Town mining a rich seam of history

Tin baths, 1930s wedding dresses and deeds dating almost 1,000 years – Barnsley's history goes far beyond mining. And next year a new museum will be open to celebrate the town's rich history, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.

"I WAS in the killing industry for 30 years," says Gerald Alliot, an 82-year-old historian in Barnsley.

He wasn't an assassin. He didn't run an abattoir. Rather, he ran a successful tobacco enterprise, based in Barnsley, for more than three decades.

But that was just one chapter in Gerald's life. He also lived in a stately home for 10 years, worked in the RAF and – at the sprightly age of 74 – learned how to fly.

And he's still going. Gerald is an historian specialising in all things Barnsley and his stories, along with those of another 150 Barnsley people, will soon form part of one of the most ambitious projects of any South Yorkshire museum.

People from across Barnsley have been donating their artefacts, old documents, memoirs and oral histories to form a huge collection about Barnsley.

Known as Experience Barnsley, the collection will be accessible at Barnsley's new museum, which will open next year in the Town Hall.

And as part of this vast project more than 150 people visited the Civic Centre on Saturday to record their stories for future generations of people to listen to.

The event, Barnsley Day, featured volunteers in period dress, children's activities and, most importantly, the opportunity to contribute to a huge social history collection of all things Barnsley.

"I've already given so much to the archive but it's a good thing – this will be the first time people can come along and learn something about Barnsley," said Gerald.

"I became fascinated with Barnsley's history more than 22 years ago, when I was given an old map of the town, and have been writing Barnsley's history and working at the Museum and Heritage Centre ever since."

Gerald moved to Barnsley with his parents when he was five years old. The family lived modestly, as did many other families in South Yorkshire at that time.

"We had a tin bath in the 1930s and us three children would be bathed on a Friday night. I must have had all the mucky water though, being the youngest.

"The bath hung up on the wall in the kitchen for the rest of the week but that was how most people lived. It wasn't until 1958 that I moved into a house with central heating. Kids don't know how lucky they are these days, which is why it's good to understand what it was like in the past."

And Barnsley was a very different town when Gerald was running his tobacco business.

"Everyone smoked in those days – I smoked like a chimney and started when I was about 14 or 15. But we didn't know any better.

"I can't understand why people smoke today though, with all the health warnings.

"People didn't have cars back then either – in the 1940 and 1950s most people travelled on a bicycle or a motorbike.

"I loved cycling, the fact you just get about on a bike was great. I used to cycle to Lincoln every Sunday, which was a 60-mile journey. I cycled more than anything else. I couldn't afford a car."

Gerald was 32 before he owned his first car – a brand new Mini that cost him 490.

"I still have the receipt," he says.

There are hundreds of tales, like Gerald's that were recorded on Saturday as part of the project.

And the collection's not just about oral histories. There are also dozens of documents and objects, donated by locals.

Paul Stebbing, the manager of Barnsley archives and local studies library, said: "There are some gems in the collection including a wedding dress from the 1930s, a placard from a local pit and a title deed dating back to 1180 which relates to land transactions between two families in Penistone.

"It's great to have a document nearly 1,000 years old."

The deed is made of animal skin, which Paul believes is contributing to its longevity.

"Most of our documents are stored electronically now. If you put a CD in a box and opened it up 1,000 years later you wouldn't be able to read any files on it," he said.

The Experience Barnsley project will also bring to light the fact that Barnsley's history is not just about mining, as Paul explains.

"Barnsley's history is not only industrial history – there's a lot of prehistory and from the 13th century onwards the town was a busy market town – there was a market here as early as 1249.

"Most people think of Barnsley only as a mining town but there were two other major industries in this town – the linen industry, which dates back to the 18th century, and glass manufacturing. This is why the project is so exciting!"

Experience Barnsley has been awarded more than 2 million Heritage Lottery funding towards the new museum, research and collection.

"It's going to be a unique and fantastic heritage site and we've got some wonderful stuff, including material from as late as the 1980s and 2000s – it's still history, after all, even though many of us don't consider artefacts from this period as particularly historic."

In the meantime, while Bransley Town Hall is transformed into a museum as part of the Experience Barnsley project, John is still looking to add to the collection.

He said: "We are grateful for any donations relating to Barnsley's history."

But first, John has another job to do – listening to more than 150 tales about life in Barnsley.

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