Opening Night: Steam, Coal and Iron
On 21st November 2014, a crowd of several thousand people gathered in torrential rain at the Earl Fitzwilliam’s former colliery workshops in Elsecar, near Barnsley, to witness the official unveiling of the newly-restored Newcomen Atmospheric Steam Engine. Installed at Elsecar New Colliery in 1795, this mine pumping engine, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is now the oldest steam engine surviving in its original location anywhere in the world.
The evening began in the former rolling mill of Elsecar Ironworks, which in the mid-nineteenth century was one of the most technically advanced ironworks in Britain. Speeches were given by the Mayor of Barnsley, by the Group Leader of Barnsley Arts, Museums and Archives, by the Yorkshire Director of English Heritage, by the Chief Executive of Sheffield Museums Trust, and by the President of the Newcomen Society. An invited audience of 600, including schoolchildren, ex-miners, councillors, local historians, engineers and university professors, watched short films about the engine renovation project, and an animated film about the village, made by the children of Elsecar Trinity School, was shown. Afterwards, this audience joined the large crowds already gathering at the floodlit engine house, and as trains from the adjacent Elsecar Heritage Railway produced suitably atmospheric clouds of steam, the Newcomen engine lumbered into motion for the first time in 60 years, to the accompaniment of rousing music, cheers and fireworks.
Heritage, Ruins, Remembering
The Newcomen engine is only one part of the industrial built heritage at Elsecar. The Earl Fitzwilliam’s colliery workshops survive, now run as a heritage centre by Barnsley Museums, as do outstanding examples of early terraced workers’ cottages. Running through the village is the 1850 industrial railway, now re-opened and run as a heritage attraction, and next to it, the picturesque Elsecar branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal. Close by, awaiting archaeological investigation, lie the ruins of Elsecar Ironworks, established in 1795. The whole complex of diverse structures forms one of the most important industrial heritage sites in Britain, potentially as significant, for example, as Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.
A heritage site is an interesting concept; to me, it suggests somewhere where ‘something important’ once happened, but doesn’t anymore. One suspects, for example, that there would be little incentive for historians to examine industrial communities, were it not for the fact that these communities and the industries upon which they were based have all but disappeared within a generation. As the archaeologist Sir Neil Cossons has said, we now live in a period of unprecedented, accelerated change. Social and economic structures that once seemed so permanent have decayed rapidly, and the remains of Britain’s age of industry will, in a few years, seem to many as remote and enigmatic as stone circles or medieval castles. The challenge of history would thus seem to be to retain relevance in the modern world.
My PhD, Industrialising Communities: a Case Study of Elsecar 1750-1860, is an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award that looks at various aspects of the social history of the village in the period in which it evolved from a small hamlet into a regional economic and industrial powerhouse. The aim of my research is to view this process from the perspective of the villagers, looking at the key issues surrounding the themes of community and collective agency as they developed within the particular structures of power, and within the particular environment, of the village. In particular, the PhD looks at the complex relationship between the villagers and the local landowners and industrial entrepreneurs, the Earls Fitzwilliam, whose influence pervaded many aspects of village life.
How Does a Steam Engine Relate to my Research?
As part of the £500,000 Lottery-funded Newcomen engine renovation project, Barnsley Museums are committed to a re-appraisal and re-interpretation of the historic remains at Elsecar. The aim is to tell the wider story of the village, placing the engine and the surviving elements of the industrial built heritage firmly within their social and historical context.
The medium that has been chosen to accomplish this is a series of 28 information panels, each telling a different aspect of Elsecar’s history. These are to be installed at various points around the site and will complement a newly-revamped museum gallery. The collaborative element of my PhD has been to work with John Tanner, Project Officer for Barnsley Museums, and with a panel of historical research and interpretation volunteers, researching content and providing analysis for the interpretive panels.
My PhD will thus produce both a (hopefully) rich, significant and original piece of historical research, and a process of engagement and collaboration with the villagers that will lead to a permanent public interpretive resource. This will allow visitors to learn about the processes of social and economic change that have shaped the village and, in consequence, to more fully understand and locate themselves within the landscapes and social structures of the present. The renovation of the Newcomen engine, which facilitated the entire project, acts as the bridge between these two distinctive elements.
The Challenges and Benefits of Collaboration
Working collaboratively involves a number of challenges. Firstly, whilst the direction and content of my thesis is largely determined by the evidence and my own research interests, the collaborative interpretation involves working towards a series structured of goals. For example, the information panels are targeted towards a number of distinct audiences, such as children, families, day-trippers, culture seekers and historical enthusiasts. The interpretation must be broad enough to engage with all of these diverse groups, and so the researcher must avoid the temptation to focus too deeply on one topic, at the expense of others in which they may have little personal interest. Similarly, Barnsley Museums work towards a specific set of Learning Outcomes for the site which include, for example, an understanding of the industrialisation of Elsecar and its social consequences, together with an appreciation of the significance of the village within a wider regional context. The collaborative interpretation thus involves finding and choosing historical anecdotes and events that support the interpretive agenda. The result is a very specific and concise particular form of written history (the main text panel on each board is only 120 words long), which nevertheless must be historically truthful and not shy away from difficult areas such as inequality and poverty.
The second challenge of collaboration is to work effectively with members of the public. For me, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the project and has involved recognising the limitations of my own expertise in the face of the wealth of historical and local knowledge that the highly-motivated and committed volunteers have brought to the project. Although I have been successful in introducing some novel aspects into the collaboration through my own research, I feel that I have gained a much wider and appreciation of the village through my involvement in the collaborative process, and that my PhD thesis will be richer as a result. Collaboration is thus not only an opportunity for the university researcher to inform; it is also an important way in which to learn.
Why My Research Matters
So, does exploring the history of Elsecar simply involve reliving past glories? Can it have any relevance in the modern world? The answer, I think, lies in the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response of the villagers to the opening of the restored Newcomen engine. The renovation of the engine, derelict for 60 years, in a sense symbolises the renaissance of the village which, like many others, has been badly affected by mine closures and economic decline. Speaking with the villagers, it is abundantly clear that there remains a widespread pride in the achievements of the past. This is something that I believe the new information panels will tap into and enrich by promoting lesser-known aspects of village history, and by demonstrating the historic importance of community agency in facilitating the processes of change. At Elsecar, the shared experience of generations of families working and living together, the importance of family and neighbour networks in mutual aid and support, the development of a community identity and the collective agency of the villagers, as shown in a long tradition of union activism, all send powerful messages to the present. In an age where many people feel themselves to be economically and politically disenfranchised, this ability of history to remind people of their own power is hugely important. Of course, an understanding of the past is not in itself a solution to the problems of the present. However, it can be a very useful starting point from which to move forward.