So long September!
October is here already, believe it or not. Summer nostalgia lingered on, a little, as the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery returned to the site, hoping to crack on with one more working party weekend before the impending gloom of autumn and creeping frosty airs of winter. In the event, the sun shone down on the pit, birdsong filled the air and the conversation flowed, as the Friends and regular volunteers arrived ready for another busy day.
Ready to Raise the Roof
Friends Director and Site Manager Glen opened the pit gates for another open day, joined by regular volunteers John, Keith and Chris. Bringing out the strimmer once more, the plan was to get the site ready for the start of the roof renewal work, replacing and repairing the slate roof on our 1846 winding engine house. The work begins later this month, so there was no time to spare.
Meanwhile the volunteers got to grips with moving a pile of logs and branches felled in previous weekends. The challenge was to raise the lumber from the lower terrace to the level of the winding headgear, getting it out of the way of the contractors.
The appliance of science is a regular event here at Hemingfield, and reviewing the tools to hand, the bodies available, and the most direct path, the crew grabbed a strap and proceeded to loop the logs and pull them up to the top level.
Deploying well-honed teamwork, the volunteers made steady progress, and gradually the pile was cleared away.
At the end of the lift, the back of the winding engine house was clear of obstructions, and the upper pit yard had a ready supply of wood.
Pleased with the morning’s efforts, the Friends and Volunteers paused for lunch.
Over lunch the group discussed the forthcoming roof work, including imminent site visits from the contractor, the delivery of scaffolding. and the commencement of the 8-10 week programme of work to secure the damaged roof and replace the decaying joists and truss-work in the winding engine house. We’re all looking forward to seeing this work get underway, and being able to share some of the details behind the restoration, including the significant amount of planning and site investigations which have been required. There’s quite a tale to tell!
Lunchtime flew by, as the group discussed everything from modern construction techniques, the physics of coal dust (and custard) explosions, right through to the perils of Canadian ice fishing. Our deliberations were regularly punctuated by hearty puffs, chuffs and whistles from Elsecar Heritage Railway‘s loco Birkenhead providing hours of fun and wonder to visitors on their footplate experiences.
Earlier in the day the group had been joined by a couple of visitors. The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery are always delighted to hear from new contacts, and are happy to help anyone interested in the history, development and surviving structures of the colliery buildings. Sharing our history, knowledge and heritage with the local community is crucial to our work, and the Friends are always excited to make new connections which can open new possibilities for further projects on site.
Resuming work after lunch, the team moved down to the lower terrace to reclaim some of the ground from the silvan ravages of nettles, brambles and weeds. Strimmers, saws, secateurs and finally the hatchet all played their part in opening up the back of the winding engine house. Here again the aim was to clear the way and open the path for the forthcoming scaffolding to be erected.
Stripping back the undergrowth on this part of the site was quite revealing as it contained an interesting mixture of old odds and ends, frames, brackets and oddments dumped and forgotten in the past. There’s certainly a lot more to discover down here.
Looking back: The Cortonwood and Elsecar Project
All the talk of impending work on site at Hemingfield prompted conversations about how we all got here; the changes in the Knoll Beck valley and around Elsecar; the whos and hows of the transition from an industrial life fueled by coal mining, coking and transportation, into a post-industrial world, where the work and environment of the Dearne Valley looks very different from how it did a generation ago.
In 1974, when The West Riding of Yorkshire County Council still existed, an important first step was taken, one which was of lasting importance to the heritage which remains:
“WEST RIDING OF YORKSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING ACT 1971
Urban District of Hoyland Nether
Elsecar Conservation Area
Notice is hereby given that the County Council of the West
Riding of Yorkshire as Local Planning Authority, after
consultation with the Hoyland Nether Urban District Council,
have designated the area referred to the Schedule to
this notice as a Conservation Area in accordance with
Section 277 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.
The area is one which the County Council consider to be
an area of special architectural or historic interest, the
character or appearance of which should be preserved or
enhanced, and will be the subject of stringent control of
development. The County Council intend to take such
action as may be available to them to secure the preservation
of the character and the general improvement of the
London Gazette, Issue 46198, 4th February 1974, pp.1519-1520
A decade later, the country experienced the strike of 1984-5, an event whose causes, conduct and conclusion remain bitterly divisive and hotly debated.
The work of change, or rebuilding could be said to have begun almost as the death knell for local mining was still ringing in folks’ ears. Elsecar and Cortonwood – near neighbours were collieries with contrasting, but connected fortunes. As the local MP for Wentworth, the late Peter Hardy, reflected at a critical time in 1985:
“My hon. Friends and I accept that all collieries have a life and that collieries do close. The Minister is well aware that only a couple of miles away from Cortonwood is Elsecar colliery. That colliery ceased to produce coal towards the end of 1983. The miners in my constituency and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends recognised that Elsecar had to close. They were surprised when the National Coal Board guaranteed Cortonwood for five years and persuaded 100 men from the Elsecar colliery to transfer to Cortonwood. Some of those men had not even done a shift down Cortonwood before the decision was taken that it should cease to produce coal.”
Hansard, House of Commons, 1984-85, Sixth Series, Volume 72, 4 Feb 1985, 673
This is not the place to dilate on the Strike itself. Needless to say, even at the nadir of the closures, site demolitions, unemployment and decline, there were signs of hope.
In the summer of 1985 some initial discussions began among a range of local people, with an intriguing mixture of backgrounds and interests – railways, canals, mining, history and more. They discussed the opportunities to improve things.
Around 60 people attended a public meeting held in the Community Education building in Wombwell on Friday 21st March 1986. The interested parties, starting with around 30 members, formed the Cortonwood and Elsecar Project.
The group attracted more members, and explored contacts with the Barnsley and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Councils which were just beginning to take on unitary powers following the abolition of South Yorkshire County Council. The first business meeting of CEP followed in April, the first newsletter in May 1986, and by the end of the year, with membership over 100, a whole set of future proposals for the area was presented in a report which attempted to save the remains of industry and build a new heritage-based economy.
“This report is of a grass-roots initiative, presented by local people of this part of South Yorkshire as a plan to build something of relevance and value for the future upon the foundations of the past.” […]
“We, as local folk – many of us with mining connections in our families – might not appears to be very articulate or to have little power or ‘clout’ but we have a dream that the life of this valley is anything but finished, and that this valley still has its story to tell and that it can tell it in such a way that as yet untapped seams can be mined for new initiatives, resulting in a greatly improved environment, with a major potential for tourism and leisure, and the creation of new jobs.”
History on our doorstep: a development plan for a steam railway and open-air museum between Cortonwood and Elsecar. Proposals by the Cortonwood and Elsecar Project Group, November 1986
Barnsley MBC commissioned URBED to produce a feasibility study, published in August 1987. In 1988 the Council purchased the former National Coal Board Workshops, the Newcomen engine, the canal branch, and the bare trackbed from the old colliery branch line – the key elements in creating a nucleus for future growth – the Elsecar Heritage Centre.
Meanwhile the CEP group continued its work on a more formal basis – supporting the work of the Barnsley Canal Group in the restoration of part of the Elsecar canal basin and top locks of the Dearne and Dover Canal, and making a start in earnest on rolling stock for the proposed railway. It also organised heritage events, including a Heritage Weekend, and sustained a social programme, with an annual cricket match.
From 1989 onwards, the Heritage Centre received funding from the City Challenge (Dearne Valley) scheme and the Urban Programme. The investment led to professional project management, and the opening of the Powerhouse museum, and a visitors’ centre, with a number of commercial units, and a large multipurpose space for other uses. It also led to environmental work, and the promotion of the ‘greenway’ alongside the canal branch from Elsecar to Brampton.
The Council’s Education and Leisure undertook a significant redevelopment of the former NCB workshops at Elsecar. Working with David Ellis Associates, the contractors E. Manley & Co. carefully removed 1950s brick NCB extensions to the victorian aisled workshop and oversaw the restoration of the stonework and improvements to services on site. The scale of the transformation at that time is perhaps forgotten now, but secured the site and provided the basis for a more certain future. The Queen visited the new Elsecar Heritage Center in March 1994, and a couple of years later in April 1996 the first passenger train left the new heritage railway station building.
Challenge and Change
As the Millennium approached, the planned-for visitor numbers remained elusive, however. The CEP had wound down, though many of its members remained active in and around Elsecar, as business owners, volunteers and enthusiasts. After 2001, the Council focused on sustainability, and the need to diversify the businesses on site. The Powerhouse and history centre closed, but the Antiques centre and later Playmania brought new customers to the workshops. In 2010 a missing piece of the puzzle – the conservation and new interpretation of the Newcomen Engine – fell into place with English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund grants. Now once again, the prospects for Elsecar, and indeed for Hemingfield promise well, and once again, it’s vital that local people get involved to ensure the success of the developments.
Cortonwood and Elsecar Project Newsletters, Nos 35(Jan/Feb 1991); 36 (Mar/Apr 1991) and 50 (Jul/Aug 1993)