Drizzle Dodgers

Pump House Cottage ejecting smoke (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Another weekend with the promise of rain had seen the team arrive on site eager to get on with the day’s work at hand; with everyone arriving before 10:00am.


The morning commenced with the usual routine, a quick walk around site scanning for signs of intrusion, whether it be by trespassing or a (gloved) handful of the new “flying” doggy-doo bags.


After pondering around and catching up with the regular volunteers, it was time to do the honours of removing the blanket of leaves that mother nature had laid along the front wall. Following some vigorous sweeping, shovelling and wheel-barrowing the entrance to site and the pavement leading up to it looked just as good as it would in the summer, leaf and litter free!

Leaf litter along the front wall. (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

As we approach the winter months, the air becomes damper and cooler, inviting Jack Frost himself to come out and play. This in return restricts what we can and can’t do around the site. The rear retaining wall has been the main focal point within the group since we have been able to have regular meet-ups again, but with winter hindering any further restoration on the retaining wall, the group’s attention has turned to Pump House Cottage.

Pump House Cottage 23.10.2021

The previous fortnight has seen Pump House Cottage receive quite the overhaul: The removal of an old satellite dish; a general sweep, freshly painted drainpipes and window sills – all of these giving the building a complete new look; resembling what she (OR HE!) may have looked like in her past, working life.

After giving the Pump House Cottage a fresh new look, it was agreed within the team that the main job in focus this weekend would be repairing the Lintel on the red brick extension of the cottage. Requiring scaffolding; a safe, solid structure was soon erected and both Glen and Paul could get to work on the restoration. Using specialist, rapid set waterproof repair mortar the once heavily weather damaged lintels now have a fresh face!

Pump House Cottage receiving some TLC. (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Oh PHC, Oh PHC, how does your garden grow?

To accompany the cottage’s new look, the garden has also benefited from a makeover, Janet and Jeff, two of the latest members to join the team have volunteered to give the Pump House Cottage some much needed care and attention.

Over recent weeks the garden has slowly transitioned from a regularly strimmed section of wilderness to an area that is beginning to take the shape of a 4 planting bed garden. What seemed to be an endless fight against long grass and weeds is now shaping up nicely into a place of peace and tranquility.

This weekend the small blades of grass that had managed to make an appearance through the week, were removed; in their place we see eight new species of plant being added, this including: Montbretia, Pyracantha, Asters, Phlox, Campanula, Sedum, Miniature Rose bush and variegated hebe. Further plans are to add Lavender, Daffodils, Crocus and other summer flowering bulbs to the garden.

Following the plans of the new garden; a new pathway has been dug leading from the concrete path (at the gate) straight towards the centre of the site. Throughout this process the remnants of an old stone pathway was unearthed, quite possibly covered for the past 50 years!

As the hours passed by, more and more of this stone pathway was being revealed to the bright autumn sun. Excess topsoil removed from the garden is being used to level other areas of the site out, this primarily being around the concrete pad close to the main entrance, allowing for better accessibility and parking.

Pump House Cottage 06.11.2021

Treasure!! Half a penny’s worth.

Throughout the process of removing excess topsoil from the garden, a small, corroded discovery was made. Easily recognisable as being made from copper, but roughly the same size as a 10pence piece, it was a mystery as to what this coin was. Following some careful cleaning of the reverse(tails) face, it soon became clear that what had been found was a ‘half penny’ dated 1936.

Reverse face of cleaned half penny. (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Interestingly the obverse(heads) face of this coin holds a portrait of King George V, given the coin is dated 1936, this is the last of the half pennies that feature the king. Following the death of King George V the reverse face of the half penny featured a ship, rather than Britannia, for the first time since 1672.

Finding this coin, buried deep within the topsoil by the stone pathway, makes you wonder how long it has been sitting in that exact position for. How long ago could somebody have dropped this coin? Given the date the coin was minted, it would be quite possible that this half penny was buried before world war two! With this in mind, it makes you think about whether the person who dropped this coin ever noticed; depending on when this coin was lost, it could have determined the meal they ate that night, or if the family went without milk the following day.

Obverse face of cleaned half penny. (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

Identifying the past

Continuing from his previous week’s work, John has continued to take measurements within the Winding Engine House, adding more and more to the extensive collection that he has already achieved. Each measurement slowly allows the group to better understand how the operation at Hemingfield may have unfolded; with over 100 years worth of extensions, there’s plenty more of this unknown story to be told.

Each individual measurement is an extra piece to this mammoth puzzle, allowing extra precision to be added to diagrams of the Winding Engine House. Taking measurements of both the interior and exterior of the building has allowed diagrams to be drawn, this then allows us to envision where the steam winding engine would have once sat within the building; accompanied with its beam, flywheel and gearing. This in turn will then allow an accurate depiction of where the flat rope drum sat within the building and what this would have looked like, before being replaced with electricity and a smaller round rope drum in 1937.

Taking measurements. (photo credit: Mitchell Sutherland)

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.

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Bank Holiday Balm, Saturday 28th August 2021

Sunny days. Approaching the pit in August sun

Coming as something of a blessed relief, the sun finally made an appearance on the last Saturday in August, as the Friends, volunteers and a select band of visitors foregathered at Hemingfield Colliery.

In the near distance the sounds of late harvesting echoed across the valley: the constant hum of a combine reaping, threshing, and winnowing the golden fields. A propitious start to the day.

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Stepping up, Saturday 14th August 2021

Staying on the front foot after weeks of catch-up activities, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery arrived earlier than usual at the pit. Early, if not bright, but in good spirits!

Earlier sunlight at the end of the tree-tunnel, on Wath Road headed to Pit Row

Opening up for a brisk day of tidying, ticking off a series of smaller, but useful, odd jobs; the bits and bobs (or random tasks, depending on your point of view) which really need doing, but aren’t always the first priorities. Variety being the spice of life, it was a fun day and great to see volunteer efforts have real impact during the day itself.

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August company, Saturday 7th August 2021

Summertime. The Friends and volunteers returned to site for a brief spell as life continues to return to something akin to a norm. Hybridisation is the spice of life; we will grow and adapt.

Sunshine heating, cloud conditioning. View of the main headgear from the roof beams of the old switchgear building

In the event the sun shone early doors, enough to burn outside although patches of light drizzle were an omen of developments after 3pm.

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On This Day, 1866 – The Oaks Colliery Disaster

On the 12th December 2020, we remember the terrible mining tragedy of the Oaks Colliery Disaster of this date 154 years ago – Wednesday 12th 1866, at a colliery site now maintained by the Barnsley Main Heritage Group, and commemorated in a permanent public sculpture unveiled in Barnsley in 2016, 150 years after the event.

Oaks Colliery was just by the Barnsley to Doncaster line of the South Yorkshire Railway, between Ardsley and Barnsley itself, near Hoyle Mill (Crutchley’s Railway and Station Map of Yorkshire, 1861)

Providing a grim glimpse into that past, when the scale and impact were fresh in the mind, we can do no better than share extracts from contemporary words of a local writer and newspaper contributor, John Tomlinson (1834-1889) of Doncaster, as he visited Barnsley in February 1867, published in his Stories and Sketches relating to Yorkshire, Doncaster, R.Hartley, 1867:-

The Oaks Colliery two months after an explosion.

I took a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, which is here very irregular. The hills rise abruptly, with deep valleys between… I observed two rows of stone cottages; but all were silent. There were no busy steps passing in and out; no gossipping at the doors. A stranger passing this way might conjecture, without any previous knowledge, that some calamity had overtaken the inmates.

I stood between the two shafts down which so many had gone to the region of death… It was not necessary to linger on that gloomy pit-hill – a few moments sufficed for my eye to take in all objects on the surface – so I enquired the way to Hoyle Mill, where many bereaved families are congregated. As a result of this single calamity, we learn that there are here 50 widows and 113 fatherless children. Out of about 60 cottages which form this hamlet, there is left a male population numbering only thirteen who are capable of earning a living.

The Oaks Colliery

It is above thirty years since the first “corve” was brought to bank at the Oaks Colliery. For eight or ten years, while the mine was limited, no serious accident occurred. In 1845, however, there were two explosions, during one of which the pit was fired. Fortunately, on each occasion but few colliers were in the workings, so that only three or four lives were sacrificed.

Two years afterwards (1847) a far more terrible explosion occurred, and it was generally understood that the gas had accumulated in an old abandoned working. There were about a hundred men and boys in the pit, seventy-three of whom were killed, and twenty-six rescued alive. True, about that time (1848) some material changes were made in the organisation of the pit. The downcast shaft was converted into an “up-cast” or cupola, while the present no.1 and No.2 shafts, which had been sunk only to the upper seam and afterwards abandoned, were carried down to the lower levels, and employed as down-cast air and drawing shafts.

The depth of these is now about 280 yards, but the seam, which is above eight feet in thickness, dips so considerably that some of the workings would be at least 400 yards below the surface. It is computed that about 300 acres of coal had been got at the Oaks Colliery, the average yield being about 4,000 tonnes per week; that the pit contains about 60 miles of wall, and when the explosion occurred there were men in those distant levels, two miles or more from the bottom of the shaft.

The retrospect is very painful.

It is generally acknowledged that the Barnsley seem is peculiarly liable to emit sudden and extraordinary effusions of gas. The “goaves” are almost always more or less surcharged with gas, which, at times, is given off in such volumes as to necessitate the most careful working.

The reader is already acquainted with the general plan of the colliery. There are three shafts. The two “downcasts” are only a few yards apart, situate close to the South Yorkshire Railway; the upcast, or cupola being at a distance of about 500 yards from the former. The workings, as we have seen, are the most extensive in Yorkshire. There was a furnace, constantly burning under this upcast shaft to accellerate the draft, drawing up the return air, charged with gas.

Wednesday 12th December 1866

On the 12th of last December, three hundred and forty men and boys were down in this pit, alive and working. Of this number fully one-third would be husbands and fathers. It was nearly half-past 1 o’clock, p.m., when a terrible shock was felt, as if some heavy cannon had been discharged in the neighbouring hollow. But the colliery population knew well what such a sound betokened, and they rushed in consternation to the old pit-hill.

The sickening spectacle presented for the next few hours on that pit-hill will live for ever in the memory of the observers – charred, blackened, but not utterly lifeless forms are delivered to weeping relatives; and when such breathing remnants of humanity could no longer be found, disfigured corpses were brought up. Twenty human beings were recovered alive, but of these fourteen were so seriously injured that they have since died. These few living workers had made their way towards the shaft, where there was some measure of ventilation: those found in the distant workings were all dead, killed, probably, not by the explosion, but by the poisonous after-damp.

During twelve hours succeeding the explosion, about fifty bodies, in various conditions of ghastliness, were brought up from the pit. But there were scores of wives, mothers, and children who had not even these relics to comfort them; they went home in despair, if home it may be called, where the bread-winner could enter no more.

Thursday 13th December

On Thursday morning, about nine o’clock, another and louder report was heard. The earth shook and trembled, for the Fiend of Fire-damp was wroth. The shafts belched up smoke, coal-dust, soot, and broken timber, scattering the fragments far and wide. The bystanders were awe-strucken, and strong men wept with anguish as they recollected that twenty-seven explorers were then in the pit. The empty cage was lowered in silence and fear. It was afterwards drawn up, but it remained empty still; and then the bystanders felt that all hope for the brave volunteers was gone. Two men lay at the pit-mouth, and amidst a profound stillness “chucked” their voices down the heated shaft. There was no response.

During the day (Thursday, Dec. 13th) a third explosion took place, and in the evening a column of white smoke was emitted from No.2 shaft, accompanied by volumes of sparks. At this time all surface lights had been extinguished, while, excepting the presence of police, with a few coal-mine officials, the pit hill was quite deserted.

Friday 14th December

Between four and five o’clock on Friday morning, the watchers were startled by hearing the pit bell ring. It was not a mere hallucination, the sound was repeated, proving, contrary to all expectation, that there was life in the mine. A bottle of brandy was let down by a string; and when the latter was drawn up, the bottle was absent. Presently a rope and small cage, or tub, were extemporised (the winding-gear of both shafts being totally disabled), when two gentlemen descended the shaft.

At the bottom was Sam Brown, one of the twenty-seven volunteers, alive but nearly exhausted. The two explorers went some distance through the pit, searched and shouted; they discovered that the mine, in one place was on fire, but could find no other living human being. It excited great surprise that this Samuel Brown should remain alive twenty hours after that second explosion, in which all his associates had perished.

Saturday 15th December

On Saturday, December 15th, three or four more explosions took place. The reports were loud, and there was still a great emission of coal-dust, soot, and broken timber from the two shafts. The task of exploring the mine had long since been abandoned. To stifle the fire that cupola was first filled up. It was probably the best policy to choke the up cast; but during the next fortnight not less than a dozen distinct explosions were heard at the surface, some of them very powerful. Meetings of colliery proprietors and mining engineers continued to be held, and it was decided to stop the down-cast air in both No.1 and No.2 shafts. This was done. Then followed the coroner’s inquest, occupying many days.

Inquest and Aftermath

So far as we know, no catastrophe in Yorkshire, at any time, has cut off so many human beings at a stroke. After the first thrill of consternation had passed away, people said to one another – Now the public mind will be thoroughly aroused, and something must be done to prevent such disasters. The Coroner and jury sat thirteen days, and after listening to some evidence, and a great deal of scientific disquisition, returned the following verdict:-

That Richard Hunt and others were killed by an explosion of fire-damp at the Oaks Colliery on the 12th of December, 1866, but there is no evidence to prove where or how it ignited. The jury think it unnecessary to make any special recommendations as to the working of mines, seeing that the Government is collecting information, no doubt with a view to the better protection of life, but they think a more strict inspection is desirable.

Public excitement in relation to this great calamity is gradually subsiding. And now – What? The subject will certainly add another item to the details of local chronology. There has been two months’ twaddle about cause and effect, and now – What? I speak to men in authority, and practical men. Is the whole matter to be shelved, or evaporate in a few vague resolutions, until another similar casualty excites a parallel consternation?

There is one fundamental question which, to my mind, has never been satisfactorily answered:- Can explosions in these deep, extensive mines be entirely prevented?

The preponderance of testimony from mining engineers (and such men ought to know) is, that they cannot. Increased care, and superior ventilation, may lessen the severity or frequency of such accidents; but so long as the world lasts, while there are mines to be worked, and coal to be got, there will inevitably be jeopardy of life. It is so with our mariners. The ship may be good, and the hands may be experienced; there may be systematic and unceasing watchfulness; but some unprecedented storm, or treacherous quicksand, may render futile all human endeavours, and the coast will now and then be strewn with wrecks.

Commemorating the Oaks Colliery Disaster, 150th Anniversary programme of events.