As a former professional archaeologist, I have always been interested in the idea of “ruins” (in the broadest sense) as foci for remembering. This is implicit in the idea of a heritage site, which as well as being somewhere where the physical remains of past activities are conserved, managed and displayed, acts as a place where stories associated with that past can be explored and shared.

In 2012 I began a CDA PhD studentship researching the industrial and social history of the village of Elsecar, near Barnsley. In the period 1750 to 1850, this small hamlet grew into a thriving industrial complex of coal mines, iron works and workers’ housing that was in many ways a microcosm of the Industrial Revolution. The structures associated with Elsecar’s industrial past (which include the last Newcomen atmospheric steam engine surviving in its original location anywhere in the world) now form the basis of a £500,000 Lottery-funded project by Barnsley Museums which seeks to a re-appraise and re-interpret of the history of the village. Because of this, the village is an ideal place in which to consider the significance of “ruins”, heritage and history.

At Elsecar, the-reinterpretation project will result in a series of 28 information panels that will be set in places of historical significance within the village. Of course, these chosen historic locations continue to occupy space within the modern day village landscape, so that the similarities and tensions between the past and present will become more obvious. You will, for example, be able to stand next to a pile of peaceful, overgrown brick structures and feel that these represent the remains of a great ironworks, which once belched smoke and fire high into the air, day and night, and which supported generations of workers and their families. A heritage site then, by its nature, forces us to confront the idea that the significance of a particular location is held to lie in the activities that occurred there in the past, rather than with the present or the potentialities of the future.

With this in mind, the question that needs to be asked is why these physical remains and the ghosts of the past that they invoke continue to have a resonance in the modern world? Why do they continue to hold a fascination and importance for people? In the course of my collaborative activities with Barnsley Museums, I have met a variety of people – villagers, schoolchildren, industrial archaeologists, engineering and steam enthusiasts, former workers, local historians and family history researchers- all of whom find something of value in the site and its history. As a society, we are still coming to terms with the massive post-war decline in manufacturing and industry and its social, economic and environmental effects. Within this context, a fascination with heritage and history, whether it be the physical remains of an apparent golden age of industrial supremacy, or with the personal past of ancestors and relatives, can be seen as a search for something to hold on to, something to ground oneself to in a world in which the future and our place in it seems far from secure. This is particularly true of former industrial villages such as Elsecar, where economic decline has been most keenly felt and where personal and community identity has traditionally been closely linked to the worlds of industry and work.

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“Children at Foundry Street, Elsecar, 1910. Photographer unknown” (Source: Barsley Museums)


So, can engagement with the past ever be more than just comfy nostalgia, a security blanket to keep out the cold realities of the modern world? I would argue that the value of the past lies not in its perceived certainties, but in its ambiguities and its power to help us understand and challenge the present. Elsecar, for example, owed its development to the Earls Fitzwilliam, the local landowners who financed, developed and controlled most of its industries and who acknowledged their debt to the villagers through the provision of benefits such as well-designed workers’ housing, sick pay and pensions. In the mid 1800s, this paternalistic relationship came to be seen in some quarters as the model for a new form of social contract between employee and employer, one which would mitigate both industrial poverty and social unrest.

At the same time, however, the villagers tempered their deference to the Earls’ authority and social vision by playing an enthusiastic part in the struggle for workers’ rights. In 1858 miners from Elsecar joined other miners in West Yorkshire in a strike in which the right to join a union, long banned by the Earls Fitzwilliam, became a major issue. In the course of the strike, thousands of miners attended a rally that was symbolically held at a well-known landmark in the park of the Earl’s Wentworth estate. As a result of continual campaigning by his workers, the Earl finally allowed unions at Elsecar in the 1880s and in 1910 tacitly acknowledged the success and power of the union movement by addressing the Trades Union Congress. In common with the metal workers of Sheffield, the miners, ironworkers and villagers of Elsecar showed a strong sense of identity and independence that persists to this day and it is thus little surprise that the miners’ strike of 1984 began at nearby Cortonwood (although miners from Elsecar participated in the strike, the last remaining pit in the village, Elsecar Main Colliery, had already closed).

In the modern world, where the idea that employers have a moral obligation to provide for the welfare of their employees seems quaintly old-fashioned and idealistic, and when many people feel themselves to be disenfranchised, excluded and powerless, the struggles and experiences of past generations are an important reminder of collective agency and the power of communities to effect change. At Elsecar, a pride in the achievements of the past, as symbolised by the opening of the renovated Newcomen Engine, forms part of a powerful local identity which helps to strengthen the community as it faces the uncertainties and challenges of the future.


Nigel Cavanagh is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. From 1998-2012 he enjoyed a successful career as a professional field archaeologist. Nigel’s main interests lie in medieval, post-medieval and industrial archaeology, with a particular interest in the archaeology of industrial decline. You can learn more about the Elsecar Heritage Centre and Newcomen Engine here.

Featured image: “Miners enjoy a swim in the canal at Elsecar Main Colliery on  their day off, circa 1912. From an old postcard” (Source: Barnsley Museums)

Tags : archaeologyelsecarheritageidentityindustrial revolutionlocal historynewcomen enginenorth eastpublic history
Nigel Cavanagh

The author Nigel Cavanagh

1 Comment

  1. There are many aspects to historical sites and those who work at or visit them I think. The biggest drive is looking for a sense of continuity. So much has been written about the aristocracy and kings and queens but for most they bear no resemblance to the life their ancestors would have lived. There is even in this modern era to touch the objects of the past to feel the continuity and sometimes just to realise what great survivors humans are. Its also looking at the past and thinking what you want to keep from that and what you hope never returns. It’s hard to be a politician and not have knowledge of the past and equally hard to be a historian without having a political view.

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