Secret history of the 'showpiece' Yorkshire village built to impress royalty is revealed

A research project by Historic England has uncovered the fascinating history of a Yorkshire model village that pre-dates the more famous Saltaire.

Elsecar Heritage Centre
Elsecar Heritage Centre

Elsecar, near Barnsley, was owned and built by the Fitzwilliam family from the late 1700s onwards. Their main seat was at the nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, then the largest private home in Britain.

It housed workers from their collieries and iron foundries, but was borne out of a philanthropic vision to provide a healthier environment for employees living in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfields.

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How the halcyon days of Barnsley's nightlife are coming back as the town is awarded Purple Flag statusElsecar was designed to impress; among those who toured the village as guests of the Earl Fitzwilliam was King William IV, the uncle of Queen Victoria and then known as the Duke of Clarence, before he took the throne.

An aerial view of Elsecar

The family wanted to display their altruism and Elsecar was considered a 'showpiece' of paternalism well before Bradford mill owner Sir Titus Salt had laid out his own model village, Saltaire, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and far more prominent.

Historic England published the findings of their research into Elsecar's past this month.

They've spent three years working with Barnsley Council and local residents to uncover more about ties to the village and the Fitzwilliams that go back centuries.

Elsecar: A vision of a better future

The Fitzwilliams built attractive cottages for their workforce, as well as a school, church and allotments. Elsecar was the first of its kind - the likes of Saltaire, Bournville in Birmingham, Port Sunlight in Liverpool and New Lanark in Glasgow copied the Elsecar model.

Most of the planned village survives, while the ironworks site and old workshops have become the Elsecar Heritage Centre, a popular industrial museum with its own steam railway.

Hunting the past

Historic England researchers found evidence preserved in the landscape of the family's desire to boast of their might and influence.

Cocktail bars and rotisserie duck: How Barnsley is regenerating through street foodThe huge furnaces at the ironworks were deliberately built so that they could be seen for miles, and the colliery pumping engine was sited at the heart of the village when Elsecar Main was sunk. A portrait of the overseer of Elsecar Old Colliery was recently discovered - the Earl had commissioned the artist George Stubbs to paint him, reflecting the importance of both the man's position and the mine itself.

The remains of the grand stone entrances to the collieries, beneath which the Duke of Clarence walked in 1828, have also been found - one lies overgrown in a field and another stands in a back garden.

Around 100 volunteers took part in an excavation to reveal where the village's two foundries, Elsecar Ironworks and Milton Ironworks, once stood. The ruins of the former can be seen behind the Victorian workshops that acted as a 'nerve centre' for the Fitzwilliams' industrial operations, and which now house the museum.

However, Milton was 'virtually forgotten' after its closure in the 1880s until the project began, despite it having produced vast structures which were exported across the world. Milton Ironworks were named after the courtesy title of Lord Milton, traditionally given to the eldest Fitzwilliam son and heir.

Bridges built at Milton were erected in the fields above Elsecar for testing - an astonishing sight that drew gawping crowds. Armour plating for the country's first iron-clad battleship, HMS Warrior, was made at Elsecar.

Many of the remans were found buried under playing fields or hidden in undergrowth.

A centre of innovation

Elsecar was always forward-thinking, even in an age of invention. The Earls invested in new technology to improve working conditions in their mines, including ventilation systems.

Historic England discovered that the legacy of these experiments survive underground, including part of the Simonwood Colliery fan - a huge, steam-powered piece of machinery that stood 22ft tall and became a surprising tourist attraction.

Paternal figures

The Fitzwilliams were heavily involved in the lives of their workers and tenants, as was accepted at the times and seen as benevolent intervention.

£70,000 to repair a clock: This is how much it will cost to restore Wentworth Woodhouse to gloryThey were interested in the welfare of the pit ponies, even teaching the young boys who drove them how to play polo on the lawns in front of Wentworth Woodhouse. They created a medal awarded for kindness to the animals, and in 1904 John Bell, who saved the life of his pony after a roof fall, was the recipient. Historic England researchers traced Bell's granddaughter, who still lives in Elsecar today.

They also uncovered a grisly tale from the 1920s, when the Earl's wife attended the Elsecar Horse Play, an annual Christmas tradition. The miners' costumes were looking worse for wear, so she presented them with the skin of her recently-deceased horse, Master Copperfield, to wear in future performances.

Elsecar-by-the-Sea

A more bizarre chapter in Elsecar's history began in 1910, when it became an unlikely holiday resort. A man called Herbert Parkin used the tongue-in-cheek 'Elsecar-by-the-Sea' moniker when sending some photographs of the local reservoir to the Sheffield Star, and soon hoardes of trippers began arriving in the village by train from the city. The council took advantage, opening a new park near the lake and a rifle range.

The reservoir had been sunk to supply the canal which transported goods to and from the mines and ironworks - but soon became South Yorkshire's cheaper alternative to Scarborough.

'Yorkshire's Ironbridge Gorge'

Historic England designated Elsecar one of Yorkshire's four 'heritage action zones' in 2017, along with Hull's Old Town and parts of Grimsby and Dewsbury. Funding was made available to find out more about their pasts.

At the time, planning director Trevor Mitchell said the revelations about Elsecar had led to comparisons with Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, one of Britain's most significant industrial 'cradle' sites.

The historians hadn't previously realised the extent to which the ironworks dominated Elsecar - the village had traditionally been more associated with mining, yet ironworkers' cottages were identified as part of the project as well as the remains of the foundries themselves.

Historic England archaeological investigations manager Dave Went said: “This research project has shed new light on the importance of Elsecar as a centre of industry and innovation for over two centuries, as well as its links with the Fitzwilliam family and Wentworth Woodhouse. Much of this new information has come to light thanks to the fantastic efforts of the 200 volunteers who have taken part in excavations and given us their invaluable local knowledge. The residents of Elsecar are rightly proud of the rich heritage of their village.”