The history of T’Owd Man in Wirksworth

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 July 2019

St Mary's Church, Wirksworth Photo: Ashley Franklin

St Mary's Church, Wirksworth Photo: Ashley Franklin

as provided

In a climate in which males of advancing years are not always afforded the kindest of press, it is heartening to report that in the Peak District town of Wirksworth there is one ‘old man’ who is not just admired but almost revered.

The replica of T'Owd Man 'back home' in Bonsall  Photo: Sally MosleyThe replica of T'Owd Man 'back home' in Bonsall Photo: Sally Mosley

So much so that he has become unofficial mascot for the community and has sparked a playful debate and tug-of-love between loyal residents of Wirksworth and their equally proud near-neighbours Bonsall.

In a nod to the Derbyshire vernacular he is affectionately known as 'T'Owd Man' - the Old Man - or even by the play on words 'Mr Toad'. But whatever his moniker he has garnered a great deal of media coverage in recent years, and his undeniably quirky image adorns t-shirts, mugs and all manner of merchandise linked to both Wirksworth and Bonsall - he has had a beer named after him, a half-marathon race, a Peak District walk, a magazine... and much more. If he were a living being he would be well-advised to employ a full-time agent.

On the face of it T'Owd Man lends himself to an uncontroversial description. He is a primitive Medieval relief carving incorporated into an internal wall of the south transept of Wirksworth St Mary's Church. The image - thought to be at least 800-years-old - depicts a lead-miner with his pick and workman's basket known as a 'kibble'. Some experts have even declared him 'the world's earliest-known depiction of a miner' - quite an honour for Wirksworth.

Church of St James, Bonsall Photo: Ashley FranklinChurch of St James, Bonsall Photo: Ashley Franklin

Yet the figure has courted controversy - for his official title, much touted in 'rival circles', is actually T'Owd Man of Bonsall. Although archival evidence is by no means unequivocal concerning the exact facts and timeline of T'Owd Man's life journey, there is undisputed evidence that the carving found its way to Wirksworth from its earlier home in St James the Apostle church in Bonsall. Thereby hangs the nub of the friendly dispute.

Although it is historically common for building materials to be 'robbed' from one structure to facilitate the development of another, the proud citizens of Bonsall see the position in a more matter-of-fact light. Quite simply T'Owd Man was nicked - and by rights he should be returned to Bonsall!

Let's weigh the evidence. During the restoration of Bonsall St James in 1862-63 a number of pieces of carved stone including T'Owd Man were discovered deep in the fabric of the building. Dating mostly from the 13th century, they are likely to have been removed from another earlier church and used as foundations in the 14th century church at Bonsall. As such T'Owd Man was already 'second-hand' when he came to Bonsall St James - and moreover used as 'rubble' rather than given pride of place. That's dual ammunition for the Wirksworth lobby accused of subsequently 'purloining' him - more like a rescue act, they assert.

It is to a nineteenth-century antiquary that we turn for ongoing evidence. Reverend J C Cox in his Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire (1875) tells us these carved stones were removed for safe-keeping by the Churchwarden of St James, John Broxup Coates, and placed in the garden of his then residence Nether Green House, Bonsall. Three grave slabs were subsequently returned to Bonsall church and remain there now - but the more intriguing T'Owd Man was in time 'rescued' and taken to Wirksworth by a Mr William Marsh, a respected native of Bonsall who had moved to Wirksworth.

It is believed T'Owd Man was given his current home between 1870 and 1874 when St Mary's Wirksworth was itself undergoing restoration. So from languishing 'forgotten' in a Bonsall garden, he was prominently incorporated into the interior walls of Wirksworth St Mary. This decision - in the fullness of time surely a wise one - was taken by George Marsden, Churchwarden and Chairman of the St Mary's Restoration Committee. Had he not done so, T'Owd Man might have been lost for all time.

Since Reverend Cox's account of all this was given in 1875 it possesses an immediacy which leads historians little inclined to doubt it. Thus it was that T'Owd Man graduated from Bonsall to Wirksworth, saved not just for Derbyshire but for the nation and posterity.

It is a very apposite resting place for this historically-significant representation of a lead miner, since Derbyshire in general, and Wirksworth in particular, had for centuries been an important centre for the trade - much evidence of the now lapsed lead industry still exists in Derbyshire, both in place names, historical records and abandoned workings.

This does not answer why T'Owd Man was created or who his creators were. It is thought he was a mythic representation of the so-called 'guardian spirit' of ancient lead mines who dwelt deep in the shafts and caverns watching over the early miners in their highly-dangerous work.

As to his date, this is yet open to debate. Although routinely described as Medieval and probably from the 1200s, stylistically the work displays distinct elements of earlier Normans or even the preceding Anglo-Saxon period spanning from the fifth century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. And since lead mining was practised in Derbyshire from the Roman period, some chroniclers have broadened the window further, conjecturing that technically T'Owd Man could be anything up to 2,000 years old. The jury remains out.

What is unequivocal is that the distinctive character has garnered a certain degree of stardom. As to Bonsall's request to reclaim him, this has proved more mischievous than practical - T'Owd Man is literally 'cemented' in the fabric of Wirksworth, and there he will surely stay.

In a tacit acknowledgment of the status quo the village of Bonsall came up with a worthy compromise - they commissioned an exact replica which in 2002 was placed at the heart of the village with an explanatory plaque. Even this was not without a touch of mischief, for the sculptor they asked to create the work was Graham Barfield of Bolehill - that's in Wirksworth.

Unfazed by any whiff of conflict he made a superb job of the honoured task. The striking replica was carved from Birchover sandstone, the nearest available material to the original Black Rocks stone. Countless walkers and visitors pause to make acquaintance with Bonsall's 'Mr Toad' twin - perhaps many more in truth than see his original conception in the confines of Wirksworth St Mary's.

So in a sense 'T'Owd Man of Bonsall' has come full circle - a long-standing resident of Wirksworth but of pure Bonsall stock - and a Derbyshire character whose fame continues to spread. Both sides have been satisfied and a rallying consensus agreed. In the final analysis two 'Owd Men' are better than one!

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