New archaeology equipment could unlock village's hidden secrets

Hidden history: University student Sam Frandsen with Dr John Tanner from Barnsley Council at the 'gas works field' site
Hidden history: University student Sam Frandsen with Dr John Tanner from Barnsley Council at the 'gas works field' site
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A new generation of survey equipment is being used to help map out the secrets of one of the country’s earliest model villages, which are thought to have remained hidden beneath the landscape for generations.

Elsecar in Barnsley was the industrial centre for the empire created by the Fitzwilliam family from their Wentworth Woodhouse estate nearby and the neighbourhood they created for the workforce which earned the family’s vast wealth is increasingly recognised for its importance – predating the better known model villages such as Saltaire in West Yorkshire.

Although the village is known as a mining community, it also had a thriving iron industry in the Industrial Revolution, with power for that supplied by a gasworks which was decommissioned and removed from the landscape during the last century.

Now a team of Leeds University academics have been called in as part of work to unlock some of the area’s hidden history and they have been using an advanced new type of ‘geophys’ equipment to survey the ‘gas works field’ site in the village where that industry once operated.

Dr John Tanner, Barnsley Council’s project leader for work to uncover the area’s past, said: “It is brand new form of geophys and archaeoloogy. it is more like weighing the field, using gravitational pull to get an idea of what is underground.”

Student Sam Frandsen is studying explorational geophysics at Leeds University and is part of the team which has spent days surveying the site.

Although she still needs to analyse the raw date produced, she said the initial results were encouraging.

The results of the work are expected to help guide the process of where archaeological digs take place in the village, with the expectation that the public will be able to get involved in helping with excavations which could provide a physical insight into what remains of the village’s groundbreaking industry.

Dr Tanner said: “We have 250 or 300 years’ worth of secrets.”

The area has been designated a Heritage Action Zone, one of ten locations in the country to be given that status, which brings with it funding and an impetus to discover what remains from the past and what can be unearthed.

The old National Coal Board workshops are still a focal point in the village, now converted to the Elsecar Heritage Centre, where Dr Tanner is based. They started life as the workshops for the Fitzwilliam estate before nationalisation and were taken over by Barnsley Council following the demise of the coal industry.

They are now a focal point for the heritage of the village, sitting alongside the canal basin, Elsecar New Colliery with the recently restored Newcomen beam engine, the only one of its type to remain in its original home, and remnants of the iron industry which was also a prolific producer of metal as industrialisation took hold.

In addition to delving into centuries old history, work is also being done to preserve more modern history, with those who worked at the workshops, or with memories of those who did, being encouraged to share their knowledge for a new project which should ensure that information is preserved for future generations.