Sunny dispositions

Bank Holiday weather is usually euphemistic cover for a downpour, rather than the hoped-for rays of sunshine on a public holiday, but Spring Bank Holiday 2021 was a nice surprise: a long, bright, dry and hot weekend for a change. A holiday at home. Almost. Certainly a fabulous day to be outdoors.

Sounds of Spring

It’s difficult to convey how glorious the great outdoors can feel on a summery day in Spring. The sights can sometimes be captured in the images, and certainly in the mood of the language the tone of the chat on the day, however there’s nothing quite like a soundscape – the background sounds that accompany a journey to a destination and which characterise the feeling of a place.

Emerging from the tunnel of trees on Wath Road, the colliery and Pit Row of cottages

For a brief sensation of a relaxing walk in the greenspaces around Hemingfield Colliery here’s just a few seconds of sound that surrounded a volunteer as they approached the colliery early on Saturday morning. This is a moment of calm, and a celebration of the natural environment.

The crisp sound of a roadside walk to the pit in May 2021. Birdsong and passing cars on the walk to Hemingfield
Looking back down the cool dark corridor of trees on Wath Road outside the colliery site.

Repairs by Appointment

After a brief brush up outside the gates, the Friends and volunteers on site had a special focus for this bright and sunny day: repointing the brickwork of the rear retaining wall.

View of the brickwork of the rear retaining wall. Much of the old mortar has perished and muddy moss filled some of the cracks

No small task as first the gunk and moss filling many of the eroded courses needed to be scraped out and cleaned up. So, out came the tools.

Generator, mixer and materials for repointing on the lower terrace behind the winding engine house.

After a long winter of inactivity, the generator was fired up, and with hand tools and some assistance from power, the mortar lines were ground out again to get to a clean bed for a new line of lime mortar. The original mortar appears to have been a lime and coal dust grit mix, giving a blackish tinge to the old brickwork, so as checked with our heritage advisers, a colour was added to the mix to maintain the original look of the pointing.

Good progress being made with the dark lime mortar

Meanwhile volunteer labour continued gathering the bricks which had fallen, or rather been pushed over from the retaining wall. These need further cleaning but at least they are closer to their original location and ready for reuse to restore the wall.

More reclaimed bricks, red-pressed faced bricks from Skiers Springs brickworks

The hot sun moved slowly across the site during the day, and the shade was in demand at lunchtime and in the mid-afternoon as the crew gathered their tools and packed up after a busy and productive day’s work. What a great place to be and a great start to the long bank holiday weekend.

All of which put us in mind of Bank Holidays and the history of working people and public holidays, something which is very much part of the story of the changing working lives of miners locally and nationally.

Whitsun wonders

Spring Bank Holiday really relates to the official public holiday on Monday at the end of May, as instituted under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The act repealed the Bank Holidays Act, 1871 which had first brought some certainty to public holidays for working people and earned its instigator, Maidstone MP Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) many fans – grateful for their then new ‘St Lubbock’s days’. In fact only 4 ‘bank holidays’ were legislated for initially: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and 26th December (if a week day).

Whitsuntide had long been a focus for English community celebrations, built around Whit Sunday, the Christian festival marking the Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Whit Monday following the Sunday was often the start of local feast events and other celebrations during or following ‘Whit week’. In the mid-nineteenth century the celebrations often involved parades or processions, ‘Whit Walks’ consisting of church and chapel groups passing through the local community, with bands and banners and often led by younger children who wore new clothes for the occasion.

The 1971 Act served to mark a subtle change which had been taking place in British society for many years: a fading of popular religious observance. Whit walks survived late into the 1950s, but the move to a non-religious, fixed public holiday followed a trial period between 1967 and 1971 and reflected wider societal change. Waggishly referred to as ‘Wilsontide’, the new fixed ‘Spring Bank Holiday’ measure was enacted under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Now somewhat forgotten in the popular imagination, Whitsuntide often marked a holiday period for industrial workers in mines and factories, and as such attracted equal measures of liberal approbation and conservative opprobrium as the religious and festive, gave way to more popular and secular practices.

Whitsun woes

In 1914, on 30th May, the Saturday preceding Whitsuntide when the pit would be all but closed for a couple of days, a terrible explosion occurred which resulted in the deaths of 11 people and injuries to a further 4. 

Gothard postcard recording the Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Disaster, 1914 (Private collection)

The main ventilating fan of the Whinmoor seam had wrongly been stopped for a short while which allowed the collection of flammable gases, and a spark from an uncovered motor casing of an electric coal cutter appears to have been the ignition source for a terrible explosion. It left a devastating impact on the pit community just when they were looking forward to a holiday period.

Equally, a few months later some of the pit’s employees who gave evidence at the official investigation would go on to serve and sacrifice during the Great War, never to return.

Remembering the 1914 Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Disaster.

View of grave of George Bailey, who died in the disaster in May 1914, St Peter’s Graveyard, Hoyland Nether

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