Spring is in the air. In practice, that means ‘cloudy with some suggestions of sun’. After the solar eclipse this week, the changing seasons marked another significant weekend of progress on site at Hemingfield Colliery.
Site director Glen led the way early on, with volunteers Nigel and Alan, followed by Chris. After signing in and getting kitted up, they got stuck in levelling out the entrance area, removing stumps, recalcitrant shrubs and weedy roots wherever they appeared.
With shovels and picks, hatchets, elbow grease and little help from a winch, the volunteers steadily removed the lumps, bumps and tripping hazards. This continues the work of previous working parties in ensuring the site has better access space for vehicles entering and leaving as well as ensuring volunteers and guests to the site are able to navigate their way around safely.
Earlier in the week, Glen had set the example by removing several invasive trees which were threatening the boundary walls by Wath Rd.
From photographs of the site taken 30 and 20 years ago, it is quite surprising just how quickly uncontrolled vegetation can take over and start to destroy buildings, warp walls and even bend iron railings, not to mention the layers of leaf debris/composted as earth which can hide all manner of implements and hints of the site’s history.
Clearing the ground along the modern security railings uncovered one such glimpse of the past on Saturday, showing a discarded tub rail complete with fishplates and a cleat.
NB The chair of Directors, Steve Grudgings will be leading a visit from members of the Northern Mine Research Society in May at which we hope to discuss the site’s archaeology in more detail. See details in our list of events.
It is always satisfying to see progress as the hours of planning and volunteer work start to show clear benefits on the ground:
After a brief pause to reflect on recent progress in archival research, including establishing a timeline for the site’s development from 1920-1947, the volunteers moved to the untamed wilderness at the rear lower terrace of the site where they were joined by volunteer Frank, a near neighbour and staunch supporter of the Friends.
Overlooking the railway line and canal basin, next to the abandoned Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove canal, we stood under the old Cornish pumping engine house (now a private residence). Stood here, next to the engine pit shaft, looking out across the valley, you get a real sense of the history of the site: the hard hand (and animal) labour that went into sinking pits, digging the canal (and the reservoir to serve it); heaving the huge stonework into place, both down by the canal side and up by the engine houses, each of which required boiler houses with tall chimneys. Sometimes it amazes how such a busy pit filled with smoke, winding and pumping engines, screens, coal staiths and sidings squeezed into the footprint of the site and its immediate neighbourhood.
On with the clearance!
The back of the lower terrace, by the retaining wall overlooking the railway, has not had any attention for many years. Consequently trees, brambles and spiky weeds aplenty predominate. Alan and Nigel tooled up as “reaper men” to start to regain a toehold.
Whilst the heavy duty pruning got under way, we were pleased to welcome a return visitor to the site in the form of photographer Ken Fisher.
After reaping the brambles, it was all hands on the (lower) deck to clip, snip, chop, trim, fell and (inevitably) burn. Glen cracked on with a chainsaw, whilst the rest cleared the ground and made a pile for the fire.
All this activity opened up a surprisingly large space (and let the light in) over the course of the afternoon. A brief pause for reflection and a welcome cup of tea followed before proceedings recommenced.
On Sunday Site Director Glen was back on site enjoying the beautiful spring day, tidying up the clearance work from Saturday, burning most of the remaining pile of branches, and continuing the logging of the bigger felled trees. Wood stoves are certainly handy! Joined by Frank and Keith during the day, Glen also welcomed several passing visitors to the site to introduce the buildings and the Friends’ plans for the next few years.
After tidying things up, it was time to call it a day. The volunteers made a great contribution to reclaiming the site, preventing further root damage and preparing the way for future explorations on site.
Sign of the times
Looking at the remaining buildings, we are often drawn to imagine what pit life was like in the past, as though ‘history’ is only the time beyond living memory; however, we do well to reflect on just how quickly things can change – how soon the present day becomes a half-forgotten chapter of the past, whether in living memory or not.
From the private, Victorian coal industry, when Hemingfield was just one of several Elsecar pits working for Earl Fitzwilliam, to Nationalisation on 1st January 1947 was a period of around 100 years. But from the NCB – Nationl Coal Board’s heyday to decline and privatisation in 1994 was less than 50 years. After the bitter Miners strike of 1984-5, Elsecar Main colliery was demolished and in 1987 the NCB became British Coal (Corporation), or “British Coal” for short.
This sign – found on site – is therefore very much a sign of the times. Labeled “British Coal” (so post 1987), and referencing Silverwood Colliery (itself closed in 1994), it captures Hemingfield colliery in its pumping station days, at the final period of the nationalised industry. Sharp-eyed observers will also note the phone number, ‘0709’, predates “PhONEday”, the 16th April 1995, when many areas added a 1 to their dialling code. Small markers of gradual change. Now there is almost no coal industry left, certainly no Hemingfield kids growing up for a life down the mine, whether for the ‘Lord or the Board’ as in generations gone by. It is for these reasons that the Friends know it is so important that we try to record and share the history of our site, as part of the wider local and national history of change.