaks from a many-windowed Fabric huge;
And at the appointed hour a Bell is heard—
Of harsher import than the Curfew-knoll
That spake the Norman Conqueror’s stern behest,
A local summons to unceasing toil!
Disgorged are now the Ministers of day;
And, as they issue from the illumined Pile,
A fresh Band meets them, at the crowded door,—
And in the Courts—and where the rumbling Stream,
That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
Glares, like a troubled Spirit, in its bed
Among the rocks below. Men, Maidens, Youths,
Mother and little Children, Boys and Girls,
Enter, and each the wonted task resumes
Within this Temple—where is offered up
To Gain—the Master Idol of the Realm,
Reminiscent of the scene depicted in Wright of Derby’s painting of Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night (1782-1783), Wordsworth writes in The Excursion of a world transformed by ‘unnatural light’ and the clockwork summons of the factory bell. If, in The Prelude, the ‘little mill-race severed from his stream’ provided an image of personal growth contingent on the separation from nature, that image also anticipates the sacrificial logic of capitalism. The mill may be carbon zero, but to those men, women, and children ‘offered up / To Gain’ life has become a living hell.
As the historian and climate activist Andreas Malm cautions, it is tempting to look back on the age of waterpower as an idyllic period, distinct in kind from the coal-burning age of extinction in which we live today. Harmless to the environment and classed in law as a property belonging to all, water offered cheap and abundant energy that forestalled the need for large concentrations of labour in urban centres. By contrast, coal was difficult and costly to extract but what it did offer was mobility as, no longer tethered to the vagaries of the environment (droughts and floods could interfere at any time with the manufacturing process), it was possible to generate power at the most profitable sites and at the most convenient hours. Wordsworth’s portrayal of the Cumbrian water mills is prescient therefore, not for the vision it gives of a decarbonised world but for its insight into how the rise of steam power was driven by the desire to submit labour ever more efficiently to the needs of capital.
Creator: Samuel Crosthwaite (1791-1868)
Subject: a landscape with a view of Cockermouth and its mills at the centre point
Media: oil on canvas
Media rights: © National Trust / Robert Thrift
Digital collection record: NT 866459
Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London and New York: Verso.
The Watermills of Cockermouth. Cockermouth Town Council Leaflet. http://www.cockermouth.org.uk/watermills2012.pdf. Accessed 13/07/2023.
Wordsworth, William. 1979. The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York and London: W. W. Norton.
Wordsworth, William. 2007. The Excursion. Ed. Sally Bushell, James A. Butler and Michael C. Jaye. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.