Celebrating our Heritage on Yorkshire Day

Bright morning and blue sky under the main headgear at Hemingfield, Saturday 1st August.

Nothing but blue skies may be an optimistic note to strike in the midst of a global pandemic, but despite the darker clouds, the ups and downs, through the closings, reopenings and re-closings of recent days, the ability to safely distance and volunteer with others, carefully, outdoors, for a common cause – to protect and restore our common heritage – is something to celebrate. Saturday 1st August also had the distinction of being Yorkshire Day – so it was good to see the blue flags flying the white rose against a mostly blue sky. 

Indeed, despite the widespread uncertainty and social and economic distress since the crisis began in March, it is heartening to see concrete steps being taken to support culture, the arts and heritage; most recently the announcement of the £88M Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage distributed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Historic England, following criteria from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This fund is part of the £1.57 billion rescue package from government to safeguard cultural and heritage organisations across the UK.

Testing times

Green means go. Moving forward at Hemingfield Colliery

Seeking to make up some of the lost weekends of the initial lockdown period, a number of the Friends and regular volunteers agreed to return for an extra early day’s work behind closed gates. As ever, they always had a weather eye on proceedings, but were determined to continue the work of rebuilding the rear retaining wall as long as summertime permitted.

Arriving on site, it was dismaying to see further criminal damage to the boundary wall at Wath Road – right next to the temporary traffic lights we mentioned from last week’s work. The damage can be repaired, but the malicious motivation and effort is somewhat discouraging. Is there nothing better to do? Pandemic or no, some things don’t seem to change. We can but hope. After 6 years of hard work on site, the Friends are eternally optimistic.

As the buzzard flies…

Whilst the human world toils with the effects of the Coronavirus, nature continues unbound – sunshine and rainfall means grass and weeds, flowers and insects; the birds and the bees. The birds in particular draw attention at Hemingfield as the site includes roosts for owls, nests for swifts and is right underneath the majestic sweep of a buzzard, whose wide wingspan and distinctive silhouette is a regular sight whilst the volunteers work away.

Equally distinctive are the pack-attacks, the crows gather in force to move their bigger neighbour away from their domain. High above the pit, screeching and swooping the feint attacks are joined by smaller birds (in even greater numbers). The view is by turns fascinating and beautiful against the bright blue sky. The observer perhaps pities the buzzard, all alone and constantly harried, derided and pestered – assuming a strangely metaphoric quality.

The Wall, (without Pink Floyd)

The rear retaining wall. Lime mortar in action and re-using stone from the site to repair the collapsed parts of the structure.

On the morning after the passing of British film director Alan Parker (1944-2020), it seems somehow apt to refer to one of his most intriguing works – the Pink Floyd musical film (‘rock opera’) The Wall. Despite being one of Parker’s most miserable professional experiences, it has attracted a cult following. In less dramatic terms, the huge challenge of rebuilding the rear retaining wall at Hemingfield attracts a similarly acute attention from a dedicated band of regular volunteers.

Reuse and repair: stones prepped for rebuilding the wall

Setting up the scaffold platform and fetching the mixer, tools and materials, the group were soon ready for work, with jobs nicely spaced on the lower terrace and at the base of the retaining wall: mixing ‘up top’ as it were, and rebuilding ‘down low’.

In the mix: mixing the mortar

Lime mortar mixing always reminds us of baking; not quite Yorkshire Pudding mix, but getting the best ingredients and carefully preparing them, mixing them in the right quantities in order to ensure the best outcome. Whilst the culinary arts have led to the likes of the Great British Bake Off, the same cannot (yet) be said of the skills of the construction industry, and the even more specialist knowledge from the historic buildings and heritage sector. Hemingfield has certainly benefitted from their support and expert advice, and the volunteers have learned new skills in the process of preparing the rear wall – from its initial neglected and dangerous state, through to its current strengthened and improved condition.

In June the UK Prime Minister launched a strategy to support the recovery of the UK economy out of the lockdown which dwelt heavily on contruction, or “build, build, build!“. Putting aside the dangers of de-regulated development and the challenges of the private profit motive versus the public good for a moment, the investment in construction whether for homes or infrastructure could and perhaps should be something which also feeds into the heritage sector too, where traditional skills and technical know-how come together – as one can see from the amazing restoration and repair work being undertaked at Wentworth Woodhouse under a gigantic engineering marvel of an enclosed roof.


Back down to earth, in the here-and-now, work on site went smoothly, although a couple of dark clouds had gathered. As the rubble fill was levelled out behind the new courses of stone facing, the Friends and regular volunteers surveyed their work, and covered the masonry to allow the lime mortar to cure but also stave off the worst of any imminent downpours.  It had been a busy day’s work, and the weather was humid and hot, so a well-earned early close after an early start meant that the workers escaped without getting wet as the afternoon showers emerged, albeit only briefly, thankfully.

Retaining wall repairs safely covered to protect from showers.

Pits, pits everywhere, and not a shaft in sight

Traces of mining in the landscape can be subtle and stark. For coal mining, the active signals of workings have all but disappeared as have the workers. The legacy of those workings can still be seen in pumping and water treatment stations monitored and maintained by the Coal Authority.

In and around Elsecar the clearest symbols are the remaining headgears, pit top buildings, and the unmistakeable ‘hills’ from landscaped spoil heaps. Now wooded, the once-dark hills are now green, and they tend to hide the buildings, rendering the scene rather more pastoral than ever it was in the past.

The other reminders of colliery sites are the shaft markers – often seen as concrete pillars – sometimes with a plaque (occasionally still in situ AND legible) explaining which pit and what shaft the marker sits atop. The pit shafts themselves are often capped (although Elsecar and Hemingfield are lucky to count as ‘open’ shafts in this respect).

Nearby very little remains of the nearest colliery sites – the railways that served them may be walking trails or cycle paths; the canals that shipped their coal inland or out to seaports are now disused, or even infilled. Thirty years of reclamation and development means that mineral extraction may have given way to cash extraction, for retail, but such is life; the scale of the past human effort and signs of working connection are now somewhat hidden: How many pits were there, Where were they, where ARE they?

1900, on the dot

As a casual check, from a few miles around Hemingfield, taking the turn of the Twentieth Century as a snapshot, the following map, reproduced from Professor F.W. Hardwick’s 1900 work Colliery Handbook for the Counties of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, published by Pawson & Brailsford, Sheffield, is a useful reminder:

Detail from Map D (South Yorkshire area) from F.W. Hardwick’s Colliery Handbook for the Counties of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, Sheffield: Pawson & Brailsford, 1900

66 – Woolley Colliery (Fountain & Burnley Ltd)
67 – North Gawber Colliery
68 – East Gawber Colliery
69 – Wharncliffe Carlton Colliery
70 – Stanhope Silkstone Colliery
71 – Higham Colliery (Silkstone & Dodworth Coal & Iron Company)
72 – Old Silkstone Colliery (Executors of R.C. Clarke)
73 – Strafford Collieries Co. Ltd
74 – Stocksbridge, Samuel Fox & Co Ld
75 – Oughtibridge, Grayson, Lowood & Co.
76 – Deepcar, John Armitage & Sons
77 – (see 75)
78 – Deepcar, Gregory, Reddish & Co (Clough pit)
79 – Barrow Collieries, Barrow Haematite Steel Co. Ltd
80 – Rockingham Colliery (Newton Chambers & Co Ltd)
81 – Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Company (Silkstone, Parkgate, Thorncliffe thin and Whinmoor seams)
82 – Tankersley Colliery (Newton Chambers & Co Ltd)
83 – Thorncliffe Colliery (Newton Chambers & Co Ltd)
84 – Smithy Wood Colliery (Newton Chambers & Co Ltd)
85 – Grange Colliery (Newton Chambers & Co Ltd)
86 – Greasbrough Colliery
87 – Scholes Colliery
88 – Lidgett Colliery Co. Ltd
89 – Earl Fitzwilliam, Elsecar
90 – Hoyland Silkstone Coal and Coke Co Ltd (Silkstone, Thorncliffe, Parkgate and Flockton seams)
91 – Hemingfield Colliery, Earl Fitzwilliam
92 – Cortonwood Collieries Co. Ltd
93 – Lundhill Colliery
94 – Wombwell Main
95 – Swaithe Main
96 – New Oaks Colliery, C. Cammell & Co Ltd
97 – Oak Oaks Colliery
98 – Rylands Main
99 – Monk Bretton Colliery
100 – Wharncliffe Woodmoor
101 – Carlton Main
102 – Monckton Main
103 – South Kirkby Colliery
104 – Grimethorpe Colliery
105 – Houghton Main Colliery
106 – Darfield Main Colliery
107 – Mitchell Main Colliery
108 – Hickleton Main Colliery
109 – Wath Main Colliery
110 – Manvers Main Collieries Ltd, Manvers Main 1
111 – Manvers Main 2
112 – Denaby Main Colliery – Denaby and Cadeby Main Collieries Ltd
113 – Cadeby Colliery – Denaby and Cadeby Main Collieries Ltd
114 – Low Stubbin Colliery, Earl Fitzwilliam
115 – Warren Vale Colliery (J. & J. Charlesworth Ltd)
116 – Thrybergh Colliery
117 – Roundwood Colliery
118 – Aldwarke Main, John Brown & Co Ltd
119 – Car House, John Brown & Co Ltd
120 – Henholmes

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