Meet T’owd Man ~ AKA The Old Man Of Wirksworth

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He is said to be 800 years old, or thereabouts, this mythic little figure of a lead miner with his pick and kibble (basket). He is presently to be found embedded in the wall inside St. Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire Peak District town of Wirksworth. But this was not his original home. He once lived in the nearby village of Bonsall, where he was found during the restoration of the 13th century  parish church of St. James. This was in 1863, and it was then that T’owd Man found his way (along with other pieces of interesting medieval stone work) into the garden of one Churchwarden Coates.

This highhanded commandeering of the local lead miners’ talisman did not please the general populace, who wanted him restored to sacred territory. Somehow in the argy bargy he ended up being firmly mortared into the wall of St. Mary’s Church in Wirksworth instead – where he has remained ever since for his own good and general safekeeping. He has also become the town’s ‘unofficial’ symbol, so you can pay him a visit, AND get the tee shirt.

But this story of general displacement is making me wonder. What  if T’owd Man is a good deal older than is currently thought.  I’m assuming his 13th century date was given him because he was found in a church of 13th century origins. But to my eye he could easily be a Saxon carving. What if the medieval builders of the Bonsall church had also recycled him?  (There are in fact many examples of Saxon carving within St. Mary’s, all re-deployed from an earlier church. See my post Expressions of Power  ~ Secular and Spiritual? for more of the background history).

Lead mining was a key industry in the area from at least Roman times. There is also documentary evidence of its importance in Saxon Wirksworth. In 835 the township was ruled by Abbess Cynewaru, and in a missive of that time she states that she was every year sending a gift of lead valued at 300 shillings to Christ Church, Canterbury. Much later in the Domesday Book of 1086 the entry for Wirksworth includes 3 lead works.

Wirksworth was in fact the centre for the trade. It was a hard and dangerous business. The miners were also a maverick lot. Many were yeoman farmers who combined hill farming with lead working, and some grew extremely rich on the trade, although many died from explosions in the mines, and the general toxicity of working with lead.

All the miners’ activities were subject to a system of rigorous rules and regulations overseen by the Barmaster of the Barmote Court. This court was held in Wirksworth for at least 7 centuries, and had its origins in Saxon Burg Moots (moot is Saxon for gathering or assembly). The last version of the court or Moot Hall still survives. It was built just out of the town centre in 1814 to replace a grander Moot Hall that stood in the Market Place. It seems the noisy behaviour of the miners, and the congestion they caused in the town centre, led to the earlier building being demolished.

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Wirksworth is a fine town for a visit. Its many surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century houses attest to the general prosperity of the place over many decades.  When the lead ran out in the 19th century, limestone quarrying replaced it. Rivers were harnessed to power cotton mills, and so the industrial age kicked in. And if this smacks too much of ‘dark satanic mills’, don’t you believe it. The town sits in glorious countryside, in the heart of England, in fact at ‘its very navel’ as one-time resident D.H. Lawrence put it. Here, then, are some more views from England’s very green and pleasant navel:

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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31 thoughts on “Meet T’owd Man ~ AKA The Old Man Of Wirksworth

  1. In case you are wondering I have to say that each and every photo in your slideshow deserves to be presented as full image independently. This post is fitting to my current condition for many reasons. You presented an image of a hard working miner – the hardest job there is – and I have been feeling like a slave as of the beginning of the year 🙂 and the way how you can dig up to past leaving us uncertain about origins, inciting our imagination – always fascinates me. I may not be always present to admire every post you publish, Tish, but I appreciate your input.

    1. Oh I like that! :O Actually now you mention it, a pick axe would be just the job on our soil after a no-rain phase. It turns to brick. Not needed at the moment of course. Far too soggy.

  2. Ooh! I love a mystery, and you present such a plausible other story for Tow’d man. I’m off to Google Saxon carving now. Thanks Tish; you are such a good history teacher.

    1. So glad this sparked your interest, Su. I thought afterwards, why stop at Saxon. It is known there was the Roman lead working centre of Lutudarum somewhere in that area, but its actual location is not known. Perhaps he is a little Roman or late Iron Age lead miner…

  3. I like that I can read your posts right from my email without having to go to your site. I know it’s odd to mention this, but I thought of it just now, because sometimes the story grabs me and I just want to stay inside the email vs. switching over elsewhere. IS THAT JUST TERRIBLY WEIRD. Now that I type that out I think it must be. Any deliberate reason you do that? You know you miss out on the ‘opens’ rate via your stats. Maybe you and I are in the same camp there, the WHAT STATS camp.

    1. Gosh Bill. I didn’t know I could be read without being ‘opened’. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Am a total nitwit over technology, and as I don’t have a clever phone or tablet I don’t know how others might read me. But I like the notion of your sticking with me however you find me 🙂

  4. Fascinating post. Nice to know that restoration and reuse has such a long history 🙂 I have read a series of murder mysteries set in late 12th-century Devon. The main character is Crowner John from Exeter, the newly appointed coroner. He deals with the stannary courts in a couple of them. His jurisdiction covers Devon, except for Stannary Courts, for mining, and the Verderers/Court of Attachments, which covered forests. His clashes with the other legal systems over who has jurisdiction on cases. It always fascinates me how an industry could have its own courts and laws.

  5. Another richly informative and beautifully written and considered post. I grinned at “England’s green and pleasant navel” and relished your speculations about further displacements.

    1. You are a lovely reader, Meg. The notion that if one generation had recycled history, then an earlier one might have too, and especially a little chap as important in their lives as this one, only cropped up as I was writing the post. I think it’s got legs as a story idea.

  6. Fascinating, Tish. For me, the human connection always piques my interest.Not to take anything away from the edifice, seeing a representation of a specific worker, as you have here, brings the subject to life. I felt much the same way when I saw the caves in Giza — many still in use — that once housed those who built the Pyramids.

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