The 17th century sees Brassington’s first stone house, and the height of the lead mining industry.
The old farming methods began to change in the 16th century, when adjacent strips were progressively grouped into the fields, bounded by hedges, which still exist to the south of the village. These “enclosures” were usually by agreement between the owner of the freehold estate, by then the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his tenants, and between the Duchy and its tenants. However, the creation of privately-owned fields meant that less and less land was available for communal grazing during winter or during the year when a third of the lands were left fallow, and the enclosures were often opposed by the villagers who relied on the old system. These struggles were sometimes forcible, sometimes legal.
By the middle of the 17th century the present field pattern in the south was established. Arable farming was largely abandoned and the new fields used for stock raising, which is why the former strip ploughing patterns survive. The waste continued in common ownership until the beginning of the 19th century, with most of the grazing rights owned by the large land owners, who rented them to the villagers.
The 16th century, especially the reign of Elizabeth I, saw a rise in prosperity among the wealthier families in the village, based on the wool trade and lead mining. Some families, notably the Buxtons, Westernes, Trevises and Blackwells, became gentlemen, and their houses became larger and more comfortable with each generation.
In 1615 William Westerne, whose description changed from yeoman to gentleman during his lifetime, built the house on Town Street now known, erroneously, as the Tudor House. This was one of the first stone-built houses in the village but still used wattle-and-daub for its internal walls. It was an inn, known as the New Hall, on what was by then the main road between Derby and Manchester and remained so until 1820, changing its name to the Red Lion.
Another sign of prosperity was the presence in the village of at least one very well stocked shop, selling all kinds of cloth, from expensive lace and silk to mundane linen. This shop also sold spices and herbs, soap, starch, candy, sugar, garters, caps, tobacco and gunpowder, and much else - over four hundred separate items.
There were four alehouses to serve the miners and farmers. They also served the carriers, leading their pack-horse trains between Manchester and Derby since the roads were impassible to wheeled vehicles.
The “poorer sort”, to quote a contemporary document, free of the old feudal ties, generally preferred lead mining to farm labouring, which was one reason for the change from labour-intensive arable farming to stock rearing. Mining was at the height of its prosperity in the 17th century, and many villagers became prosperous enough to buy or rent pasture fields in the village to keep a few cattle or sheep. It was during this century that miners began to leave wills, a sure sign of increasing prosperity.
There had “always” been lead mining. The natives whom the Romans set to work mining the veins on Carsington Pasture and Brassington Moor were already likely to have been experts.
There is evidence of lead mining during Saxon times, and in 1289 Edward I, as part of a survey of the crown possessions known as the “Quo Warranto”, ratified a set of rules and customs for the industry which were already ancient.
To the men, and women, of Brassington, lead mining was a natural activity and always had been. Every day, for centuries, there had been men, women and children getting lead from the limestone under the thin soil of Carsington Pasture. The mines were always there and men in every generation learned the skills to enable them to take advantage of the trade’s unique laws and customs.
Mining was an adventure, and while prospecting was always a gamble, it had overwhelming attraction to men who would otherwise have been wholly dependent on farm work. Compared with the life-long drudgery of labouring in the fields in the certain knowledge that the master would never pay them more than the minimum needed to survive, that they could be laid off in bad times, that they would be unlikely to save anything for their old age, and that their life’s work would leave them bent and exhausted, mining offered independence and hope. The “poorer sorte” preferred to “labour in the lead groundes” because there they were their own masters and because from the middle of the seventeenth century, for about a hundred and fifty years, mining was profitable enough to pay the rent of the few acres which would feed a few sheep, cattle or pigs.
Edward I’s Quo Warranto confirmed the peculiar rules of lead prospecting … [which] “allowed miners to prospect anywhere except under highways, churchyards or orchards, to make roads to carry their ore away, and to use water, including streams where there were any, to wash [dress] it”
The great changes in land holding, agriculture, village government, religion and in the social pattern among the villagers, which together transformed the mediaeval village, were largely complete in Brassington by 1700.
The villagers had long been free men, able to sell their labour where they could, but they could no longer graze their cattle and sheep in winter on the open fields after the crops had been brought in. For grazing they paid those few of their neighbours whose tenure of most of the land was now exclusive. There was still the open moorland - “the moors and wastes of Brassington” - but here too the grazing had become concentrated in a few hands and most of the villagers had to pay rent for the privilege of grazing their cattle and sheep there.
It was still a vital part of the villagers’ lives, however, this immemorial wasteland, still unfenced and criss-crossed with the paths to Elton, Ible, Winster, Wirksworth and Hopton. It must have seemed impossible to the villagers that they would ever be fenced out of this part of their territory and yet the landowners with grazing rights there were intent on enclosure and would eventually accomplish it.
The crops of oats, wheat, barley, rye, beans and peas were much diminished, replaced by larger numbers of cattle and sheep, while food crops were brought in from places with richer soil than Brassington’s thin covering.
The manor court still met regularly to carry out transfers of the copyhold fields in the former Duchy manor, but it had finally given up its role in village government by the 18th century. This role was played by the officers of the parish and by the Quarter Sessions of the magistrates’ court in Derby. One of their chief preoccupations was the relief of the poverty which the modern system had created. Modifying the new system were the ancient rules of mining, very important in Brassington during the industry’s heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it was worthwhile for the men of the village to take advantage of them and go prospecting.
After the religious upheavals of the preceding two centuries, the eighteenth century curates could attend to their small congregations, teach a few of the village boys their catechism and perhaps more, and baptise, marry and bury their parishioners. They had no competition until the arrival of Methodism in the 19th century, when there was surge of enthusiasm for new faiths, an enthusiasm which the parson would no doubt have found embarrassing if he had found it among the pews of the old church.