Autumn falls; rising hope

view of a flowering yellow weed growing out of a sandstone wall with an engine house building above it. Hope in dark times.
View of the winding engine house from the the pumping shaft level

On Saturday 17th October 2020, The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery squeezed another socially-distanced and Covid-safe session for a small number of volunteers. Working outdoors in the fresh air it was a busy day, even if it might have been the last in 2020.

Changing colours

View of Wath Road, approaching the pit from Elsecar

Autumn usually seems like a long time coming; not so in 2020. The scatter of leaves on the ground is still thin, the canopies above still quite green and heavy, but the colours have started to change, to turn to yellows, oranges and browns. Still, the odd flower can be seen, weed or not, sprouting out of the wall. Hopeful signs of life yet.

Damp day, but cool and apt for work: view across the upper level

Working it out

The day was cool and a little cloudy, but not wet enough to deter or defy volunteers. Behind closed gates, the Friends Chair, Site Manager and a smattering of regular volunteers arrived and divvied up the activities into well-spaced groups: firstly, ‘up top’, levelling-off the spoil heap by the ramp to the pumping shaft.

The bank by the ramp – full of bricks from the demolition of the old external boundary wall in the 1990s.
Reclaiming materials from the bank, wheelie good fun; not a yod more to say

And separately, a crew digging and clearing muck and debris away from the base of the retaining wall below the colliery site (and collecting fallen materials). Years of dumping and earth movement at the base of the retaining wall, as well as wall collapse and damage from the 1980s onwards, need clearing away to enable repairs to progress and also restore the ground clearance at the base of the wall, for the proper drainage and security of the site.

Clearing spoil and rubble away from the bottom of the retaining wall
View down on the clearance at the base of the retaining wall. This represents a lot of hard work!

Wall repairs: ups and downs

Beyond the site itself, the world does keep on changing. In October, the professionals wrought their magic, and we saw the repair of the supporting wall on the other side of Wath Road. The wall had been heavily damaged at this point – just before Pit Row, caused by the collision of a car being driven carelessly at excessive speed, out of control (there may be more news on that in future). Thankfully no lives were lost, and the repair has made a clean job of it.

Repaired wall on opposite site of Wath Road by Pit Row – after car collision caused partial collapse.

Following the story (or saga) of our own Wath Road boundary wall, we still see further criminal damage ongoing here which is rather sad and somewhat pathetic. Comparing November 2017 with 2020, the speed and let’s say ‘focus’ on this is somewhat apparent.

View of external wall, 25th November 2017
22nd November 2020

However, plans are a-foot to address this.

Reasons to be cheerful…

October 2020 did bring some slightly unexpected good news to Elsecar and Hemingfield. On 20th October 2020, Historic England announced the amazing news that 16 historic sites around Elsecar were given new listing protections or had their existing listing upgraded.

This great news included Hemingfield Colliery itself – the wider pit site has been granted the highest Scheduled Monument protection, and Pump House Cottage (the former pumping engine house) received a Grade II* listing. This achievement followed the impressive work of specialists from Historic England, supported by Barnsley Museums staff, on the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) project. This is a major achievement and something which was almost unimaginable back in 2014, when the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery first took on the abandoned, vandalised and forgotten site.

The Friends were pleased to host visits from the HAZ project team and Historic England listing officers, and participated in many of the HAZ activities, including sharing our own volunteer research, undertaken as part of our own ongoing project – Hemingfield’s Hidden History, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which has secured the future of Pump House Cottage, reunited two halves of the colliery site, and is providing resources to research the history of the site and engage the wider community. When we are able, this should allow us to arrange activities that will share the stories of the colliery, its working life and connections to the local community, as well as look at the natural environment, and find creative ways of celebrating our shared heritage.

The listing visits and discussions have definitely also enhanced our understanding of the significance of the site, as well as helping us to address the impact these important building protections will have for the future conservation and sustainable uses of the site. A cause for celebration in quite dark times!

Lockdown 2

October gave way to November; world events continued to be overshadowed by Covid-19. The week after the October volunteer activity at Hemingfield, it was announced that South Yorkshire would be moved into what was called Tier 3 (‘Very High’) restrictions from Saturday 24th October.

Shortly thereafter, as the rate of Coronavirus spread continued to increase across the UK, the Government in Westminster, working with local authorities and their Public Health teams, took further steps to implement additional national restrictions (Lockdown 2!) from 5th November 2020 lasting until 2nd December 2020.

From a distance, we could only stand back and admire the site, and particularly Pump House Cottage, where so much of our next efforts will be focused as part of the Hemingfield’s Hidden History, National Lottery Heritage Fund project:

View of Hemingfield Colliery from Pit Row, Hemingfield, 22 November 2020

After the 2nd Dec 2020, South Yorkshire reverts to ‘Very High’ Tier 3 once more, with some Christmas easements.

Different again: living with lockdown

From American presidential elections, to a reduced remembrance day, the world has been changed and lives and livelihoods restricted. By taking action now, the rate of spread can level off and begin to reduce; the strain on the NHS can be reduced, and with it, ‘normal’ care, with a slender chance of some form of slightly-more-hopeful Christmas. The on site work of the Friends was at an end for Winter, but planning and research continue, and we hope everyone stays safe and well.

Addressing Dis-ease

They say know your enemy:

COVID-19 (2019-nCoV: coronavirus disease) is the global pandemic disease caused by the real villain – the nasty new virus:

SARS-CoV-2 – (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) the virus itself – the thing to avoid; mask, clean and distance away from.

November 2020 brought new hope in the release of data on the efficacy of several vaccines which are being trialled. The promise of a vaccine, or vaccines plural (more than 200 are in development) is fantastic news, and a great scientific and human effort worldwide.

Thanks must go to trial volunteers, including those who came forward im the UK through the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine research registry, and received the vaccines, or the blind placebos fir vaccine trials and studies. The NHS works with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in England and equivalent NHS research partners in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

But research and trials are is not the end of the problem; only the start of the ultimate delivery process – one where a vaccine or vaccines will need approval (in the UK) from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The vaccines vary, their names reflect the global pharmaceutical brand names and academic institutions racing to produce treatments, prophylactics and or cures. Some of the most prominent names in November 2020 included Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford. The vaccines use several different mechanisms:

  • Adenoviral vectors – specially-tailored viruses that carry a gene from the SARS-CoV-2 virus for cells to make coronavirus ‘spike proteins’ to recognise and defeat the real thing.
  • mRNA – Messenger RNA give instructions to cells to make a harmless piece of the ‘spike protein’
  • Adjuvanted proteins – ‘assistance’ proteins in vaccines to encourage an immune response, increasing response and reducing need for additional doses
  • Whole inactivated viral vaccines – the traditional ‘weakened’ virus

The latter two approaches are perhaps more ‘traditional’ ones, but also take longer to come onstream; vaccines using those methods are likely to be available only by late 2021. The first two methods are newer, and bring with them potentially more complexity: vaccines may require different cold or extreme cold storage and transport arrangements, as well as having significantly production costs and commercial prices. AstraZeneca, GSK and Sanofi and Janssen for example were reported as developing on a not-for-profit basis; others are not, or cannot.

Science meets industry and government in the delivery stakes, when it comes to scaling up trials and production. The vaccine candidates have different challenges being able to move into mass production. Any single vaccine would struggle to scale to provide the global doses required, although China and Russia are going their own ways. As Kate Bingham, Chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce (VTF) observed in October:

“the global manufacturing capacity for vaccines is vastly inadequate for the billions of doses that are needed, and the UK manufacturing capability to date has been equally scarce.”

Kate Bingham, Lancet, 25 October 2020 (op.cit)

By late November 2020 the UK Government confirmed it had secured procurement agreements for up to 357 million vaccine doses, through agreements with 7 different providers; many of them still in the process of developing, trialling or producing vaccine candidates. This number included:

  • 100 million dosesUniversity of Oxford/AstraZeneca (Adenoviral vector method) – Phase 3 clinical trials; MHRA assessing
    • Expected to have up to 4 million doses for UK by the end of 2020 and 40 million by end of March 2021.
  • 40 million dosesBioNTech/Pfizer vaccine (mRNA method) – Phase 3 clinical trials; MHRA assessing.
    • Expected 40 million doses delivered to UK by the end of 2021. Manufactured at BioNTech’s sites in Germany and Pfizer’s site in Belgium.
  • 7 million dosesModerna (mRNA method) – Phase 3 clinical trials
    • 7 million doses could start delivery in the UK by Spring 2021.
  • 60 million dosesNovavax (adjuvanted protein method) – Phase 3 clinical trials
  • 60 million dosesValneva (inactivated whole virus method) – pre-clinical trials
  • 60 million dosesGlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur (adjuvanted protein method) – Phase 1 clinical trials
  • 30 million dosesJanssen (Johnson & Johnson) (Adenoviral vector method) – Phase 2 clinical trials

On 28th November the UK Government appointed Nadhim Zahawi as a ‘minster for vaccine roll-out’, a.k.a the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment) in the Department of Health and Social Care (previously he was Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Quite a task, but very hopeful signs after such national and global tragedies.

The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are independent experts who advise government on which vaccines the UK should use, and how to use them in priority order to best effect. As of the end of November 2020, interim advice is that a COVID-19 disease vaccine should go as follows (subject to specific limitations of specific vaccines):

  • Older adults resident in a care home and care home workers
  • All those 80 years old and over AND health and social care workers
  • All those 75 years old and over
  • All those 70 years old and over
  • All those 65 years old and over
  • High-risk adults under 65
  • Moderate-risk adults under 65
  • All those 60 years old and over
  • All those 55 years old and over
  • All those 50 years old and over
  • Rest of the population (priority to be determined)

In the UK the NHS is working with the governments and devolved administrations to prepare a delivery programme. In England in particular, there will be three prongs to the delivery which is intended to be stood up for December:

1. NHS Trusts.
2. Large scale vaccination sites (working with local/national government PHE etc)
3. Community/primary care led vaccination

Vaccination is a giant task. A local, regional, national and global one. And not just for COVID-19: the NHS is ensuring its staff have access to the Flu vaccine in advance of the COVID-19 one.

Hearts and Minds: Public Health, then and now

A vaccine is a tool, but even when available, the tool needs to be used correctly in vaccination programmes to be effective. Preparing the country for vaccination, the effectiveness of any such vaccine, is only as complete as the totality of uptake, and so the preventative health coverage across the population. The vaccine will not be mandated, but encouraged, where proven safe for the populations concerned.

This was something well understood almost a hundred years ago in Wombwell and Hemingfield, with the local Urban District Council’s Medical Offcier, Dr J.C. Pickup raising the very same irrational fears which are likely to crop up again now, and perhaps in future:

The folly of the “antivac” even if he shouted from the house top would be but as idle wind in a country where men possessed some little knowledge or still better were trained in the scientific spirit.

Wombwell Urban District Council, Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1925, Wombwell: T.M. Thornsby & Sons, 1926, p.19

Then it was smallpox. The importance of public health was clear then, and remains clear now, in the balance of libertarian concerns versus the health of the nation:

It is a sentimental fad to talk about personal liberty where the health and lives of our neighbours are concerned…

Wombwell Urban District Council, Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1925, Wombwell: T.M. Thornsby & Sons, 1926, p.18

Reflecting then on the lessons learned, Dr Pickup’s message is eerily familiar:

Jenner in his sleep little knows of our praise or blame; he is beyond these voices. But the blight of our neglect of him and of great men like him falls not on them but on us, who lose in this apathy the glow of enthusiasm which should inspire us, their children to see the visions which they saw and to follow in their steps.

Wombwell Urban District Council, Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1925, Wombwell: T.M. Thornsby & Sons, 1926, p.19

Learn from the past, and build for the future.

Heraldic device of Wombwell UDC, taken from the Wombwell family, motto: in times of prosperity beware.

Sources of information

Bingham, Kate, ‘The UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce: strategy for protecting the UK and the world’, Lancet, Published online 25 October 2020

Chih-Cheng Lai; Tzu-Ping Shih; Wen-Chien Ko; Hung-Jen Tang; and Po-Ren Hsuehe, ‘Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19): The epidemic and the challenges’, International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, Vol.55(3), March 2020: 105924. Published online 17 February 2020

Pardi, Norbert; Hogan, Michael J.; Porter, Frederick W. and Weissman, ‘mRNA vaccines – a new era in vaccinology’, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Vol.17, April 2018 pp.261-279

UK HM Government Coronavirus webpages

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