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The life and history of Brassington

by Julie Bunting

Brassington by Joe Parker

Undocumented pre-history begins the story of the Brassington region with its numerous tumuli and finds of prehistoric animal bones – lion, elephant, bison, hyena and deer – from Hoe Grange Quarry. Ploughing near Slipper Low Farm has revealed evidence of a flint ‘workshop’, Iron Age and Roman finds come from other sites, while an active Anglo-Saxon community left a single blue glass bead and the place-name Branzinctun recorded in the Domesday Survey.

Existing documents from medieval times include a charter from which around 1230 granted the monks of Darley Abbey, who had a grange at Aldwark, the right to pasture 1500 cattle on Brassington Moor. By popular tradition, recalcitrant monks were despatched to Bradbourne Grange from the parent house of Dunstable Priory. Brassington at this time belonged to the de Ferrers, to be forfeited to the Crown after Robert de Ferrers joined the Baron’s Revolt and was defeated in Chesterfield in 1266.

Three centuries later, England was preparing to face the Spanish Armada and Thomas Wallwing of Brassington was ordered to present himself at Chester with corslett and bow, ready to fight for Queen and country. Other Elizabethan documents refer to dependance on Brassington lead ore for the Earl of Shrewsbury’s smelters at Higham. From this time mention of the lead mining industry appears frequently in personal documents.

One example is the inventory of a miner’s will of 1613, listing his furniture, a well stocked pantry, three spinning wheels with hemp and yarn, and fodder for his 21 sheep and 3 cows. He left all goods and chattels to his wife, ‘hopeinge that she will not wasfullie and vainelie spend’ the twenty shillings in his purse. Three loyal Brassington men each gave this same considerable sum towards a monetary gift for the troubled Charles I in 1627 as Civil War drew even nearer.

With the Restoration, more rural matters had to be settled in the Manor of Brassington, where in 1663 a Court Leet fixed penalties for infringing local bye-laws – from fines of 4d for recovering a strayed animal from the pinfold, to 12d for washing any ‘noysome or filthy thinge’ at a well, or 20s for taking in anyone without putting up security to the town.

Such fines can be measured against the 5d a day earned by a lead miner in the 1720s, or his wife’s 3d for washing ore, as recorded by writer Daniel Defoe. Awed by their arduous lifestyle, he described in detail the cave which was home to a miner, his wife and five children.

However, many eighteenth-century miners owned their workings and built stone cottages in the village, while those who struck really lucky had a larger house to show for it. Wealth brought by the industry’s heyday enabled some to bequeath charities, providing money for the needy, or to educate poor children. Young children, the disabled and the aged were among the 74 parishioners helped in 1803 when the Poor Rate realised £347.14s.7d. Between 1820/50 paupers were employed at the workhouse, the House of Industry on Town Street, now Tudor House.

Ale for the poor house

Numerous nineteenth-century accounts have come from the Miners’ Arms pub where the Barmote Courts were held and where the lead miners carried out most of their financial transactions. The entrepreneurial landlord opened 24 hours a day but not just to sell ale; he provided cash loans, set up credit and bartered everything from an exchange of services to farm produce. The account of Thomas Toplis, churchwarden, lists ale to his son, to the vicar, to the bell ringers on Christmas Day 1815, and to five shillings worth for the Poor House. We find that Mr. Charlton, the Poor House overseer, had a loan of £10, his servant had £6, there was a fireplace at £11 and a supply of books. Eventually the account was reduced when the innkeeper took a stack of hay and a cart rope! One William Greatorex of Wirksworth squared his account by making a round stool for the inn.

The Miners’ Arms is still in business, but the population of Brassington is back to around six hundred as it was two centuries ago, after peaking at eight hundred in 1870. Some families are traceable to the fourteenth century, and the local books provide an ideal start to family tree work.

Julie Bunting

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