Why don't we know more?
Given the significance of the projects Sorocold worked on right across the country in the last decade of the 17th century and first decade of the 18th, it's remarkable that his achievements remain so little known. Perhaps it's because he lived and worked just before the period we associate with the 'birth' of civil engineering as we know it — before Britain's Industrial Revolution. He has been somewhat overlooked by researchers.
Sorocold's life corresponded to a turbulent time in British history, spanning the period following the restoration of the monarchy, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when James II was overthrown, the Bill of Rights and the Act of Union with Scotland and, as mentioned earlier, the Jacobite uprising. Even so, industry and commerce were thriving in Britain, and science and engineering coming into their own. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and in 1705 Isaac Newton (1642-1727) became the first scientist to be knighted.
However, Sorocold was a water engineer, working on water power and river navigation — perhaps a bit less glamorous than the steam engines and railways with their soaring viaducts that drove later industrial development. Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715), inventor and developer of an early steam engine, did recognise Sorocold's contribution, however. In his 1702 book The Miners Friend - Or An Engine To Raise Water By Fire, he discusses his new invention and refers to Sorocold:
Nothing can be more fit for serving cities, and towns with water, except a crank-work by the force of a river. In the composing such sort of engines, I think no person hath excelled the Ingenious Mr George Sorocold. But where they are forced to use horses, or any other strength, I believe no ingenious person will deny this engine to have the preference in all respects, being of more universal use than any yet discovered or invented.
All the various works carried out by Sorocold earned him the recognition and praise of his contemporaries. Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725), first historian of Leeds, saw him as "the great English engineer". He was recorded as "Mr Serocold, the Engineer" when he gave evidence to the House of Lords in 1703. Politician Sir Godfrey Copley (1653-1709), commenting on Sorocold's work on the Thames, said, "I think it is the best piece of work I have seen".
And not just his contemporaries — as recently as 29th July 1997 he was mentioned by Michael Fabricant MP in a Parliamentary debate: "In Britain, the title 'engineer' was probably first used for a non-military individual in 1702, to describe a George Sorocold of Derby ..."
In some ways, Sorocold was ahead of his time. Derby City Council has constructed (2013) a new hydro-electric power station on the River Derwent, some 300 years after Sorocold installations (see right hand column). The chosen site is very close to the location of his 'water engine' and the silk mills.
No doubt Sorocold's relative obscurity is also due to mystery and uncertainty: where was he born, where did he gain his substantial engineering knowledge, where and indeed how did he meet his end? He disappears from view in 1716, but the lease on Derby Waterworks remained in his name until 1738. An advertisement in a London newspaper of 1720 refers to him as "the builder of the London Bridge pumping engine" and directs enquiries to his widow. It is known that his wife Mary died in 1728. Her burial is recorded in the register of All Saint's in Derby but it is not recorded whether she was a widow at the time or not. One can only speculate as to the time and place of Sorocold's demise, although it would seem that the continent is a strong candidate for the latter.
There is also no known picture of Sorocold. Surely such a notable man, who associated with dukes, earls, members of Parliament and fellows of the Royal Society, would at some time in his life have sat for a portrait. The search for George Sorocold continues and there are no doubt more clues to be found in the nation's archives.
Perhaps the 1812 words of Scottish engineer Robert Bald (1776-1861) are a fitting epitaph to Sorocold's life and works: "Sorocold was one of two millwrights of his age who never failed in what they undertook, because they considered the perfection and success of their work first and their profit afterwards."
main reference BDCE1
image courtesy William Salt Library, Stafford