Community Engagement in the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone
Working with and for the community in a former South Yorkshire mining village.
The former mining village of Elsecar in South Yorkshire was one of the first nine places to be awarded Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) status by Historic England in 2017.
The project was formed as a partnership between Historic England and Barnsley Metropolitan District Council, and its aim was to focus expert advice, research and grant aid on the task of safeguarding the village’s industrial heritage, whilst developing opportunities to maximise its potential for economic growth and the greater well-being of the local community.
A Historic Area Assessment of the entire village lay at the heart of Historic England’s research project, informed by a number of specific archaeological investigations all aimed at extending and sharing our knowledge of Elsecar’s heritage.
The Industrial 'estate village'
Elsecar’s heritage is very significant indeed, both at the local and national level.
The village lies less than a mile from the great country house of Wentworth Woodhouse, whose owners, notably the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham and the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, took a direct interest in the development of local industries on their estates, including a succession of coal mines and two major ironworks at Elsecar.
Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries this unusual level of aristocratic patronage saw Elsecar developed as a unique variant of the traditional estate village. Devised to serve industrial rather than agricultural needs, it stands apart from the rural villages created by many of the Fitzwilliam’s aristocratic contemporaries. Indeed, as a means to showcase the Earls’ enlightened political views and religious principles, it had more in common with the emerging ‘model’ industrial villages – such as New Lanark, and later Saltaire and Bourneville – whose proprietors came from lower social positions and were often motivated by non-conformist convictions.
This aristocratic patronage is clearly demonstrated in the architecture chosen for the purpose-built workers’ housing and the Central Workshops, built at the heart of the village to consolidate all the services needed by the estate’s mines.
The workshops, together with the rolling mill of the adjacent Elsecar Ironworks (which produced plate metal for the world’s first ironclad warship, HMS Warrior), now house the Elsecar Heritage Centre.
Nearby stands the only Newcomen engine in the world remaining within its original engine house.
Beside that runs a restored section of the South Yorkshire Railway, the only Heritage Railway in South Yorkshire, whose volunteers use a former iron-casting house of the Elsecar ironworks as a repair shop for its steam locomotives. The engine house is a recently revised scheduled monument. The workshops, the principal examples of workers’ housing and institutions provided by the Fitzwilliams are listed, but all of these designations have been subject to review as a consequence of the new research. The conservation area which covers the core of the village is similarly due for reappraisal.
The two ironworks, Elsecar and Milton, closed in the 1880s, and from that time onward the village’s fortunes were inextricably bound to the sole pursuit of coal, latterly focussed on Elsecar Main Colliery. Nationalisation after the Second World War stripped away the association between the village and Wentworth Woodhouse, but the greatest change came with the closure of Elsecar Main in 1983. Tremendous local efforts in the 1990s helped to preserve Elsecar’s proud industrial heritage and create a viable visitor attraction, but profound effects of the collapse of the mining industry here, as in many former mining communities, still resonate in terms of low employment, limited local services and personal expectations, and areas of deprivation.
The HAZ programme was developed to help tackle this situation by ensuring that an appreciation of Elsecar’s unique and valuable past plays a central, dynamic and successful role in its future. This has been a vital step in a process that began with the conservation of the Newcomen Engine in 2014, with the support of Historic England. One crucial aim has been to bring the local community with us in this venture, which has been done in close partnership with Barnsley Council’s Museum Service, who run the Elsecar Heritage Centre and are assisting community discussions on future development plans for the village.
Engaging with Elsecar
Community engagement has been extensive and highly varied throughout the three-year duration of the HAZ.
Public events to explain the scope of the HAZ and showcase the results of various investigations attracted over 500 local people in the first year and nearly 800 in the second, and the messages have reached many more through local radio, newspaper and social media coverage facilitated by Barnsley Museums. Among the more innovative events were guided walks conducted in twilight and darkness which, although not without a few logistical problems, proved to be a highly evocative way of explaining recent discoveries by HE’s research staff and others, and of re-imagining areas of industrial activity that have been swept away and largely forgotten.
Our research teams were frequently to be found across Elsecar in the first and second years of the project, investigating the evolution of the village and significance of its industrial legacy. This brought our specialists into regular contact with residents and local historians who were curious to know what we were about, and keen to share their memories and knowledge.
Specific ‘Making History’ events organised by Barnsley Museums delved further into local people’s memories and helped us to better understand how certain areas and workplaces functioned in the near past.
These conversations, as well as more formal consultations with local historians, have informed the content of HE’s forthcoming Historic Area Assessment report, which is important as the report is intended to root Elsecar’s future development in an understanding of its historic significance, and that significance must embody a wide spectrum of values reflecting the ways in which local people and visitors experience Elsecar’s heritage. The conversations have also provided a wealth of engaging stories for a future Elsecar guide book.
Some of the most rewarding areas of community engagement led directly from our historical research. In the summer of 2017 the study of historic maps and records was followed up by a programme of geophysical surveys in search of evidence for apparently lost areas of industrial activity.
The work of our geophysical survey team – involving ground penetrating radar (GPR) and other techniques - was followed avidly in the field by large parties of children from the local schools, and they were even more closely involved when we decided to probe the depths of the original 18th-century canal basin, which was buried beneath railway sidings around 1870. This provided 50 or so local children (and many of their parents) with a taste of the excitement of archaeological discovery, and inspired numerous imaginative classroom activities about what it was like to live and work in the Elsecar of the past.
Taking things one step further, our investigations helped to pin-point areas suitable for community excavations in the summers of 2018 and 2019.
The first, run by Barnsley Museums and ArcHeritage Ltd with support from the ‘Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place’ project, looked at the site of the former Milton Ironworks, built by Walkers of Rotherham in 1795 and famous for the manufacture of iron bridges, among many other things. Long after its demolition the area was landscaped for playing fields which left few visible hints of its former existence. The excavations found rare evidence for an early calcining (ore-roasting) kiln but that was not the only success.
Of equal importance, 100 members of the community volunteered to take part in the excavation, which was assisted by 55 school children from three different local schools and visited by over 360 people over the two week period. The 2019 dig looked at the site of the Newcomen engine’s boilers: a much smaller area which nonetheless involved 125 young people, engaged 40 volunteers in the excavation process, worked with 5 local artists (including music, drawing, textiles and ceramics) and attracted over 350 visitors over an 11-day period.
The success of community engagement at Elsecar has benefitted massively from the curiosity, knowledge, enthusiasm and pride of its residents as well as the steps that the HAZ partners have taken to build local interest.
Partnership working with Barnsley Council, further collaboration with local schools, university and commercial archaeologists, and support from members of local heritage societies such as the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery and the Elsecar Heritage Railway (all largely orchestrated by the HAZ Project Officer), has proved to be utterly invaluable: each contribution multiplying the efforts of the others to extend the project’s reach both locally and further afield.
In all over 2000 local people have attended HAZ events, over 200 local volunteers have been directly involved in front-line research, and a further 1000 young people from nearby Barnsley and Rotherham have been able to engage in heritage-led activities. These figures speak volumes about the success of the community engagement and close partnership work that has been at the heart of this project.
What the HAZ has done is to provide the impetus to encourage and focus local interest around new research, the improved understanding of the village and its heritage, and the creation of future development plans for Elsecar.
Long-term success depends on the value that heritage professionals and local people together place on the historic environment arising from their different perspectives. Protection is not just the result of formal legal instruments but it is achieved through the understanding and appreciation of everyone with a stake in the future of the place. In this regard the HAZ project has helped to ensure that Elsecar’s unique and important heritage is safeguarded for, and by, its community for years to come.
Thanks to Dr Tegwen Roberts, Heritage Action Zone Officer, Barnsley Museums, for advice in compiling this article.
About the author
David Went MCIfA FSA
Manager, Archaeological Survey & Investigation (North & East).
He joined English Heritage in 1993, working first for the Monuments Protection Programme and later the Characterisation team, before joining the Research Department in 2007. His particular interests are Roman archaeology, the early church and medieval landscapes. Current research includes the use of drone photography for localised archaeological survey.
The Historic Area Assessment report encapsulating the research project at Elsecar ( Rimmer J, Went D, Jessop L 2019) is available to download as Historic England Research Research Reports Series 6/2019
The ‘Report on Geophysical Surveys, Elsecar, Barnsley’ (Linford N, Lindford P and Payne A, 2017) is already available to download as Historic England Research Research Reports Series 62/2017