With a wealth of mineral resources in the countryside surrounding the city, Derby was one of the key centres in the industrial revolution and quickly became a famous “heavy engineering” centre. As the railways expanded and developed in the 19th century so too did the city’s engineering businesses, who quickly adapted to the manufacture of steam engines, carriages, wagons and permanent way systems. With the advent of air flight in the 20th century the engineering company Rolls Royce turned its attention to building aircraft engines and quickly established itself a world leader in that business. The tradition of developing engineering business in Derby has continued into the 21st century with the car manufacturer Toyota building a plant nearby in the 1990s.
Along with Doncaster and Crewe, Derby has maintained and developed its involvement and connections with the rail industry. Derby was for many decades the location for the British Rail Research and Development, prior to the privatisation programmes of the 1990s. Now, several of the major private firms in the UK who build and deal with the nation’s railway vehicles and infrastructure are based in Derby. The Canadian company Bombardier, based at Litchurch Lane in Derby, are the last major train manufacturing company in Britain and have built a significant proportion of the electric and diesel multiple unit trains running in the country. They also have extensive contracts to build trains for the London Underground. With offices all over the UK Atkins Rail, has its Derby office in Brunel House, on the old Railway Technology Centre Business Park off London Road. It has contracts to supply power systems and track maintenance, and is a key player in maintaining the efficiency of the UK’s railway system. Another large company based in Derby is Balfour Beatty, whose office is on Nelson Street in the city centre, specialises in the development of signalling and telecommunications systems for railways. Originally part of AEA Technology until it was sold off to the venture capitalist group ‘Vision Capital’ in 2006, DeltaRail specialises in offering consultancy and advisory services to the railway industry.
Formed in 1906 and originally trading from London, Rolls Royce opened their first car engine manufacturing plant in Derby, at Osmaston, in 1908. It was around this time that Charles Rolls started to become fascinated, if not obsessed with the new technology of air flight. In 1910 he became the first person to accomplish a double crossing of the English Channel in an aircraft and also, unfortunately, became the first Englishman to be killed in an aircraft accident later that year. Henry Royce, who had always considered himself an engineer, went on to design his first aircraft engine, the Eagle, in 1914. This was widely used during World War I but it was the Merlin engine he designed, which was used in the Spitfire aircraft of World War II, that sealed the company’s fame in the aircraft industry. Now superseded by the Trent family of engines, the mainstay of Rolls Royce production in Derby for many years was its RB211 engine, which powered many of the world’s airlines. Currently employing around 11000 people in Derby across eight sites, Rolls Royce also manufactures a range of marine propulsion units including nuclear reactors and turbo generators for the Royal Navy. Car engine production by Rolls Royce continued in Derby until around the time of World War II, when it was transferred to Cheshire. Some 50 years after Rolls Royce car engine production in Derby had ceased, another car manufacturing company bought a site just outside Derby to build a new plant on. The Toyota Motor Corporation started production at its Burnaston plant in 1992 and currently employs over 3000 people.
Off the Osmaston Road in Derby is the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company. With a history going back to 1750, the factory on this site was opened in 1878 and the company attained its ‘Royal’ appointment in 1898. Still a privately owned company employing about 300 people it produces English Fine Bone China tableware and gifts. Royal Crown Derby is considered by some to be second only to Dresden Fine Bone China products. Denby pottery, based at Denby in Derbyshire, is another company producing tableware and pottery gifts in the area. Another company, well known for a different type of gift, is Thornton’s. Originally founded by Joseph William Thornton in Sheffield in 1911, it is one of the country’s favourite chocolatiers and is based just outside the city in Alfreton.
Derby has also embraced new businesses and technologies. The on-line banking company, Egg, has offices at Pride Park in Derby. Arising from the tourist industry that is attracted to the countryside around the city is a burgeoning media industry. Some 30 media companies are now based in Derby playing host to TV dramas and films such as; Peak Practice, Elizabeth and Sons & Lovers. The originators of the computer game “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider” are a Derby based computer animation company called Core Design who, despite being taken over by the Eidos group, still work from their Derby base in Pride Park.