Mining and farming declined rapidly in the 19th century but the rise of the quarries and the High Peak Railway meant Brassington was still a lively and self-sufficient community, with six pubs, five coal merchants, four churches, many shops, two policemen, a thriving school, and a workhouse.
The villagers’ traditional jobs in mining and farming declined rapidly during the 19th century. The decline in mining was especially steep - there were still forty-three miners in 1851 but only sixteen in 1881, and the industry had effectively disappeared by the end of the century.
In farming the figures tell a similar, though less drastic story. In 1851 there were seventy-six farm labourers and in 1881 only thirty-six, reflecting the end of arable farming. Many families left the village and many of those who remained found new work in quarries, kept busy by the demands of an expanding road programme, and on the Cromford and High Peak Railway, maintaining the embankments, viaducts, track and bridges, as well as on the trains and at Longcliffe “wharf”, as the railway’s stations were called.
The decline was slow, however, and for the whole of the 19th and for much of the 20th century, there remained the shops, shoemakers, blacksmiths, joiners, butchers, tailors, stone masons, dressmakers, cattle dealers, carriers, preachers, teachers which made it a lively and to a large extent self-sufficient community. The villagers had five resident coal merchants, a maltster, a straw bonnet maker and two policemen.
In addition to half a dozen pubs and a thriving friendly society, the Oddfellows, 19th century Brassington acquired three chapels, a much repaired and enlarged church, and a new school, built in 1872.
The school, providing elementary education to every child in the village, was founded after the Education Act of 1870, and replaced an earlier one which had been built by public subscription in 1832. The early days of the new school were difficult ones for the Headmasters. The villagers seem not to have taken kindly to full-time education, especially not at harvest time.
The first entry in the school log records the headmaster’s verdict - “The children are in a very backward state”. This remained the situation for more than twenty years, with poor attendance and indiscipline hampering the efforts of a succession of headmasters.
They were also hampered by the fact the village had opted not to be financed and managed by a School Board but by village trustees. It depended partly on charity and partly on parents’ contributions - “school pence”. The situation changed in 1894, when the committee, unable to raise money for repairs to the building, handed over control to the Board of Education. A new and enterprising Headmaster was appointed, and this new man proved to be popular and effective. The school prospered.
The Primitive Methodist chapel was built in 1834 by the church’s own members, with the help of a loan of £3 from the Winster Circuit. Twelve years later, in 1846, the Congregational or Independent Church members built themselves a much more ecclesiastical chapel than the Primitive Methodists’ very plain building. A chapel for another methodist church, the Original Methodists, was built in 1852 with the help of finance from John Smedley who, in addition to building hydros and Riber Castle, was a fervent revivalist preacher. This third chapel in the village was taken over by another methodist church, the Wesleyans, in 1867, after the dissolution of the Original Methodists. All three chapels flourished, holding joint outdoor meetings and collaborating in evening classes before the 1872 school was opened.
The congregation of the old church of St James was also vigorous during this century. A new vicarage was built in 1857, party by subscription, and in 1866 the parish was made independent of Bradbourne. In 1879 the church was renovated and extended. A 19th century photograph of the old church, by then about seven hundred years old, shows cracks in the south wall, and the villagers raised £2000 to repair it. This financed a new south wall, a north aisle and an extended chancel.
For twenty-eight years Brassington had its own workhouse - the House of Industry. A Brassington Poor Law Incorporation, or Union, was formed in 1820 and the village bought the old Red Lion pub from James Swindell for £195 to house the paupers of the villages covered by this new organisation. The 19th century workhouses were grim places, appropriately nicknamed Bastiles. Their unfortunate inmates were at the mercy of the “governor” and in 1830 a song attacking the corruption and immorality of the Brassington governor, Robert Walton, and his wife, found its way into print.
“Come all you beggars far and near give ear unto my song/ I’ve something to relate to you, which shall not keep you long/ It’s concerning Mr Sheeplouse, that man of mighty fame/ Has pinch’d the poor at the Bastile and thought it no great shame.”
There are six verses and a chorus, singable to the tune of the Linconshire Poacher. Mrs Walton becomes Mrs Clambeggar and she and her husband are accused of starving the paupers and stealing the money for their food, while Mr Sheeplouse is accused of fathering a baby on one of the inmates.
The Brassington Union was wound up in 1844, and its responsibilities transferred to a new Ashbourne Incorporation. While a new workhouse was being built in Ashbourne, the old one at Brassington was too small for a greatly increased population, and the Board of Guardians coped by using the George and Dragon pub as well as the former Red Lion.
While there were fifteen inmates listed in the 1841 census, there were seventy-seven men, women and children in the old workhouse in 1845, and another sixty-three in the George and Dragon.
“For three years the two old pubs were home to a small army of grey people - men and boys in grey suits and grey shirts, women and girls in grey gowns, grey petticoats and grey shifts. The men and boys were given black woollen hats and the women and girls coarse straw bonnets”. Their clothes were fastened by “union” buttons, and “these temporary villagers breakfasted on eight ounces of bread and two pints of milk porridge, repeated for supper on every evening but Monday. Their mid-day dinner was nine ounces of meat, a pound and a half of potatoes, a pint of meat soup and eight ounces of bread on Sunday and Wednesday. These were red letter days. On Monday and Tuesday there were no meat and potatoes, on Tuesday and Friday dinner consisted of one pound of dumplings, and on Saturday the paupers had either Monday’s soup and bread or Tuesday’s dumplings.
During the Irish potato famine of 1846, peas and more bread took the place of the scarce potatoes”. In 1848 the Brassington workhouses were closed, the inmates marched off to Ashbourne, and the old Red Lion was sold as a private house.