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Wirksworth Parish Church - St. Mary the Virgin, Exterior
St. Mary's Parish Church, Wirksworth
About 1906.

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", shown below, and many more headstones were upright[2].

Richard Keene's photo, about 1876-7. There were many more upright headstones at that time.

Amongst the memorials in the churchyard, and mentioned by the Lysons in 1817, was "the tomb of Matthew Peat of Alderwasley, who died Dec 11, 1751, aged 109 years and 10 months[3]." He was a shoemaker by trade and it was said that "he retain'd his senses to the last"[4].

Cox (1877) mentioned another that is noteworthy - a slate tablet with a whimsical epitaph in the churchyard, on one of the buttresses at the north west angle of the church :

"Near this place lies the body of Philip Shallcross, once an eminent quill driver to the attorneys of this town, he died the 17 of Nov. 1787 aged 67. Viewing Philip in a moral light the most prominent and remarkable features in his character were his real and invincible attachment to dogs and cats, and his unbounded benevolence toward them as well as toward his fellow creatures.
To the critic.
Seek not to shew the devious path Phil. trode,
Nor draw his frailties from the dread abode,
In modest sculpture let this tombstone tell,
That much esteem'd he liv'd and much regrett'd fell[2]."

When work was undertaken to repair the wall in late 1906 the Shallcross monument was placed inside the church until it could be restored to its original position[5].

The Church, with the Old Grammar School building on the left. 1906 or before.
It is 152 feet in length, with the chancel longer than the nave.

At the time of the Domesday survey of 1086 the church possessed a priest and a church[6]. In 1272 the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln appointed the first special vicar[7]; before then Wirksworth had been served by a chaplain or chaplains appointed by the Dean. A church had been extant here since Edward the Confessor's time. A Norman Church replaced the Domesday building. Cox (1876) tells us that the church was rebuilt in the Early English style in the thirteenth century. "The roofs of this church were high-pitched, and had no clerestory. The weather line moulding of this roof can be seen against the west face of the tower (within the present roof), and is continued down to the west walls of the transepts, so as to form a single angle roof over both nave and aisles." ... "Just below the pitch of the present roof can be seen another weather line, showing the elevation to which the roof was raised in the Decorated period, at the commencement of the fourteenth century when the arcades that separate the nave from the aisles were rebuilt, and the wall over them raised to admit clerestory windows. The upper stage of the tower, with the belfry windows was built at this stage."[2]

In the early 1820s Ebenezer Rhodes had visited Wirksworth: he recorded that "the church is built in the form of a cross, with a square tower in the centre, which is surmounted by a small conical spire has neither grace nor dignity in its appearance "[8]. J. Charles Cox (1877) found evidence of a much earlier 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. Cox also adds that the "spirelet" only dates from 1821[2], which means it was a new addition when Rhodes visited Wirksworth. It is hard to find why it was felt necessary to add it to the tower, though it is quite possible that it was to ensure the church was more visible from the surrounding hills.

It was later to become even more apparent that sometimes St. Mary's did not benefit from its restorations. "In 1820-21, the most barbarous innovations and alterations were made that nearly destroyed the transepts. In 1855 a shocking mess was made of the chancel. In 1870, an elaborate restoration, carried out for the most part on the good lines by the late Gilbert Scott, was begun but was not completed satisfactorily owning to the more important parts of the fabric being in the hands of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and their architect."[9]

Wirksworth Church from S.E.
View of the south eastern side of the Church, with the chancel on the right. Early 20th century.
"The chancel and south choir aisle walls are topped with battlements whereas the crossing
tower has a quatrefoil frieze instead of battlements[7]".

A report by John Webster and James Walker was read by the churchwardens on 26 March 1867; it declared that St. Mary's was seriously dilapidated, and Gilbert Scott was called in to sort things out[11]. Notices for builders to submit tenders if they were interested in restoring the church appeared in the local press in 1870. Those interested had to apply to the architect (G. G. Scott, Esq., R.A.)[10]. The church closed in 1970 and then underwent restorative work to return it, as far as possible, by undoing the 1820-21 work[11]. The contractor was Mr. G. W. Booth, of Gosport. All the foundations had to be underpinned and made secure, which was a major undertaking[12].

The chancel and transept roofs were changed; they were now high pitched and constructed of moulded oak, covered with grey Yorkshire stone slate. The roofs of the chancel aisles were also of oak and were covered with lead. Some of the wall had been rebuilt with coursed sandstone; the old rubble walls were thoroughly cleaned and then pointed. The tower had been repaired and pointed with Portland cement and new louvre boards. A new clerestory, pierced by six cinquefoil windows, had been added to the chancel[13]. It was re-opened in May 1872[11].
There is more about the internal changes on the next page.

1930s. The roof of the nave had been changed back to the pre-1870 restoration height in 1926.
It was a controversial decision at the time.

Work began in late 1906 on the somewhat small west door with its pointed arch, which had been blocked up for a long time. Masonry mouldings of a late Gothic door (15th century) were discovered under the plaster, indicating a doorway half as wide again[5]. The west end of the nave was also restored and the doorway was dedicated on Friday 28 June 1907[14]. The wider doorway can be seen on the 1930s image above and the two images below.

By 1924 the massive oak pegs holding the stone roof slabs had become insecure. Re-roofing was considered the only option[15]. Under the advice of Sir Charles Nicholson, a distinguished architect, it was decided to lower the pitch of the roof to its height before Gilbert Scott's 1870 restoration and to cover it with Derbyshire lead. The eastern part of the church was to be used whilst this was carried out and the repair work began in 1926[16]. It was re-opened by the Bishop in 1930[17].

St. Mary's church is almost hidden from view behind the shops of the main street, enclosed within an almost circular churchyard. The yard is contained by a path that goes all round the perimeter and is surrounded by railings. It has been Grade I listed since 1950.

1930s sepia photograph of Wirksworth Church,
with two chest tombs in the foreground.

A more recent family photograph of the exterior of the west end of the nave of St. Mary's.
Few monumental headstones remain to mark the graves.

1. Illustration by Nellie Erichsen from Firth[1] It was drawn before the west doorway was widened.
2. "Wirksworth. N .W., Plate XXII" (about 1876-7). Heliotype from photograph by R. Keene, Cox[2]
3. "Wirksworth Church, Derbyshire". No publisher, No.15796. Not postally used.
4. "Wirksworth Church, S. E.", The Wrench Series, No.5522. Printed in Saxony. Others posted 1903 and 1904.
5. "Wirksworth Church, Derbyshire", Peveril Real Photo Series, No.1025. Posted 8 Aug 1940 in Matlock.
6. Photograph of Wirksworth Church by Frank Clay, no date.
7. 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.
All the above images provided by and © Ann Andrews collection.

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] Lysons, Rev Daniel and Samuel Lysons Esq. (1817) "Topographical and Historical Account of Derbyshire" London: Printed for T. Cadell, Strand; and G. and A. Greenland, Poultry.

[4] "The Derby Mercury" 29 June 1881 ran a series of "Old News", stories from their papers from 1751-2.

[5] "Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal", 7 December 1906.

[6] Derbyshire's Parishes, 1811, Parishes T - Z, which has more about Wirksworth.

[7] Pevsner, Nikolaus (1953), "The Buildings of England, Derbyshire", Penguin Books.

[8] Rhodes, Ebenezer (1824) "Peak Scenery" pub. London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster Row.
See: Map of Derbyshire, 1824 - Mr. Rhodes's Excursions.

[9] Cox, J. Charles (1892) "On an early Christian Tomb at Wirksworth" from Andrews, William (1892) "Bygone Derbyshire", pub. F. Murray, Derby, pp.22-3.

[10] "Derbyshire Times", 21 May 1870, and other newspapers.

[11] "Derby Mercury", 15 May 1872. Re-opening of Wirksworth Church.

[12] "Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal", 19 May 1871.

[13] "Burton Chronicle", 16 May 1872

[14] "Derby Daily Telegraph 29 June 1907" and "Derbyshire Times, 6 July 1907".

[15] "Derbyshire Times", 21 June 1924.

[16] "Derby Daily Telegraph", 23 April 1926. Nave roof need of immediate repair. The work begun.

[17] "Derbyshire Times 28 June 1930. Wirksworth church. Chancel re-opened by Bishop.

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 as it had not yet been added to the tower.

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Melbourne Church was also restored by Sir Gilbert Scott