Wirksworth, nestled at the upper end of the secluded valley of the River Ecclesbourne, has always been rather isolated. The steep sides of the valley up to the ridges separate the town from the surrounding areas. Even in the 21st century, Wirksworth has an identity all its own.
The town’s history has countless intriguing tales. Economically, there have been periods of decline, but then regeneration. Hard-working people have always been at the forefront.
Stories include woolly rhino bones found in 1822 by lead miners in nearby caves,* to a local resident (Rev. Thomas Reginald ‘Reg’ Dean) who held the record for being the oldest living man in Britain until his death on 5 January 2013. The town and valley are permeated with the tangled strands of history. The first book-length history of Wirksworth was only published in 2016, by local historians Mary Wiltshire and Anton Shone. A Wirksworth History is available from the local bookshop on The Dale, at the Heritage Centre, and online.
*Dream Cave, where the rhino was found, is on private land between Wirksworth and Carsington Reservoir. It is not the same cave where more finds were made a few years ago in Carsington Pasture.
In the Carboniferous period, Wirksworth was under tropical oceans, which slowly became limestone. The River Ecclesbourne, running north to south, demarcates the boundary of the limestone on the west and gritstone on the east. The geology created landforms and a distinctive topography that determined the town’s character – its vernacular architecture and historic occupations. It is thought that people first came to Wirksworth because of the presence of warm springs. The drainage of lead mines long ago dried up those springs, but their memory remains in the town’s place names of Warmbrook and Coldwell Street.
Some historians speculate that Wirksworth is the site of the lost town of Lutudarum. Evidence from digs and documents show that at least two Roman roads came from Buxton and Brough south to Wirksworth. A 2009 dig on school grounds just outside the centre failed to uncover any foundations, but it is almost impossible to find appropriate places to excavate in the densely built-up centre of Wirksworth. It is entirely covered with buildings, streets, pavements and a consecrated churchyard. Any Roman remains would also be under several metres of material left from 2,000 years of building up and knocking down.
The case hasn’t yet been made, but the area was definitely important for Roman lead mining, lead being another product of limestone, found in veins where the limestone has eroded. Efforts to understand the town’s early development continue. Find out more from the website of the Wirksworth Archaeology Society.
Anglo Saxon history
The town’s Anglo Saxon past is evidenced by the name Eccles (place of Christian mission) bourne (spring or brook). In 653 a charter, which is the earliest surviving written record for any town in the Peak District, shows it was an important settlement in the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia. St. Mary’s Church is thought to be the second Christian foundation in Derbyshire, a direct off-shoot of the Church of Repton. Its importance indicates a long-standing community and lends credence to it being a Roman town that continued as Romano-British into the Anglo Saxon times.
A precious relic from this period is an elaborate carved coffin lid, the ‘Wirksworth Stone’, found under the church floor in 1820 and now set into the wall of the north nave aisle. The beauty of the workmanship suggests someone of holy status had been buried here. The circular shape of the churchyard may also stem from this time. Find out more about St. Mary’s on the Wirksworth Team Ministry website.
Medieval, 17th & 18th centuries history
Wirksworth is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as having a church, three lead works and the largest population of any of the ancient market towns of the Peak District. The town was granted its market charter by Edward 1 in 1306, which simply ratified the existing market. The profits from this market had been the property of the king’s brother from before 1297. The market is still held every Tuesday in the town.
Lead mining, important to the Romans and the Anglo Saxons, continued to be a major source of work until the end of the 18th century, when it became cheaper to obtain from abroad. There are rumours that there is Wirksworth lead in the colosseum in Rome. Wirksworth’s lead mining industry continued in reduced form through much of the 20th century. There is a tiny carving in St. Mary’s Church (removed from Bonsall Church during restoration and never returned), of a miner with his pick and “kibble” or basket. The carving is called “t’owd man”, the old man.
Henry VIII granted a charter to hold a miners’ court in Wirksworth called the Barmote Court. Some think that the court was of great antiquity and perhaps was one of the burghmoot courts of the Mercian Kingdom. The present day Moot Hall on Chapel Lane dates from 1814, replacing a finer building of 1773 and at least two other earlier Moot Halls in the town. All the halls held a brass dish for measuring the amount of lead ore in an ingot. Much to the town’s displeasure the dish was removed to Chatsworth House. The Barmote Court is still held every year in April and controls all matters of lead mining. Find out more about the Barmote Court.
The prosperity of the town during the medieval period and through the 17th and 18th centuries was partly from it being the administrative centre of the Low Peak lead mining industry and also from the popularity of its market. Some fine 17th century houses survive in the town – Babington House on Greenhill and the Old Manor House on Coldwell Street are good examples. The prosperity led in the 18th century to the rebuilding of some of the town’s houses in a classical style, particularly around the market place.
An excellent Architectural Trail & Map Leaflet is available from the Heritage Centre.
19th century history and to the present
Limestone quarrying was the major industry of the town between the 1860s and 1989. Several quarries opened, providing much needed jobs for many of the town’s workforce. Evidence of these quarries is in the landscape to the north and west of the town. Tarmac donated Stoneycroft quarry to the town after its closure in 1989 and volunteers converted it for community use. Local school children and other volunteers planted trees and voted to call it Stoney Wood.
In 2005 a local artist, Aidan Shingler, had an idea to create a community meeting place at the top of the wood. He designed and raised the funds for the Star Disc. Officially opened in 2011, this unique gathering place has wonderful views during the day and at night.
Textile mills were also an important source of work. In 1771 Richard Arkwright built his first water powered cotton mill in nearby Cromford – a milestone in England’s Industrial Revolution. The Mill is now the centrepiece of the UNESCO Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. In 1777 Arkwright leased land at Millers Green in Wirksworth from Philip Gell of Hopton and built a small cotton spinning mill – the first cotton mill in the world to use a steam engine – used to replenish the millpond that drove the mill’s waterwheel.
Haarlem Mill was later given that name 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 nearby 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. Both mills still exist. Haarlem Mill (beginning to undergo restoration) used to produce narrow fabrics, the red-tape of bureaucratic fame. Wirksworth was the primary producer of red tape for Whitehall. Speedwell Mill produced, among other things, cavity wall and roof insulation. It is now private residences and a carpentry workshop.
Farming has also been an important occupation on the hillsides around Wirksworth, but it is changing fast. A project is trying to record these disappearing farming lives. See Hill Project
With many thanks for their contribution from us at GoWirksworth. The details for this history came from Mary Ann Hooper, Barry Joyce, Anton Shone and Mary Wiltshire, together with credit to many other scholars, historians and townsfolk.