Digging the Earl’s Great Engine

Barnsley Museums’ Elsecar Heritage Action Zone officer, Dr. Tegwen Roberts, talks about the recent community archaeology dig at Elsecar, which uncovered the former boiler house of the Elsecar Newcomen Engine, the oldest steam engine in the world to survive in its original location. The project brought together archaeologists, artists, community volunteers and local schools. It was a joint project by the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place, and was part of the British Festival of Archaeology 2019.

The Elsecar Newcomen Engine is the oldest steam engine in the world to survive in its original location. It was built in 1794-5, for the Earl Fitzwilliam of nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, to pump water from Elsecar’s first deep coal mine. It was known as the Earl’s Great Engine and sat at the heart of the Earl’s new model industrial village at Elsecar. It became a scheduled ancient monument in 1974 and is now recognised as one of the country’s most important historical sites. It was conserved in 2014 by Barnsley Museums, with a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and support from Historic England.  

alt="Elsecar Newcomen Engine"
The Elsecar Newcomen Engine was built in 1794-5 to pump water from the Elsecar New Colliery

The Elsecar engine is well loved and attracts visitors from across the world, but there are still lots of things we don’t know about it. One of these things is, what did the boilers look like? As an atmospheric engine, it would have needed a huge amount of low pressure steam to operate. Its last boiler house was demolished in the early 20th century with no photographs and very few records, apart from a short description and possible cross section from a survey in 1918.

By 2014 the only visible part of the boiler house remaining was the stump of a substantial chimney on the north side of the engine house. During the conservation works, John Hamshere – a member of the project team, looked down from the scaffold and thought he could see the outline of two boilers in the surface of the yard next to the chimney. An idea was sparked. We knew the ground levels had changed over time, so could the boilers potentially survive underneath the concrete? What, if anything, was left, and what could it tell us about the engine?

alt="Elsecar Newcomen engine historic photo showing boiler house chimney"
Elsecar Newcomen Engine in the early 20th century showing the boiler house chimney in steam

In 2019 we got chance to explore this idea further with a creative community archaeology project that brought together artists, archaeologists, young people and local volunteers, and completely transformed our understanding of the site. The project was a collaboration between the Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place Project (funded by the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (a three-year partnership between Historic England and Barnsley Museums).  

In 2017 Historic England did a geophysical survey of the yard directly to the north of the engine house as part of the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (click here to see a copy of the report). The results confirmed there could be structures underneath. We could see that the concrete surface was in poor condition, so we agreed with Historic England that we needed to find out what was under the concrete, and whether it needed to be protected. We also wanted to involve local people in finding out more about the engine’s fascinating history and celebrating its stories, so we started to plan a project.

alt="yard behind engine house, showing old concrete surface covered in moss"
Yard to the north of the engine house (February 2019)

Creative consultation

We started by asking people what they wanted to know about the engine. We asked visitors, school groups, local experts, colleagues. Then we took the most popular questions and started to think about how we might answer them. We even took to social media in our best hats to encourage people to #AskUsAboutTheEngine.

#AskUsAboutTheEngine social media video created as part of the dig consultation

Local schools helped to design each stage of the project. We looked at the evidence we could see on site, looked at historic maps and documents, and decided what questions we might be able to answer. We asked the young people what creative activities they would like to get involved in as part of the dig, and how they would tell the story of the engine to visitors their age. Drawing, music and singing were high on the list, along with video gaming and Virtual Reality.

alt="school children helping with consultation"
Pupils from Elsecar Holy Trinity school helped to plan the project

The 1918 survey of the engine described two externally fired boilers, each 22 feet by 7 feet. We looked at the area to the north of the engine house and got the Barnsley and Rotherham Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) to work out if the boilers in the description would fit into the space. We drew a scale plan of the yard and plotted out where our trenches might go to answer the questions we wanted to ask. Lots of visitors stopped to ask what we were doing.

alt="Young Archaeologists Club creating scale plan of the boiler house"
Barnsley and Rotherham Young Archaeologist Club created a scale plan of the boiler house and measured out possible trench locations

Removing the concrete

The next step was to remove the concrete. We were given scheduled monument consent for the work, but we weren’t allowed to use any mechanical equipment in case it damaged whatever was underneath. A group of volunteers from local company Advanced Engineering Solutions helped us out, removing all of the concrete by hand in just a few hours! When the concrete had gone we were very excited to see what looked like two (filled-in) boiler cavities set into a brick floor.

alt="Advance Engineering Solutions volunteers"
Volunteers from Advances Engineering Solutions standing in one of the filled-in boiler cavities

We then dug a few small test pits, working with a small team of our brilliant regular volunteers and professional archaeologists from ArcHeritage, which showed that the walls we could see on the surface definitely went deeper, suggesting there was much more below the ground to find.

Elsecar’s Festival of Archaeology

alt="students at the dig"
Students from Kirk Balk Academy spent a day at the dig and did a brilliant job!

Encouraged by this success we planned a two week dig in July 2019, as part of the British Festival of Archaeology. We wanted as many people as possible to be able to join in, so we also created our own Elsecar archaeology mini festival, with daily archaeology events and activities in the heritage centre, digital competitions and free archaeology taster workshops for children and adults over the two weeks. Professional archaeologists from ArcHeritage worked with us to manage the main dig, and work with the volunteers and school groups on site.

alt="classroom session"
Archaeology workshop with Elsecar Holy Trinity Primary School

We engaged five local artists to work with young people and visitors to the dig. The Newcomen Engine is a bit tucked away, so Gemma Nemer, textile artist and Elsecar artist in residence with the WE Great Place project, created a beautiful trail between the visitor centre and the engine with streamers and painted signs, to encourage people to visit and find out more.

alt="chain of coulourful plastic rings and streamers advertise the dig"
Textile artist Gemma Nemer created a beautiful trail to encourage people to visit the dig

During the first week pupils from three local schools came to help on site. As well as digging, they worked with the artists and had a geophysics taster session with Adam Booth from the University of Leeds. This was particularly popular! Some of the young people talked to us about what they’d enjoyed most during their time at the dig for this short film.

As well as digging and geophysics, the young people drew cartoons inspired by the history of the engine and wrote their own stories with the Newcomen engine as a main character. Their imaginations ran riot, with the Newcomen engine being damaged by a dragon, helping to save the earth from aliens, being over-run by goblins and more! Check out some of the dig cartoons in our online gallery. The cartoons were so good that we also created a temporary on-site gallery so visitors could enjoy them too.

alt="students working with hand shovels and buckets trench 2"
Students from St. Pius X excavating trench 2 with Rowan and Laura from Archeritage

Gemma Nemer worked with the students to stitch words describing how they felt about the project to make a dig banner. Sound artist and musician Andy Seward, and song writer Luke Calver-Goss, worked with a group of students to write a song and create a beautiful new soundscape, to give a sense of how the engine would have sounded when it was working (more about that later!).

alt="young people stitching dig banner"
Stitching the dig banner

Community volunteers

The second week was open to volunteers from the local community and was very popular, despite the massive heatwave that had hit the country. Our friends at Hemingfield Colliery came down to lend an expert hand too.

alt="volunteers trench 3"
John and Chris (Friends of Hemingfield Colliery) in trench 3

The students and volunteers all worked incredibly hard, despite the summer heatwave, and we were all rewarded with some amazing archaeology. Andy Seward interviewed some of the volunteers talking about how they felt working on the dig in this short film.

The Trenches

Trench 1 uncovered the stoking area, where the workers would have shovelled coal into the fires to keep the boilers running. there were two identical stoking holes, with small holes above, presumably for gauges to show water levels in the boilers. The entrances to the stoking holes were well built, with rounded ‘bull-nosed’ bricks and cast iron lintels. We also uncovered a coal hole on the opposite side of the stoking area, which would have funnelled coal straight to the stoking floor.

alt="volunteer trench 1 uncovering stoking hole"
Trench 1 uncovered the former stoking area, where the workers would have shovelled coal into the fires underneath the boilers

Trench 2 uncovered one of the former boiler pits. The boilers had been carefully removed, with just one small section of boiler plate still attached to a large iron bracket fixed into the wall. At the bottom of the trench we uncovered brick footings that would have supported the bottom of the boilers. Trench 3 uncovered part of the second boiler pit, including stones cut for pipework and some interesting glazed ceramic objects that were probably used to insulate the pipes. 

alt="young people digging"
Excavating the boiler cavity in trench 2
alt="excavated boiler cavity"
Trench 2 showing the excavated boiler cavity with brick supports at the bottom and cast iron support at the top, with a small section of the boiler still attached

As well as the structures we found lots of glass and pottery, probably thrown into the boiler house when it was being filled in, including fragments of beer bottles from local breweries. Demolishing a boiler house was obviously thirsty work! We also found bricks and roof tiles, nails and wire, and some lovely early 20th century light bulbs.

alt="three light bulbs with scale rule"
Early 20th century light bulbs found during the dig
alt="gloved hand holding green glazed pottery sherd"
Barnsley beer bottle fragment found during the dig. The original inscription would have read ‘Dandison, Wine and Spirit Merchants, Barnsley, 1 Gall[on]’

From the archaeology we now know that the last boiler house for the Elsecar Newcomen engine had two simple boilers, set into brick-lined boiler pits. The stoking area appears to have been open to the main boiler house, accessed by steps next to the engine house. The historic maps suggest that this boiler house was built in the 1850s and appears to have been extended at least once. The last boilers were probably installed in the late 19th century and removed in the 1930s.

All in all it was a hugely successful project. Not only did we all have a lot of fun, but we also made some really important discoveries. Not least, we proved that a significant and substantial part of the boiler house survives in surprisingly good condition, and we learnt a lot more about what it must have been like to work in the boiler house over 150 years ago.

We recorded a podcast with the volunteers on the last day of the dig. Have a listen to it here.

Dig celebration

alt="hand stitched dig banner"
Dig banner created by textile artist Gemma Nemer working with young people who visited the dig and stitched how the experience made them feel

In November we held a special event to showcase the results of the dig, including some of the wonderful creative outputs. Gemma’s banner was pride of place. We also showcased Andy Seward’s stunning soundscape, which brought the sounds of the Newcomen Engine back to life for the first time in nearly 100 years. The students who helped to make it were invited for a special preview. They gave it 11 out of 10! Have a listen to the soundscape on our podcast and see what you think.

A great result

The Newcomen Dig was a great project with fantastic results. As well as the amazing archaeological discoveries, 125 young people and 40 volunteers were directly involved in the project, including helping to design and shape the project right from the start. 5 local artists ran workshops and co-created beautiful work with the young people and volunteers. Over 350 people visited the dig in 12 days, and over 80 people came to the results evening, with hundreds more following the project on social media.

The Newcomen Dig has already led to other exciting projects, including the Age of Revolution mapping project led by the Barnsley Museums learning team, with lots more to come in future. Keep an eye on the Elsecar Heritage Centre website, facebook and twitter for updates.

UPDATE (July 2020). ArcHeritage have now completed a full excavation report on the Boiler House dig. Click on the link below to read more about what was found (the link will open as a pdf).

For more information about visiting the Elsecar Newcomen Engine, including public tours and events, please visit the Elsecar Heritage Centre website. Please note that the Engine is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions (July 2020).