The earth is on fire. Deep underground Satan draws on a fine cigar. In between the land’s peaks and troughs smoke gathers up under sunlight spread across the horizon like a thick bruise. That’s Yorkshire for you.
It’s an early morning mist on the road to Silkstone Common. This is clean land. It’s as perfect a setting for a Discovering Britain walk as you could ask for. Away from the M1 the fields look untroubled by industry. Geese parade by a farm’s pond and a sign warns against adders in a front garden.
Underground, the landscape was as industrialised in its way as Sheffield, as beneath Silkstone Common’s commuter-belt houses, gentrified railway cottages and clean new-builds, lies a tunnel network built upon local sacrifice.
“Conditions in the coalmines at the time make Spielberg’s underground child gulag in Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom seem more a documentary than comic-book fantasy”
‘I went into the pit at seven years of age. When I drew by the girdle and chain, the skin was broken and the blood ran down… If we said anything they would beat us. I have seen many draw at six. They must do it or be beat. They cannot straighten their backs during the day. I have sometimes pulled till my hips have hurt me so that I have not known what to do with myself.’ So told Robert North, a Yorkshire miner, in 1842 when his account was read in the House of Commons. Lord Shaftesbury spoke North’s testimony into the record. Shaftesbury put the squeeze on Victorian commercial vices: overwork, child labour and pauperdom. If you care to remember the old philanthropist, go to Piccadilly Circus and leave a flower at the Eros statue; it’s the Shaftesbury Memorial, but quite forgotten as such.
What drove Shaftesbury to rush the Mines and Collieries of Act of 1843 through Parliament was a particular disaster in the Silkstone seam. Conditions in the coalmines at the time make Spielberg’s underground child gulag in Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom seem more a documentary than comic-book fantasy.
Miners worked in this feral state six days a week with church to look forward to on Sunday, but it was on a Tuesday afternoon in July 1838 at the Silkstone seam that death interrupted misery.
The House Carr Pit in Huskar has disappeared. To stand on the site today, the bridgehead to the walk, is to stand in a pleasant wood. Beneath the tree roots is a labyrinth where 26 children drowned after a freak thunderstorm destroyed the mine’s machinery.
Huskar’s mines were shallow, so-called ‘day holes’ that relied heavily on natural light. The Somme-like craters that let the light in are all but invisible in today’s wood. Despite the shallowness, without lifting gear the trapped miners were as remote as the Victorian era’s Australian convicts.
‘On that eventful day the Lord sent forth His Thunder, Lightning, Hail and Rain carrying devastation before them,’ records a memorial in the local church that marks this ‘visitation of the Almighty’. The 26 victims are interred in a common grave beneath. A secular memorial in the woods, two supplicant stone miners wedged into tunnels, also marks the Lord’s visit.
‘When we first set up the monument someone stole the statues,’ says Granville Clarke, a local artist and Fellow of the Royal Society. ‘They couldn’t sell them, though.’
“Silkstone coal was sweet fuel for the Victorians. It burned clean and hot with little ash”
Up proverbial hill, down proverbial dale, the steam-pulled wagon took Huskar coal to Silkstone Common’s summit before being horse-drawn down to Silkstone village and onwards by the waggonway path to the canal. As I continue the walk, the road is busy with quality dog walkers: labradoodles, cockapoos, and setters. Silkstone Common, a bench plaque notes, was a millennial Village of the Year.
‘The wicked flee where no man pursueth,’ says Proverbs 28:1. Folded into Silkstone’s outskirts is Noblethorpe Hall. This was the Clarke (no relation to the abovementioned artist) family’s lair for several generations. Jonas Clarke, a solicitor turned coal baron, founded his little empire in 1792 and his family bought local farms from Yorkshire hillbillies in the rush for black gold.
Silkstone coal was sweet fuel for the Victorians. It burned clean and hot with little ash. This geological black beauty was to wow the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a 152-kilogram lump hewn (a mandatory term when writing about coal, apparently) from the Silkstone seam. So iridescent was the rock with blue, turquoise and green colouration that it became known as peacock coal.
‘Several of Mrs Clarke’s colliers were allowed to travel to London with the sample and see it on display,’ reports Alan Gallop in his history of the Silkstone seam, Victoria’s Children of the Dark. ‘Their Yorkshire dialect was said to be so thick and difficult to understand that bystanders took them for foreigners.’ Allowed is the operative word, for the Clarke’s owned not only the mines but for all intents the people as well. Miners lived in Clarke houses, and shopped in the company ‘tommy’ store for everything from food to mining equipment. For a relatively free Londoner, the Huskar colliers with an alien dialect may as well have been vassals from a distant colony.
‘When the miners from Huskar attended the area’s first union meeting to demand higher wages the company threw them out of the houses,’ says Granville Clarke. ‘The family hired local vagabonds – meaning gypsies – to clear out the homes and rough up the workers.’
Late 19th century mergers and combinations saw the Huskar pit leave Clarke family hands. Locals say that Noblethorpe Hall fell for a time to an ebullient local businessman with colourful connections. Now it is subdivided into luxury flats with an asking price of £1.7 million. The plain mansion skulks guiltily on the village edge as if it knows it has been up to no good.
“The industrialists at the Pot House were on guard against vanity, a healthy counterpoint to Victorian death neuroses”
On the waggonway path, as if to confirm satanic activity, goats nuzzle at fence posts. Go eye-to-eye with one and the diabolic connection becomes clear. The pupil is like a Rorschach test; it provokes queasiness as surely as the beast’s gamey milk.
‘Excuse me. I was just talking to the geese,’ says a local walker. Her husband is a few metres ahead, rigid as the Silkstone seam itself. The livestock belongs to the Pot House Hamlet, an ancient industrial site. Built in the 1600s as a glassworks and pottery, it has become the staple English sub-rural confection, a nursery-cum-restaurant-cum-clothes shop. ‘Momento Mori AD 1682,’ reads an inscription over a door at the Pot House. Remember you must die. This is somehow cheering. Unlike Noblethorpe Hall’s bland ostentation, the industrialists at the Pot House were on guard against vanity, a healthy counterpoint to Victorian death neuroses.
The waggonway leads to the Barnby canal basin. ‘There used to be an old dock, it even had a pub called the Jolly Sailor,’ says Granville. ‘The council filled it all in,’ he adds.
All that remains are the waggonway sleepers, stone pancakes shaped like a carthorse’s hoof fall. Where the path splits stands a pop pit, a colliery spoil heap made with Silkstone offcuts. This is a chance to touch the black gold. A post-industrial spoil heap made with plastic bottles and empty beer cans mirrors the older spoilage.
“Inside, the pub landlord waits with his weekday locals, ready to thee, tha, chuddy and wick outsiders into submission”
A front garden on the approach to All Saints church mixes recovered mine paraphernalia with stout gerberas. A printed note, weathered to tea-colour, marks the equipment as belonging to a retired miner. The mines finished in Silkstone during the 1920s, but neighbouring Dodworth’s pits closed 30 years ago.
‘The employment of females of any age in and about the mines is most objectionable, and I should rejoice to see it put an end to; but in the present feeling of the colliers, no individual would succeed in stopping it in a neighbourhood where it prevailed, because the men would immediately go to those pits where their daughters would be employed… I object on general principles to government interference in the conduct of any trade, and I am satisfied that in mines it would be productive of the greatest injury and injustice.’
So claimed Thomas Wilson, owner of three local collieries. His testimony against Lord Shaftesbury’s Mines Act was not unique. Letters to The Times whimpered that regulation was a threat industry. ‘Mine owners who were MPs tried to suppress the investigations. Not much changes in politics,’ observes Granville.
Down the road from All Saints is the Red Lion pub where an inquiry into the Huskar disaster took place. Inside, the pub landlord waits with his weekday locals, ready to thee, tha, chuddy and wick outsiders into submission. From the Red Lion’s very public inquiry, Shaftesbury’s legislation grew. Once passed, it banned women from the mines and kept children below ten out as well.
The walk terminates at the primary school, founded in 1850, a gift to the village from a Clarke family widow. After following the mine’s history the school seems luxurious. Like their mines, the Clarkes seem to have disappeared into the landscape, if anyone is remembered here it is the miners. What appears to be nature is an industrial bone yard; spoilage is not always visible, and so does not necessarily corrupt the beauty.
Outside Silkstone a road sign proclaims Barnsley’s motto: Spectemur Agendo. Let us be judged by our acts.
Spectemur Agendo, indeed.
This was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.