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Wirksworth Parish Church - St. Mary the Virgin, 1908
St. Mary's Parish Church, Wirksworth

Here is another illustration from J. B. Firth's "Highways and Byways in Derbyshire[1]". The author's opinion of the church was somewhat mixed and he thought the tower "in the middle of the building is capped by a little spire many sizes too small[1]". He considered that St. Mary's in 1908 was "a fine spacious building, but it has the air of having been rescued from bad keeping after years of neglect. It stands high in the middle of the town, surrounded by a large churchyard, in one half of which the tombstones are erect, while in the other half they lie flat on the ground. The contrast is not pleasing ; it looks too much like a premature division of sheep and goats[1]". Yet only thirty years earlier a photograph of the same view of St. Mary's had been published in Cox's "Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire" and many more headstones were upright[2].

In 1820 Ebenezer Rhodes had visited Wirksworth and decided that St. Mary's had "neither grace nor dignity". He was disappointed to find the church "undergoing a thorough regeneration ; the pews were taken down, the pavements broken up, and vaults were excavating in various parts of the church. The monuments against the walls were covered to protect them from dust ... The whole place, indeed, appeared less like a church than a huge workshop, where every thing was in confusion"[3]. The restoration of 1820-21 was described as an act of barbarism by many and Firth believed that "irreparable damage was committed" at that time[1].

A more recent family photograph of St. Mary's.
J. Charles Cox (1877) found evidence of a lead covered spire in Churchwarden accounts of
1664. He added that it "was somewhat higher and far better proportioned than the present
"extinguisher" (as it is locally termed), being broader in the base". He cites an illustration in
Lysons', but the web mistress's copy unfortunately has no such image. He also adds that
the "spirelet" only dates from 1821[2].

A mid-twentieth century guide to the market town points to innumerable links with the past in the church, which dates back to the 7th century[4]. "This large cruciform church was added to and restored under the direction of Sir Gilbert Scott in 1876, but its former connection with Anglo-Saxon days is apparent". Fragments of Norman mouldings were discovered during the 1876 restoration, when much of the task "consisted in undoing the work of 1820, when the church was shamefully pulled about[5]".

However, one good thing did emerge from the disastrous restoration of 1820 which was the discovery of a really remarkable sculptured stone coffin lid, dating from about 800 A.D. It was found, lying face down, whilst the pavement in front of the altar was being removed[2]. It is now built into the nave's north wall.

Saxon Carving found in 1820.

Briefly, Christ is shown washing firstly his disciples' feet, top left, then his death, resurrection and ascension to Heaven, and finally the disciples returning to Jerusalem after the ascension, bottom right. An account of the discovery of the stone, which measures five feet in length and two feet ten inches in breadth, was published in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1821 and is to be found elsewhere on this web site.

In the 1860s a report by John Webster and James Walker declared that St. Mary's was in a seriously dilapidated state and Gilbert Scott was called in; he corroborated the Webster and Walker findings and fundraising began in earnest[6]. Notices appeared in the local press in 1870 for builders who were interested in restoring the church to submit tenders[7]. The church the underwent work to restore it and, as far as possible, to undo the 1820-21 work and it was re-opened in May 1872[6].

During the restoration in the 1870's some encaustic mediaeval paving tiles were discovered (sample left below). Encaustic is the art of decorating tiles by burning in the coloured clays that were laid into the tiles. These tiles were of Derbyshire manufacture, according to Llewellynn Jewitt who wrote about them in "The Reliquary"[8]. Other fragments, for example a ram's head from a Norman arch and some Norman capitals and bases, were found at the same time.

Finds from the restoration of the church, undertaken in the 1870s.

Mediaeval Paving Tiles
Mediaeval Paving Tiles found at Wirksworth Church[8]

Cox felt that it was unfortunate that these old tiles were not kept in the church, but became part of various private collections[2].


Above is a drawing of large slab, which " bears a boldly incised cross, a sword and a bugle horn, with belt attached". Cox believed it probably covered the coffin of a chief forester of the ancient royal forest of Duffield Frith. This was against the west wall of the north transept by 1876[2].

Twelfth century mouldings, found in the 1871-6 restoration.
"The beak head, alternate-billet, and other patterns, as well as heads of small shafts and other details, that were found in the masonry, have now been built into different parts of the interior of the church".[2]

Interior. View of the choir and chancel from the crossing.

The chancel window, in memory of Francis Edward Hurt of Alderwasley who died in 1854 (below), was installed in 1855 having been unanimously agreed to by the County Magistrates. It was designed the Derby architect Mr. H. I. Stevens and the masonry work was carried out by Mr. Lawton. Mr. Warrington of London produced the stained glass, and inserted four other stained windows in the chancel at the same time. The arms of the Hurt, Lowe and Fawne families are in the upper (traceried) parts of the window[9]. By 1912 the church had 13 stained glass memorial windows[10]. Simon Jenkins, writing in 1999, thought Scott had preserved the" raw dignity" of the church, "even if the atmosphere is blighted by bad Victorian glass"11]. Oh dear!

The dedication is along the bottom of the window and reads:
"Memorial to Francis Edward Hurt, Esq.,
of Alderwasley, died March 22, 1854, aged 73 years.
Erected by public subscription, 1855

Window designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Morris designed the angels in the upper segments of the window.
Burne-Jones was responsible for the Angel Gabriel, St. Mary, Elizabeth and several of the prophets.

Three figures from the window (below), installed in memory of James and Hannah Nall.

St. Mary

St. Paul


Amongst the monuments inside the church is an altar tomb to Anthony Gell, who founded the school and almshouses, and is dated 1583. His effigy shows him wearing a long gown and there are a ruffs around his neck and wrists.

1930s sepia photograph of Wirksworth Church

1. Illustration by Nellie Erichsen from Firth[1].
2. Photograph of Wirksworth Church by Frank Clay.
3. Sepia images from Mee, Arthur (ed.) (1937) "Derbyshire: The Peak Country", The King's England Series, Hodder and Stoughton Limited, London. Mee acknowledges the work of his Art Editor, Sidney Tranter, but is not specific about who provided which picture, although contributors included the National Trust and Valentine and Sons.
4. Mediaeval Paving Tiles from "The Reliquary" Vol.XI (1870/1), Plate XVIII[8].
5. Drawing of coffin lid from Cox[2].
All the above images in the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews
6. A series of photographs were taken in the summer of 2016 for this web site by and © Susan Tomlinson.
Written, researched by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.


[1] Firth, J. B. (1908) "Highways and Byways in Derbyshire" MacMillan & Co., London.
[2] Cox, J. Charles (1877) "Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire Vol II" Chesterfield: Palmer and Edmunds, London: Bemrose and Sons, 10 Paternoster Buildings; and Derby.
[3] Rhodes, Ebenezer (1824) "Peak Scenery" pub. London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster Row. The publication date is from my own copy, but J. B. Firth was quoting from an earlier edition.
[4] "Wirksworth Urban District Council Official Guide", date unknown but © Ed. J. Burrows & Co. Ltd., Publishers, Cheltenham & London.
[5] Cox, John Charles, (1915, 2nd edition, revised), "Derbyshire" - Illustrated by J. Charles Wall, Methuen & Co., London.
[6] "Derby Mercury", 15 May 1872. Re-opening of Wirksworth Church.
[7] "Derbyshire Times", 21 May 1870, and other newspapers.
[8] Jewitt, Llewellynn (ed.) (1870/1), "The Reliquary" Vol.XI pub. Bemrose & Sons.
[9] "Derby Mercury", 28 March 1855. The Memorial Window to the late Francis Hurt, Esq.
[10] Kelly's Directory of Derbyshire, 1912.
[11] Jenkins, Simon (1999) " England's Thousand Best Churches", Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, Penguin Books Ltd., 27 Wright's Lane, London, W8 5TZ, England, ISBN 0-713-99281-6. He awarded St. Mary's three stars.

Also see, elsewhere on this web site:
The Gentleman's Magazine Library has a section on Wirksworth
Derbyshire's Parishes, 1811 includes a short piece about Wirksworth. Peter Davies does not mention a spire on top of the tower.

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Melbourne Church was also restored by Sir Gilbert Scott