Going for broke, the Friends and regular volunteers decided to try and get another weekend COVID-safe session in at Hemingfield Colliery. Hoping against hope that they would not be blown away or proceedings drowned out before further progress could be made on the rear retaining wall.
Pluck and perseverance
Happily, the intrepid crew largely succeeded in getting down to the colliery for an early start.
Unhappily, once again the volunteers found further mindless damage had been done to the external wall by the Pit Row bus stop on Wath Road. The group are taking additional security measures to protect the site, but it is sad such criminal damage continues, needlessly adding to the cost and time to repair and restore the site. Any bricklayers out there would be most welcome to get in touch to help!
Tower of strength
Despite the petty damage to the front wall, substantial progress has been made at the rear, to the huge retaining wall which overlooks the Hemingfield Canal basin and railway line.
Getting the equipment, ladders and scaffold out, the group are getting into a great routine of preparing to gather materials and select stones and old bricks to repair the collapsed stone-facing and rubble-fill. The scaffold tower needed to go higher over the last two sessions, a sure sign of progress as the wall is being built back and a significant volume of lost rubble fill has to be replaced and secured.
Peeling back the rain cover the volunteers admired progress from the last session, and cumulatively over the last year. From an almost impossible task, the group have been able to secure tools, materials and advice to apply new skills to heritage aware repairs to the wall.
The weather was weird this weekend. No other word fits. It had been incredibly windy in the week as Storm Ellen struck and yellow wind warnings were issued by the Met Office in the UK. The warnings had gone by Saturday, but noone told the weather as wind, rain, intense sunshine and bright blue skies blew by, bringing clouds of all types and light drizzle and heavy showers throughout the morning.
Sun, sand and, erm, shovels
Mixing mortar requires sand and, depending on the purpose, usually natural hydraulic lime for sandstone block work, or cement for rubble fill.
We have managed to use an entire load of sharp sand in the wall work to date, and the more you see the mix qualities and texture, the more you begin to wonder about the material itself – the grains of sand and grit. This is not beach material, but rather larger grain, crushed stone with grit, usually washed and prepared for building uses. The larger and sharp edged grains add texture and strength to the mix, unlike beach sand which is usually much finer – maybe good enough for a small castles when wet, but not for sand sculptures, for which specially-prepared building-type sand is usually brought in.
Snapping out of the sand-fixation, the crew finished off the sand, and prepped the last buckets of mortar to build up the wall to complete the next course, restoring a consistent level to the elevation for the first time in many years. Today’s efforts also tied in with the brickwork which will require repointing in time as the old mortar has largely eroded, mostly because it contained a large amount of coal dust as a grit and has not aged well compared with the older stonework.
Escaping a heavy downpour and finishing a little early, the kit was packed away, but not before a final picture of the wall was taken and the Friends and volunteers took a moment to reflect on progress. There’s still much to be done, but a very substantial improvement to the structure is evident, and with it also a further step taken in improving the security and appearance of the buildings.
The real Downton story (Or from Hemingfield to Hampshire with coal)
Stepping away from Hemingfield for a moment, a glimpse of the mansion of Highclere, Newbury, in Hampshire will forevermore be associated with Julian Fellowes’ award-winning period drama Downton Abbey, a charming television phenomenon, more recently, in 2019, a very successful film.
Downton is set, somewhat ironically for our purposes, in a fictional Yorkshire country estate in the period c.1912-1926, and follows the changing fortunes of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, the wider Crawley family, and the vicissitudes of their household and estate.
The real owners of Highclere Castle the Earls of Carnarvon, didn’t need to pretend to have northern connections: the Earl owned land in the Midlands with mineral rights that were leased to colliery companies in three areas of interest known as the Gedling and Bingham royalties in Nottinghamshire, and the Bretby royalty in Derbyshire.
During the period Downton Abbey is supposedly set, the Earl of Carnarvon’s Land Agent, James Augustine Rutherford, employed a Yorkshire firm, Charles Edward Rhodes & Sons, from Rotherham, as consulting mining engineers to assist in the development of the Carnarvon mineral estates, and also to ensure the various lessees were working energetically and effectively in order to maximise the landowner’s return.
The Bretby mineral estate had been worked for many years, being worked by the Earls of Carnarvon themselves after the Bretby property came into the estate by marriage. They ran Bretby between 1890-1921 when the colliery and the majority of the family’s land and farm holdings around Bretby were sold by private sales and public auctions.
In 1915, Charles Edward Rhodes reported to Rutherford on the the state of the pit management at Bretby Colliery:
Rightly or wrongly, Belfitt has got the reputation of keeping men away from the colliery, and although I have not the slightest doubt he has done his best in Lord Carnarvon’s interest in keeping down allowances, still there are two ways of going about this. When his brother was Manager he had direct charge and the same difficulty was not experienced […] Of course, we all know that the difficulties have been very great, but things have come to a pass when I do not see how we could help taking the step we have done.C.E. Rhodes letter to J.A. Rutherford, 27th May 1915 (Private Collection)
By the mid 1920s two private firms leased the mineral rights: Hall’s Collieries Ltd working the Main, Woodfield, Stockings, Eureka and Stanhope coal seams, and the old Stanton colliery was operated and taken on by J.& H. Nadin & Co. Ltd.
At the Gedling royalty in Nottinghamshire, the Digby Colliery Company Ltd worked the Barnsley seam (or Top Hard) and the High Hazels, names that would have been familiar to Yorkshire miners.
Reporting on the Earl’s interests at Gedling in March 1929, Charles Edward’s son Harry Rhodes wrote to the Earl of Carnarvon’s legal representatives after the recent death of Rutherford:
As you will be aware, during the past eighteen months this colliery has been most adversely affected by the slump in the coal trade and the reduction in output which has had in consequence to be made has resulted in more than 50 per cent of the faces working his Lordship’s coal having to be closed down, as the company have found it pays them better to work part of the pit full time rather than the whole of the pit short time.”C.E. Rhodes & Sons, Report to Messrs Frere Cholmeley & Co., 14th March 1929. (Private Collection)
As can be appreciated, owning minerals did not guarantee wealth. Geological faults, technical difficulties, labour costs and relations, local and national markets and transport, all weighed in on the rental income that landowners made from their lessees, if they did not work their minerals themselves. The coal acreage rates set in leases many years before might fail to deliver a steady income over time, and hence regular employment to local people.
Nowadays Highclere is famed for its televisual and cinematic backdrop, but a century ago the estate certainly got its hands dirty in the coal trade, just as Earl Fitzwilliam did from the palatial mansion at Wentworth Woodhouse. Unlike Highclere, Wentworth tells the tale of a real Yorkshire estate.