At Elsecar Heritage Railway we use the name “The Coalfield Line” to celebrate and reflect on the coal mining heritage of our route and its environs. The railway connects the sites of several coal mines, from Elsecar to Cortonwood and reflects a period of history stretching from the creation of Earl Fitzwilliam’s iron and coal empire, through nationalisation of the mining industry, to the demise of local coal mining in the 1980s.
Our railway is the former 1850 Elsecar Branch of the South Yorkshire Railway, which was created as a company in 1845 as the South Yorkshire Coal Railway and enabled by act of Parliament in 1847 as the South Yorkshire, Doncaster and Goole Railway Company. The single-track mineral line Elsecar Branch ran from Elsecar to Elsecar Junction near Wath, via Cortonwood, serving local collieries and ironworks. The line follows the Dearne and Dove Canal from Elsecar Basin to Cortonwood and originally crossed the canal by lifting bridge. In 1864 the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (M,S&LR) took over the South Yorkshire Railway. In 1897, the M,S&LR renamed itself to The Great Central Railway (GCR) which under the Railways Act of 1921 became part of railway grouping of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Earl Fitzwilliam ran private trains from his own covered station at Elsecar (now the Playmania building in the Elsecar Heritage Centre), with the future King Edward VII a regular passenger to Doncaster Races. Earl Fitzwilliam lived at Wentworth Woodhouse in Wentworth village, one mile from Elsecar. Wentworth Woodhouse is the largest frontage house in Europe. Around Elsecar and Wentworth are situated Wentworth Follies, constructed by Earl Fitzwilliam. The largest of these is Hoober Stand which offers panoramic views to as far as York on a clear day. The house and follies represent the wealth made by the Rockingham family (Earl Fitzwilliam) from iron and mining in the Elsecar area. The house is now a Grade One listed building and open to the public.
The Elsecar Branch joined the Barnsley to Doncaster line at Elsecar Junction. Elsecar Junction was close to Wath Marshalling Yard opened in 1907 where wagon load coal orders, in wagons owned by individual collieries, were marshalled into trains for distribution over the Woodhead line. The Woodhead line was electrified in the 1950s starting in Wath for the purpose of heavy coal traffic haulage to Manchester, via Sheffield and Penistone.
Post Second World War nationalisation saw LNER become part of British Railways (BR) in 1948 and Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries become part of the National Coal Board (NCB) in 1946.
The branch, as part of BR, was closely associated with National Coal Board operated exchange sidings at the major deep shaft collieries along its route, notable Elsecar and Cortonwood from colliery nationalisation in 1946.
The end of the line in Elsecar was known as Elsecar Goods Station. This closed in early 1970s. NCB Cortonwood was still running steam engines on the line as late as 1970.
The branch wound down as coal production and transport methods changed with the section to Elsecar closing first. The branch finally closed in 1984 when Cortonwood Colliery shut following The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
The track was taken up as the collieries were demolished, and this would have been the end of the railway, like so many others, if not for the decision to turn Earl Fitzwilliam’s workshops into a heritage destination.
Barnsley Council reopened the railway as part of their Elsecar Heritage Centre. The track had to be totally relaid and a platform built so passengers could join the train. The council called this Rockingham Station, the family name of Earl Fitzwilliam. The first steam engine to run, an Avonside locomotive, was named Earl Fitzwilliam after the industrialist who developed the Elsecar area and built the Heritage Centre buildings as his repair works for mining equipment and coal wagons. On Good Friday, 5th April 1996, the first passenger train left the new Rockingham station, beginning heritage railway operations in Elsecar.
On March 1st 2006, responsibility for the operation of the line passed from Barnsley Council, to the Elsecar Railway Preservation Group, later renamed Elsecar Heritage Railway - a charitable trust. 20 years after re-opening, the railway is still going strong and has developed considerably, running regular passenger trains, events and Footplate Experience Courses. Our track now runs to Hemingfield, with a further mile being reinstated to Cortonwood.
On Saturday 26th March 2016, we celebrated 20 years of Elsecar Heritage Railway.
Now passengers can ride one mile of The Coalfield Line starting at Elsecar Station which is surrounded by Industrial Archeology.
At the end of the station platform is the remains of Elsecar Iron Works, opened in late 1700’s by John and William Darwin & Co and later part of Earl Fitzwilliam’s industrial empire. Just beyond the ironworks to the east is the entrance to Elsecar Old Colliery, a drift mine, from 1723. To the south of the station is the site of the former Elsecar Main Colliery sunk in 1905 with the Trade Union Banner from this colliery on display in the station.
Opposite Elsecar station is Elsecar Heritage Centre which was built from 1850 as the repair workshops of the Fitzwilliam estate. The railway yard and our engine shed were the wagon repair workshops. Later, the site became the NCB Barnsley Area Workshops.
As the train leaves the station it pauses at Distillery Crossing and then passes, on the right, Elsecar New Colliery with its Newcomen Beam Engine and house from 1795. Now owned by Barnsley Council, as part of the Elsecar Heritage Centre, the engine has been recently restored and is open to the public at designated times (see the Heritage Centre website). As the journey continues, on the left, is the canal basin and terminus of the Dearne and Dove Canal - Elsecar Branch. The Trans-Pennie trial runs between the canal and railway. All along the journey is evidence of industry, like retaining walls and water drainage channels from the mines and the site of Simon Wood Colliery. The line bends and passes under Wath Road before dipping down, then climbing up to Hemingfield. With gradients up to 1 in 37 you can really hear the power of the engines as they work hard to climb the banks.
As the train approaches Hemingfield, on the left, are twin barge mooring basins where coal was loaded from Hemingfield Colliery, with the colliery buildings on the right. Two pit heads can be clearly seen and a beam engine house (though there is no engine there now). This colliery started mining in 1848 and has two shafts, still open, one a winding shaft and the other for water pumping. The site remained in use for water pumping until the final days of mining in the area.
The Coalfield Line currently ends at Tingle Bridge Lane, but soon we will open another mile of track to Cortonwood. The scenery changes as the line passes through a wet land area with attractive reeds and bullrushes, and still following the canal on the left. After Smithy Bridge crossing and passing through a wooded area, full of wild garlic, the train passes, on the right, the site of Willow Main colliery, which operated in the 1880s and was the predecessor pit to Cortonwood. We enter Cortonwood at the site of the former major colliery. Here we will have a station and a park area where we invite people to reflect on the significance of the site and The Coalfield Line.
Cortonwood Colliery was sunk by the Brampton Colliery Company (Brampton is the village nearest the colliery site) in 1873. Originally Cortonwood was known as New Brampton Colliery.
Cortonwood Colliery closed in 1985. Today, there are no remains of the pit, with much of the former colliery site now being a large retail park, which takes the colliery name. The Pit Head baths were where Morrison's Supermarket now is and the filled in mine shafts are now under B&Q. The railway site was the exchange sidings and coal washing plant.
Mining was a hazardous industry. Half a mile from Cortonwood, to the left as the railway enters the station site, was Lundhill Colliery. On 19 February 1857, 189 men and boys were killed in an explosion here. Three miles from Cortonwood is Barnsley Oaks Colliery, where the pit head can still be visited. On 12 December 1866 an explosion killed 361 men and boys here. The following day, during rescue operations, a further explosion killed 27 more men. This is the worst disaster at a colliery in England.
Cortonwood had disasters too. Between 1876 and 1943, 87 men died in accidents at the pit. The worst incident was on 9 December 1932 when 7 men died in an explosion. Also, on 19 June 1961, 4 men died from a gas emission.
Today, Cortonwood is primarily remembered for its association with the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike. Cortonwood miners were the first to strike over pit closures which started the now infamous strike and political battle led by Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill.
There were also two incline railways running to the Elsecar Branch of the Dearne and Dove Canal, both long gone, but their alignment can still be traced. The first terminated near to Distillery Crossing (at the end of our Elsecar Station) and was the Thorncliffe and Elsecar Railway opened in 1839 to link to Tankersley Park Iron Pits and Hoyland Coal Mines to the canal. The second ran from coke ovens, situated approximately half a mile along The CoalField Line from Elsecar, to Jump Pit and onto Silkstone Collieries.
Today as our visitors travel The Coalfield Line it is difficult to imagine just how much industrial activity there was in a two mile corridor. The Coalfield Line is now surrounded by trees, the canal and wetlands and seems like a pleasant rural branch line, but this impression does not reflect its past and why the line was built, hence we use The Coalfield Line name to give that association.
Whether visiting for today’s pleasant scenery, to experience rail travel of old, to enjoy one of our events, to see the industrial heritage from Elsecar to Hemingfield and Cortonwood, or to reflect on the mining legacy of the area; we welcome you to Elsecar Heritage Railway - The Coalfield Line and wish you a very pleasant day. Yorkshire Heritage, Yorkshire Hospitality at The Coalfield Line.