Updated 27 Nov 2013

WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900

Return to Front Page

Grammar School heads

Roy Pearce sent these pages of research about the History of the Grammar School Heads. With his permission, I am adding it to the Wirksworth website. Many thanks.

    Dear John Palmer,

    I have told you previously of my research on the history of Wirksworth Grammar School and we have corresponded. I am coming to the end of my work and I hope that the section on Hansen Bay, Head Master 1908-1929, will appear on the website of the Anthony Gell School before Christmas. I have subsequently moved backwards and worked on the nineteenth century Head Masters. I hope that will get onto the internet through the Gell website in the new year.

    I acknowledge the great help I have found in the Wirksworth parish records. Thank you. It is a magnificent resource and I have enjoyed picking up many odd items. Please use my work in any way you wish, either transferring it whole to the parish records or taking snippets or making a cross reference. You decide.

    I ask formally for permission to use your work. I have copied the page on Rev Abraham Bennett updated 19th March 2007. I have also copied the 1841 census information. I trust you will permit me to use both items.

    I am sending some ‘trailers’ to interested friends and I shall include you in the list. Do feel free to run a trailer.

    I have had a lovely time and written over 100 pages.

    With many thanks and my good wishes.

    Roy Pearce


    To begin at the beginning. The Traditional date for the foundation of Anthony Gell school is 1576, but other dates in those early years deserve attention: 1579, 1583, 1584.

    In 1976, observant to tradition, the school celebrated its four hundredth anniversary following the firm instruction of The Hon Aileen Gell, widow of Col Philip Gell, imperious Chairman of Governors from 1952 to 1970. Mrs Gell was also mother of the eponymous Anthony Gell, who chaired the Foundation Trust in the 1980s. The traditional date of foundation arises from the stone, still in place, erected above the doorway into the 1827/8 grammar school building in the Wirksworth churchyard. 1576 is however three years before Anthony Gell made his momentous will in 1579 and eight years before Letters Patent were granted by Queen Elizabeth I.

    The door stone, according to C.E.B. Bowles (see below), had probably been the foundation stone in the schoolmaster’s house which was built in Anthony Gell’s time on land adjacent to the churchyard, and was intended as the site of the proposed school building. When the old school and the house were demolished for the 1827/8 rebuilding the stone was incorporated in the new school, but there was no school house.

    In February 1579 Anthony Gell signed his will and on 12th November 1583 he died. Anthony was a bachelor, living at Hopton Hall and wealthy from the the Gell family investments in land and their prosperous local lead mines. His brother, Thomas, who succeeded him, established the foundation to carry out Anthony’s wishes in the following year.

    1584 marks the year when the trust was formed for the benefit of the free grammar school and ‘for the relief of six impotent men in the same almshouses’. 27th October 1584 is the date of the Letters Patent for the establishment of the school and the almshouse for poor men ‘to be upheld for ever’ to fulfil the will of the late Anthony Gell Esq.

    A copy survives in English of the Letters Patent – almost certainly they were originally written in Latin. As well as an annual grant of £20, land and rents were assigned by the will and ‘six discreet and honest men were appointed governors of The Free Grammar School of Anthony Gell Esq.’ with one master or pedagogue, ‘who shall be sufficiently skilled in the Latin tongue to be enabled to instruct the Youth committed to his care in that language’. I have referred interchangeably to the trustees as governors, though they mostly through the years stood back from ‘governing’ the school and providing close oversight of the head’s work.

    Amid these dates the crucial fact is that some time in the second half of the sixteenth century a school was founded in Wirksworth and has continued (more or less) in existence until today, serving its ever-changing community through more than four hundred years, though not without some difficult moments in its history. The vision and generosity of Anthony Gell was supported by Agnes Fearne, who in her will, dated 14th July 1574, ‘demised’ her house and lands to Anthony Gell for the benefit of a school and almshouse, when that charity should be established. Agnes granted considerable land in Idridgehay and Kirk Ireton to benefit the charity. At the time Wirksworth was a thriving and affluent town, riding high on its riches from the many lead mines, and clearly there had been discussion amongst influential people, including the Gells, about the need for a grammar school – many other towns, including Ashbourne a little later, were setting up schools at this time. The Elizabethan grammar schools were established to produce for the rapidly expanding bureaucracy a supply of able, young men, fitted through intensive study of Latin grammar to fill places as clerks, clerics and civil servants in the increasingly complex business of government.

    The six trustees/governors are self perpetuating and still today appoint their successors as governors of the Anthony Gell School Foundation, though the almshouses are now a separate charity.

    This brief account of the origins of the school and almshouses is largely taken from a detailed academic paper published by Charles E. B. Bowles M.A., F.S.A. in 1920 in the Journal of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society, of which he was the editor. Bowles (1848-1923) lived in Wirksworth, at first in Nether House (now demolished) on St John Street and later on North End, and was respected in the town as man of learning. He served as a school governor for several years, 1904- 1920. Bowles’ valuable historical paper closes in 1799, a significant date, and focuses on the history of the charity rather than the school, but is has been an important source for this account.

    For over a hundred years after the foundation the record is blank

    We know of Samuel Ogden, who was the Headmaster of Wirksworth Grammar School from 1695 to 1697. His career co- incided with great political and religious upheavals in the country and in 1662 he had been ejected as a clergyman from his living at Mackworth, near Derby, because of his non-conformity. He continued however to be a successful head of a private school. Four of his pupils were admitted to St John’s College, Oxford and Thomas Parker, who went to Cambridge, became Chief Justice, Lord Chancellor and Earl of Macclesfield. Ogden was in direct rivalry with the Derby Grammar School and its head, Thomas Cantrill, brought an action which was heard in 1695 at the Court of Arches, where Ogden’s schoolmastership was declared contrary to the canons of the Church [of England] and detrimental to the welfare of the free school and he was compelled to close his school.

    It was then that he came as headmaster to Wirksworth, always a refuge of the rebellious, having been appointed by Sir John Gell, a power in the land since the Civil War and, no doubt, controlling governor of the Wirksworth Grammar School. Ogden served briefly until his death in 1697, but we have no details of his work in the town.

    The details about Ogden come from The Grammar Schools by W.A.L. Vincent The next reference to the school, comes through Bowles and his study of the charity, and relates to the headship of Samuel Hanson who in 1774 was in dispute with the trustees over both governance and money. The membership of the governing body had lapsed and when trustees died they had not been replaced. Hanson, as master, together with the six poor men ‘caused an information to be exhibited in the Court of Chancery against Philip Gell of Hopton Hall, stating that the said Philip Gell was, and had for several years past been in possession of the rents and profits of the said estates…………..’. The accusation was that Gell had not applied the relevant income for the support of the almshouses and the school. To modern eyes this was a deep corruption. It was a brave man who took on the Gell family and I can only assume that there was community support for the petitioners, especially as other members of the Gell family were included: Temperance Gell and Thomas Gell with Vincent & Margaret Newton, Robert & Elizabeth Charlton and Agnes and Ann Macclesfield. The petitioners sought that the charities be re-established and the income devoted according to the trust to their benefit. They won the case, which was heard before the Lord Chancellor on 13th December 1774. A new governing body was formed and restitution was made of all the trust funds and lands to the new governing body. The decree is dated 4th & 5th November 1776. No Gell was included among the new trustees, ‘six honest and discreet men, inhabitants of the Wapentake of Wirksworth’. I notice a Philip Tomlinson among the trustees.

    This dispute leads us to Rev Abraham Bennett (1749-1799), the most distinguished scientist ever to live in Wirksworth. The laudatory encomium to Bennett from the Wirksworth website is attached. Notice that there is no reference to his duties as Headmaster of the Free Grammar School of Anthony Gell.

    My understanding is that Bennett held the mastership of the grammar school from 1776 to 1799, when he died at the age of forty nine. Having come to Wirksworth as curate at a salary of £60, Bennett accumulated through patronage other clerical posts which supported his inventive scientific work, though not I suspect with matching duties. His membership of the Lunar Society enrolled him among distinguished intellectuals in the Midland counties and locally, as well as the Devonshires, the Gell family are recorded as important patrons. Bennett was clearly not a rich man and he had six children, so he needed money to manage his scientific research and to fulfil his social obligations as a Lunar member.

    I have no knowledge of what happened to Samuel Hanson after the court case, a scandal which, inevitably, caused much local enmity. Perhaps Hanson decided it would clear the air if he withdrew. Maybe he had already retired. We know that Bennett came to Wirksworth as curate in 1776, the year of the court judgement, and from that time is head of the school. He is referred to as M.A., but there is no record of his attendance at the universities of that time. Did Gell, despite his recent disgrace, pull strings to slide Bennett into the post as Headmaster? The tradition is that Bennett regarded his mastership as a sinecure and appointed others to do the teaching. How sad that this distinguished man of science made such a slender contribution to the school. Not everyone is cut out to be a school master, however learned.


    Following the dismal headship of Abraham Bennett the first half of the nineteenth century was dominated by the headships of Hubbersty and son.

    Rev. Nathan Hubbersty (1767-1828) became the head in 1799, revived the school from its poor state and served till his early death in 1828. His son, also Nathan (1804-1881), succeeded him and was in post till 1851, a remarkable span of family service.

    Hubbersty, originated from Kendal in Westmorland and had been educated at Clare College, Cambridge. I know nothing of his previous teaching, but he was 32 on appointment and married Mary Dorothy Tomlinson (1777-1852) from Hopton on 28th April 1801, fairly soon after his arrival. They had six children and Mary survived her husband and lived in Wirksworth till her death in 1852, aged 75. I note that one of the governors appointed to revive the broken trust in 1776 was Philip Tomlinson Gent. from Hopton, so most likely a Gell nominee. He is the father of Nathan’s wife. I know no further, but I would not be surprised if the young bachelor headteacher in need of a wife found her in a respectable local family, though Philip Tomlinson died in 1800.

    Our first reference to Hubbersty is in 1801 as follows.
    From the Derby Mercury 5th February 1801


    An assistant is immediately wanted, who is perfectly qualified to teach the English Language grammatically, Writing, Arithmetic, and the ordinary branches of Mathematics – He must be a single man; and of unexceptionable character.

    The particulars of the situation may be known by personal application, or by letter addressed, (post paid) to the Head Master, the Rev N HUBBERSTY, by whom Letters of recommendation and specimens of writing, will be duly acknowledged.

    Mr Hubbersty also informs his Friends that at Lady-Day his house will be ready for the accommodation of Young Gentlemen as Boarders, to whom every attention and assiduity will be devoted to qualify them for the learned professions or trade; he will particularly regard their health and manners, and will studiously endeavour to instil into the minds of his pupils , the true principles of pure Christianity, as the best and most powerful motives of Morality.

    TERMS: Board, Twenty Guineas per annum. Education, one Guinea per quarter.

    Further particulars and the plan of education, may be known by applying to the Rev N. Hubbersty, at Wirksworth. Wirksworth Jan 26th 1801.

    Several points arise from this fascinating advertisement printed over 200 years ago.

    I have typed the words as published, except that the letter ‘s’ is ‘f’ in the published version.

    Note the strong Christian message, at the heart of the school for hundreds of years. Hubbersty also served as curate to the nearby village of Carsington.

    Hubbersty advertises the traditional classics and maths grammar school curriculum, but he soon realised it was an unrealistic demand on many of the boys – no girls, of course – attending a school in Wirksworth. Some were as young as eight.

    The expectation in the advert for the ‘single’ master to serve as assistant is high, but no salary is stated. I suspect there would have been additional boarding duties.

    The boarding facility is probably an innovation. It was difficult for children to get into Wirksworth from the villages, so boarding increased the pupils available in an enlarged rural catchment area, kept the numbers up and as a private initiative by the Head Master provided him with some additional, much needed, income.

    Where was the Head Master’s boarding house? I identify Slaley House, a large and splendid building even in the 21st century, on North End as the most likely location. Boarding would be an issue for many years, until 1938 when, with few boarders and little demand, the boarding wing, then on the main site, was closed.

    The new head rapidly increased the numbers to about 100 boys and employed two additional masters. On appointment he was paid £50, raised in the twenties to £70. I am sure that success led to the rebuilding of the school in the churchyard in 1827/8; the increased salary was a vote of approval.

    The original school was sited in the churchyard. ‘And her Majesty also gave to the governors …….the school house near Wirksworth churchyard.’ By the end of Bennett’s reign the fabric of the school was in a poor condition. The handsome 1827/8 building served the school till 1966 and stands today, a modernised and elegant private residence.

    At this time in an audit by the Charity Commissioners a fund was discovered totalling £900 held by Mr Gell of Hopton, which was properly part of the charity funds. The commissioners had to go to the Court of Chancery to get the money repaid. There was a scathing judgement and instruction for proper audit, a well-deserved black mark for the Gells. Governing bodies were made up of distinguished local gentlemen and I am confident the Wirksworth Grammar School trustees were dominated by the Gell family – Philip in four generations. They may have had only marginal involvement in running the school and probably only emerged when there was a major issue, such as the appointment of the head or some disaster. How sad that fifty years after the previous financial scandal and the intervention of the court we find the Gell family at fault again, found out by the Charity Commissioners. The agent for the Gells was John Cruso, solicitor from Leek, who acted also as clerk to the trustees, and was succeeded in that post by his son. The income from the charity properties had not been held in a separate account. Property had been let below market price and rents had been paid direct to Philip Gell. The Commissioners recommendation was blunt: ‘future appointment of trustees a selection should be made from landholders of the wapentake (sic) of Wirksworth who are not thus connected with Mr Gell.’ From this scandal Mr Cruso junior survived as clerk to the reformed body of trustees.

    My reading suggests that Hubbersty was so successful that he was able virtually to set up a second school with some chosen boys, 30 children mostly boarders at £30 a year, under his personal guidance, a kind of private scholarship group following the traditional grammar (Latin & Greek) curriculum on the model of the public schools, no doubt based at Slaley House on North End. The rest of the boys were educated at a lower level by the assistant masters in the old school building, like an elementary school. They followed a less taxing academic regime and tended to leave at thirteen. The few who had ambitions to continue in education went to Derby Grammar School, probably as boarders. Once the new building in the churchyard, built at a cost of £1,664-6-3, was opened in 1828 the school seemed set for a strong period, but suddenly Hubbersty, who had served for 29 years, died, aged 60, in August of that year, and his son, also Nathan Hubbersty, took over.


    The younger Nathan Hubbersty was only 26 when he became head. His appointment was announced in June 1829 by advertisement in the Sheffield Independent: ‘Mr Hubbersty B.A. of St John’s College Cambridge, formerly of Shrewsbury School under the venerable Archdeacon Butler has been appointed to succeed his late lamented father Rev N Hubbersty B.D. as Head Master of Wirksworth Grammar School.’ He also advertises Boarding & Education at 50 guineas per annum with washing at 15 shillings a quarter. At this time he was not in holy orders, but he was soon ordained Deacon in 1829 and is Rev N Hubbersty MA (MA no doubt by purchase) and is giving highly praised sermons as priest at Alderwasley and in Derby in 1830.

    I have found little in the Derby Mercury relating to the life of the school during his period of headship, which lasted till 1851, apart from the regular notice of terms beginning. There is however interesting information about Nathan on the censuses of both 1841 and 1851. He was married on 28th June 1838 to Margaret Emma, third daughter of Richard Hurt of Wirksworth, thus tying himself into one of the top establishment and influential families of the district. It was common practice for the clergy to hold more than one post; as well as master at Wirksworth Nathan was curate at Alderwasley, where the Hurts were based at Alderwasley Hall, so there was a local connection. Emma bore five children: Richard Nathan (1839-86), who became a soldier; Charles (1840-1889); Henry, who died in 1857 at Melton Mowbray, aged 15; and Mary (1843) and Margaret (1845), the last in 1845 the year of her mother’s death. Nathan was left with five young children. He had been married only seven years. It must have been a difficult time for him and within a few years he had given up the headship.

    Although Nathan appears on the 1851 census in Wirksworth, his first wife has died in 1845, so he is on his own. His youngest child, Margaret is also not recorded. No explanation. By April 1851 Nathan had retired as head of WGS and is recorded on the census of that year as perpetual curate at Alderwasley. I contrast below the census returns for 1841 and 1851.

    1841 national census. Nathan Hubbersty aged 35 [not accurate, should be 37] living on North End with his mother Mary (60). his wife, Margaret and two young sons, Richard 2 and Charles 10 months. In the house there are seven servants, a school assistant and eighteen boarders aged between eight and fifteen. Among the boarders I notice three Hurts (James14, John 13 & Francis 8), children of the famous and extensive Hurt family from Alderwasley, most of whom were sent away to board at the public schools, some to Eton, some to Harrow. And, of course, Nathan had married into that family.
    Hubbersty’s brother Philip also lives in Wirksworth, St John Street, a successful attorney.

    The 1851 census. Nathan Hubbersty, aged 47, perpetual curate of Dethick and minister of Alderwasley: he & his family all born in Wirksworth. There is no mention of being head of WGS. The vacancy was advertised in 1851. He had served for 22 years following his father, so they covered between them the first fifty years of the century. Family: Richard 11, scholar at home. William 10, scholar at home, Charles 9, scholar; Harry 8, scholar; his mother Mary, 74, annuitant. There is no mention of the two daughters, Mary (8) and Margaret (6). Perhaps they had been passed to relatives from the strongly male household, so that they received more appropriate care. There are six servants and two boarders, Bernard 13 (born in Putney) and Theodore Octavius Hurt 11, another Hurt. Theodore was the eighth child of Francis the cricketer, born in Duffield, and in 1851 the Hurt family was living at Hopton Hall. Theodore was an unusual young man. He was lame from birth, an easy-going imaginative child who did not manage the traditional Hurt careers in the army or the church, but became a wanderer in life; never found his metier, lost all his money in a failed farming venture in New Zealand, but performed a notable service by writing up the later history of the Hurt family.
    Inevitably Nathan married again: December 1854 to Eliza Caroline Hurtop, widow of a clergyman from Eastwell in Leicestershire and born into the Manners family. She had been widowed in 1852, aged 34. They were married at Melton Mowbray and Nathan had moved up the social ladder from marriage to a Hurt to join the family of the Duke of Rutland, the Manners. I know the Hurts had a strong link by marriage to the Manners family, through Francis the cricketer, so again there is a connection.

    By April 1851 Nathan, though still living on North End, I guess in Slaley House, had retired as head of WGS and is recorded on the census of that year as perpetual curate at Alderwasley.

    In 1861 Nathan is in Leicestershire, having moved to Eastwell Hall near Melton Mowbray, where he is a farmer with 380 acres employing 10 labourers and three boys. I assume he had continued at Alderwasley, but on his re-marriage, as members of the wider Manners family, he and his new wife took over the estate, which belonged to the Duke as part of his Belvoir property. In 2013 their house, Eastwell Hall, is a listed building. I speculate that after twenty (not wholly successful?) years at WGS, with his first wife dead, Nathan felt he needed a career change and his wife’s family and the fields of Leicestershire gave him an attractive opportunity to seek a different career.

    In 1861 and 1871 he is on the census in Leicestershire as a clergyman ‘without cure of souls’. By 1881 now in his seventies, he is back in Wirksworth, living at the Gables on Coldwell Street, also without souls.
    The 1881 census. Rev Nathan Hubbersty, a clergyman ‘without cure of souls’ appears in Coldwell Street; he died in that year at the age of 78. I notice he was living two doors from Wirksworth Hall, where his widowed sister, Agnes Eleanor Wood presided, having married and survived to be widow to a wealthy banker called Richard Price Wood. Her death and funeral at the age of eighty in 1892 were reported in the Derby Mercury with columns of obsequiously deferential praise for her benefactions, her Christian faith and her generosity to her community
    I imagine that Nathan in his seventies was no longer able to run the estate and so returned to Wirksworth with his wife and they were sheltered by his affluent, younger sister at the Hall. Remember there were no pensions for retired heads. Nathan died, aged 79 in 1882. So ended the long connection of his family with the town, though his brother, by now an important lawyer, was still living on St John Street and following the example of his brother-in-law, the late Price Wood serving as a school governor. It was a small world.

    I looked further back and wondered where Nathan, junior, had gone to school and what was his qualification for headship in nepotistic succession at the age of 25. I discovered that before he came to Wirksworth he taught at Shrewsbury School. Its Head was Samuel Butler, one of the most famous and influential heads of his age; a man of the highest classical scholarship and in his time at Shrewsbury ‘the standard of its scholarship was as great as any public school in England’. From this red-hot academic atmosphere Nathan was catapulted with limited experience into his father’s place at Wirksworth. He must have been a well-qualified classicist to have been appointed to Shrewsbury, but I suspect strong influence in his application to Wirksworth. While head at Shrewsbury Butler, amazingly to modern understanding, also held the post of Archdeacon of Derby. With a vacancy in Wirksworth and a reference from Butler Nathan was the obvious candidate, a shoo-in. I wonder if he was an old boy of Shrewsbury School.

    It may seem odd that Butler was able to fill two important, geographically distant posts adequately. His work as head and a leading educationist was famous and I found a eulogy to his energy and vision as Archdeacon in the biography of William Hutchings, curate in Wirksworth 1824-29. Archdeacon Butler made regular energetic ‘visitations’, characterised by stern attention to detail. His instructions were delivered in a series of written ‘charges’ and the 1825 ‘charge’ emphasised the Church’s role and responsibility in education and the need to give a ‘right direction to the minds of the rising generation’. Although W.G.S. was not formally run by the church it was clearly seen as an institution ripe for zealous application by the clergy.

    Nathan and his father, both Cambridge graduates in holy orders, were scholarly men and highly academic school masters. They hoped that they could establish a high standard of learning with religion at its heart in Wirksworth and to some extent the father seems to have been successful. But there were problems.

    No school exists in a social vacuum; the community it serves colours its success. In the eighteenth century Wirksworth was coming to the end of its great Georgian prosperity with its handsome town houses and high prestige in Derbyshire society. The town was about to embark on the long slow decline, which was only stopped in the second half of the twentieth century. The wealth from the ancient lead mines was drying up and the community was beginning to find its jobs in textiles (women) and the quarrying industry, producing high quality limestone. There is a list of not very well paid textile jobs: ‘woolcombers, worsted makers, cotton manufacturers, calico silk and linen weavers, gingham and tape manufacturers’. With the air increasingly polluted by the dust and dirt from the quarries Wirksworth steadily became a less desirable place to live and work.

    In the eighteenth century an anonymous ‘divine’ considered the inhabitants of Wirksworth ‘most rough and uncivilised. Nowhere else had he met with such rudeness, indecency and immorality’.

    The school had never been strong and though it was possible to recruit in satisfactory numbers, the abilities of the boys did not match the demands of the dry, traditional classical curriculum with its remote and tedious emphasis on rote learning of grammar.

    Both Hubberstys and their successor Rev. H. R. Brett, were Christian gentlemen resolute for the highest academic standards, but the needs of their uncultivated pupils were different: they required a more general education which fitted the boys for positions in the local economy. Nationally the academic curriculum of the grammar school barely changed through the early part of the nineteenth century while the country rose on the back of its technological achievements to be a world and imperial power. No wonder we lost ground to Germany, which introduced its technical schools as the century moved on.

    The wealthy families in Wirksworth, the gentry like the Hurts and Gells, sent their sons away to board at the public schools and to qualify for the army or the professions. When the railway was established ambitious families could send their children easily to Derby Grammar School, which retained its high academic standards. In the nineteenth century the headship of WGS was a struggle. Its gentlemanly holders have my sympathy.

    I have found evidence of only one pupil in the Hubbersty years. (See A Window on John Smedley’s World). John Smedley, born in 1803, son of a working man in Wirksworth and later founder of the great family business at Lea, attended WGS, but left at fourteen after a ‘scanty’ education. The classics had not touched him. John, a gifted and practical man, like many others needed a different curriculum.

    There are few references to the school in the Derby Mercury, but one significant notice was published.

    A scheme was made by a Court of Chancery in 1844 relating to Wirksworth Grammar School which provided that it should not be compulsory for any scholar to learn classics or mathematics, but the head should be a graduate of one of the universities. If the charitable purposes of the school (teaching grammar) were to be altered the Court had to be consulted; an example of the strangulated system which impeded educational progress. I think of Jarndyce. This ‘scheme’ from Nathan’s time reflects the reality that few Wirksworth pupils were managing the traditional classical curriculum and acknowledges the realities of the split school quietly established by the older Hubbersty.

    My final Hubbersty snippet relates to the younger. Via a Hubbersty family website I found the following: ‘He also had a number of correspondences and even a hike or two in Wales with Charles Darwin’. That sets my imagination running. Darwin had been to school at Shrewsbury – had they been fellow pupils? Interesting people the Hubberstys.

Compiled, formatted, hyperlinked, encoded, and copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved.