Updated 24 May 2001
WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900
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On the 26th of October, 1642, Sir John Gell, estate owner and newly commissioned Colonel of the Parliamentary forces, marched into Wirksworth with 140 men to recruit an army of 1200 against King Charles' I Royalists. Parliament, fed up with King Charles I's despotic practices, had set in motion a Civil War. John Conradt Molanus, a Dutch emigre with over 15 years of experience, was managing the Dovegang Mine for Sir Cornelius Vermuyden. Whether he was a seasoned veteran of the Thirty Years War in the Netherlands is a matter for speculation. What is certain is that he had proven himself capable of handling large numbers of people under adverse conditions and was considered trustworthy by his employer. Perhaps because of his managerial skills, perhaps due to his natural daring and leadership, John Conradt Molanus was appointed quartermaster of the regiment. Within a short time, he was promoted to Major of foot in command of over 200 miners from Col. Gell's estates outfitted as musketeers.(Back to the MENU)
His first assignment sent him to Coventry for "two saccers and some ammunition." Successfully completing this mission, he stayed five days, then returned to Derby, the home base of the new army. Next, Col. Gell ordered him to take 400 foot to join Capt. White's dragoons in an attack on Bratby, the home of the Earl of Chesterfield, defended only by "40 musketeers, horse and seven drakes." After but "halfe a dozen shots," the Earl and his guards fled to Litchfield, leaving his wife, the Countess, at the mercy of the looters. After seizing a sizeable cache of arms and munitions, the officers entreated the Countess to give every soldier a crown to spare her home from looting. When she declared that she wouldn't give them a penny, the Greycoats ransacked the house, only sparing her private chamber.
Shortly after, Capt. White sent word to Col. Gell of his need to defend Nottingham Castle and to assist Col. Pierrepoint. Although Major Molanus was sent along with 300 foot soldiers, , they were recalled after nine or ten days because the Royalist army under Col. Hastings was approaching from Ashby-de-la-Zouch and had already taken Sir John Harper's house and Swarkeston Bridge. Quickly routing them, the Parliamentary troops returned to Derby. No sooner were they back, then the Moorlanders in Staffordshire requested assistance to defend Stafford town. Again, Major Molanus and 200 foot were dispatched to Uttoxeter, 18 miles away. Stranded there for two to three days, the major retreated back to Derby.(Back to the MENU)
In the meantime, Lord Hastings had refortified Ashby-de-la-Zouch, requiring another assault on the town on Jan 17th, 1643. However, when Col. Gell and his council heard that Prince Rupert was arriving to retake the town, they decided to withdraw. On February 24th, 1643, in answer to another request for aid form the earl of Essex, Major Molanus with 500 foot went off to Burton upon Trent and then to Newark. In spite of having entered the town and "mastered the workes," Major Molanus felt betrayed by the commander in chief, Major General Ballard, who ordered a retreat, resulting in the loss of some 50 men, one drake and most of their ordinance (i.e., artillery). He gave his report to Col. Gell at Litchfield where the remainder of his troops had just secured Litchfield Close.
Immediately thereafter, the troops marched to Hopton Heath against the Earl of Northampton. In spite of being abandoned by the horse guard under Sir William Brereton, Col. Gell's 1500 foot soldiers, strategically protected by a rabbit warren, withstood an assault of 1200 mounted soldiers in which the Earl was killed. Demoralized, the Royalists fled in panic. Victorious, but suffering heavy losses, Col. Gell's forces retreated to Uttoxeter where they rested for three days. In spite of their victory, over 200 had either been killed or taken prisoner, most of their artillery had been captured, and their baggage and ammunition abandoned. Back at his headquarters at Derby, Col. Gell paraded the naked corpse of the Earl of Northampton through the streets before allowing for burial in the family vault. Needless to say, this was considered by all to be a shameful episode of the war.(Back to the MENU)
Next, Major Molanus was sent with 500 men for a long siege of Bolsover Castle. With only the loss of two or three men, they breached the house and pillaged it. In the meantime, Prince Rupert was pressing onto Derby after a victory at Birmingham and retaking Litchfield Close. There he used the first bomb in the history of warfare. Before he could devastate Derby, Prince Rupert was recalled to Essex, leaving a garrison at Burton. This was a perfect opportunity to recapture and garrison Burton, which Col. Gell did, thus securing the river passage over the Trent and Dove.
In May of 1643, Lord Grey commanded Col. Gell's forces and artillery to rendezvous at Nottingham. For the first time during the war, the Parliamentarians managed to form a united army of almost 6000 men who occupied the vale of Belvoir for a month under Lieutenant-General Hotham, an indecisive and ineffective leader, who was later executed for treason. Unfortunately, the only real action taken during that time was a brief attack against a Royalist garrison at Wiverton House, which ended prematurely when word reached them of Queen Henrietta Maria's arrival in Newark with reinforcements. All units then retreated, including Col. Gell's which headed back to Derby. Knowing that the Queen's forces would eventually attack his detachment at Burton, Col. Gell mustered his men to Eggington Heath where he waited in vain for reinforcements. Unable to come to the rescue, Col. Gell soon heard of the slaughter at Burton in which any survivors were taken prisoner.(Back to the MENU)
Not to be defeated by this one loss, Col. Gell, newly reinforced by men and provision from the House of Commons, led his men to besiege Tutbury Castle, only to withdraw when warned of Royalist reinforcements from Newcastle on the way. Instead, he dispatched Major Molanus to Gainsborough to aid Col. Hutchinson who only had 400 men on hand to defend the town's extensive earthworks. Once he arrived, he ordered the town evacuated while his men occupied and plundered it, returning to Derby with Royalist prisoners. Defenseless again, the town was soon entered by the Royalists, so that Major Molanus had to return, this time with 500 musketeers. What happened next is best described in Col. Gell's own words:
"The said Major Mollanus with Captayne Hacker, now Colonell Hacker, entered the towne with their horse, were presently beaten backe, lost four or five horses, instantly after the said Major broke thorrow the enemy and brought in the dragoons, and entered the towne againe, and drove the enemy before them, many of them slayne, and one hundred and sixty taken prisoners, but one man of our side slayne.. three men wounded and some five or six horses killed. Wee relieved at the same time at least four hundred townsmen and souldyers of the castle, who were almost famished. The remainder of the enemy fled to Nottingham bridge, which they were fortefying."(Back to the MENU)
The next day, Col. Hutchinson entreated the men to attack the nearby fortified bridge over the Trent in the hands of Col. Hacker and 80 Royalists, but Major Molanus was convinced that "ten thousand men could not do it." Mrs. Hutchinson, in her memoirs, referred to the Major as a "dull headed old Dutchman" for his refusal. Nevertheless, ten days later, Col. Gell, challenged by a letter from Col. Hutchinson, returned with his men to Nottingham to join with the Nottingham regiments to attack the fort, only to find it already abandoned.
Toward the end of November 1643, while Col. Gell was preparing for a great onslaught of Royalist troops into Derbyshire, he sent major Molanus and 350 horse and dragoons to Leek to assist the Moorlanders. Before they could reach their allies, Col. Dudley and the Royalist got there first, charging the rebel forces and pursuing them into Staffordshire, slaying over 400 of them and taking 14 officers prisoners, whom Coil Gell later redeemed. Meeting the retreating army, Major Molanus had no choice but to retreat along with them. En route, his detachment managed to kill five of the Earl of Newcastle's officers and to capture 36 prisoners in a skirmish. Waiting 14 days in vain for reinforcements to show up, Major Molanus headed back to Derby, taking another 26 prisoners of the Earl's forces at Ashbourne. On the 6th of January 1644, Major Molanus was again sent out to Burton to take the bridge, which he did without losing a single man, but slaying five enemy soldiers and returning to Derby with 500 prisoners. On February 5th , 1644, Col. Gell and his men took King's Mills from Col. Hastings, gaining much needed arms and taking about 200 prisoners.(Back to the MENU)
Things began to turn against them, when on the 24th of February 1644, 500 men, including Col. Gell's forces under Sir John Meldrum were sent to fortify Muskham Bridge near Newark. On March 21st, Major Molanus and the horse guard were protecting the workers when Prince Rupert with 6000 men routed them, slaying over 200 horse and dragoons and forcing a surrender of the survivors, whose arms and munitions were unceremoniously confiscated. Despite this major setback, a convoy of 45 guns had set out from London to resupply the beleaguered army. It was Major Molanus who was entrusted to meet it at Peterborough and escort it back to Derby. On the way, he stopped at Leek to join Col. Grey's regiment to thwart the Royalist army from interfering with the delivery. Hearing of a Royalist gathering at nearby Tamworth, the united forces drove off the Royalists so that the convoy was able to proceed unmolested back to Derby.
The last time Major Molanus is mentioned in Col. Gell's account is in reference to a rendezvous at Belvoir on 28 October 1645 when he was sent from Tutbury along with 520 foot soldiers to serve Capt. Lt. Drinkwater in an effort to get the Royalists to surrender at Newark. On New Year's day, 1646, the Parliamentary camp at Stoke under Col. General Poyntz was attacked by a party of 800 horse and 300 foot. While the Parliamentary horse fled, Major Molanus stood firm with his foot and fought a fierce three hour battle, with only four killed and 30 wounded versus the enemy's 72 killed and wounded. Still on the battle field, Major Molanus and his men received praise from Col.-Gen. Poyntz for their "courage and valour." Finally, on 8 May 1646, the Royalists surrendered. At this point, Col. Gell's unit disbanded. The officers walked away without having received any pay for over two years.(Back to the MENU)
From then on, John Molanus retained the title of Major. There's no doubt that Sir John Gell held him in high esteem. Time and time again, the colonel had depended on his leadership and bravery to carry the day. While today, the name Major Molanus hardly appears in history books written on the subject, he was unquestionably a crucial figure in the Regiment of Derbyshire, which thwarted repeated attempts by the royalists to capture the territory. And so it is with pride that I salute my ancestor for playing such an important role in an event that changed the destiny of England and the world.
Taken from Derbyshire in the Civil War by Brian Stone, Scarthin Books, 1992.
Johannes Conradus Molanus was born in the Netherlands, probably in Zeeland, around 1599. His arrival in England could have happened as early as the summer of 1626 after the renowned Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, returned to his homeland of Zeeland from England to seek financial backing and to recruit Dutch and Huguenot workers for the Hatfield Chase drainage project he had just been awarded by King Charles I. In papers dating 1628, John Molanus was recorded as being the agent in charge of the project. Unfortunately, this must have been a difficult job due to the hostility of the local inhabitants, particularly those on the Isle of Axeholme, who engaged in acts of sabotage and rioting in which one man was killed. In spite of the problems with the Hatfield Chase, Cornelius Vermuyden was knighted in 1628 by the King for successful completion of the project and was subsequently commissioned to undertake the mammoth task of draining 300,000 acres of the East Anglian Fens in 1630. Meanwhile, a search of other profitable uses of his expertise led him and a small entourage of Dutch entrepreneurs to Wirksworth, Derbyshire, where flooding had made many of the mines unworkable. King Charles, always on the lookout for more sources of revenue, was only too happy to issue Sir Cornelius and a partner, Sir Robert Heath, rights to the Dovegang Rake, a rich mine lying idle.(Back to the MENU)
John Molanus' name became associated with the endeavor during a Duchy Court hearing in 1632 disputing the legality of the "takeover," where he was again described as Vermuyden's agent, and accused of acting upon the orders of Vermuyden and Heath by which he intimidated former titleholders into relinquishing their claims to ownership. As overseer, it is estimated that he supervised 1000 workmen. By now, he had a wife, Madeline and one son, John, baptized at St. Mary's Wirksworth in February of that year. In 1637, the year in which Vermuyden and Heath finally established legally their ownership of the mine, Sir Cornerlius was appointed barmaster of the Dovegang Mine, delegating his duties to Johannes Conradus Molanus, "his servant and agent." While the position of barmaster was not salaried, a gentleman could earn quite a handsome income by performing certain services, such as measuring loads of ore, checking on the validity of mine ownership, appearing at barmoot court during disputes and acting as coroner in cases of mining fatalities. Although position of barmaster was exclusively reserved for gentlemen who could read and write, it was mostly their appointed deputies who actually carried out the duties. For John Molanus, this was indeed an honor.(Back to the MENU)
In October of 1642, the Civil War intruded upon the complacency of life in England. Though Sir Robert Heath continued his allegiance to King Charles I, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden declared himself on the side of Parliament. John Molanus followed suit. Thus, when Sir John Gell marched into Wirksworth recruiting for his incipient Derbyshire Regiment, John Molanus signed on, thereby going from mine agent to soldier to war hero. Between 1642 and 1646, in spite of going off to neighboring shires on numerous military expeditions, the now Major Molanus still managed to purchase ore on a regular basis, run Sir John Gell's smelting mill and father his fifth child.
After the war ended in 1646 with the defeat of King Charles I, Sir John Gell rewarded Major Molanus with a tenancy and overseer position in his Upper Smelting Mill. In 1648 a personal tragedy occurred when his wife, Madeline Molanus died. Sometime later, John Molanus married Anne Whittingham, widow of royalist Captain Thomas Whittingham, whom he must have met during the Civil War. In 1650, a crisis erupted when John Molanus was charged with misappropriation of funds as Colonel John Gell's first quartermaster, at the same time that Sir John was defending himself from accusations of high treason against Parliament. Protestations of innocence on the part of John Molanus did nothing to help the cause of Sir John Gell, who eventually was convicted and imprisoned. Further souring the relationship between the two, in 1655 John Molanus was found guilty of neglecting to pay excise duty, resulting in the removal of lead ore from the mill to cover the debt.(Back to the MENU)
Meanwhile, his former boss, Cornelius Vermuyden was having his own legal woes with a colleague, Marcellus Vanduran, who had been appointed trustee of the Dovegang Mine for Vermuyden's son John, who was to take possession of the title upon reaching his majority in 1648. Vanduran, who claimed that Vermuyden owed him several thousand pounds in unpaid loans and interest, refused to hand over the title. In a court case in 1652, John Molanus testified in favor of Vanduran. It's possible that his son, Marcellus, born in 1640, had been named after Vanduran.
Were it not for the lamentable legal squabbles of the many people he was involved with, little would have been known of him today. John Molanus was buried on May 23rd, 1661. The entry in the Wirksworth parish records honors him with his well deserved title of Major. Although there appears to be no will, his son John and grandson Edward both died testate, leaving land and "mineral possessions" among other things. Apparently the friendship with the Gells was not entirely damaged, since Edward's daughter Anne married a Ralph Gell in 1754. From humble origins in the Netherlands, to a prestigious position as trusted agent, to local fame as a war hero, and to the status of landowner, John Conradt Molanus enjoyed a fruitful and successful life in his adopted land. There is no doubt that this was due to his intelligence, capabilities and bravery. While a very minor player in the grand scheme of things, in his lifetime, John Molanus significantly contributed to the course of history, especially in that little corner of England known as Wirksworth. (Back to the MENU)
Crossley, David. "The Lead-Smelting Mills of Derbyshire." Derbyshire Archaeological Journal.112.
Fisher, F. N. "Sir Cornelius Vermuyden and the Dovegang Lead Mine." Derbyshire Archaeological Journal. 72
Kirkham, Nellie. "The Tumultuous Course of Dovegang." Derbyshire Archaeological Journal. 73
Slack, Ron. "The Dovegang Plot: Legal and Other Preliminaries to the Driving of Vermuyden's Sough." Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society. 12.3 (1994).
---. "Gentlemen Barmasters: A Seventeenth Century Mining Dynasty." Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society. 11.4 (1991).
---. Man at War: John Gell in his troubled time. Chesterfield: Mastaprint Limited, 1997.
---. "Trouble and Strife: "The Wirksworth Lead Industry in the Mid-17th Century." Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society. 12.2 (1993). (Back to the MENU)
WIRKSWORTH is a town of considerable antiquity, situated near the southern extremity of the mining district, in a low valley, nearly surrounded by hills. Here the features of the country begin to assume a less bold and prominent appearance. The lands are mostly in cultivation; and the inclosures, instead of being fenced with stone walls, are chiefly encompassed by hedges. At the time of the Norman Survey , here were three lead mines, a church and a priest. The manor was then the property of the Conqueror; and was given by King John to the FERRERS' family, at the same time with Ashbourne. It was afterwards annexed to the Earldom and Duchy of Lancaster, of which the Manor and Wapentake of Wirksworth are still members. The present lessee is Richard Paul JODDRELL, Esq. The Dean of Lincoln has a manor within the town, in right of his church; and the GELLS of Hopton, have another manor in the town and neighbourhood, called the Holland, or Richmond Manor, from its having belonged to the HOLLANDS, Lords Holland, and Dukes of Exeter; and afterwards to the Countess of RICHMOND, mother to Henry the Seventh. In the Holland Manor House, about thirty years ago, a manufactory of porcelain was attempted, but proved unsuccessful. (Back to the MENU)
The Church is a Gothic building, apparently of the fourteenth century. It consists of a nave, and side aisles, a north and south transept, a chancel, and a square tower, supported on four large pillars, in the centre. On the north side, the GELLS of Hopton have a monument room, in which are the tombs of Ralph GELL, and his son Anthony, who, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, was a Bencher of the Inner Temple, and feodary of Derbyshire; and also tablets in memory of three baronets of that family. The Church, besides the above, contains monuments of the LOWES, and HURTS of Alderwasley, and of the WIGLEYS of Wigwell. On the tomb to the memory of Antonye LOWE, Esq, whom the inscription records as servant to the Sovereigns, Henry the Seventh, Henry the Eighth, Edward the Sixth, and Queen Mary, is placed a recumbent figure of the deceased, having round the neck, a representation of a chain of gold, and medallion of Queen Mary, now in the possession of Francis HURT, Esq, of Alderwasley, his lineal successor. (Back to the MENU)
In the church-yard is a grammar-school, founded by Anthony GELL, Esq, of Hopton, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, to which one Agnes FEARNE was a considerable benefactor. The lands provided for the maintenance of the school, produce a rental equal to the support of a better establishment than it at present possesses. The same Anthony GELL founded an hospital at Wirksworth, for six poor men, and endowed it with 20 pounds per annum. The Moot-Hall is a handsome structure of brick, erected in the year 1773. In this building, all causes respecting the lead mines within the Wapentake are tried; and here is deposited the ancient brass dish, which is the standard from which others are made to measure the lead ore [footnote re 'the curious inscription on this dish', given on p.304 - see below]. The weekly market at Wirksworth was obtained in the year 1307, by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, grandson to Henry the Third. The number of houses within the township, as ascertained by the late Act, is 674; of inhabitants, 2979. The latter derive their chief support from the working of the lead mines; but between 200 and 300 hands are employed in the manufacture of cotton. On a mine near the town, a steam-engine has been lately erected for throwing out the water, but its powers seem inadequate to drain the mine effectually. (Back to the MENU)
[Footnote from p.304, regarding the Wirksworth lead-measuring dish:]
The Brazen Dish by which the measures of ore in the Low Peak are regulated, has the following inscription:
"This Dishe was made the iiij day of October the iiij yere of the Reigne of Kyng Henry the VIII  before George Erle of Shrowesbury Steward of the Kyng most Honourable household and allso Steward of all the honour of Tutbury by the assent and consent as well of all the Mynours as of all the Brenners within and adioyning the Lordshyp of Wyrkysworth Percell of the said honour This Dyshe to Remayne In the Moote hall at Wyrkysworth hanging by a Cheyne so as the Mchanntes or Mynours may have resorte to the same att all tymes to make the trw Mesure at the same.