Pointing the way [out of the pandemic] Saturday 24th July 2021

Another week of non-abominable weather gave the Friends and volunteers a further chance to push on with site recording and restoration. In a week when the UK Government’s national restrictions were lifted in England, the cloud of a growing third wave of infections hung over the country. Vaccination levels were reassuring and continued to save lives, but the with Delta variant much more transmissable, and disease spreading, things remained a little hazy All change? We travelled in hope.

Well Kept

The day began with the volunteers catching up on the events of the past week. Heatwaves, rain, post-pandemic hopes, and the prospects of a pandemic Olympic games all cropped up as the crew set about the tasks for the day.

Not bad. Cumulative efforts are rewarded

Keeping things tidy up top, the front pavement was swept and trimmed, and the gate of pump house cottage weeded as we began to ponder the prospect of the possibility of a chance of a return to more normal public open days by the time of Heritage Open Days in September.

Quick brush-up and better still. Satisfying work.

Fears of monster greenery growth over the past week of tropical weather proven unfounded as  the rest of the recently-strimmed ground remained delightfully trim. A green and pleasant land indeed.

Still short. Thankfully despite tropical weather, things are still in check.

Measuring up and mixing down

As part of a slow and steady study of the heritage on site, volunteer John continued a careful programme of building recording and study of the masonry construction of the winding engine house. Interpreting the structure as it is today provides insights into the phases of building, alterations and changes in the function of the site as it switched from coal winning in 1920 to pumping water electrically through to 1989.

Complexity without and within: looking at the condition of the top side of the winding enginehouse

Meanwhile, at the rear work on repointing the stonework of the rear retaining wall continued. Moving from the narrow bonding of the brickwork to the larger gaps of the sandstone blocks made for a different physical challenge and a larger demand for lime mortar to fill in the gaps.

Ready for more lime mortar mixing for wall pointing work

Firing up the generator and spinning up the mixer, the muck, butter, gobbo, mortar, call it what you will, was soon on the go and ladders on standby to supply the steady stream of material to start the work. For some reason late July presents new beasties at the base of the wall; our trusty midge spray proved more of attraction to blackflies than expected, so much jollity ensued when trowelling and pointing was lightly interspersed with swiping and swotting. Poetry in motion? Interpretive dance? You decide.

steady repointing work on the stonework of the rear retaining wall.

Eyecatching

Although overcast, the sun was still very much there, so an excuse to go investigating inside the cool darkness of the winding enginehouse was swiftly taken up. Every time we look around inside, the familiar becomes ever more intriguing. When recording the courses of stone masonry and measuring the heights and widths, you start to question features which have previously gone almost unnoticed. It’s an addictive pursuit: measuring, recording, interpreting, exploring, and there are plenty of delights along the way.

Delighting in details. Late 1930 safety switches

Despite suffering greatly from opportunistic theft and some vandalism, especially in the 2000s, there remain many features which tell us something of the past of the site; that speak to the methods and manufactures of the day, weather of the 19th or 20th centuries.

Small electric winder for the pumping shaft

From lightswitches, to conduits, to fencing, machine covers, labels, levers, lightbulbs, there are layers to the development of work on site. New discoveries and innovations meant steam raising and large boiler plant was superseded by smaller switchgear and heavy duty electrical wiring. Steam winding was updated, modified, moved and ultimately replaced over time, and those steps can sometimes be traced through oddities in the building and remaining equipment.

Large electric winder for the main drawing shaft

Holes, arches, gaps, odd angles, new surfaces – they each point to  transformations and new phases of development at Hemingfield, and as part of a scheduled monument site, understanding anything and everything in more detail is central to the Friends’ efforts, and adds colour and texture to the stories we have to share.

Summer Coal

Fresh breezes nah will sumtimes blaw, an wave the slender rhye,

An bonny larks, wi blithesum note, will sing toward the skye;
Yit hot an sultry oft t’will be, nah mark it ivvery man;
And maidens all, like millers too, will hev ta use ther fan.

Tommy Treddlehoyle [Charles Rogers] on July, from The Bairnsla Foaks’ Annual, an Pogmoor Olmenack for 1844 bein leap year, Leeds: Alice Mann.

Collieries worked year-round. Mostly. Holidays, strikes, and play-days were a complicated and odd mixture of custom and opportunity, of workers rights and industrial strife, but also feasts and good weather.

Wagon label for gas coal from Earl Fitzwilliam’s Elsecar Collieries, 1920

Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries generally experienced little in the way of irrevocable strife, but the changing seasons did present economic challenges for master and men alike: domestic fuel demand was generally much lower in the summer than winter.

Barnsley Seam coal

The problem became somewhat acute in the case of pits working the very thick Barnsley seam in the mid-nineteenth century. The seam varied from 8-10 feet thick and was really a mixture of coal qualities, suitable for different purposes, which were separated once excavated.

Description of Barnsley seam at Lundhill Colliery. A=Day Bed, B=Low Bed, C=Clay Seam, D=Hards, E=Slottings. A+B+E are “soft” coals for household use, D is “hard” steam coal and also coking. C is coal and pyrites (From Hedley, E. ‘Lund Hill Colliery Explosion’, in Lectures delivered at the Bristol Mining School, 1857)

Manufacturing demand, the industrial steam and gas coal markets called for a steady year-round flow of the “hards”, the solid steam raising, coking fuel.

Description of the properties and applications of the Barnsley coal Seam, also known as Elsecar, Gawbthorpe, Top Hard – it included soft coals and hard coals. Soft house coals and hard for industrial uses. (From Hull as a Coal Port, 1913, p.61)

Unfortunately Summer’s sunshine heating tended to suppress the demand for “softs” sold as a house coal. The cost of working the seam relied on both products being worth the wages and no pit wanted a giant stock of unsaleable coals.

The “hards” have been generally used for steam-packets, and it has usually been the case that the market for “hards” could not be supplied in summer while the markets for “softs” could not be sold. The coal proprietors found it unprofitable to stock such large quantities of “softs” in summer for the sake of selling the “hards”—for the one could not be got without the other…”

Leeds Times, 15 August 1857, p.8

The challenge was eased by managing to get both types of coal listed on the ‘Admiralty List’, that is sanctioned for use in the heavy naval market for steamships. Credit for the achievement was given to then Coal Merchant and later famed MP Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) whose commercial endeavours whilst not always profitable, were bold in their marketing impact. Although perhaps also more than a little self-interested, as the Edinburgh Review commented on attempts of some Welsh collieries to get less-than-great qualities on the list some years later:

“- queer stories are afloat as to the sums paid for insertion on that list – as steam-vessel coal; the presumption being that all these coals were equal in value!

[…]

It is notorious that many coal owners got on to the list who never had an intention of supplying the British Navy, but wished to make the Admiralty their advertising medium by which they might foist upon foreign Governments their inferior coal.”

‘Facts and Fables at the Admiralty’, Edinburgh Review, Vol. CXXXIII, January 1871, pp.129-130

Just business.

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