Elsecar’s Victorian Railway and Collieries

 

by Alexander Taylor

Elsecar is a small village located in the south of the town of Barnsley.  Although coal was mined in Elsecar from the 14th century, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that the village consisted of much more than a series of farms.  Like many villages in the area, the production of coal between the mid 18thcentury and the late 20th century made up a significant part of the villages makeup.  During the mining golden age Elsecar grew from a scattered farming hamlet to a considerable village in the course of two generations[1].  Two key components of Elsecar’s mining heritage were, the three main collieries that were situated around Elsecar and the Victorian railway which was constructed as a result of them.  Elsecar was once an estate village of Wentworth Woodhouse and the Earls of Fitzwilliam[2].  During the Victorian period, the Earls supported the expansion of Elsecar constructing good quality housing for the workers, Milton Hall, a Methodist chapel and a church of England school amongst other.  As a result, they form a substantial part of local history today.[3]  Interestingly, for much of the 20th century, Elsecar became a popular holiday destination for people from around Yorkshire.  Elsecar, or ‘Elsecar by the sea’ as it became known, provided an ideal day trip experience which centred around the picturesque reservoir and surroundings with the village.  The reservoir, located at Elsecar Park which is close to the Victorian industrialism in the village, highlights how Elsecar has more history than just simply Victorian industrialism[4].

Elsecar & The South Yorkshire Railway

The Elsecar branch of the South Yorkshire railway, established in 1850, was built in order to serve the Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries in and around Elsecar.  The line ran from Elsecar junction, near Wath, and terminated at the Elsecar Goods Station.[5]  This article will focus on the upper part of the line in addition to the three main Elsecar collieries which it served.  These collieries were Elsecar High colliery, Elsecar low colliery and Elsecar Mid colliery.  The latter was subsequently replaced by the Simon Wood Colliery in 1853 and then by the Elsecar Main Colliery in 1905.  The railway, and the surrounding collieries, provide a symbol of Victorian industrialism because, with the exception of Elsecar Main, all were either constructed or ran during the Victorian period and forged a large part of Elsecar’s identity.

A photograph of the what was part of the upper section of the South Yorkshire Railway line between Elsecar & Hemingfield.  Taken from the road bridge between Elsecar & Hemingfield.

A photograph of the what was part of the upper section of the South Yorkshire Railway line between Elsecar & Hemingfield. Taken from the road bridge between Elsecar & Hemingfield.

The railway, often referred to as the South Yorkshire coal railway, was formed as a company in 1845, as the South Yorkshire Coal Railway, and authorised by an act of Parliament in 1847 as the South Yorkshire, Doncaster and Goole Railway Company[6].  During this period, Parliament presented private investors with acts to build proposed railway’s if it could be demonstrated the railway fulfilled a need of the community[7].  The Elsecar Branch fulfilled the need of the Fitzwilliam estate, to transport both coal and iron from Elsecar to markets outside of South Yorkshire.

The middle of the 19th Century marked a period where freight railways were thriving.  From 1852 the carriage of freight provided the railway companies with the bulk of their income.  Moreover, the market for the transportation of South Yorkshire coal was competitive.  From 1850 to 1864, a freight war broke out between the Great Northern and the Midland railway company’s as they competed for transportation rights to the coal produced from the region.[8] The Elsecar line inducted the local collieries in to the world of railway freight and gave them a trade link to the London market via Doncaster[9].  In addition, much of the coal from the Fitzwilliam collieries got passed on to the GNR (Great Northern Railway) for shipping to Boston Docks[10].

Throughout its existence, the railway had several owners.  In 1864, the railway was taken over by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway (M,S&LR) following its takeover of the South Yorkshire railway company.  Succeeding this, in 1897 the M,S&LR renamed itself the Great Central Railway (GCR) and finally, under the railways act of 1921, the GCR became part of London and North Eastern Railway.[11] Currently, although the line was taken up following the fall of the coal mining industry during the 1980’s, the track has been re-laid and now forms the ‘Coal Field Line’ at the Elsecar heritage centre.  The line is an integral part of the centre and celebrates Elsecar’s, and Barnsley’s, mining heritage.[12]

Collieries

Elsecar High Colliery

The Elsecar Branch line ran from Elsecar around one mile to Hemingfield and 2 to Cortonwood.  The segment of the line around Elsecar served three major collieries.  The first of these was Elsecar High Colliery, originally known as Elsecar Old Colliery.  The colliery was comprised of eight pits in and around Elsecar Green and was sunk to a depth of around 15 meters in order to exploit Barnsley Bed coal seam.  Originally founded by Richard Bingley in 1750, the colliery was taken over by the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham two years later.  Initially, the colliery employed only a mere 9 men but by 1848, with the passing of the railway bill and following an expansion to the colliery, it began employing 86 men and boys. This demonstrates how the creation of Victorian railway increased coal production.

Elsecar New Colliery

Elsecar New Colliery, sunk around 1795 by the Earl Fitzwilliam, was constructed in order to allow the Fitzwilliam’s to expand coal production and exploit new opportunities presented by the newly opened Dearne & Dove canal.  The Georgian canal, which had its bill passed in 1792, presented the best way for the transportation of coal before the arrival of the railway[13].   The colliery was made up of three shafts, two for coal winding and one pumping shaft, each reached to a depth of 120 feet where they reached the Barnsley seam.  Interestingly, the colliery was fitted with a Newcomen Beam Engine which ran from 1795 up until 1923.  It is the only Newcomen Beam Engine still housed where it was installed today.[14]

The Beam Engine was built to extract water from the mine, allowing the exploitation of deeper coal seams, predominantly the Park Gate coal seam.   In 1837, the colliery was expanded to include the addition of a new shaft at Jump, known as Jump pit.  By 1853, when the colliery was renamed Elsecar Mid colliery, it employed 121 men and boys emphasising that during the early Victorian coal production, and the role it played in the economy, greatly increased.  As the Simon Wood colliery began production in 1853, the Elsecar Mid colliery was abandoned.

photograph where the site and remains of the Elsecar New Colliery are visible in addition to, the re-laid Elsecar Line.  The Colliery is the figure closest to the track on the right hand side.  Taken from the level crossing at the Elsecar Heritage Centre

Photograph where the site and remains of the Elsecar New Colliery are visible in addition to, the re-laid Elsecar Line. The Colliery is the figure closest to the track on the right hand side. Taken from the level crossing at the Elsecar Heritage Centre

Simon Wood Colliery & Elsecar Maine

The Elsecar Mid Colliery was firstly succeeded by the Simon Wood Colliery.  This colliery was sunk much deeper than its predecessor as it had a depth of around 85 meters.  The colliery aimed to exploit the Barnsley coal bed.  Production began at the colliery in 1853 and continued until it was replaced by Elsecar Main Colliery in 1903.  Much like the Simon Wood Colliery, Elsecar Main achieved a much greater depth than its predecessor.  The shafts of the colliery sank to a depth of 333 meters in order to work the seam of Parkgate, Silkstone, Thorncliffe and Swallow Wood.  Elsecar Main Colliery began extracting coal in the years between 1905 & 1908 and produced coal up until it closed in 1983.

Elsecar Low Colliery

Elsecar Low Colliery, also known as Hemingfield Colliery, was developed for Earl Fitzwilliam in the 1840s, under the management of Benjamin Biram (1803-1857), his steward, mineral agent and general manager.[15]  The colliery consisted of a winding shaft and a smaller diameter pumping shaft for draining the colliery of water.  The first significant amount of coal to be extracted came in 1848 when 1000 tonnes a day were being extracted.  However, construction on the Colliery began eight years earlier in 1840.  The most significant source of difficulties during the construction process came in the form of water penetration within the shafts and by the dangerous presence of flammable gasses (fire damp).  Tragically, the fire damp issues proved not to be isolated to just the construction process.  On December 21st 1852, a firedamp explosion lead to the loss of 10 miner’s life’s and a further 12 injured highlighting the dangers coal workers faced on a consistent basis[16].

The video consists of a sequence of photos taken on Sunday 21st January 2018 with the addition of ‘Waltz of the flowers by Tchaikovsky’.  The images included are of Elsecar New Colliery, Elsecar Low Colliery and the section of railway line which runs against it, the Elsecar section of the Deane & Dove canal which run alongside the railway, the Earl Fitzwilliam’s Victorian station which now houses the children’s play are ‘Playmania’ and finally multiple segments of the railway line.  The segments of the line are all part of, a roughly one-mile stretch, from the Elsecar Heritage centre (which was close to the Elsecar Goods station) and the site of the former Elsecar low Colliery.

Guide to Further Resources

  • https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php Elsecar Heritage Railway Website. This was a valuable source in providing the fundamental history behind the Elsecar Branch of the South Yorkshire Railway.  The website also includes information on how to visit the railway & get involved.
  • http://www.elsecar-heritage.com/ Elsecar Heritage Centre Website. This website provides a lager overview on Elsecar’s Heritage in iron & coal manufacturing.  The website also explores how Elsecar was ‘transformed’ by the Fitzwilliam’s investment in to the area.
  • https://hemingfieldcolliery.wordpress.com/history/ Hemingfield Colliery. A valuable resource in establishing information about Hemingfield Colliery.  The website is useful for further investigation of Hemingfield Colliery.
  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml BBC History.  The BBC website was a great source for understanding the importance the establishment of the Railway’s had on British industries.  The website would be useful for further study on how the advancement of Victorian technology progressed the British Isles.

Notes

[1] Hey, D. (1986). Yorkshire From AD 1000 . United States of America: Longman Group Limited. Hey, D. (1986). Yorkshire From AD 1000 . United States of America: Longman Group Limited.(Page 277)

[2] Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. (2017). Elsecar’s Hidden History. Retrieved from https://www.barnsley.gov.uk/news/elsecar-s-hidden-history-revealed/.

[3] Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. (2017). Elsecar’s Hidden History. Retrieved from https://www.barnsley.gov.uk/news/elsecar-s-hidden-history-revealed/.

[4] Elsecar Heritage Centre. (2016). Elsecar By The Sea Sail in to Historic Village. Retrieved from http://www.elsecar-heritage.com/elsecar-by-the-sea-sails-into-historic-village.

[5] Elsecar Heritage Center . (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line. Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line.

[6] Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line. Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from

[7] Crouzet, F. (1982). The Victorian Economy. London: Methuen & Co. LTD.

[8] Benson, J. & Neville, R.G. (Eds.) (1976). Studies in The Yorkshire Coal Industry. Great Britain: Manchester University Press. (Page 35)

[9] Hey, D. (1986). Yorkshire From AD 1000 . United States of America: Longman Group Limited. Hey, D. (1986). Yorkshire From AD 1000 . United States of America: Longman Group Limited. (Page 275)

[10] BBC History. (2014). Victorian Technology. Retrieved from www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml.

[11]Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line. Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line.

[12] Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from https://www.elsecarrailway.co.uk/index.php/about-us/the-coalfield-line. Elsecar Heritage Centre. (N/A). The Coalfield Line. Retrieved from

[13] Benson, J. & Neville, R.G. (Eds.) (1976). Studies in The Yorkshire Coal Industry. Great Britain: Manchester University Press.

[14] Aditnow.co.uk. (2014). Elsecar Coal Colliery. Retrieved from https://www.aditnow.co.uk/Mines/Elsecar-Coal-Colliery_10033/.

[15] The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery. (N/A). History. Retrieved from https://hemingfieldcolliery.wordpress.com/history/.

[16] Grace’s Guide To British industrial History. (2014). Elsecar Collieries. Retrieved from https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Elsecar_Collieries.

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