Pathways to the past, Saturday 26th June 2021

Framed by trees, the pit appears from Wath Road in Elsecar

After a short hiatus, the Friends and volunteers gathered for another socially-distanced outdoor working session on site.

Opening up. Not quite ready for open days more generally, but hopefully not too far away now!

Although decisions around lifting national lockdown restrictions in England were held back for four weeks until 19th July 2021, and there were worrying signs of Covid-19 infections rising with the new ‘Delta variant’, still the protection of an effective vaccination programme and gave the crew confidence in working outdoors, in a small group, albeit behind closed gates for a further push on restoration activities.

Regular order

Green views, nature flourishes unperturbed amongst the industrial heritage

Site Manager Glen was joined by regular volunteers John, Paul, Mitch and Chris to pick up where the last session left off: another busy day of retaining wall repair; whacking back the last lime mortar work, removing roots and repointing the damaged bonding.


First things first though – to the scaffold! Whether it is the eternal Lego or Meccano fan within, or simply an urge to build, the construction of the scaffold platform to safely carry out repairs is a surprisingly enjoyable task as well as being a good example of chain handling and teamwork. And Chuckle Brothers style handling and rearrangement.

Setting up the scaffold tower at the base of the rear retaining wall

In-depth analysis of the type of brick bonding used on the wall (English bond?) Will have to wait a future post, but suffice to say that the organic lines of the brick have been affevted over the years by the intrusion of roots and settling of the wall, making the repair a little tricky when it comes to removing the former without causing any more of the latter.

Neater. A clean elevation of the repointed lime mortar brickwork

Where the rise of the retaining wall meets the level of the lower terrace floor there is a transition to a ‘balcony’ wall built atop a proud row of header bricks. This has been the springing point for many roots, and indeed the same level further along the back wall saw a number of large trees lift, warp and undermine other sections of the balcony wall above the retaining stonework.

A header for heights. Looking down from the top at the restored header bricks, re-set after tree root removal. The lower terrace ‘balcony’ wall springs from the protruding row of header bricks.

Carefully removing the bricks around invasive roots then extirpating them and replacing the bricks is a tricky job, but the re-setting of the headers neatly in a line is rewarding to see, helping to stabilise and consolidate the wall for the future.

Fettling footpaths

Meanwhile, sprucing up the wider site inside and out continued apace. Front of house the pavement collects more weeds and leaves, ripe for removal. Do stop for a chat if you see any of us at work!

Ready for a clean-up
After a spell of fettling

Over at the pumping engine house a significant backlog of weeding had arisen and was now taken in hand. Surgical strimming will follow, keeping the grassed areas short and even, but the really awkward stuff poking up through uneven stone paving blocks and broken concrete surfaces is still best tackled by hand.

Weed waggon. Easy steps to camouflage a wheelbarrow

Despite the grey cloud-cover, Saturday’s sun packed quite a punch when it managed to burst through, casting its sweltering rays on the workers on site. Water, sun lotion, and wide-brimmed hats were much in evidence, but after a long day’s work, and packing the kit away everyone was ready for a rest and a wash!

Heading out – Hemingfield Pit on Tour

In a sign of the improving times tackling the pandemic, the Friends took advantage of some good weather on Tuesday 22nd June 2021 to get out and about for a delightful local excursion, with a mining history focus.

No international travel traffic-light checking was required in this case as the sunny sojourn was more of a stroll, our destination: Dodworth.

Trans Penine Trail, section of the Dove Valley Walk, following a railway line to the past in Dodworth.

Specifically, to the Dove Valley Trail, part of the Trans Pennine Trail, following the trackbed of an old railway line, to glimpse the probable remains of some Victorian Silkstone coal seam collieries.

“There is no doubt that as a House Coal the Silkstone Top Coal stands second to none – for purity and cleanliness. The bottoms producing one of the finest gas coal in the country…”

H.B. Nash, (Colliery Manager of Clarke’s Old Silkstone pits from the 1880s), ‘The unworked coal seams of Barnsley and district’, 1892

We also used the occasion to see for ourselves up close a very modern solution to an old legacy of coal mining, one which links back to Hemingfield: handling mine water from abandoned colliery workings.

The directions for excursion took us back in time, from the most recent workings to the remains of the earliest, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s start at the very beginning and work forward in time to bring things up to date…

Clarke’s Silkstone coal pits

In April 1793 Jonas Clarke (1758-1822), a successful attorney from Barnsley, purchased the Noblethorpe estate in Silkstone, and with it access to a rich mineral field containing the Silkstone seam. He sank a number of pits on his own land and purchased or leased additional mineral rights in the Parishes of Silkstone and Dodworth, following the unworked portions of the Silkstone coal bed.

Shrewd in business, the Clarkes added to their colliery holdings over time, and invested in improvements for transporting their produce to new markets, via tramways at Silkstone (part of the Silkstone Waggonway) to the new Barnsley Canal providing a connection to the Aire and Calder Navigation and on to the Humber. They also built coking ovens, catering for the iron trade.

Detail from an amended Old Series 1 Inch Ordnance Survey map surveyed in the late 1830s, showing general area of Silkstone (with Noblethorpe estate beneath), and areas around Dodworth and Stainborough

The coal business passed to Jonas’s second son Robert Couldwell Clarke (1797-1843) who continued to develop the canal coal trade, extending the Silkstone waggonway from Silkstone Cross pit out to the House Carr (Husker or Huskar) pit at Dodworth Moor End. The Husker Pit disaster of 1838 left a deep and tragic scar on the local community, and reminded everyone of the dangers of mining and scourge of allowing children to work underground, something which was significantly restricted by legislation after 1842.

Robert’s early death in 1843 led to his wife Sarah Ann Clarke (née Farrar, 1803-1861) taking on the direction of the enterprises with Robert’s Executors, while their young son came of age.

Mrs Clarke became a prominent figure in the Silkstone coal trade. Under her direction the collieries expanded, assisted by mine managers Benjamin Mellor and John Lawton. This period also saw the opening of the Worsbrough branch of the South Yorkshire Railway in April 1852.

“The Worsbro’ branch to Silkstone was sufficiently completed in April last to allow the commencement of traffic direct from the old Silkstone Pits, and during the last half-year considerable progress has neen made in the extension of collieries and colliery works communicating with this and other parts of the lines opened.”

South Yorkshire Railway Engineer’s Report, 28th August 1852, reported in the Morning Post, 3rd Sept 1852, p.2

The Clarke’s ‘new winnings’ included the Sovereign Colliery.

Old Sovereign

Possible remains of the Old Sovereign Colliery

Old Sovereign Colliery at Dodworth was developed from around 1852. George Henry Teasdale, son of Edwin Teasdale, long-serving agent and cashier to Messrs Clarkes described it as being 106 yards deep to the Silkstone seam. Today only a few building remains suggest where it was once at work.

Possible engine bed remains at Old Sovereign Colliery site

New Sovereign

New Sovereign Colliery was a deeper working than Old Sovereign, being 152 yards deep. The first sod of the shaft was lifted in November 1861, and the sinking and setting out of the workings was pursued over several years under the direction of consulting engineer William Aubone Potter. The underground manager for many years was Edward Lawton.

Details of the section of minerals in the sinking of the New Sovereign Colliery, from See Sections of strata of the coal measures of Yorkshire, Midland Institute of Mining, Civil and Mechanical Engineers, 1914

“Two seams were worked at the Old Sovereign after the Silkstone pit was finished, viz., The Parkgate and Swilley beds. It was a dayhole pit; both beds were brought out of the same incline. At one time one could walk into the Parkgate, forward to the Swilley, and on to the New Sovereign shaft, descend to the Silkstone seam, walk a mile or two underground to the Cross Pit, then ascend to the Fourfoot seam, and walk out to the surface.”

George Henry Teasdale, ‘The Ancient Parish of Silkstone, No.9’, Barnsley Chronicle, 8 June 1901, p.2


Robert and Sarah’s son, another Robert Couldwell Clarke (1838-1874), continued the business, but also died at a relatively young age, leaving his wife Emily Jane Clarke (née Reynard 1843-1922) to steer business affairs in the name of her husband’s executors.

In 1877 the track to New Sovereign Colliery was doubled by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company and by Monday 2nd August 1880 an important extension was opened connecting the Silkstone Moor End branch line with the Penistone line of the MSLR, and so opening a more direct coal traffic route to Lancashire and the West of England.

Outline map of colliery railway connections c.1895 showing both pits with dedicated branches

Emily was no slouch, facing challenges head on, and with her Managers Edward Lawton (d.1877), Urich Mason (d.1894) and Herbert Broughton Nash steering Clarke’s Old Silkstone collieries through a period of adaptation and gradual decline in the 1880s, as the Silkstone seam was largely exhausted, and the old workings closed, leaving only thinner and less profitable seams like the Flockton to be taken up or the interest sold to other enterprises.


During the last twelve months I have been the recipient of several letters from an anonymous correspondent, finding serious fault with the management of my collieries and the Noblethorpe estate at Silkstone…

I wish to take the opportunity […] of thanking him for such well-meant, though misplaced kindness and thoughtfulness on my behalf and at the same time of informing him that the letters in question have been relegated as received to what I consider the proper place for such communications, viz., the waste paper basket.


Emily Jane Clarke,

Noblethorpe, Silkstone,

April 21st 1891

Letters to the Editor, Barnsley Chronicle, 25th April 1891, p.3

Emily remained at Noblethorpe until 1897, her only child Mary Grace Clarke (1871-1956) married John S.H. Fullerton of Thrybergh Hall, himself a significant mineral owner. By 1900 most of the Clarke pits had closed, or the works passed into other hands.


Making sense of the surviving surface features is no easy task, but certainly a lot of fun with old Ordnance Survey maps to hand for reference, respecting the countryside and local private landowners.

Pump up the volume (of water)

After passing the sites of Clarke’s old silkstone collieries at Dodworth, the group stopped off the trail to view the operation of the Strafford Mine Water Treatment works.

Pumping mine water, installation on the old Strafford Colliery site

Built around the site of the former Strafford Main Colliery which had been sunk around 1857, the site was taken on by the South Yorkshire Mines Drainage Committee in 1938 as a pumping station, using the two Silkstone seam shafts each 237 yards deep.

By way of historical connections, we know that in 1939 one of the electric pumps from Hemingfield Colliery was moved to Strafford and placed in the Parkgate pump house there, some 134 yards down.

The site remained as a pumping station under Nationalisation and Privatisation and right through to the present day when it is operated by the Coal Authority to address the treatment of mine water before releasing it back into local surface watercourses.

Further along the TPT the Strafford mine water treatment site

A relatively new installation, the Strafford Mine Water Treatment facility (Phase 1) was commissioned in 2008 consisting of an aeration cascade, a settlement lagoon and wetland reed filtration beds.

The iron-laden mine water pumped from Strafford shaft enters the treatment works, being aerated over the first cascade into the treatment process.

Phase 2 was commissioned in 2016, increasing the capacity of the works to handle an increased volume of flow (up to 60 litres per second) through two additional reed beds of 2200m² each, and an extension of the cascade structure and pipes.

Not a chocolate river, but iron-settlement lagoons.

From the lagoons iron settles and is passed to reed beds where the solid material of the iron can be filtered through reeds, reducing potentially harmful water from damaging the ecology of local streams.

Filtration in reed wetland beds
Filtered water, minus the separated iron solids, leaves the wetland reeds
Finally the filtered water flows back into the local watercourse.

Art in the air

Last but not least, in a packed few days, the Friends ventured to Elsecar Heritage Centre to see some new artwork inspired by Elsecar’s mining heritage, specifically the innovative ventilation work of Earl Fitzwilliam’s colliery superintendent and engineer Benjamin Biram.

Biram’s large anemometer developed in the 1840s to measure rate of ventilating currents in mines to allow underground managers to assess safety from build up of gases

Biram experimented with improving the safety and accuracy of ventilation work in coal mines. His creation of an anemometer which could measure the airflow underground was a great success as well as encouraging responsible mine owners to invest in equipment for better management of collieries. Biram also experimented with mechanical ventilation right up until his death in 1857.

Inspired by this innovative spirit, Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar worked with Beam to commission artist and composer Ed Carter to create a new installation connected to the improvements in mining ventilation and the safety of workers underground.

The Mute Still Air by Ed Carter

Ed produced a large frame of tubular bells in the centre of which spotlights and fans are set to run and sound the bells at irregular intervals. Large shadows of the blades are cast upon the walls of the space, a powerful moving pattern of rotating blades. This light and sound piece was experienced in the darkness of the end store room of the ironworks (Building 21) and accompanied by newly composed poetry. The installation closed on Sunday 28th June, but footage of the installation and further information can be found on the artist’s website.

Poetry to accompany the installation.

Learn more about the work and impact of Ben Biram and his ‘whirlygigs’ here in a blog post from Barnsley Museum’s excellent overview of his contributions, written by the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone project team. The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery have also been researching the life and inventive career of Benjamin Biram, as part of the historical research and archival delving to support the aims of the Hemingfield’s Hidden History project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and look forward to sharing our discoveries in the near future.

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