The Friends returned to Hemingfield ready for another busy weekend of site clearance, material reclamation, and more than a dash of industrial archaeology. Discussions on everything from future developments, the history of the site and the physical structure of cast iron could be heard around the pit yard as the volunteers continued to get stuck into the work of bringing life back to the site.
Nature has a way of taking over. Late spring sunshine and showers have stimulated an explosion of greenery on site, with bracken shooting up, fronds unfurling; common nettles spreading ready to catch the unwary visitor, and new shoots emerging from tree stumps.
Site manager Glen was on site to welcome volunteers, John, Alan, Chris, Nigel and Amanda. Friends chair Steve arrived bringing a new volunteer Ellie on her first visit to Hemingfield.
After signing in, the gang split into three main activity groups: one clearing the area around the east boundary wall ready for a new fence; one barrowing the reclaimed bricks to be cleaned up and stacked, and the third, consisting of Nigel and Amanda, set about tidying up the two trenches dug during the previous working weekends and carefully measuring and recording the features – work which will become ever more important as the site’s history is uncovered and the clearance allows further investigations of the sub-surface remains of the Low Elsecar Colliery site.
(Not) just another brick in the wall
John, Steve, Ellie and Chris, later joined by regular volunteer Keith, set about reclaiming the reusable bricks from the collapsed walls at the east end of the site which borders on land belonging to the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate – the original owners of the colliery itself up to 1920 when it ceased winding coal, and the pumping of water from the Barnsley seam 150 yards below was taken over by the South Yorkshire Pumping Association.
Containing a curious mixture of brick outbuilding remains, some with stone foundations, it will take the Friends some time to interpret and understand how this area of the site has been used over time. The variety of bricks – Skiers Spring c.1880s, in the lower parts of the collapsed wall mixed together with much later Manvers bricks made in the twentieth century on top and around about suggest a mixture of uses and patch repairs. Clearing this space is key to installing a boundary fence at that end to enhance the overall security of the site.
Watching our progress, hiding in the wall, and guarding the east for us was a little common frog – presumably preparing to head out to a pond or to the canal down below after hibernating over winter.
Meanwhile, over at the brick reclamation gang, work was progressing well: our ever-growing stack of bricks. With a hefty hammer, (chisel optional), a lot of good work is done very quickly here cleaning up bricks old and new, parting them from remnants of mortar, or coal dust-mortar as often appears to the the case, and stacking them ready for future reuse elsewhere on site.
Whether for replacements and repairs to existing masonry weathered by time and salt spray from the nearby road, or for new building projects, having materials to hand which respect the colours and textures of the existing site buildings is a great asset. Judging by the speed and efficiency their of progress it’s also something some volunteers have got down to a fine art.
Pausing at midday for a well-earned break, with the sun shining down and Elsecar Heritage Railway‘s Birkenhead engine shuttling backwards and forwards, the volunteers relaxed for a while and reflected on progress, discussed current research projects and enjoyed some excellent flapjack!
Path from the past
After lunch, the east end being clear, a start was made on clearing surface debris from the west side of the old pumping switchgear building (also referred to simply as building 1). With a shovel and a pick, but no stick of any sort, Friends chair Steve set to clearing the corner by the boundary wall next to Wath Road.
Amongst the pieces of fallen slate from the switchouse’s roof, (caused by a fire after cable theft in 2008), and below the full and half bricks from the previous boundary wall, a flat(ish) bricked surface emerged.
As the afternoon wore on, more and more appeared, forming a rough brick pathway. Reference to some excellent photographs of the site from 1980 (captured by our regular volunteer and mining historian, Alan) shows that there was in fact an old gate out onto the road at this point. The path seems to be associated with that now lost feature.
Keith, Chris and John chipped in to peel back the roots and separate the rubble from the earth (years of plant debris).
The switchgear building is an intriguing remnant of the changing uses of the site. Possibly originally an engine house for haulage, it has been much altered over the last 100 years or so, and following the patchwork of later brickwork, breeze blocks, reused stone lintels, etc, is tricky, and shows there is much still to be learned about the industrial uses of such buildings.
Mid-afternoon another diversion caught people’s eye, when a low-flying Douglas DC3 flew overhead
Recording the past
All the while Nigel and Amanda were working away recording the archaeological work that has done in a couple of trenches near the hard standing. With record sheets, measuring tapes and a keen eye for detail (and no little patience) they tidied up the previous work and made records of use to the history of the site as well as forming an asset for future investigations – particularly as regards older pit yard levels – something which can be seen in the black spoil and red shale layers evident in the section.
As mentioned in the update on the last working party weekend, one delightful artefact to emerge from this work was an old pit tub wheel. Made of cast iron and considerably corroded, it is nevertheless a wonderful link to the days before May 1920 when the pit was still winding coal:
Friends Director Christine gave the volunteers an update on upcoming events, including a site tour for members of the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society, and members of the North East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeology Society on 3rd June. The visit would be be a joint one with Barnsley Museums covering the remaining Elsecar Colliery sites – with Christine leading visitors around Hemingfield, and Dr John Tanner showing people around the remains of Elsecar New Colliery and its most famous survival – the Newcomen type engine.
Chrstine also encouraged everyone to attend the special Open Day being prepared for the 1st Anniversary of the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery to be held on 27th June. The day will be a wonderful opportunity to share research progress, and display collections to bring together the story of our site, as well as welcoming new visitors to the Friends, our activities and future aims.
Sunday’s weather was slightly less cheerful, but Site Manager Glen was back to it and clean up work continued, rounding off the final Spring working parties. With the first year under our belt, the Friends and volunteers are pleased with progress thus far and excited to press on with conservation and development plans, as well as bringing the pit and its history to the attention of a wider audience as the conditions – physically on site and also the weather – improve into Summer.
Thanks to everyone for another productive and enjoyable weekend (& did we mention the flapjack)!?