28th November 2015 – Open Day and Working Party

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With the festive season fast approaching, it was guaranteed to be a suitably wintry end to November, and so it proved to be as Site Director Glen opened the gates to another open day and volunteer working party at Hemingfield Colliery.

Joined by regular volunteers John, Chris and Phil, the team picked up where the last active working party left off – by continuing the logging of the felled trees, and generally tidying the site.

For online use

Thanks to a recent grant from South Yorkshire’s Community Foundation, the Friends and volunteers are now well-equipped with the tools to tackle these tasks.

A Barnsley Chop

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Despite the cold winds and ominous clouds above, the rain held off early on, so Glen and the team could get stuck in. The trusty chainsaw sped the way as barrow-loads of logs were steadily dispatched and the pile of felled tree trunks was cleared away.

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In a weekend when snow was forecast further north, Hemingfield Colliery had its own sprinkling of the white stuff, with sawdust gathering as the logging continued.

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Opening up the site

With the logs stacked up, the Friends also took the opportunity of opening up an old blocked-up doorway in the switchgear building. Together with the new tools from grant funding, the security of the site has only been made possible thanks to the support of the Northern Mine Research Society (Registered Charity 326704) whose project grants enabled the installation of security shutters, thus ensuring that the steady progress made by the Friends and volunteers is maintained and protected.

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Despite the somewhat forbidding sign, all is well here, and useful space was cleared for storage and future restoration activities. Intriguingly the graffiti-ridden top sign points to the pre-1987 management of the site – mentioning an “NCB Rawmarsh” telephone number. This relates to Hemingfield’s role as part of the South Yorkshire Mines Drainage Unit under the late Robert Ditchfield (1921-2004).

Away from the wet weather on site, members of the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery have been active in contacting former members of the mines drainage unit, and we are eager to continue recording the memories of those who worked in and around the site.

Looking back

As clearance work continues on site, and the Friends continue to build on their first year of activity,  it is useful to pause for thought, and reflect on just how much has changed at Hemingfield, but also how much has remained the same through the years.

Referring to the George Beedan Collection, now held by the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, we find some fascinating glimpses into the past. One brief comparison of 1940 and 2015 should suffice to show that things are always changing, but can also stay the same:

On the left we see a contemporary photo of a (wet) pit yard at Hemingfield, with the concrete headgear and the front corner of the brick switchgear building. On the right we see a similar view, but some 75 years earlier – and in somewhat drier days) when the headgear was newly constructed (1939-40). A cement mixer can be seen front-left. Intriguingly the switchgear building of the present day differs significantly from that of 1940, showing the phases of development of the building – from a pitched roof to a flat roofed structure, though much brickwork appears to be older/reused in the modern day view.

Pride in our appearance

After recent weeks of leaf-fall, the pathway outside of the pit had become buried under piles of leaves, blocking up the pavement and cluttering the street scene. The Friends are proud to be working in Hemingfield and in keeping the area neat and tidy, encouraging visitors on our open days and ensuring that the site becomes once more a heathly asset to the local community and its built heritage.

With barrows ready, and a rake and broom in hand, volunteers Phil and Chris proceeded to give the pavement a somewhat precocious spring clean, undaunted by the arrival of rain showers:

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Before

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After

Tours, Trials and Tribulations at Wentworth

As the day wound on the Friends and volunteers continued the felling and logging work. The rains descended, but failed to dowse the fire – literally and figuratively speaking. At the day’s end we were also pleased to welcome some visitors from the West Midlands, engaged on a Yorkshire industrial odyssey.

Whilst explaining the history and context of the Hemingfield Colliery site, the Friends naturally alluded to the Earls Fitzwilliam, their estate and industrial undertakings, including the Elsecar collieries. The Earls Fitzwilliam resided at the palatial Neo-Palladian seat of Wentworth Woodhouse, just up around the corner from Elsecar. This Grade I listed building has a fascinating history, as developments in recent days have shown.

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The house was requisitioned by Army Intelligence during the Second World War, though the family remained there for some time. In the midst of industrial challenges of war and the recovery, the family’s wealth was severely depleted by death duties following the deaths of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1943, and the 8th Earl in 1948. Significant auction sales of the library collections, silverware, art and furniture from Wentworth Woodhouse followed in 1948 and 1949.

Wartime emergency powers first enacted after 1942 had authorised a programme of opencast mining for the fuel-hungry nation. In 1943, Lord Barnaby in a debate in the House of Lord explained that:

“In this country I have seen a site where an eight foot seam is at present being worked on some two hundred acres of the Wentworth estate in the immediate vicinity of the house of a late member of your Lordships’ House, Lord Fitzwilliam, in Yorkshire. There some two hundred acres of land are expected to provide 1,600,000 tons of coal. The expectation is that by next year production will have risen to some 50,000 tons a week from that site. I do not propose to go into the question of cost, which must necessarily be controversial, but noble Lords will probably have read the statement by the contractors to which I have referred that coal has been won by the firm at an average price of under £1 per ton. Whatever the cost, it is a war-time necessity to get this coal.”

Hansard, House of Lords Debates, 9th November 1943, vol.129 cc614-23

The election of the postwar Labour government saw the Nationalisation of the coal industry from 1947, and meant the end of private ownership of the Earl’s own collieries on his estate.

At this transitional stage the 7th Earl’s sister, Lady Mabel Smith, was instrumental in securing terms to lease Wentworth Woodhouse – the long East Front and grounds – to the West Riding County Council as a home to a College of Physical Education, known as the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education. The house staggered on, with the family retaining some rooms in the West Front.

As during the war, a resource-hungry post-war government had sought to obtain cheap fuel at every opportunity, and so continued to extend opencast operations. The Labour Minister of Fuel and Power, Emanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell is often cited in connection with the opencasting at Wentworth as an example of class conflicts played out in public, of political enmities manifest in the back garden of the Earl; though he himself did not begin the opencast work, his period of office 1945-47 certainly saw the peak of the incursion into the house and gardens.

In 1946, a written answer from Mr Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning 1945-50 explained the intentions of the ongoing opencast work:

…the Government have decided that in view of the urgent need for coal, some working must be allowed, but that it should be restricted so as to avoid destroying any considerable area of woodland and in particular so as to leave untouched the Doric Wall and the line of beech trees behind it, the main part of the Gardens and a large part of Temple Hill plantation. They are satisfied that when working is completed and the surface restored, the general character of this outstanding park will not be materially impaired and that the decision represents the best possible reconciliation of the conflicting public interests involved.

Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 12th February 1946, vol.419 c79W

shortly afterwards, in a parliamentary debate on this subject, Sir Edward Keeling, MP for Twickenham asked:

…what steps have been taken in the last three months to ensure that the opencast mining near Wentworth Woodhouse does not damage this famous Georgian mansion.

Mr. Shinwell: I anticipate there will be no damage to the mansion through opencast operations.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke: Has the proposal put up by the miners’ leader, Mr. Hall, for winning the coal by normal methods, come before the Minister? Has the Minister rejected it and, if so, on what ground?

Mr. Shinwell: The proposal to work the coal from underground came before the Department many months ago, and was rejected on technical grounds.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge: Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that all alternative means of procuring the coal which is to be obtained from Wentworth Woodhouse have been explored? Many people are exceedingly disturbed at the proposed despoliation of this charming oasis of natural peace.
Mr. Shinwell: Of course, every possible alternative has been explored. It is obvious that if we could have secured the coal by other means we should not have adopted this method. As to “spoliation,” we are very anxious to prevent any undue disturbance, and indeed, we are going to do it.

Mr. Hogg: Before taking action of this kind does the Minister make it his practice to consult the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and other such bodies?

Mr. Shinwell: The decision to work the coal on the Wentworth Woodhouse site was taken by my predecessor, in consultation with the then Minister of Town and Country Planning. I have not consulted the organisations to which the hon. Member referred, but I have consulted the Minister of Town and Country Planning.

Mr. Eden: Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that it is not a question of blaming this Government or other Governments? I think that the genuine concern is whether amenities that might be preserved for the enjoyment of the nation will be destroyed. How does the Minister explain the views of the Yorkshire miners themselves?

Mr. Shinwell: The right hon. Gentleman is ill-informed. The Yorkshire miners have expressed no opinion on this matter. Mr. Hall does not happen to be the Yorkshire miners but the President of the Yorkshire miners, speaking in his individual capacity. I have received no representations against the scheme from the Yorkshire miners or from the National Union of Mineworkers. On the contrary, some of the Yorkshire miners have written to me commending the scheme, in existing circumstances. Nor do I blame my predecessor for what occurred. I merely state the facts.

Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 16th April 1946, vol.421, cc2493-4

In May 1946, Mr. W. S. Morrison MP asked the Minister of Town and Country Planning:

…whether, in view of the consultations between himself and the Minister of Fuel and Power regarding the working of opencast coal on the Wentworth Woodhouse Estate beyond that agreed upon by their respective predecessors, he is satisfied that no permanent damage to the beauty of the park and gardens is likely to result from the workings now being undertaken there.
Mr. Silkin: Yes, Sir. The decision of the late Government to permit opencast working on this estate related to a more limited area than is now to be worked; but in view of the increasing gravity of the coal situation, I agreed with the Minister of Fuel and Power to extend the area. In fixing the limits of this extended working, however, we drew a clear distinction between areas in which the damage would be temporary and could be remedied without serious impairment within five years, and those in which the damage would be permanent, or could only be remedied after a long period; and working will be confined to the former areas alone. While there will undoubtedly be great temporary disfigurement, I am satisfied that when within a period of five years the working is over and restoration is completed, as it will be, the general character and beauty of the park and gardens will be substantially unaffected.

Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 7th May 1946, vol.422, cc75-6W

Nevertheless the impact on the landscape was drastic:

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Britain from Above has some striking contemporary images from May 1947:

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Opencast coal mining opposite Wentworth Woodhouse, Wentworth, 15th May 1947 – Britain from Above

Movietone Newsreels also covered the story, (courtesy of Associated Press)

A couple of years later, Sir Henry Legge-Bourke, MP for the Isle of Ely reflected in a debate in Parliament on 1st Feb 1949:

“There is no doubt in my mind that there was a deliberate personal attack on the late Lord Fitzwilliam by the present Secretary of State for War when Minister of Fuel and Power and by Lindsay Parkinson, Limited, and I think an attempt was made to put about the impression that the late Lord Fitzwilliam was only interested in the amenities of Wentworth Woodhouse, which happens to be one of the largest mansions in the country. Having gone round his farm with him and met his tenants, I can say that I wish that all landlords were as good as he was.

I believe that it was one of the most vile campaigns ever launched to say that he was only interested in Wentworth Woodhouse itself. I have seen some of those farms, and when I read an article in the “Farmer and Stock Breeder” this week under the heading “I Was Horrified,” I can share the view of the writer of that article. It does strike horror in one’s heart when one sees opencast coalmining in progress, but the Ministry tried to give the impression that when restoration takes place, all would be well and the land just as good as ever it was.”

The politics of opencasting dragged on well into the 1950s. Mr David Griffiths, the local MP for Rother Valley (the constituency containing Wentworth) from 1945-1970, initially defended the necessity of the opencast work for the national interest, but a few years later was attempting to curtail further work and protect Lady Mabel college, as when in 1952 he presented a petition on behalf of his constituents:

I beg to present a humble Petition signed by 2,066 constituents in the Parish of Wentworth and many miles of the surrounding district. The inhabitants of Wentworth deplore the continuance of opencast mining, and strongly hope and pray that it be discontinued at a very early date.

The reasons are, firstly, the loss of agricultural land, and, consequently, of food production; secondly, the despoilment of scenic beauty; thirdly, the incessant noise and damage night and day, which has been disturbing residents there continuously for over 10 years; and, fourthly, and this is a very important factor indeed, that the West Riding County Council have described this area in a development scheme as of great landscape, scientific and historical value.

The Petition concludes: Wherefore your Petitioners pray that no further opencast working in and immediately adjoining the parish of Wentworth should be put into effect.

Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 15th July 1952, vol.503, c1949

The 10th Earl Fitzwilliam died at Wentworth in 1979 and the title ended with his death. In the 1980s local authority changes and mounting maintenance costs led to a desire to drop the college’s upkeep. After a number of commercial alternatives were considered the house was eventually purchased, subject to a number of convenants, by the entrepreneur Wensley Haydon Baillie in 1989. After financial difficulties, Swiss Bank Julius Baer repossessed the property and it was put on the market in 1998.

In 1999 the ‘Big House’ was purchased by the late Mr Clifford Newbold (1926-2015) and his family, who fell in love with the place and its history. Mr Newbold was a retired architect and championed the restoration of the mansion. Under his guiding hand, and the support of his family, the house has been opened to the public once more for booked tours.

The family also began a significant subsidence claim for compensation against the Coal Authority for damage done to the house by coal working. The claim, which covers repairs costing tens of millions of pounds, has been contested for several years, including an appeal from the Coal Authority which was refused. Following the preparation of engineers reports, the action should reconvene in 2016, though Mr Newbold himself did not live to see the outcome, and the family have sought to pass the house to another owner or group to secure its future.

For several years the Newbold family were in discussions with heritage consultants and campaigners to secure a sustainable future for the building, with plans to put it on the open market by the spring of 2015. To support and guide the campaign to save the house and open it to the public, the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust was established, and a campaign to raise funding to purchase the house began. The trustees of the trust are:

  • The Duke of Devonshire,
  • Lady Juliet Tadgell, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam.
  • Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, grandson of the 10th (and final) Earl Fitzwilliam
  • Julie Kenny CBE (Chair), Local company chairman and social and economic development contact
  • Timothy Cooke, Bank director, providing financial advice to the trust
  • Martin Drury, former Director-General of the National Trust
  • and Merlin Waterson, former Regional Director of the National Trust

The campaigning group SAVE Britain’s Heritage were very active in supporting the campaign, with its President Marcus Binney CBE leading the arguments in favour of their plan, supported by Sir Simon Jenkins, former Chairman of the National Trust. The Trust’s aims are:-

1. To preserve the house and grounds on a long term sustainable basis with extensive public opening;
2. To find sustainable and sympathetic uses for those parts of the property not open to the public;
3. To raise funds both for acquisition and repairs and other essential works.

By November 2015 Savills, the agents selling  the property asked for final bids, and it was hoped that an offer of £7M from the Trust, backed by matched funding would secure the house, however initial hopes were dashed when it was announced that a Hong Kong based company the Lake House Group were the successful bidders. Triggering consternation locally, and passionate letters to the Times, this news was rapidly replaced by reports that the sale had fallen through, so this blog finds the sale and immediate future of the house as unclear as ever, and filled with hopes and anxieties for the Trust.

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