Without ceremony, the first sod for No. 1 shaft, at the new Elsecar Colliery, was cut on July 17, 1905 by T. Newbould, manager of the Earl Fitzwilliam Collieries Company.
Earl Fitzwilliam was unable to be present, as he was with his regiment in camp.
Preparations for the new colliery had been carried out on a grand scale and it was expected that sinking work would begin almost immediately. The sod was cut for No. 2 shaft on September 28, 1906.
On September 26, 1906, it was announced that good-quality coal had been found at No.1 shaft at the pit known as Elsecar Main, situated mid-way between Barnsley and Rotherham. Coal was reached at No 2 shaft on February 18, 1908.
This was to be the last in a series of collieries sunk at Elsecar. Prior to 1752 Elsecar Old Colliery had been leased out by the owner, the Marquis of Rockingham. Afterwards he took control and by 1757 there were a number of small pits exploiting the Barnsley Bed. Following his death in 1782, the estates were inherited by his cousin the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam.
Elsecar New Colliery was sunk around 1795 by the Fitzwilliams and the site employed a Newcomen pumping engine; Elsecar Low Colliery, or Hemingfield Colliery, was sunk between 1840-1848; and Simon Wood Colliery reached the Barnsley Bed in 1853.
A terrible accident occurred at the Elsecar Low Colliery on December 21, 1852, when a firedamp explosion killed ten miners and injured 12. Earl Fitzwilliam’s mine superintendent Benjamin Biram was severely criticised by an inquiry over a number of safety issues.
Elsecar New Colliery, renamed Elsecar Mid Colliery by 1848, was abandoned by the mid-1850s. Elsecar Old Colliery, renamed Elsecar High Colliery in 1848, was closed in 1888.
The Fitzwilliams were responsible for building cottages for workers as well as other buildings at Elsecar.
Miners at Elsecar Main found a friend in colliery owner William ‘Billy’ Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 7th Earl Fitzwilliam. His generosity towards them was not motivated by socialist principles. Whilst loathing trade unionism he felt an obligation to his men. During a dispute at Elsecar in 1911 he would not negotiate with the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. He said the dispute was between himself and his men, and that if the men were left alone, there would be a prompt settlement.
Billy, as he was affectionately known, was a close companion of King George V and Queen Mary. From July 8 to 12, 1912, the King and Queen stayed at Billy’s Wentworth Woodhouse while on a four-day Royal tour of the North.
Catherine Bailey in Black Diamonds The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty (2007), states that before the Royal couple arrived Billy issued a statement to the press. It read: “I am instructed by His Majesty that he wishes ‘informality’ to be the watchword. It is in no sense a state visit. The King and Queen have expressed a desire to see working men and working women in working conditions. We have impressed upon the owners of works and establishments to be honoured by the Royal visit that a great deal of white wash is not what is required.”
During their stay, the King and Queen visited collieries, factories, and foundries. In the early hours of July 9, 1912, there was a disaster at Cadeby Colliery, only a few miles away from Wentworth, where more than 90 miners and officials were killed. In light of this incident, officials urged the King to reconsider his plan to descend Elsecar Main. It was also pointed out that a fall of stone had killed an Elsecar miner during the previous week. This, however, did not deter King George from carrying out his schedule. He said: “Whatever happens, I have got to show them I want to do all I can at this time to see for myself, as far as I can, the risks to which my miners are exposed.”
Before the First World War, a local reservoir at Elsecar was dubbed Elsecar-by-the Sea. An area adjoining had been developed into a park and a local photographer, Frank Parkin, decided to promote the location by producing postcards with children posing as if at a coastal resort. His pictures appeared in a Sheffield newspaper which encouraged people from miles around to throng to the area for a day of leisure.
Catherine Bailey recalls that Billy taught young miners how to play polo and whenever he visited his pits – he also owned New Stubbin Colliery – it caused high excitement.
Elsecar miner Jim McGuinness said: “Lordie was liked. He looked after you. He was good at thinking of ways to keep his miners happy. ”
At the start of the General Strike, Billy organised a cricket match between Elsecar and New Stubbin collieries on Wentworth Woodhouse’s front lawn. Full of fun, he said if any team member could hit a cricket ball from the middle of the lawn while they were batting and broke a window at the house they would win £25. That was four months wages but nobody won the prize. During the 1926 strike Billy promised to provide his miners’ children with one midday meal a week.
By 1933 the Earl Fitzwilliam Colliery Co. was registered with a capital of £1.5m and nationalised on January 1, 1947. The Newcomen Beam Engine in operation by 1795 is still in its original position and was listed in 1973. West Riding County Council recognised the importance of the Elsecar workshops, the Newcomen engine and Elsecar as a special industrial complex by placing them all within a conservation area in 1974. At the same time Barnsley Council created the Elsecar Heritage Centre. Elsecar Main colliery closed in October 1983.