With November fast disappearing it certainly began to feel a lot like Christmas was knocking on the door as the Friends arrived on site to open the gates for another open day and working party. Site Manager Glen welcomed regular volunteers John, Alan, Nigel, Keith, Chris and new recruit Paul to site. Jack Frost more than nibbled on our toes as ice glistened on wall-tops, and ground frost led to some fancy footwork during the morning; all thankfully relieved by bright sunshine in a surprisingly clear and beautifully crisp blue sky.
For the last open day weekend in September, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery gathered in numbers. Site Manager Glen was joined by Friends Chair Steve, and regular volunteers Nigel, Alan, John, together with John, Phil, Chris, Mike and another Phil – a very full crew.
Sunday 18th June was a scorcher. As the longest day drew near, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery gathered their display materials, leaflets, booklets and badges and headed in to Barnsley town centre. The destination, the beautiful 1933 listed town hall building, whose white Portland stone facade was resplendent against the bright blue sky.
High times at Elsecar Low Colliery
December was deceptively mild as the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery and regular volunteers arrived for the final open day and working party weekend of 2016.
Site Manager Glen and Friends Chair Steve were joined by John, Nigel, Alan and Chris as the crew continued work on site, clearing rubble, logging felled timber and generally keeping things tidy. Equally everyone was keen to see the latest progress on the removal and restoration of the winding engine house roof.
On 12th December 1866 a terrible mining disaster occurred, caused by a series of explosions, igniting gas underground and claiming the lives of hundreds of workers, changing the lives of many more family members and friends.
Now, in 2016, 150 years later, we remember the tragedy and horror of those events, and commemorate the lives lost to what remains the worst mining disaster in England’s history.
The Oaks Colliery Disaster
Mining historian Alan Hill, author of The South Yorkshire Coalfield: a history and development, (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2001) has kindly written the following overview of the disaster:
An earlier explosion at the Oaks – 5 March 1847 – when 73 men and boys were killed is regarded as the first really serious explosion in the South Yorkshire Coalfield. Until theSenghenydd Colliery disaster in 1913 the Oaks was the worst in British mining and the worst in the 19th century/Victorian times.
The Oaks was one of largest collieries in Yorkshire, regarded as a well appointed and managed colliery. Two large underground furnaces provided ventilation and open gas lights were used underground at the shaft bottom.
In all there were 17 ignitions (explosions), the first about 1.20pm on Wednesday 12th December 1866. This was heard 3 miles away, and 5 miles away at a farm at Cudworth men winter ploughing found the ground covered in a sprinkling of fine coal dust soot.
By 2.00pm three rescuers had descended the pit, meanwhile the roads leading to the pit were thronged with relatives and friends. A few badly burned survivors were brought to the surface. The three rescuers then found some 20-30 survivors who were terribly burnt, huddled together near the foot of the shaft – these were raised to the surface – of these only 6 survived their burns. The rescuers then penetrated deeper into the workings and found 38 unidentifiable charred victims. A little further they found the bodies of many more who had been suffocated by the gas.
Requests for more rescuers went out and more rescuers descended the pit – though the risk of further explosions was very high. Ventilation was slowly restored and the rescuers pushed deeper into the mine.
The following morning, 13th December, at about 8.30am a party of explorers witnessed a disturbance in the air current and expecting an explosion rushed back the shaft bottom where they were drawn to the surface. Just before 9.00am the pit exploded violently for the second time.
The disaster took the lives of at least 361 men and boys; of the 340 persons in the pit on 12 December only 6 would survive. Twenty seven were killed the following morning – 23 of whom were volunteers from other pits in the area.
A public disaster fund for the miners reached £10,000 within two weeks.
New shafts were sunk and additional workings developed to replace the old ones, and new labour recruited to replace the men lost. The remains of some 80 men were unaccounted for, though occasionally pieces of bone or a skull were found.
Barnsley miners have never forgotten the grey, cheerless Christmas of 1866.
Alan Hill, 12th December 2016
In a series of commemorative events and activities starting at the weekend, volunteers, local community groups and others are coming together to remember the disaster.
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund) have worked closely Barnsley Museums prepare a new free exhibition at the Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre, entitled “When the Oaks Fired”, it runs from 30th November 2016-8th February 2017.
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership, have also sought to engage local people in researching the history of those who died at the Oaks. Steered by Community Heritage Officer Stephen Miller, volunteers have spent thousands of hours searching a variety of parish and civil records to try to confirm the true extent of the casualties of the Oaks disaster. although 361 is the figure often used, in fact it is likely the victims number more like 383. See the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership website for the results of the research, and the new list of details of the 383 casualties. Linda Hutton, one of the volunteers, has also blogged about her experience being involved in the DVLP work.
The National Union of Mineworkers (Yorkshire Area) are hosting a public display of materials, from 12th-16th December 2016. They have also supported the local People and Mining campaign which has sought to fund the casting of an Oaks Colliery Disaster memorial statue, dedicated to the men and boys killed in the disaster. The sculptor is Graham Ibbeson, and the monies raised are funded by public and private donations. See: http://www.oaks1866.com/
The Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership and Barnsley Council’s Central Area Team have also been instrumental in establishing a new volunteer group, the Barnsley Main Heritage Group to interpret and care for the remaining listed headgear at Barnsley Main, in Dearne Valley Park, at Barnsley. The site is built on part of the earlier Oaks Colliery site, and the heritage group took part in the commemorative events in December, with wooden crosses for each of the victims, and a striking hilltop beacon burning in memory of each of the victims.
On Friday 9th December 2016, The Barnsley Chronicle produced a special commemorative cover edition of the newspaper containing a range of historical and commemorative articles, family photographs and illustrations from contemporary newspapers which have been especially colourised to bring a new life to the pithead scenes of the disaster.
Writing in the Chronicle, noted local mining historian Brian Elliott also contributes his thoughts on a lifetime of research on mining disasters in South Yorkshire.
Calendar of events
- Saturday 10th December, 2016
- 10am-11am | Barnsley Cemetery – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/barnsley-cemetery-oaks-disaster-walk-3/ (booking required)
- Sunday 11th December, 2016
- Morning | Barnsley Main Colliery – Barnsley Main Heritage Group members plant wooden crosses for Oaks victims
- 3pm | Christ Church, Ardsley – Oaks Colliery Disaster Memorial service – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/oaks-colliery-disaster-memorial-service/
- Coverage of these events is available from ITV News here:
- Monday 12th December, 2016
- 1:15pm | NUM (Yorkshire Area) offices, Victoria Road entrance, Barnsley – wreaths and floral tribute to victims and opening of display in Miners Hall (12th-16th December 2016 from 10am-3pm each day)
- The new Oaks Memorial on display
- 1:15pm | Christ Church, Ardsley – Reading the names of the Oaks victims
- 1:15pm | Barnsley Main Colliery – Barnsley Main Heritage Group light a beacon in memory of disaster
- 1:20pm | Local church bells peel to remember the disaster
- 6:30pm-9pm | Experience Barnsley, Barnsley Museums
- 150 years after the Oaks Disaster – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/12-december-1866-150-years-disaster/
- Barnsley Poet Ian McMillan – new commemorative poem.
- 1866 Oaks Colliery in Virtual Reality – a short film by Alan Andrews, from the ART of Mining
- Introduction to the exhibition – Stephen Miller, Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership
- Wednesday 14th December, 2016
- 2pm | St. Edward’s, Kingstone – Commemorative illustrated talk, part of the Kingstone Heritage Group meeting, featuring a performance by Alan Wood (£2 entrance fee)
- 7pm | St. Mary’s, Barnsley – A service of commemoration with Rev Canon Rodney Marshall, with Dodworth Colliery Brass Band
- Saturday 17th December, 2016
- 10am-11:30am | Christ Church, Ardsley – Guided walk – Two Memorials Oaks Disaster – http://discoverdearne.org.uk/events/two-memorials-oaks-disaster-walk-3/ (booking required)
Fixing the roof while the sun is (still) shining…
After a cloudy and unpromising start to the weekend, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery were treated to a glorious autumnal day, with blue skies and sunshine smiling on the pit yard. Site Manager Glen and Friends Chair Steve opened the gates to catch up on the progress in the restoration of the roof of the winding engine house, and welcome regular volunteers, Nigel, Alan, John, Keith and Chris to another day’s working party activities.
Works in Progress
Saturday was a busy day at Hemingfield, ushering in the first working party in November. Following a week filled with US election drama and the sombre reflections of remembrance day, Site Manager Glen opened the pit gates, joined by Directors Ian and Christine. Chairman Steve and regular volunteers John and Chris were also on hand as the Friends welcomed a number of new visitors to the site, all eager to see the progress in the winding engine house roof, and to discuss some exciting opportunities throughout the valley.
The Friends of Hemingfield Colliery (FOHC) are delighted to announce that we have received commitments of the funds needed to reconstruct the roof of the historically important 1846 Vertical Winding Engine House.
Saturday was another wet one; a disappointing summer’s day at Hemingfield, and unfortunately the working party and open day were called off. The Friends and volunteers staying indoors to return again on a drier day.
Undeterred, everyone turns their time to good account: the Directors continue their planning work to ensure the future of the site. Meanwhile our active volunteers dive back into their own pursuits inspired by the site. Whether it be investigating the social and economic history; modelling the geological context of Hemingfield; studying the wildlife on site, or seeking inspiration from the variety of flora and fauna to create new artwork, providing new perspectives on the colliery.
In future posts we will start to share the fruits of all of this time and effort. For now, this post will bring together a few odds and ends from some recent delvings into the past, some mining miscellanea.
Nothing but blue skies
Unaccustomed as we are to sunshine and summer days, the Friends and volunteers were delighted to renew acquaintances and bask in the glory of another beautiful day down at Hemingfield.
Friends Director and Site Manager Glen was on site early, joined by regular volunteers Chris, John, and Keith who rolled out the barrows and rubbed on the sun lotion for a hot day’s work at Hemingfield, continuing to remove the overburden and demolition debris of the old boundary wall, as well as revealing the odd find here and there.