It is quite possible to pass through Winster and leave it again with a feeling that the village properly belongs to an earlier century. Its appearance is, however, completely transformed several times a year and the air of a ghost town is forgotten.
February sees its best known transformation with the running of Shrove Tuesday pancake races. These take place along the main street and are undertaken more for the enjoyment of Winster’s inhabitants than for providing a contrived spectacle for tourists or the press.
The races have categories for senior citizens, ladies, men and children. In their enthusiasm the youngsters unwittingly keep a tradition alive a tradition which dates back over a hundred years. Some seem determined to attempt both tossing and running at an age when they have only recently mastered walking upright.
The village school closes for the afternoon and older children, who have to travel outside Winster to school, claim this perk too. The event draws large crowds who spill into the main street which has been closed to traffic for a few hours. The pancakes are mixed to a recipe demanding toughness rather than taste, and each one has to be tossed and retrieved three times during the race.
The throngs which crowd Winster for its other celebrations can dispense with February’s woolen for this is the Carnival during Wakes week, which is held in late June or early July. The main attraction may be seen on Wakes’ Saturday in the form of The Morris. Winster’s Morris Men almost became a lost tradition when they ceased performing in 1953. Led by an enthusiastic group of both young men and experienced dancers from the retired team of the early 1950s. Winster Morris Dancers were reincarnated in 1978 and are now in great demand. Their colourful display represents Derbyshire’s only surviving example of men’s Morris. The steps and tunes of five traditional dances were carefully recorded in 1908 by a visiting folk musician, and these form the basis of the Professional, the Morris, the Blue-eyed Stranger, the Reel and the Gallup. The team comprises a minimum of sixteen dancers – the men who sport flowers in their hats are in fact the ‘ladies side’. Highly popular with the crowd are the Jester and the Witch for it is their role to mingle and joke with the onlookers.
It is now surprise to find that the Queen is played by a man and ‘she’ is escorted by the King during the festivities. A musician completes the team which dances to tunes squeezed from old melodeons. Earlier merrymakers from outlying hamlets knew what delights were in store as this old rhyme records:
Winster wake, there’s ales and cakes;
Elton Wakes, there’s quenches;
Bircher Wakes, there’s knives and forks;
Wensley Wakes, there’s wenches
Many of today’s villagers are descendants of an earlier generation who, during the nineteenth century, were given only a very basic free education – true Elementary schooling indeed. When Winster scholars were able to read one chapter of the Bible, they had achieved a level of education suitable to their station. Their schooling was now complete. Of course the wealthy could afford to pay for their offspring to extend their learning, but not at the village school.
At the time of the Doomsday Survey in 1086, the hamlet was recorded as Winsterne, with two residences, seven small farms and twelve cottagers (one step up from peasants), who held enough land to warrant the use of four ploughs.
Some five centuries later the Elizabethan Dower House was built in a suitable imposing position at the end of the one-street village, and the present owners still have a private gate in the wall of the churchyard. At this time Winster’s few houses probably stood alongside the straight main thoroughfare. However, the inhabitants were far from isolated due to the lure of its market, housed beneath the stone arches of the Market Hall. The building’s position on its own section of cobbled highway still seems to deliberately waylay visitors who would otherwise hurry through the village.
The National Trust acquired Winster Market Hall in 1906 as their first property in Derbyshire. It had been rebuilt in 1905, using the original material. The pointed stone arches had to be strengthened by in-filling, after all this ground floor is around five hundred years old. The upper brick storey is newer by some two centuries. Winster lies on the limestone / gritstone border and this use of brick is rare in a area which has easy access to stone.
In 1628 the Stancliffe Quarries of nearby Darley Dale provided stone for the Hall. Within his lifetime its owner, Francis Moore, may well have regretted his choice of a prime site on the increasingly busy main street. Indeed in 1778 his great-grandson felt the need to escape Winster’s bustling Saturday market by relaxing in Buxton. Almost one hundred years later the resident of the Hall, Derbyshire historian Llewellyn Jewitt, recorded with some surprise the reminiscences of Winster’s older inhabitants. They recalled days when the market, widely visited for its meat stalls, was ‘thick and throng’ with people – it had by then become just a memory and a yarn to hand down.
But it was during the early 1700s that Winster grew into a town. It must have resembled Klondike City for a time. The promise of a lead strike attracted miners from all over Britain and in particular drew large numbers from the rest of Derbyshire.
This was the time of Winster’s heyday. The prolific tell-tale mounds in surrounding fields within a large radius are testament to the area’s importance in the leadmining industry, which reached its peak in the eighteenth century.
The first Derbyshire leadmine to install a steam engine was the nearby Yatestoop mine in 1715. The erection of this Newcomen engine was a forward-looking venture since it was only three years since the first ever such engine had been brought into use. Such was its effect on the success of local leadmines that by 1730 three were in use in the Winster area. The London Lead Company was attracted to local mines in 1720 and purchased a lease on disused veins. These had a good production record but had been abandoned and lay waterlogged. By the end of 1723 a sough had been driven and was unwatering ten veins which were able to produce ore once more. Another important sough – the Yatestoop sough – was commenced in 1752. This drained mines in the Winster region as well as Birchover and later, Elton. The success of such ventures had a direct effect upon the livelihood and outlook of whole villages.
Of the twenty or so inns which sprung up to meet demand, only the 1653 Miners’ Standard is still open for business beneath its topical pick and shovel sign. Although it is not central to today’s village it was once surrounded by the rough shelters of the leadminers. Homes for their families were poor shacks in the early days but as the men found permanent work these were replaced by stone cottages, built when and where opportunity arose. As the gaps along the village’s main street became filled in building continued backwards up the hillside with no planners to ensure that the dwellings all faced the same direction or that their sitting did not invade the privacy of neighbours. What did it matter that the gennels were winding and narrow when all comings and goings were on foot?
One of the delights of Winster is the discovery that no two cottages are the same, but despite this individuality the village wears an air of compact harmony. Looking at the grey stone cottages today they seem to stand as sturdy memorials to those who worked long hours in appalling conditions, doubtlessly shortening their lives to earn enough to provide a home for themselves.
The rich lead veins of at least a dozen nearby mines ensured that the eighteenth-century miner could earn enough money to put a permanent roof over his family. It is unlikely that this was due to the sole efforts of the head of the household. Sons would be working long hours from an early age and their sisters and mothers frequently carried out chores only slightly less strenuous above ground.
Mill Close mine at Darley Dale was the largest leadmine in the Peak District and although it necessitated a walk of almost five miles, this mine provided employment for large numbers of workers from the Winster area. Mill Close was to re-open in 1859 and be successfully worked for another half-century.
Legacies from the leadmining era are to be found in the occasional accidents involving disused mine shafts, and the usefulness of fluorspar in modern industry. Between 1903 and 1906 the area felt a series of earth tremors which were blamed upon subsidence in the disused galleries of the mines which riddle the strate. National interest was aroused when, in March 1952, several short earthquakes were again felt in Winster. Although they had a duration of only a few seconds, the movement was sufficient to topple chimneys and ceilings.
The apparent alterations to the walls of many of the village’s houses are not, however, due to such occurrences. It was the imposition of the ‘window tax’ which caused owners to block out the light of their houses as an evasive measure. Some of the buildings which obviously pre-date this 1696 Act include the former Angel Inn and the much-darkened Mosley’s shop, both on the main street.
Apparently reflecting conditions in the village, Winster’s churchyard has always been faced with the problem of overcrowding. It has been extended bit by bit but the enormous number of burials has utilised every possible corner. The burial ground presently in use lies a little further down the road from the church itself.
Llewellyn Jewitt, referred to earlier, is buried in Winster churchyard. The valuable reference works of this nineteenth-century historian include skilled engravings and the recording of local tales and antiquarian discoveries.
Back in the seventeenth century the village’s poor benefitted from the generosity of friends Robert Moore and Thomas Eyre, the owner of Winster’s market.
Wealthy early settlers included the Brittlebanks of Oddo who arrived in 1700 and had acquired 375 acres when the last Brittlebank sold Oddo House, its farms and land in 1891.
Winster’s gentry – the Heathcotes and Bowers, the Moores and Brittlebanks – played their charitable part during their lifetimes and their names are written upon headstones and in the old church records.
The burial records remind us of the standard of living of the workers, with a high infant mortality rate even at the end of the last century. Consumption, typhoid and measles were able to spread unchecked in the cramped conditions. From a population of around six hundred in the 1670s, Winster’s inhabitants had soared to more than two thousand in the eighteenth-century. Imagine today’s population multiplied almost threefold and the effect of untreatable infectious diseases on such a community.
The church of Saint John the Baptist is welcoming rather than grand. Hardly anything is known of the earliest church which was erected around 1140. Together with the churches of Elton, Stanton, Gratton and Middleton, Winster was attached to the Mother Church of Youlgreave. The church itself was rebuilt in the nineteenth century onto the tower of 1711. Slender pillars support pointed arches and the final alteration of 1883 gave the church a two-aisled design.
The earliest of the tower’s five bells is dated 1711 and the eight o’clock curfew bell range here, an ancient custom which paid the ringer one guinea per year in remuneration.
Bakewell Old House Museum houses Winster’s ancient parish chest which was fortunately rescued from an outbuilding, having been replaced by the present chest over a hundred years ago. The church registers which were formerly housed in the chest are full of fascinating detail which has enabled local historian Margery Rodger to compile a series of booklets telling Winster’s history. It is largely thanks to Mrs Rodger that the registers now rest safely the Archives Department of the County Offices.
Of course the true settlers of Winster left no written records but the area is rich with traces of ancient man in the form of burial mounds, relics of pottery, mysterious stone circles and later, tools and weapons.
Increasing interest and awareness of man’s history is ensuring that Winster plays a unique part for all who enjoy discovering Derbyshire, with its rich industrial and archaeological heritage.
1984 Julie Bunting