Elsecar is an industrial village in South Yorkshire to the south of Barnsley. The village, its heritage centre and the surrounding landscape has been one of Historic England’s Heritage Action Zones since 2017.
Part of our work has been exploring and researching those landscapes and its buildings: Dr Lucy Jessop, Senior Architectural Investigator, tells its story in 10 images.
Early Mining and Agriculture
Evidence of early mining activity can be found in the woodland close to Elsecar. Coal was extracted from Elsecar possibly as early as the Middle Ages, when agriculture was still the principal activity in the area.
Lidar images allows us to strip away the trees to reveal the neat pattern of circular shafts or bell pits in Simon Wood and King’s Wood, part of the medieval landholding of Linthwaite. These patterns of extraction suggest that the coal here was being worked before the later 18th century.
The Early Industrialisation of Elsecar
The tiny hamlet of Elsecar Green and its surrounding land was bought during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Wentworth (later Watson-Wentworth, then Wentworth-Fitzwilliam) family. Wentworth Woodhouse, their enormous country house, is about a mile away to the south-east of Elsecar.
They swiftly exploited the coal under their estate and in the 1790s the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam built Elsecar New Colliery, two ironworks and a canal to take his products away. Today the colliery’s Newcomen engine and its engine house still stand, an amazing survival of the original machinery in the building created for it.
Two ironworks were built in the area by the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam: Elsecar in 1795 and Milton in 1797. There, the coal mined locally was combined with the ironstone quarried elsewhere on the estate to produce high-quality iron used throughout Britain and abroad. Though generally leased out, sometimes the ironworks were managed by the Fitzwilliam estate for years at a time.
It was not unusual in the late 18th century for gentlemen to invest in industry, but often the works were far distant from their country seat and were operated entirely at arm’s length.
From the mid-19th century up to the Second World War, the level of involvement by the Fitzwilliams in their ironworks, collieries and other industrial endeavour was unparalleled by any of their contemporaries in the aristocracy. Both ironworks were frequently rebuilt as technology evolved.
In order to attract workers to the ironworks and the collieries of Elsecar, the 4th and 5th Earls Fitzwilliam built generous, attractive housing. In Elsecar itself, Old Row and Station Row were built around 1800, then Reform Row in 1837, and the terraces of Fitzwilliam Street and Cobcar Terrace in the 1850s.
In Milton, four groups of back-to-back houses were built on Milton Road between 1820 and 1840, and the elegant Skiers Spring Lodge was erected in 1834 to house the ironmasters of Milton.
Families rented cottages with at least two bedrooms, gardens or yards to front and back, a pig sty, and the use of allotments for growing their own food: it was noted in 1845 that these living conditions for miners were considerably better than elsewhere in the country.
Single Elsecar men could choose to live in Fitzwilliam Lodge on Fitzwilliam Street (see below), which was a grand lodging house built in the manner of a compact country house in 1853, although many preferred to rent rooms with fewer stringent rules on alcohol.
Fluctuating iron and coal prices throughout the 19th century, two different ironworking sites and a number of coal mines made centralisation of the estate’s support functions sensible and practical.
The 5th Earl Fitzwilliam, as part of his contemporary rebuilding of the Elsecar Ironworks, added a walled and gated complex of workshops in the 1850s for repairing engines and boilers, and for doing carpentry and joinery work, as well as offices and stores. It also included a railway station, as the workshops were sited at the end of the railway (completed in 1850), and lay close to the canal.
Coal Mining Dominates
By the middle of the 19th century, coal mining was by far the most successful of the Earls’ industries at Elsecar, and it became the only major driving force of the local economy once both ironworks closed for good in the 1880s.
The 5th Earl sunk a new pit in about 1840 called Elsecar Low and unlike most coal mines in England it still stands due to its later use as a pumping station. It is now known as Hemingfield, and is looked after by the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery. Investment in mining continued into the 20th century, with the largest of the village’s mines at Elsecar Main sunk in 1905-08.
Education and Religion
It was important to the Fitzwilliams that their employees and tenants should have access to education (whether self-improvement for adults or schools for children), and to the Church of England. The church of Holy Trinity was built in 1841-3, the school and its master’s house in 1852, and a reading room in 1856, all paid for the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam.
He also provided the market hall (now Milton Hall) so that his villagers would not have to travel too far to buy their provisions. However, nonconformist chapels – and eventually, a Catholic church – were built at the expense of their congregations.
A New Garden Suburb
Soon after Elsecar Main was opened, the Fitzwilliam estate invested in what was to be its last expansion of housing in the village. A local architect and builder were employed to build the first part of Strafford Avenue, Lifford Place and the eastern part of Cobcar Lane in 1911.
A model village aesthetic of brick, render, varied groupings and hedges was chosen, in contrast to the long rows of sandstone cottages built in the previous century. Unusual doorcases and steeply sloping roofs are typical features of this development. The local authority continued the street, with less individual pairs of houses, in 1926.
With the National Coal Board in control from 1946, following on from the wartime Ministry of Fuel and Power, Elsecar Main provided much of the village’s employment. The NCB continued to use the Earls’ workshops within the Ironworks.
As the population expanded, modern housing was needed in the village. These Wates pre-cast concrete houses in Welland Crescent could be quickly assembled from concrete piers and slabs without much-skilled labour, at a time when manpower and materials were in short supply. Elsecar Main closed in 1983 and was demolished soon after; its site is now rewilding.
When the National Coal Board left Elsecar, a dedicated team of volunteers and the local council saved the site of Elsecar Ironworks and the central workshops, including the Newcomen engine and the Rolling Mill.
Today, this is Elsecar Heritage Centre, run by Barnsley Museums for Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, where an eclectic mix of heritage experiences, businesses and retail flourish in the elegant surroundings of the workshops and the village the Earls created.
Watch: Elsecar 1880: Victorian Elsecar Revealed!
Experience what it was like to live and work in Victorian Elsecar in this astonishingly detailed digital reconstruction.