Past, Present and Future
The Friends and volunteers arrived on site for a hot, humid and historic weekend of digging – literally and figuratively – into the past of Hemingfield Colliery. It made for a wonderful couple of working party sessions.
On Saturday Friends’ Chair Steve and Site Manager Glen were first on site, opening the up old NCB gates and starting another sheet in our volunteers log as John and later Chris joined them to continue the ongoing task of clearing a strip of land all around the switchgear building.
In previous working parties the focus had been on the east side, furthest from the entrance. This time the work was focused on the west side, nearest the gate – an area which had been trimmed, but left largely untouched over the past twenty years.
With trusty shovels and well-worn spades in hand, the Friends and volunteer set about cutting a sharp line and peeling back the turf to mark out a clear area around the switchgear building. Immediately under the grassy cover the tools struck a hard concrete surface which spread out several feet from the wall of the switchgear building. The concrete was cracked and only an inch and a half thick at most, a very insubstantial covering for the heavy work done elsewhere on site.
It’s always encouraging to encounter a hard surface. It tends to suggest a working, permanent level of the site. After scraping away the top vegetation, and tipping the spoil, any remaining soil can be brushed away and the exposed surface left to dry out so that we can appreciate the original surface.
Concrete has been used extensively on site, especially between the 1920s and 1940s, when the shaft collar was reset in concrete, and after severe rains in 1928-29 when the old canal side retaining wall required major reinforcement. Likewise the headgears on site are products of their time – shuttered and poured reinforced concrete.
Pausing for lunch, the members on site headed straight for the shade and a comfy seat. Conversation picked up on recent research progress, with various Friends and volunteers having recently made visits to Sheffield Archives, the British Library and the remarkable John Goodchild Collection at Wakefield.
Gathering the threads of this research activity has really helped us to understand the basic timeline of the development of Hemingfield Colliery, from sinking the first engine (pumping) shaft in 1842, to the closure of coal working in 1920, and the commencement of its life as a pumping station with regular lorry deliveries between Westfield, Hemingfield and Elsecar. It has also pointed us to further sources, new stories that we hope to share, including the lives of the miners of Hemingfield, some of which are much more colourful than some might imagine – for example the life of Enos Bacon (1874-1952), miner, preacher and globe-trotting Baritone, Contralto and Soprano singer known as “the Yorkshire Nightingale”. See the first issue of our newsletter ‘Riddle & Pick’ for some further background details.
As ever stumps and roots conspired to delay progress. The heat of the day, with high humidity, made even small amounts of work a very heavy task, so mattocks came in handy as the uneven concrete layer was covered in and pierced by roots. Trying to remove the latter, threatened the former, but the Friends persisted and made progress. The end of the day was marked by the weather, as loud rumbles presaged an imminent downpour, summer showers followed shortly afterwards. Thus Saturday was brought to a happy, if humid, but certainly fascinating conclusion.
Sunday morning saw the Friends back on site, with Steve and Glen continuing the clearance work and taking on some of the tree stumps blocking our way to an obstacle-free yard. Winching away with a little elbow grease soon saw progress, and together with the weekend visitors (see below), the weekend was most enjoyable.
Visitors to the site are always welcome during the working parties, so the Friends were particularly pleased to welcome a couple of wonderful guests in the shape of lizards which emerged to say hello. What looked like a male and female (see main image) scampered around, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding grass and wood. Alongside the regular frog appearances, it’s encouraging to see so much ecological diversity on a former industrial site.
Speaking of which, one of our local partners, the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership together with the Sorby Natural History Society and the Heritage Lottery Fund are preparing a free family Reptile & Amphibian Discovery Day, starting at the Elsecar Visitors’ Centre on Saturday 5th September from 10am-3pm. On Saturday 12th September a Survey and ID session will also be taking place.
History and Heritage – Making Connections
Away from the hands-on volunteer working parties we describe here, a significant amount of work continues off-site, throughout the working week. The Friends Directors continue to raise awareness of the group’s aims, working with partner agencies and seeking support to restore and develop the site, aiming to create new opportunities for local people. An essential part of this work is contact with other community and heritage groups in and around Barnsley and South Yorkshire.
Wombwell Heritage Group – Beedan Collection
On Saturday afternoon the Friends were delighted to welcome another guest (this time very much in human form) in the shape of Joan from Wombwell Heritage Group. The Friends first met Joan and the other members of the Wombwell Heritage Group at the Barnsley History Day in February this year and have kept in touch via our education lead Phil and local historian Christine, the Friends’ Director for Community Engagement and Volunteering.
Joan had brought a wonderful range of materials to present to the Friends, including photographs, notes and articles. It stems from the collections and work of the late George Smales Beedan (1931-2006), a former engineering lecturer at Rother Valley College, Dinnington. Mr Beedan was a noted local mining historian with strong family connections to the area and to the Hemingfield pit itself. His elder brother Maurice Smith Beedan (1922-2003) had been General Manager at Elsecar Main, and in 1980 had guided him to speak to the then head of the South Yorkshire Mines Drainage Unit, Mr Robert Ditchfield (1921-2004) to arrange a visit down the main shaft at Hemingfield in March of that year. We hope to be able to share some of this material via our social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) as well as providing more in-depth analysis in longer articles and discussion on this website.
Sunday session – Oral histories
With an embarrassment of documentary riches on Saturday, we were honoured to receive two very special guests on Sunday morning when Directors Christine and Steve welcomed Bryan and his mother Josephine on site. Steve and Christine have begun the work of gathering oral histories relating to the local area and the working life of the pit. They plan to do this through recorded interviews that seek to capture the memories of family, social and working lives in the valley over the last half century and beyond.
Our visitors brought with them unique insights into life in Elsecar in the twentieth century. They are a family with very strong connections to Elsecar, its pits and park. Bryan grew up in the shadow of the Newcomen Engine and Josephine shared her memories of Elsecar. Bryan kindly showed us a momento of a tragic yet remarkable event at Hemingfield Colliery in December 1940 – one of several events which we hope to document more fully, and bring to a wider audience in the near future. We are extremely grateful.
Sharing stories of the past goes hand-in-hand with discussions on the future possibilities of the site, and today’s conversations were no different, with animated exchanges on how the Friends might be able to take forward their plans to bring the site back to life, and ensure it continues to be used for the benefit of the local community. We look forward to keeping in touch with our friends and supporters.