A day at the Barmoot (a short tale of tea, cake and gentlemen of the Wapentake)

By Carry van Lieshout & Georgina Endfield

When we met lead mining history expert and former engineer Dr Jim Rieuwerts at the end of last year he invited us to attend the 2014 Barmoot.

The Barmoot is an ancient court that deals with lead ownership in the mining districts of Derbyshire. It had been in existence from 1288, but Great Barmoot Courts became especially busy by the 16th century as the lead industry expanded. The courts consisted of the Barmaster, a steward and a jury made up of local miners, and their function was to collect the royalties due on lead as well as resolving disputes between miners about ownership of specific veins. At the height of the lead mining industry there were several Barmoot courts meeting a couple of times a year, but nowadays the court sits once a year in Wirksworth and is mainly ceremonial (although last year they had an actual case! – see the Derby Telegraph http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/ruling-decades-ancient-mining-court/story-18755029-detail/story.html)

So it was that on the 9th of April we made our way to Wirksworth to see this illustrious court in action. After arriving early we went to suss out the location of the court – off a side road (Chapel Lane) in one of the oldest parts of the town. It was a slightly masonic looking building decorated with lead mining symbolism.

Barmoot court in Wirksworth

The Barmoot court in Wirksworth. Photo: Georgina Endfield

The plaque over the door reads:

This Hall was built by the direction
of the Right Hon. Charles Bathurst
Chancellor of his Majesty’s Duchy
and county palatine of Lancaster in the
LIV year of the Reign of his Majesty
King George III AD MDCCCXIV

The building doesn’t have many more uses besides hosting the annual Barmoot, although the local band’s drum kit and an electronic organ left behind after band practice suggests that this old building has moved with the times. As the building was still closed, we made for a local café for tea and pikelets, anticipating that the Barmoot may be a lengthy affair. Intriguingly, we spotted a group of suited-up men who also made their way to the café and half-jokingly we speculated on whether they were the jurors or just the local solicitors on a cake break.

At a few minutes before noon we made our way back to the court building where we met with a local historian (doing research on the history of Georgina’s old house – it’s a small world up here!) and Jim, who was one of the jurors. We also met George Jaramillo, a PhD student from Edinburgh who is working on the lead mining communities of the Peak District. We chatted while the jurors were getting ready in a backroom (they were served the traditional meal of cheese and ale – the miners used to come from far to attend long meetings. As far as we understand, clay pipes and tobacco are still provided as was the old custom).

The Barmoot started off with the jurors filing into court benches on the side where they, fairly squashed it has to be said, remained for the proceedings. In walked the gentlemen we had spotted in the café! Next, we all rose as the steward, the barmaster, and a local solicitor representing the Queen (as the official Lord of the Field) came in, accompanied by the announcer who would proclaim the cases. This was a very masculine affair. While in our own studies we have unearthed some very powerful women in the lead mining industry and lead trade, to our knowledge, women have not acted as jurors.

In front of the jury was the official lead measuring dish, dating back to 1509 and used to determine the duties due to the Crown and Church, placed here, as the inscription says, in 1513, “so as the merchantes and mynours may make the tru mesure at all tymes.” Later discussions confirmed this as the original dish.

Lead measuring dish at the Barmoot

Lead measuring dish at the Barmoot. In the right corner a plague with the names of the former and present stewards and barmasters. Photo: Georgina Endfield.

After a short introduction the jurors were sworn in and the court started. As there were no actual cases to deal with this year, the meeting came to an unexpectedly speedy close though Jim (who was chosen as foreman of the jury) reminded all in attendance that the Court building was built in 1814 as per the plaque, and thus was 200 years old this year. In response to a smart quip from one of his juror colleagues, Jim confirmed that he was considerably younger!

The jurors signed their attendance and there was an opportunity for the few curious attendees like ourselves to take photographs.

We had a quick chat with Jim and some of the other participants after (who were off to have their proper lunch in Rowsley) and then spent some time in Cromford vising the Cromford sough tail, the site of the conflict between Cromford miners and Richard Arkwright. Fuelled by more tea and cake we planned out the location and programme of the Derbyshire team fieldtrip in October, where the full Power and Water team will be able to enjoy these fantastic locations.

Cromford Sough Tail

Cromford Sough Tail. Photo: Georgina Endfield.

 

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