Rain and Steam, Open Day Sat 11th May 2019

Site manager Glen opened the gates to regular volunteers Chris, Paul and John, together with new volunteer Sean on a searingly bright and simmering morning up at Hemingfield.

Fat lips and cliff edges

No-one likes a fat lip; or do they? Unbeknowst to the Friends, between the time of the last Open Day, the road authority had been busy relaying the strip of Wath Road outside the gate. So busy in fact laying marvellously new tarmac that they appeared to have rather forgotten the entrance to the Colliery site. We present Exhibit A – ‘the fat lip’:

Now, we’re not ones to complain. Far from it. The new road surface is both quieter for our neighbours and less loose-chipped for the passing motorists themselves. Nevertheless, it is customary to honour entries and exits. Instead we got a fat lip. Pausing for a moment to marvel, and perhaps to write to the authority concerned, the Friends were not put off by the jarring hillock to climb for their access and egress. Instead they grabbed a wheelbarrow, some shovels and headed to our limestone sack. 20 minutes of shovelling, tipping, and levelling later and we were back on track. No more fat lip. No more axle mashing for Friends and visitors.

Wry Smiles and Honest Toil

Pausing in the sun for a moment by the burnt-out switchgear building, the volunteers reflect that there is still much to do. The timber roof-skeleton of this interesting building is testimony to the destructive consequences of criminal damage and metal theft. Still, like the Friends themselves, it fights on. The left-hand side, c.1940s-50s with its flat roof is still in use for storage, and as we would find later, still provides much-needed shelter from the elements – not to mention hidden corners for nesting birds.

Beyond the fence at the edge of the site, the sense of faded industry, or old with new use is soon to be seen. 1930s brickwork springs from 1840s stone work, showing the phases of industrial activity and transformation on this site – from coal winning with 300 men and boys, through to electrical pumping and care and maintenance needing just one or two passing checks by the 1990s.

And looking back up the Elsecar Heritage Railway line to Elsecar itself, we see the now-wooded corridor – a green picturesque setting where even 30 years ago hardly a tree was to be seen.

Whimsical musings aside. The working party cracked on with the work in hand. Sean, John, Paul and Chris tasking themselves with brick chipping, stump clearing and general maintenance with Site Director Glen.

With the work of making safe the rear retaining wall, a surfeit of bricks have been accumulated. These all need cleaning up to be stored for reused wherever possible. Alongside other tasks, we often build up a backlog, so today was as good as any to make progress on that particular account.

Amongst the blocks of burnt-clay, we frequently see the names of old local firms, of silenced stories disconnected from the labourrers and businessmen of their day. Reconnecting the names and places, the people with the stories of these products is often fascinating, usually surprising and always intriguing. The name James Smith & Co is a good and common example. As you can read elsewhere on this site. James Smith, longtime organist at Wentworth Parish Church, was also an important local businessman from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries. Working first as secretary for George and William Henry Dawes in their industrial complex of Milton and Elsecar iron works. In later years he endeavoured to set up business on his own account, seeking a lease of land at Skiers Spring (deep ironstone minng grounds) from Earl Fitzwilliam in 1877. within a year or so he, together with business partners and brand new machinery were turning out around 15,000 bricks a week.

On site we would be hard-push to turn around *quite* as many in such a short period of time, but even so, in terms of volumes, our own efforts required additional space, and so we extended the lower terrace brickstack forward.

Away from the brick hammers, volunteers were weeding and tidying the site. Maintenance and the level of effort to keep things looking spick and span on a former industrial site is greatly underappreciated, especially as we pass through the seasons and green shoots become long grass and flowering weeds ere long.

Working in the sunshine was no easy task, so the Friends and volunteers are always grateful for a pause to catch our collective breaths. Happily, being by the side of a busy heritage steam railway, our friends readily oblige; a cheery whistle stirs the spirits and everyone watches the engine as it steams down the Elsecar branch towards Hemingfield Halt, carrying more happy Footplate experiences on this wonderful steam railway line.

And the heavens opened

It’s almost traditional now that no sooner have the friends got ready to sit down for some snap in the sun, or wanted to get another good hour of work in, than the heavens open and cool down our no-doubt all to hot heads. Today was no different. In fact it was torrential. The scorched ground was doubtless ready for a downpour, but the Friends ran for the switchgear building by the main headgear. With raindrops bouncing from the pit head, and steam rising from the cold rain hitting the baked metal plates it was quite a dramatic, compelling scene.

It was also a good time to wrap up for the day – but not before catching up with the exciting developments down by the Newcomen engine house at Elsecar Heritage Centre.

What it all boils down to

As we reported in our last Open Day blogpost, our friends in the Heritage Action Zone Project office have been very busy of late. Working with Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar, together with local school, community and archaeology groups, they have been investigaing the mysteries of how the great Newcomen atmospheric engine was powered – that is, how the steam was raised; how and where were the boilers exactly; is there anything left to help us understand more about powering the engine and how this developed over time from 1795 through to the its last known working, under pressure, in the 1950s.

Addressing these questions is a critical part of understanding the full context of the engine and enginehouse itself. An internal combustion car does not work without petrol in the tank; an electric vehicle is nothing without its battery. The primary part of its working life required the Newcomen engine to receive low pressure steam in order for the injection of cold water to condense it and the resultant effect of its altered atmospheric pressure to pull the mighty nodding beam down, together with its pumping gear right down the 40 yards of the Elsecar New Colliery pumping shaft.

Leading the charge in seeking to address these questions is Dr Tegwen Roberts, Heritage Action Zone Project Officer. Working with Historic England, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and other partners, they sought permission to explore the rear of the Newcomen engine house. Specifically, with Scheduled monument permissions, they received approval to lift the layer of concrete covering the ground at the rear of the engine, to see what remains of the late Victorian boiler house. Working with volunteers and youth archaeology group members, this weekend saw the removal of that top layer of concrete and rubble to see what remains beneath, and whether further permissions for investigation could or should be sought.

Guiding a group of volunteers and visitors, including the Friends around the site on Saturday afternoon, Dr Roberts was pleased to show that there appear to be (buried) standing remains of the boiler house.

Left of centre in the image above (taken from within the Newcomen engine house) is a line of stones, set against a brick wall lining which appears to separate two filled-in oblong holes – these are potentially the infilled spaces once surrounding two short horizontal boilers – where water would have been heated with coal to raise steam for the pumping engine. Having removed the top cover of concrete (from late 30s/early 40s it is believed), it is now possible to make a fresh assessment of the surviving archaeology here, and to plan out further investigative work to learn more about the full context of the world’s oldest surviving engine still on its original working site, here at the Elsecar Heritage Centre.

Learning More

Rounding off the Saturday afternoon, it was a privilege and a pleasure for the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, and the Open Day volunteers to be able to join a number of others who had been working at Elsecar in the morning as we were given a guided tour of the engine and the former electrical pumping station building next door to it. Hemingfield Colliery was in many ways the younger sibling (1842-) of Elsecar New colliery (1794-), and both became part of the South Yorkshire Pumping Association in 1918, although the association only took possession from Earl Fitzwilliam after coal winning at Hemingfield ended in May 1920.

Reflecting back on the burnt-out switchgear building, and comparing it with its near-twin at Elsecar, we see very similar signs, building materials and fixtures. From Mines safety procedural warnings, disused electrical switchgear, the unplastered brick walls, and red tiled floors, it all looks very familiar.

A smashing way to end a wonderful Open Day weekend…

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