During the Carboniferous period (between about 359 and 299 million years ago), Wirksworth was under tropical oceans, thus giving it vast quantities of limestone for quarrying. There is an extensive history of quarrying, which scars the surrounding of the town, whilst Dene Quarry is still operational in the neighbouring village of Cromford.
Close to Wirksworth in Carsington Pastures is the Dream Cave, where the remains of a woolly rhino were found in the late 19th century.
The area may well have been visited by Homo erectus as long as 150,000 years ago, during warm inter-glacial periods. An Acheulean handaxe from the Lower Paleolithic has been found at Hopton nearby. From other remains found in the county there would seem to have been human presence at least periodically until the Romans arrived and found a thriving lead industry.
Wirksworth is rumoured to be the ancient Roman town of Lutudarum, although there is speculation as to the whereabouts of this. In 2009 a team of volunteers excavated near the vicarage for a Roman fort, but failed to find it.
One of the rectors of Wirksworth was Anthony Draycot who served from 1535 until his imprisonment in 1560. Draycott was the judge at the heresy trial of Joan Waste.
The ancient Wirksworth wapentake or hundred was named after the town.
Lead mining was certainly flourishing in Roman times. A possible Roman road led to a ford between Duffield and Milford and thence to the garrison at Derventio (Derby) and to Rykneld Street and possibly but not certainly, to the ports on the Humber. In Anglo-Saxon times there were many mines owned by the abbey of Repton. Three lead mines are identified in the entry for Wirksworth in the Domesday Book.
Every man had the right to dig for ore wherever he chose, except in churchyards, gardens or roadways. All that was necessary to stake a claim was to place one’s “stowce” or winch on the site and extract enough ore to pay tribute to the “barmaster.” This right remains in theory.
Henry VIII granted a charter to hold a miners’ court in the town called the Bar Moot. The present building of that name dates from 1814. Within it is a brass dish for measuring the levy which was due to the Crown. Even into the 20th century, the punishment for stealing from a mine was to have one’s hand nailed to the stowce. One then had the choice of tearing oneself loose or starving to death. The Barmote Court is still held today and controls all matters of lead mining.
There is a tiny carving in Wirksworth Church, taken from Bonsall Church during a restoration project and never returned, of a miner with his pick and “kibble” or basket. The carving is known as “th’ Owd Man of Bonsall.” The ore was washed out by means of a sieve, the iron wire for which had been drawn in Hathersage since the Middle Ages. Smelting was carried out in “boles”, hence the name Bolehill. The lead industry, the miner, the ore and the waste, were known collectively as “t’owd man.”
By the 18th century there were many thousands of mines, all worked individually. Defoe gives an eye-witness account of a lead miner’s family and of the miner himself at work. At this time, the London Lead Company was formed which brought in the finance to dig deeper mines, with drainage channels, called soughs, and bring in Newcomen steam engine pumps.
There was a workhouse in Wirksworth from 1724 to 1829. Called Babington House, it was located on Green Hill (grid reference SK286541) and housed 60 inmates.
In 1777, Richard Arkwright leased the land and premises of a corn mill from Philip Gell of Hopton and converted it to spin cotton, using his water frame. Haarlem Mill was the first cotton mill in the world to use a steam engine, which it used to replenish the millpond that drove the mill’s waterwheel. This mill was adjacent to another, Speedwell Mill, owned by John Dalley, a local merchant. These mills still stand close together at Miller’s Green next to the Derby road.
Haarlem Mill was sublet in 1792, when Arkwright’s son, Richard, began to sell off the family’s property assets in his move towards banking. It was given that name in 1815, when it was converted to weaving tape, by Madely, Hackett and Riley, who had established Haarlem Tape Works in Derby in 1806. In 1879 the Wheatcroft family, who were producing tape at Speedwell Mill, expanded into Haarlem.
The two mills together employed 230 people, and it was said that their weekly output equalled the circumference of the earth, and that Wirksworth was the primary producer of red tape for Whitehall.
Both mills still exist. Haarlem Mill now hosts Haarlem Art Space, while Speedwell Mill is now family homes, with Rowandale Cabinet Makers & Joiners using these premises. Both of these mills is rumoured to be George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss.
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Vermont, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.