Open Day and Working Party Weekend, 28th May 2016

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Elsecar Heritage Railway steam loco Birkenhead shuttling up and down the line, with Hemingfield village across the fields in the background.

Bank Holiday Weekend fun

The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery returned to the pit on Saturday at the start of a wonderful Bank Holiday weekend. The sun was shining and it was a great day to be outdoors.

Site Director Glen and Friends’ Chair Steve were on site early ready for work, trimming back the lush grass which has shot up over the past couple of weeks. They were joined by Peak volunteers John, Eric and Chris, with regular volunteer Chris arriving later in the morning.

Digging deeper: extending the trench

The main task of the day was to continue the industrial archaeological work around the switchgear building, to extend the line of the trench which has revealed the remains of a building, and to build on the last working party weekend session which began to reveal what appeared to be a stone edge, or foundation line for another building.

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Volunteers extend the trench by the side of the partly excavated surface building.

As ever, it wouldn’t be a Hemingfield pit dig if we didn’t hit bracken roots and tree stumps along the way. As the morning sun shone down on the yard, the volunteers got to grips with the obstacles, hatchet, axe-work and the good old winch came into play again in order to clear off the top layers and allow us to proceed to the archaeology beneath.

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Winch and chain, picks and mattocks – the tools for the job.

…How does your Garden grow?

It’s easy to forget just how quickly nature can take control of sites when the pace of human activity slows. Even in a fortnight, the grass and greenery shoots up, so regular maintenance is essential. Thankfully Friends Chair Steve made short work of the long shoots with the petrol strimmer; with some mechanical assistance from Glen.

We were also delighted to welcome visitors to the site, to visit the pit, view the standing structures, remaining Barnsley seam shafts, and discuss the Friends’ aims and current plans in more detail.

Lunchtime beckoned. The Friends and volunteers reflected on progress on site and discussed future developments. Exciting plans for safeguarding some of the buildings and features on site were discussed (more details to follow), and conversation ranged widely, from two-stroke motors to National Parks, as packed lunches, fish and chips, rhubarb cake and some much-needed liquid refreshments were consumed.

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Site Director Glen and Peak volunteer John surveying the site; excavated concrete cable trench in foreground

Archaeological musings

Building on earlier industrial archaeological investigations on site, this working party set about extending the trench line from the headgear/winding house side towards the boundary wall/Wath Road end. The aim is to further expose any surface building remains in the concealed archaeology.

The majority of the excavated area has been taken down to a hard surface; black, compressed layers which appear to indicate a working yard surface. Layers of red shale and black ash point to this when the top grass and soil are first removed. In the top layers we have discovered a wide range of finds and debris, including discarded electrical and pumping pipe accessories, iron tools, as well as more recent rubbish.

Much further work remains to be done to expose a wider area in order to help resolve a number of questions about the features currently in view, and particularly to establish a reliable sequence of the features to help the Friends record and explain the transition of Hemingfield Colliery from its coal-working period prior to May 1920, through the the initial demolition work (1920-21), on to the modifications of the electrical pumping plant and winding gear made to the site as it came into the care of the South Yorkshire Pumping Association (1918-1929), and later the South Yorkshire Mines Drainage Committee (1929-1946), before being taken into the Mines Drainage Unit of the National Coal Board (1947-1994).

Sketch plan: work done, and still to do!

In order to help explain the work in progress, the image below, taken from a drone photograph in March 2016, has indications of the recent areas of excavation, together with indicative projections of where we seek to extend the excavation to understand and resolve questions raised by the features exposed thus far. Our thanks go to Volunteer site archaeological lead Nigel, and visiting archaeological volunteer John for insights into the methods and interpretations of what the exposed building lines, surface discolourations and alignments may indicate.

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Outline of excavation work around switchgear building May 2016. Recent and projected work indicated on aerial view taken in March 2016 (credit: James Marshall)

Groundwork

Keeping a straight and sharp trench edge is tricky when roots continue to bar the way, but with secateurs, hatchet and mattocks handy, and trowels standing by for the fine clean-up, the trench began to extend before us. With barrow-fulls of soil (reasonably good topsoil, in fact) being taken away, the surface showed a number of intriguing discolourations, indicating different features. Most notably, a clay-stone compressed floor surface emerged at the left-hand side. Initially this appeared to be a stone floor, cobbled or similar, but in fact the surface was not all stone, but clay.

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Extending the line of the trench from the exposed wall of a former surface building (bottom of shot). Note distinct line of compressed stone-clay surface at left-hand side.

Extending the line further, iron pins in the earth emerged, fixing bolts for something – perhaps wooden sleepers, which appear at the bottom of the excavated area nearest the headgear. Also further discolourations with a brick feature, with ash-mortar infill

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Brick feature, cut through the clay-stone compressed floor, surrounded by looser material.

Using the alignment of the known water pipe trench feature as a guide, the extension of this trench, revealing the clay-stone floor, and the brick feature start to suggest a sequence of events, which when we put them together with the stone wall of the demolished building, may start to tell us a story about which surfaces are associated with which buildings, and which features came first. At the moment, the initial features are quite confusing, but they certainly triggered a great deal of discussion and analysis as the Friends and volunteers continued to dig.

The general area being excavated is understood to be the area where a boiler house for the winding engines may originally have been. From photographs, Ordnance Survey mapping, and contemporary illustrations, such as that below, we are able to speculate on the specific structures.

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1880s Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries billhead image – viewed from canal side – note the (extant) winding house and (demolished) chimney to the right-hand side

Through ongoing documentary and archival research being conducted by the Friends and volunteers, we continue to find further contextual information regarding the site, its fixtures and fittings, all of which help to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and serve as a framework which is filled out by the archaeological record evidence.

Post-medieval and modern archaeology is a challenging area. Industrial sites present unique challenges as mechanical excavation and modern methods can create confusing admixtures of features, of uses and re-uses of materials which require careful evaluation and assessment to understand and explain.

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End of day image, with measured rule, showing the clay-stone floor, up to  brick feature, which is cut by the continuation of the water pipe trench (part-excavated and recorded in section)

As the day drew to a close, the Friends and volunteers collected their tools and tidied up the site, ready to continue work on another Open Day and Working Party Weekend.

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