Updated: Jul 23, 2020
In 1985 the DHBT restored this 1631 building from a state of near ruin to become a suite of rooms which could be used as a base by small businesses. New research has revealed more about the man for whom it was built, William Hopkinson, his family and the colourful lives led by them in Wirksworth during the reign of Charles I , the Puritan Commonwealth and Charles II.
William Hopkinson and the Hopkinsons of Ible, Bonsall and Wirksworth
William Hopkinson was part of a yeoman family living at Ible, a farming hamlet within the parish of Bonsall. He was one of the sons of Anthony Hopkinson and his wife Anne, also known as Agnes or Amiee They held the Manor of Ible for much of the 17th century.
William owned the Barley Flat Lead Mine in Wirksworth. Barley Flatts was all that area of fields between the top of Greenhill and the road to Middleton. As well as employing miners he traded in lead as a commodity.
By 1631 William must have had sufficient funds, or was able to raise sufficient funds, to build an ostentatiously large house for himself at the foot of Greenhill in Wirksworth. This would have been seen as the sign of a very confident and successful man.
William’s brother George was a prominent figure in the community - a lawyer and a member of the Inns of Court. He was also something of an antiquarian and published in 1644 ‘The Laws and Customs of the Mines Within the Wapentake of Wirksworth’.
Despite being an authority on the ancient laws and customs, codified in 1288, which allowed miners to dig for ore regardless of ownership of land, he was no friend of the fiercely independent and highly skilled ‘free miners’ who operated in The Kings Field under these ancient rights and customs. It is recorded that he and his brother William ejected free miners from Hopkinson owned land in the 1640s and 50s and again in 1678.
The way the lead industry operated was complicated as a result of the ancient customs and laws, and this led to many disputes. All grist to the mill for lawyers.
There was a hierarchy of officials regulating the industry. The Duke of Lancaster (who since 1400 had been the monarch) was Lord of the Kings Field and had the right of one thirteenth of the value of all lead mined and sold. The Duchy of Lancaster appointed a Barmaster to be responsible for administering a law court - the Barmote Court- to oversee regulation of the industry. The Barmaster would appoint a Steward - a lawyer - to preside over the court. The Barmaster would also appoint deputy Barmasters and twentyfour jury men.
The Barmote Court for the Wirksworth Wapentake operated from its own courthouse - a timber framed two story Moothall built in 1474, which stood at the head of Wirksworth Market Place, just round the corner from the house William had built and where for a time brother George and their mother also lived.
Another resident in William’s house by 1648 was cousin, Robert Sage, who was a very significant player in the lead industry - a lead merchant who owned a number of lead mines and was one of the partners driving drainage soughs - Cromford Moor and Raventor Sough. On his death in 1661 his mineral workings passed to his cousin George.
Despite connection with these powerful relations William must have encountered severe financial difficulties within a comparatively short time of building his house in Greenhill, because by the time of his mother's death in 1648 he was not only in debt to her, but he had had to sell her the house in order to raise funds, as is clear from her will. This was a private sale, which was not formally ratified by surrender and admission in the manor court, probably so that William's financial problems would not become public knowledge and thereby cause a loss of business confidence.
This upset appears not to have destabilised the standing of the family or interrupted William’s mining activities as his miners, at his Barley Flat Mine, were still producing reasonable quantities of ore in the 1640s.
Back in the 1620s the Hopkinson brothers were much less ‘establishment figures’ and seem to have been in some kind of relationship with the rapacious Vicar of Wirksworth The Reverend Robert Carrier, to help extract, by threats of violence, tithes from the farmers and lead miners who were reluctant to pay what the Vicar considered to be his dues.
There are a number of colourful stories about this, the most surprising being an account of the Vicar’s wife, Jennet, being prosecuted for threatening a lead miner with a knife. Another tells of how an apparently rashly violent attempt to extract dues from John Gell, Lord of the Manor of Hopton, was met with equal violence. Gell was subsequently brought before the Wirksworth court in 1624 and fined 3/4d for attacking William Hopkinson.
Carrier’s misdemeanours landed him in much greater trouble. He, his wife and four others, were committed to the Fleet Prison and heavily fined and in 1633 Carrier was replaced as Vicar, whereas John Gell II was made a baronet in 1642. Despite receipt of this Royal favour Gell raised a regiment to fight for Parliament in the Civil War.
The bad relations between the Gells and the Hopkinsons, who supported the King, were of course considerably exacerbated during this period and miners who had joined Gell’s Parliamentary regiment took pleasure in plundering Hopkinson property.
Following the Restoration Sir John Gell was displaced in 1661 as Barmaster by the Earl of Northampton, who then appointed George Hopkinson Steward of the Barmote Court.
Gell attempted to evade paying his dues to the new Barmaster and this landed him up in the Duchy of Lancaster Court.
The rackety behaviour of the Hopkinson brothers in the 1620s had by then no doubt been forgotten and In this post Restoration period George remained in the post of Steward of the Barmote Court until 1701.
In the post Restoration period William remained active in the lead industry and extended his mining activities by setting up a new mine in Ible.
William’s elder brother Henry was granted arms at the 1662 Heralds’ Visitation.
This then, was a yeoman family who had, by the post Restoration period, moved significantly up the social ladder, due to their involvement in the law and their growing wealth from the local lead industry during one of the most successful periods of its operation.
It seems the Hopkinson family’s prosperity faltered somewhat towards the very end of the century and by 1700 all links to the house built by William in 1631 were severed. A document of 1717 described the house as “formerly called Hopkinson’s House.”