The Friends and regular volunteers returned to Hemingfield Colliery for another tentative and COVID-secure session maintaining the site as the country at large continues to open up following changes to government and Public Health England guidelines.
On the straight and narrow…
All were somewhat surprised to be met by signs dictating a one-way flow along Wath Road, up to and past Pit Row. As we will relate shortly, this has nothing to do with local lockdowns and the threat of COVID-19 spread, and everything to do with another scourge in our society; one just as dangerous and, tragically, completely preventable…
Before the bad news, the good
Saturday 25th July 2020 was a good day, nay, a very good day for productive results on site. The weather forecast proved to be somewhat unreliable – we had expected only a half-day of volunteer work due to predictions of thunderstorms and downpours.
In the event the sun shone down and there were red faces, for good reason, as the regular volunteers got to work outdoors and enjoyed the benefits of exercise, company and a fair dose of vitamin D.
Two main activities occupied the day: Firstly extensive weed clearance on the old spoil mound nearest the boundary wall by the entrance. Secondly some initial building investigation and measurement in and around the winding engine house.
Regular volunteer Paul got stuck into tidying the wilderness at the top end of the site by the entrance.
Removing weeds and long grass, as well as quite a bit of rubbish thrown over the wall by – let’s say ‘generous’ passers by, and ‘well-wishers’. He was joined by Chris as the top side was tidied up, matching the good work carried out on the lower terrace on the last volunteer day earlier in the month.
Nettles, thistles and grasses, oh my! There was plenty to do during the morning. Once again, this was a small planned volunteer group activity, planned and undertaken behind the closed gates of the site – unfortunately we are still working towards being able to open the site to public visits.
Measure for measure
Meanwhile Site Manager Glen and regular volunteer John were focusing on developing their investigative skills, looking in detail at the built features of the winding engine house, from top to bottom, and carrying out a large number of observations and measurements in order to assist our understanding of the usage and phases of develoment of the main winding engine and its relation to the timber headgear (removed by 1939).
Alongside the sandstone blocks and modified pitched slate roof, the remains of the winding engine for the main shaft and for the water shaft are there to be seen.
Although heavily damaged due to metal theft in the early 2000s, much still remanis in situ, and tracking the changes in use of the building, its phases of activity is a complicated affair. Getting up close and personal with redundant static machinery is very interesting, but often leads to more questions than answers as to how it worked, why it was moved, and modified, and what ‘ghosts’ – the slots and in-fills and rebuilds of earlier phases of activity – can tell us about the original flat-rope winding engine and drum arrangements.
Stupor and stupidity
Back to the bad news – at the start of this day’s work, we noted our surprise at encontering a road sign on the approach to Pit Row and the colliery site. In fact there were also traffic lights (temporary) right on the pit’s doorstep. What had happened?
As you look down Wath Road from the pit gates, down to the end of Pit Row as it starts to descend towards Tingle Bridge, a number of cones had appeared, and all was not well with the retaining wall on the right-hand side. This parcel of land was once used as allotments associated with the Pit Row houses when they were rented from Earl Fitzwilliam.
Walking closer to the damaged wall – what was the cause? Earlier in the week an Audi had been driven at speed past the row, and the driver lost control on the bend and collided with the wall, flipping the car and causing substantial damage to the wall which later partially collapsed. Traffic through Pit Row’s tight bend has long been an issue as all too many drivers have paid all too little attention to the bend after accelerating away from Elsecar, or when approaching Elsecar from West Melton via the long flat New Road.
In this case, it is believed the driver of the vehicle in question is safe, but also that excessive alcohol consumption may have played a significant role in the accident. The local residents attended the scene on hearing the sound of the collision and called an ambulance. The Police also attended and began their investigation. There is no footpath on the colliery side of Pit Row, so pedestrians need to cross from the one side to another. Without traffic calming and responsible driving, pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers are at risk from careless and stupid driving. Hopefuly the wall will be repaired shortly.
Transitions – A hundred years ago
2020 is historic for many reasons, many bad, with the impact and losses of the Coronavirus pandemic. A hundred years ago, in 1920, Great Britain had emerged from another global pandemic, the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ (once again we see scapegoating through jingoistic epithets and nationalist rhetoric) and Europe and the wider world was stumbling to establish peace, and starting the process of rebuilding a post-war world which would fail, and fall under the shadow of conflict once more less that 20 years later.
In 1920 the British coal industry was still operating under the emergency wartime government ‘Control’ arrangements, under a Coal Controller and his staff, established at Holborn Viaduct Hotel and afterwards operating from the Hotel Windsor in Westminster. Some colliery owners despaired of this experiment in government control of private industry, complaining bitterly of delays and red tape, but equally the national crisis in supply had been real, and a fragmented industry with small and large concerns scattered across the nation was in no fit state to meet the production or transport needs of war.
Mining community volunteer recruitment early in the war meant there had been too few workers to meet the urgent demands of munitions, industrial and domestic supply. In December 1918 100,000 miners had released from the forces, in hopes of avoiding a domestic production crisis.
Meanwhile the global scarcity of fuel meant a surge in demand, but the wartime conditions, despite locking in hefty returns for some private coalowners, had badly affected productivity, delaying investment in developing new coal reserves or introducing more mechanization of the coalface.
1919-20 would see a strange bubble – essentially an export market price bonanza – leading to increased wage claims while defraying lower domestic prices, but it could not last for long as cheaper and more efficient international competitors emerged. As coal industry historian Barry Supple summarised it:
“The extraordinary character of both years consisted in the combination of falling productivity, stagnating output and exports, restrained inland prices and profits, and huge windfall gains on overseas sales. […] Between 1913 and 1920 output per man-year fell from 226 to 183 tons.”Supple, B., The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume 4: The Political Economy of Decline, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, Chapter 4, pp.148-149
The bubble would burst in 1921 with the export market crash, the end of Control (decontrol), and the release of social and political tensions which had initially been stayed by the 1919 Sankey Commission reports and resultant wage increases of the following year.
Low Stubbin: the end of an era
Nevertheless, for the mining communities of South Yorkshire, 1920 was a period of employment and some optimism. Soldiers returning from War would see that Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries around Park Gate were entering a busy period of transition, as the old Low Stubbin pit came to the end of its working life and the nascent New Stubbin began to take off and attract new labour – much as Elsecar Main had done a few years earlier.
Low Stubbin pit had been sunk in 1868 to reach the Barnsley bed. It would stop work winning coal on Saturday 24th July 1920, after a successful career of 52 years winding ‘black diamonds’ from the deep. One man who lived to see the start and the end of the working was Thomas Newbould, General Manager to Earl Fitzwilliam’s Collieries.
“Thursday July 22nd 1920…Last day for any coal winding – no miners working looked round stables – 12 horses yet to send out to set down every thing on Saturday next 24th […] Saw the commencement of the pit and the finish to day 22 July 1920 last time I go down.”Thomas Newbould’s notebook for 1920, cited from original archive material held at Rotherham Archives and Local Studies, ref 291-B