Revealed: Secret History of South Yorkshire Village Created by Visionary Aristocrats
We have uncovered the secret history of Elsecar, a former ironworks and mining community in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfields.
Our new study reveals how the village was created by ambitious aristocrats to reflect their vast influence and vision. It highlights Elsecar’s significance as an industrial centre and uncovers stories about how the Fitzwilliam family pervaded the daily life of the community that lived and worked there.
A unique model industrial village built by aristocrats
Elsecar was built by the Earls Fitzwilliam, close to their vast family home at Wentworth Woodhouse, from the late 1700s. The village was home to their deep coal mines and monumental ironworks, but it was also a showpiece, which was intended to impress visitors from across the country, including royalty.
The earls created a new industrial community at Elsecar, building attractive, high-quality cottages for their workers, as well as a new school, a church and allotments. As this latest study has shown, most of the planned village survives and can still be seen by visitors today.
An astonishing landscape of follies and furnaces
Elsecar sits within a planned landscape, designed to show the influence of the Fitzwilliam family, including follies, churches and other monuments. The latest research shows that the Earls used their industry at Elsecar in a similar way. They built ironworks where the huge furnaces would be seen for miles, and when the first deep colliery was sunk in Elsecar, the grand pumping engine stood proudly at the heart of the new village.
The Fitzwilliams ordered two grand stone entrances to the collieries to be built. Aristocrats and royalty walked underground through them including the Duke of Clarence in 1828, who later became King William IV. Both survive, one lies overgrown in a field and another is in a back garden.
This research project has shed new light on the importance of Elsecar as a centre of industry and innovation for over two centuries, as well as its links with the Fitzwilliam family and Wentworth Woodhouse. Much of this new information has come to light thanks to the fantastic efforts of the 200 volunteers who have taken part in excavations and given us their invaluable local knowledge. The residents of Elsecar are rightly proud of the rich heritage of their village.
The Fitzwilliams made their presence felt in the lives of Elsecar’s residents in many different ways including the bestowing of gifts and awards. As pit ponies were essential to the Elsecar collieries, the Fitzwilliam family created the “Fitzwilliam Medal for kindness to ponies”. In 1904, the recipient was John William Bell, who saved the life of his pony by staying with him after a roof fall in the mine. William Bell’s granddaughter still lives in the village.
In the 1920s Lady Fitzwilliam gave a rather grizzly gift to a group of miners who were performing the Elsecar Old Horse play. This was an annual Christmas tradition, which involved them dressing up as a horse and jockey. Of the opinion that their costume was looking a bit ragged, she presented them with the skin of her recently deceased horse, Master Copperfield, as a replacement.