Smoke-free reflections

“It was a beautiful autumn morning. Such days come seldom at this season of the year in Yorkshire. When they do come one enjoys them all the more.”

Mexborough & Swinton Times, 3rd November 1906, p.11

And so it was on Saturday 13th November 2021, 115 years later; another beautiful autumn morning. The Friends and volunteers arrived early for another productive day’s activities at Hemingfield Colliery.

November gold: fallen leaves and autumn sunlight at Hemingfield Colliery

“On such a day, when the autumn tints show forth their ever-changing hues, one is glad to get away from the stifling smoke and murkiness of the manufacturing town –  away to the few spots where the seeker after the treasure of the earth has not yet set hand or foot.
But such spots are few in Yorkshire. They are becoming fewer still.”

Mexborough & Swinton Times, 3rd November 1906, p.11

How the times have changed! Now it is the mining sites which are the rarity; signs of the industry having all but disappeared from the landscape, at first glance, at least. And yet, there is still plenty of work to be done at the pit.

Swept away

First up, sweeping up nature’s litter (and with it the odd bit of human rubbish too).

The contrasts of Autumn, November 2021 (Photo Credit: Mitchell Sutherland)
Gathering in the harvest. Clearing the pavement and frontage at Wath Road

Glimpses of the past

In 1906 a journalist set out for Elsecar. 115 years ago they arrived in the village, just off Wath Road, to see things in motion; new developments on Earl Fitzwilliam’s land.

“After incessant toil, covering a period of about 12 months, Mr Blackledge, the contractor, from Thorncliffe, has just finished his work on the pit shaft. The seam struck has been the Parkgate.
In Hemingfield Colliery, which is about a quarter of a mile distant, and which also belongs to Earl Fitzwilliam, it is the famous Barnsley seam that is being worked.”

Mexborough & Swinton Times, 3rd November 1906, p.11

Indeed it was. The Blackledge brothers had completed the first of 2 shafts that marked a new era for mining at Elsecar, one that would last until 1983.

View of Elsecar Main Colliery when complete c.1912 (from Hull as a Coal Port, 1913)

In 1906 the possibilities of coal extraction in Elsecar seemed almost endless. Now, it’s almost the rarest sight at our former colliery: a piece of the black stuff, although there are a few surviving pieces here and there.

Odd bits of coal (good and bad) found on site.

The green green gates of home

Opening up the site. Restoration and maintenance are slow, steady and ongoing undertakings

Back in the present day, and surprised by the unseasonably good weather, the team continued work on and around Pump House Cottage. Starting with the entrance gate, with a second coat of paint – the colour matched to the historic green found around site and across Fitzwilliam pits and the wider estate.

How green was my erm, gate (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland) 13 Nov 2021
New planting taking root

Continuing the green theme, it’s fabulous to see the new planting and hands on work by volunteers setting out the garden to Pump House Cottage. New beds are being created from the wilderness that had taken hold; new paths open up and link the site, providing a safe and generous route through the heritage features.

Green-fingered and handy with barrow and spade

Clean faces

Meanwhile on the cottage itself repairs and painting continued on the lintels.

Undercoat on repaired lintel
Resin repairs to concrete lintel

Tidy jobs

Elsewhere around site a number of cleaning and tidying jobs continued. This regular, careful effort is ongoing and the impacts make the site easier on the eye as well as better to work in or visit. Whether tidying tools in the winding engine house, weeding the ramp to ensure no-one slips as the colder days draw nearer.

Volunteer efforts keeping the site in good condition

After enjoying the unexpected heat of November sunshine at lunchtime, the afternoon saw a beautiful turn in the colour of the daylight.

The gold-crested treeline above Pit Row

November nights draw in, and the sun sets all-too-soon. At Pit Row and over the hill towards Hemingfield, the tree tops were tipped in a golden glow; amidst a blue sky strung with clouds the sinking sun peaked through the trees, signalling the end of the day.

Golden light across the valley towards Hemingfield (Photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland 13 Nov 2021)

We’d love a planet with a happy atmosphere

115 years ago such a beautiful November sky would have been relatively rare in a South Yorkshire landscape, marked by pits, furnaces and factories, and filled with the products of steam-driven industry:

“And thus the fair verdure of the earth is rooted up, and the pitchy treasure taken from the bowels occupies it[s] place, thousands of dust-begrimed piles of brick send forth their quota of thick black curly smoke, and the smoke ascends to the firmament unites and forms, as it were, a shroud, shutting out the blue sky from the eye of man, who has ordained that it should be so.”

Mexborough & Swinton Times, 3rd November 1906, p.11

Victorian naturalists began to appreciate the wider environmental impacts of working and living in an industrial economy founded on mineral and metallic industries, but their voices remained local and marginal:

“At the foot of the southwestern moorlands, and to the east of them, the great Yorkshire coalfield stretches from Leeds and Bradford to Halifax, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Barnsley, and Sheffield. Within this comparatively limited area is congregated the great mass of the population of Yorkshire, for here the presence of coal and ironstone has determined the location of some of the world’s greatest industries; and the coal-mining districts of the West Riding afford one of the clearest demonstrations of the transforming influence of human agencies upon the surface of a country. The air is laden with smoke above, the rivers run black and polluted below, vegetation is checked and stunted, animal life is scarcely able to maintain its ground, and fish have long been banished from rivers whose foulness and inky blackness can only be paralleled by that of the streams of the neighbouring county palatine of Lancaster.”

Clarke, W.E. and Roebuck, W.D. A Handbook of the Vertebrate Fauna of Yorkshire: Being a Catalogue of British Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fishes, London & Leeds, 1881, xviii

Still, the ruling voice was economic. Mining meant money. Coal as a Great British fossil fuel drove industry: raising steam, making coke, producing gas, propelling locomotives on railways and merchant vessels across oceans around the world in a time of commercial and colonial empire. If coal was running out, attacking waste and investing in economic production were the primary goals, rather than directly addressing the environmental and health impacts that still kept the wheels of trade turning:

“… it is certain that some day or other our coal must be practically exhausted, but so many things may happen ere that time, that it is doubtful if even we, the trustees of the future, need to concern ourselves very much about the matter. Personal prudence, selfishness, or the love of money, will not be hindered by anxiety about people who are to live hundreds of years hence, and great part of England will still continue smoky as long as coal lasts in quantity, or at all events till the laws are enforced against the manufacture of unnecessary smoke.”

Ramsay, A.C., The physical geology and geography of Great Britain, 4th edition, London, Edward Stanford, 1874, p.308

Choking hazards

Smoke nuisances and work on smoke abatement was slow to make progress in the Victorian period, suffering from economic and political inertia, as indeed with any government supervision of, or intervention in, private industry. With the turn of the Twentieth Century, as UK coal production reached its height, the issue of pollution finally came more closely into view, but without a truly global context.It would take labour disputes, world wars, trade competition, national decline, and the nationalisation of swathes of industry, followed by the Clean Air Act of 1956 for the wider picture to sink in:

“The problem of Atmospheric Pollution is becoming very much a matter of public concern. The subject is discussed by

the man in the street almost daily. Certainly it is becoming increasingly evident that the time has got to come when there is some control of the amount of smoke poured into the atmos-

phere. Not only is smoke involved but the emissions of sulphur by-products, principally Sulphur Dioxide are also in urgent need of consideration. It is as well to make it quite clear that the great deal of pollution is NOT all Industrial smoke.

Domestic chimneys are responsible for a very great amount of the smoke pollution. New houses are being built and each has its quota of chimneys. Each can be expected to contribute something towards the smoke nuisance. In a fairly well sub-scribed District like Hoyland where the population is in the

main employed in the Coal Industry the amount of smoke from domestic chimneys is probably relatively greater than in some other districts. Home coal is part of the colliers’ income and of course it is used.”

Hoyland Nether Urban District Council, Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1957, p.52

Going green and Greenhouse gases

In the UK by 1981, after surviving a global oil crisis, rampant inflation and the economic and political currents of a contracting yet activist coal industry, the Government of the day commisioned a report, Coal and the environment that amongst many other insights, clearly pointed to the global implications of coal in industrial pollution, identifying the greenhouse effect and the role of Carbon Dioxide in particular amongst other pollutants:

“In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide admits incoming short-wave solar radiation while tending to trap out-going long-wave (infra-red) radiation, so heating the earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere. This is known as the greenhouse effect because the glass in greenhouses serves a similar function. Higher levels of carbon dioxide would in theory lead to atmospheric warming and hence climate change which could have long-term consequences for economic, agricultural and settlement patterns…

…on the basis of a possible doubling of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the next 50 years or so they predict a 2-3°C rise in global annual average surface temperatures; at the Poles in winter there would be a warming of up to 10°C; and there would be a 5-7% average increase in precipitation, reaching 20% in middle latitudes.”

Commission on Energy and the Environment, Coal and the Environment, HMSO, 1981, Para 18.55, pp.179-180

Good COP, Bad COP?

All of which preamble brings us back to the present day. In February 2020 the UK Prime Minister announced new targets on coal as used in electric power generation:

“In 1990 70 per cent of the power of this country came from coal. It’s now down to 3 per cent – and we want to get it to zero by 2024…”

UK Prime Minister, Statement 4th February 2020 to launch COP26 programme.

From 31st October-12th November 2021 Glasgow was the host city for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP26 for short.

The UNFCCC was adopted in 1992 in New York and open for parties to sign in Rio. It was later extended by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and the Paris Agreement of 2015, and now consists of 197 Parties although not all convention parties are parties to each agreement.

In 2015 the CoP meeting agreed the Paris Agreement which sought to restrict the global average temperature rise in the 21st Century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and not to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. COP26 was the third meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement to review progress and increase ambition.

At the close of COP26 the draft decision included, for the first time, specific reference to coal:

“Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up clean power generation and accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels;”

Draft COP26 Decision 1/CP.26, Part IV Mitigation/Article 20)

China and India pressed for softening of the language on coal, while Australia, Columbia and Poland among other nations continue to be slow in moving away from it. But it is a start. Perhaps only the start of the final chapter…

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