October escapades

Leaf litter and light. Hemingfield pit in October 2021

October continues to suprise with its variously variable and only vaguely varied weather. Forecasters beware: the elements may pay no heed to your hallowed prognostications. After dodging the drops of wet days and dank nights, and rushing to the thermostat to restore bloodflow, it’s clear that things are on the turn.

View across the rear of the site, over to Hemingfield village.

Autumn may be witholding its starkest colours, but it continues to surprise with cold snaps, sunshine traps, and winds to chase the brave indoors. Unmoved, the Friends and hardy volunteers have continued to gather over the past few weeks, seeing out September and seeing in October’s chequered climes.

As we head deeper into the darker days ahead other activities may come to the fore, and as always dear readers, we will keep you updated. The following is but a short recap of a range of activities on and off site from 25th September through to 16th October 2021. And it has been a very busy month or so, so let’s get started!

By your leave(s)

The task ahead (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

After some wet and windy days, and some unattractive criminal damage to the external wall, by Saturday 16th it was high time to sweep up the pavement and tidy away all the mulch and debris.

A free contribution to our can recycling amongst the piles of leaves (Photo Credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Brush and barrow, barrow and brush, and a little elbow grease worked a treat and it looks much better once again.

Tidy work, Friends and Volunteers in action.

Wild lives

Whenever noticed, we always try to stop and admire the wild life around us at Hemingfield. September into October is a time of change, of transformation, and visitors old and new appear around the site. Most striking, and unmistakeable are the clusters of ladybirds, or rather the Asian ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis).

A selection of ladybirds hidden in plain sight at Hemingfield 10th October 2021 (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

In the USA it is also known, comfortingly, as the ‘Halloween beetle’ as it invades sun-heated surfaces, hiding in dry nooks and crannies. Often found in uPVC door and window frames, or behind letterbox flaps, these colourful coccinellids proliferate in strangely attractive groups

Walking on the wild side, 10th Oct 2021 (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Less creepily, and rather more skittishly, we also stop to admire the scampering beauty of common lizards on site. Although compact, the colliery site includes walls, woodland, water, rocks and weeds, providing ample habitat for these captivating creatures.

Garden parties

A rake’s tale, to be sure. Plenty of work to do to tidy up the garden of Pump House Cottage.

Some may argue this is not the time. The days are curtailed, the nights are drawing in. Barbecues and outdoor paddling pools are no more.

Hands on volunteers. Putting a little love and life back into the old garden.

And yet, thanks to the kindness and enthusiasm of local people, Hemingfield Colliery is enjoying its very own garden party. A serious working one, to be sure. Bit by bit, this attention is helping to reclaim the weedy, unloved garden of Pump House Cottage. It’s a delight to see, bringing renewed energy to our ambitious Hemingfield’s Hidden History project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Thanks to National Lottery Players

It aims to secure, save and reinvigorate Pump House Cottage and its grounds, reunifying the two halves of the former Hemingfield Colliery site, improving access and opening up the site to new audiences and creating a community resource for a range of history, creative and ecological activities.

How does our garden grow? Much better with many hands at work, unimpeded by a pandemic!

New volunteers bring new ideas and new energy, as well as increasing the number of areas of the site which can receive attention at the same time. Removing bricks and stones from the old garden beds, and working the soil, levelling it and adding seeds to provide some new growth and colour really make it a pleasure and a surprise to walk around the site on volunteer days as progress is made.

Tidied beds and improved soil, cleared garden path and a barrowful of clippings

In and out

At the same time as care and attention is going in to the garden and new growth, the old stumps are also receiving a bit of a check up. With the passage of time since first being cut, the largest stumps have begun to decay. Fungi and rot soften the stumps and make them a little more susceptible to the possibility of removal, with a touch of persuasion from eager volunteers.

Hefty chunks of rotten stump removed from the edge of the switchgear building.

Revealing the grassy knoll

Moving a mountain (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

At the other side of the pit, near the entrance, recent efforts have gone into tidying the spoil heap the group piled up when first clearing the site in 2014-15, and conducting some early excavation works. Some restorative landscaping to improve the access and visual appearance of this area will really help visits, as well as simplifying future maintenance.

Tidying the spoil heap for better alignment to the gates and concrete pad.

With an eye to easier vehicle maneuvering, this pile is being tidied up and the excess used to even the uneven rubble by the concrete hardstanding.

Bit of a kerb. Evening up the level will help vehicles on site (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

This will ensure more space for and better movement and parking for visitors and volunteers over time.

Widening and evening up the lip to the concrete pad for easier access.

Nearby, after strimming back a small patch of grassy mulch, it was clear that there remains an exposed rough brick-lined surface, a floor to a now-demolished surface building, near the concrete pad and up to the front wall. Careful weeding reveals a little more of the bricks.

Grass carpeting, brick underlay

Cottage industry

Mid-October sunshine encouraged the Friends to press on with minor cosmetic work on Pump House Cottage. With substantial flat roof repair works mostly completed, the mess of damaged pipework and the disused and unsightly satellite dish were next on the list, and then some basic maintenance work on the fall pipes and lintels, to prevent deterioration. Having more volunteers safely available on site is really allowing the group to make progress on this.

Painting flaking concrete lintels

Wire brush, sandpaper and more elbow grease were at hand to remove flaking paint and smooth down the concrete lintels and cast iron fall pipes and water goods.

Painting in progress. An intriguingly unconnected cast iron fall pipe

After what appears to be well over a decade of low or no maintenance, adding an undercoat to the cleaned surfaces really made an immediate difference to the appearance of the former Cornish Pumping Engine House. Further repairs may be needed on the more decayed lintels, but a very good start indeed has been made.

Detail of the sanded, undercoat-painted fallpipes and lintels

Testing times

And now for a little more of Hemingfield’s Hidden History

More than 170 years ago, in October 1850, Elsecar coal, mined at Hemingfield Colliery, was being put to the test. Over three days, from 22nd -24th October, it was burned, under controlled conditions, in a special boiler 4 feet diameter by 12 feet long, by research assistant John Arthur Phillips (1822-1887).

College for Civil Engineers, Putney by the Thames, from Illustrated London News, Vol.III, No.67, 12 August 1843, p.100

The setting for the experiments was a purpose-built boiler house, located in the grounds of Putney House, by the river Thames in London, home to the College for Civil Engineers and of General, Practical and Scientific Education. Established in 1840, under several noble patrons, it was intended to serve an affluent student body of trained engineers ready for the varied technical challenges of the Victorian age.

Its Principal, the Reverend Benjamin Morgan Cowie, a mathematician, stated its purpose as being to:

…urge the student, by industrious application, to master both the practice AND the principle, both the experimental facts AND the theoretical truths, and thus we endeavour to remedy that wherein we conceive that Engineering education has been hitherto defective.

Rev B. M. Cowie, An Address to the Council of Administration of the College for Civil Engineers, and of General Practical and Scientific Education, Putney, Surrey; at the Annual Meeting of the College, July 12, 1847, p.10

Although dissolved shortly afterwards, the college counted many notable engineers amongst its alumni, including a young man from South Yorkshire, Parkin Jeffcock, whose death in a second explosion at the Oaks Colliery in 1866 would cast a long shadow over the perils of ventilation and highlight the heroism of mines rescue work.

Fueling the fleet

The four boxes of Hemingfield coal sent to London by Earl Fitzwilliam’s Agent Benjamin Biram, were dispatched to be tested for its suitability for use on Admiralty steamships. This served an important strategic need for the Royal Navy, with Great Britain as a maritime power, and potentially provided an extended market for South Yorkshire steam coals.

Sir Henry Thomas De La Beche (1796-1855), portrait from Geikie, Archibald, Memoir of Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay,
Macmillan and Company, 1895, facing p.28

The Admiralty coal investigations had been proceeding since 1847, under the joint direction of Sir Henry de la Beche, Director of the Museum of Practical Geology, and Dr Lyon Playfair, who worked at the Museum of Practical Geology as well as being Lecturer in Chemistry at the college in Putney.

Dr Lyon Playfair (1819-1898), photographic portrait from Dublin University Magazine, Vol.89,no.531, March 1877

Passing muster

Under Playfair, Trenham Thomas Philipps (1830-1867) worked as an assistant analysing the chemical composition of the coal to provide a full series of test data which was delivered by De La Beche and Playfair to the Admiralty and to Parliament as the Third Report on the Coals Suited to the Steam Navy, 1851. The comparative tests aimed to find the best coals in the country, region-by-region, for Admiralty use, in accordance with the following criteria:-

1. The fuel should burn so that steam may be raised in a short period, if this be desired; in other words, it should be able to produce a quick action.

2. It should possess high evaporative power, that is, be capable of converting much water into steam, with a small consumption of coal.

3. It should not be bituminous, lest so much smoke be generated as to betray the position of ships of war when it is desirable that this should be concealed.

4. It should possess considerable cohesion of its particles, so that it may not be broken into too small fragments by the constant attrition which it may experience in the vessel.

5. It should combine a considerable density with such mechanical structure that it may easily be stowed away in small space; a condition which, in coals of equal evaporative value, often involves a difference of more than 20 per cent.

6. It should be free from any considerable quantity of sulphur, and should not progressively decay, both of which circumstances render it liable to spontaneous combustion.

De la Beche, H.T. & Playfair, L., Museum of Practical Geology, First Report on the coals suited to the Steam Navy, 1848, p.17

Coals to London

The coal from Hemingfield had come from the Barnsley seam, found 154 yards (462 feet, or over 140 metres) underground. The tests, which consumed some 1,352 lbs (613 kg) of coal, showed results which compared favourably with Newcastle steam coals; raising steam rapidly, although producing ash which could clog the fire grate if not watched and removed.

Late example of a coal horse cart in London (here serving Newton Chambers coals)

The publication of the report assisted in furthering the good name of the coal in national markets just at the time that the South Yorkshire Railway Company linked Elsecar to the Great Northern Railway Company’s lines into London, and, via the Regent’s Canal, across the metropolis to the dockyards of London. Domestic hearths were served by coal merchants delivering coals door to door with horse carts. Hemingfield Colliery was now connected via rail to a national and even international supply network for steam coal.

Detail from a South Yorkshire Railway stations list, mentioning Hemingfield as Earl Fitzwilliam’s Low Col[liery] from Distances Between the Stations and Junctions of the Railways on which the Clearing System is in Operation, McCorquodale & Company, 1862

King’s Cross

The Great Northern Railway Company’s lines had opened up the inland market for coal from Yorkshire, challenging the old coastal collier shipping trade from Newcastle. Although the present day King’s Cross Station would not be completed and open for passengers until 14th October 1852, a temporary station was active from August 1850, and handled much passenger traffic for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Of course freight provision was up and running rather sooner, with extensive coal drops at the east of the GNR lands in Camden; and new depots and merchants’ offices being established from which Elsecar coal would be sold in increasing quantities for domestic, industrial and maritime purposes.

EARL FITZWILLIAM’S ELSECAR STEAM COALS are consigned for sale to the undersigned at this station, and will be found to be a most excellent coal for all manufacturing purposes. By the Report on Coals suited to the Steam Navy, their evaporative power is proved to be considerably greater than the best Hartley Coals, price 13s 6d per ton, loaded into waggons or barges, or delivered within five miles, 16s per ton. Cash to be paid on giving the order, or on delivery.
Coles Child
Coal Offices, King’s Cross Station, London, 2nd June, 1851.

Advertisement in The Economist, 14th June 1851, Vol.IX, No.407

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