Nostalgia on Tuesday: Village of change

The Spa Hydro at Askern.
The Spa Hydro at Askern.
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Few Yorkshire villages have undergone the dramatic changes that Askern has experienced over the last 200 years.

During the 19th century the small area provided popular spa facilities. These were defunct by the early 20th century when a coal mine and a coalite plant dominated the area until the early 1990s.

Certain geological factors gave the local water its special qualities. Spa was the general term used to describe a place at which mineral waters were taken. During the late 18th century and early Victorian days, the fashion for taking holidays at spas and taking the waters grew.

Edward Baines in his West Riding Directory (1822) mentioned Askern was rising to fame for its medicinal waters. In both smell and taste they almost resembled the celebrated waters of Harrogate but when taken internally they differed in function, acting chiefly as a diuretic, “without any of that cathartic power for which the Harrogate waters are so remarkable”. He also added “the spring rises at the distance of only a few yards from a piece of water called Askern pool, of the extent of about seven acres”.

People who had struggled to find relief elsewhere, for rheumatic and a number of complaints, frequented Askern Spa. Travel to the area was much improved in 1834 with the opening of a new road through the village by the Doncaster and Selby Turnpike Trust.

W White in his West Riding Directory of 1837 said that Askern was an elegant and fashionable watering place. Giving details of some of the spa’s new buildings White said the Swan Inn opened its doors about 1820, the Crown Inn a few years afterwards. The Manor Baths were erected in 1814 and then rebuilt in 1828. They had a suite of cold, tepid, warm and shower baths. Attached to them was a large plunging bath, a pump room, and a promenade room. Other features included a bowling green, and beautiful walks, winding through luxuriant plantations, and along the margin of the lake. The South Parade Bath was a smaller establishment built about 1827.

The Charity Bath was available from about 1820 and was supported by a number of annual subscribers for the benefit of the poor. White proclaimed the Askern Water as a powerful remedy for a number of ailments that was “not surpassed by any other in the kingdom”.

The Askern Branch railway line, opening on June 6, 1848, linked Askern not only to Doncaster but to a number of other towns and cities. On Whit Monday shortly after the route’s opening, newspaper reports said vast numbers of Doncaster people visited Askern. “We believe there never has been on any occasion such a great number of people in Askern as there was on Monday, and all appeared to enjoy their pleasant excursion,” said one newspaper.

One unusual event occurred in Askern during June 1868 when a Mr Youens descended with his balloon near the Swan Hotel from the Royal Park, Leeds. E Bell, photographic artist and several others helped to wrap up the balloon and take it to the local railway station and Youens returned to Leeds the same night.

A significant development occurred in Askern in 1894 with the opening of the large Hydro. Pleasantly situated on a slope and within only a few yards of the well-known pool the new building was created from two school buildings and other additions by a Huddersfield firm. The ground floor contained dining room, reading and writing rooms, recreation room and drawing room, whilst upstairs there were 32 bedrooms. The sulphur water used in the Hydro was obtained from a spring in the grounds which comprised about two acres.

Askern remained a small popular spa until the early 20th century when it changed to a bustling modern colliery village. The Askern Coal & Iron Company was formed in March 1910 and the first sod was cut on February 22, 1911.

The site chosen for sinking came as a shock to the Askern inhabitants because instead of being somewhere on the levels between Askern and Moss, the head works were set up by the picturesque road to Campsall, right on the border of the spa itself, and within a stone’s throw of the Hydro and the famous Askern pool. None of the customs from the spa era survived after the colliery was sunk.

Part of the Hydro was turned into a common lodging house and a model village located between the colliery and Sutton Road was built for miners from 1911.

In May 1929 a new coalite plant was opened at Askern, the opening ceremony being performed by Jennie Lee who, at the time, was the youngest female MP. The aim of the plant was to carbonise, by the coalite process, 180,000 tons of coal a year.

Throughout its lifespan Askern colliery struggled against geological conditions. Initially, it was intended that Askern should be a large pit, like nearby Brodsworth, but it soon became apparent after coal production began in the Warren House and Flockton seams that the shafts were sunk in a heavily faulted area. A series of bore holes made around the district after nationalisation in 1947 showed that far fewer difficulties should be encountered once a way was driven through the second Pollington fault. This was proved correct.

At its height Askern colliery produced about 750,000 tonnes in 1975. After the 1984/85 miners’ strike, it was destined for closure. The coalite plant closed in 1986 and the last shift clocked off at Askern pit on December 20, 1992. In the aftermath of the pit’s closure, two local councillors Bill and Ron Gillies, were vocal in finding funding for the area so that it could be cleaned up, redeveloped and breathe new life into Askern.