In 2018 a community excavation was held on the site of the former Milton Ironworks as part of the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place projects. The Milton Ironworks was built in the 1790s on land belonging to the Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. It was the second ironworks to be built in Elsecar and its furnaces dominated the horizon for over 80 years. The site is now a playing field, with few clues to it’s industrial past. Would there be anything of the mighty ironworks left under the ground? Dr Tegwen Roberts, Elsecar Heritage Action Zone Officer, tells us more.
Elsecar is often thought of as a coal village, but its early industrial story was founded on iron. Two huge ironworks were established in Elsecar in the 1790s, the Elsecar Ironworks on Forge Lane, at the back of what is now the Elsecar Heritage Centre, and the Milton Ironworks a mile up the hill. Both ironworks were established by local iron masters under lease from the Earl Fitzwilliam of nearby Wentworth Woodhouse. As well as paying rent, they bought coal from the Earl’s nearby collieries and ironstone from his ironstone mines at Tankersley.
The Elsecar Ironworks was established by Darwin and Co. of Sheffield. The Milton ironworks was established by Walker and Company of Rotherham and named after the Viscount Milton, the son and heir of the Earl Fitzwilliam. In the years after the ironworks was established, the area that we now know as Milton was also developed, with new houses built for workers and a network of roads and waggonways established, connecting the works to the ironstone mines at Tankersley and the canal basin at Elsecar.
The Walkers were best known for making cannons and ordnance at their foundry in Masborough (Rotherham). However, they were also involved in making experimental iron bridges. Some of the iron for their famous iron bridge at Southwark in London (erected in 1819) was made at Milton. Unfortunately the venture made a significant loss and as the demand for ordnance had also dwindled after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) the business started to decline. You can read more about the Walkers on the Clifton Park Museum website.
In the 1820s the Milton ironworks was taken over by a local partnership, Hartop, Sorby and Littlewood. The new partnership continued to make bridges, including two huge suspension bridges for the Isle de Bourbon (in Mauritius) designed by Marc Brunel. These were erected in fields close to the ironworks for testing before they were shipped. This spectacle attracted hundreds of sightseers and was reported in the local papers. The partnership didn’t last long, and by 1825 Henry Hartop was in sole control of the works. He entered a new partnership with William and Robert Graham, but this also didn’t last and by 1829 the Graham Brothers had taken over the operation.
In 1849 the Dawes Brothers, ironmasters from Staffordshire, took on the lease for both the Milton and the Elsecar ironworks and ran them until they closed in the 1880s. Shortly after this the furnaces were blown up and the chimneys demolished. The local papers reported that the noise of the demolition could be heard from miles away! You can read more about the history of the Milton and Elsecar ironworks on the Friends of Hemingfield blog.
Part of the Milton Ironworks continued for a number of years as a brass foundry. The site was also used as a rifle range for a few years from 1911. Today the site is used for recreation, with a large bank separating the upper and lower parts of the field.
Clues in the landscape
We started looking at the ironworks as part of the initial research for the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (a 3-year partnership between Historic England and Barnsley Museums) in 2017. Although the buildings have gone, there are still clues in the landscape about what used to be here. Two of the four furnace ponds still survive at the top of the field (next to The Furnace pub) as do sections of the waggonway that linked the ironworks with the canal basin at Elsecar and the ironstone mines at Tankersley. The surviving ponds are now used for fishing. The other ponds, and the main part of the site, were in-filled in the mid-20th century, when the site was used as a council rubbish tip.
In 2017 Historic England surveyed the playing field using magnetometry and ground penetrating radar. The survey turned up some positive results. In particular there were some strong magnetic readings from the bank across the middle of the field. Other readings from the main part of the field showed possible walls and other structures buried underground, with a large land drain running through the middle.
To evaluate the geophysics results we planned a community dig, as a joint project between the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and the Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place project.
A mid-19th century plan of the ironworks survives in Barnsley Archives. Amongst other things, this shows the location of a large blast furnace below the bank. We used this alongside the geophysics to decide where to dig. Working with Historic England we decided to target three areas: two on the bank to investigate the geophysics results, and one further down the field, to investigate the location of the blast furnace shown on the 1860s plan.
The dig starts
The dig took place in July 2018, during a mini heatwave. We commissioned local archaeological unit ArcHeritage to oversee the excavation. We invited local schools to take part, as well as local community volunteers. There was an amazing response locally, with 100 people volunteering during the two weeks, many coming back multiple times, and others popping back when they had the chance to see how things were going. The volunteers did amazing work, despite a mini heatwave that baked the field for the full two weeks.
One of the aims of the Great Place project is to combine arts and heritage, and to encourage young people to engage with the combined story of Elsecar and Wentworth in new and creative ways. We commissioned three artists, a poet, a musician and a visual artist, to respond to the archaeology and to work with school groups and volunteers. Poet and writer Michelle Beck worked with some of the school children to write poems inspired by historic newspaper reports about the ironworks. The young people also kept site diaries about what they had done that day.
As well as working with the volunteers, the artists created their own work in response to the archaeology. You can see Luke Walsh’s visual artwork on the Barnsley Museums flickr or have a listen to Michelle’s dig poem – conjuring up layers of time and history.
The dig created a lot of interest locally and attracted a lot of visitors. Local people popped in regularly to share their stories and to see what we’d found. The field is a popular dog walking site and lots of people stopped by daily with their dogs to check on progress. We recorded short social media videos every day to update people on what was happening and to encourage people to visit the site. We also ran special site tours for the Milton gala, which took place on the middle weekend of the dig.
As well as the brilliant local engagement, the project revealed some fantastic, and unexpected, finds.
The first trench targeted the area of the blast furnace shown on the archive plan. We opened the trench with a JCB digger and found ourselves in the 20th century landfill. We dug down to a depth of 2 metres, which is as deep as we could safely go, and hadn’t found the bottom. Eventually we had to admit defeat and fill the trench back in. We did find some interesting 20th century objects from the landfill though, including lots of broken bottles and jars, some very local pottery and lots of animal bones. Although later than the ironworks, these discarded objects give us a fascinating insight into everyday life in Barnsley in the mid-20th century. Some of the best pieces have been used to create a new archaeology handling collection for Barnsley Museums, and will be featured in a future blog.
The second trench was on the top of the bank, where the geophysics had shown strong magnetic results. Again, we opened the trench with a JCB and found exactly the same as in the first trench, with the addition of a large sheet of galvanised steel, which presumably is what the geophysics had picked up! So, we filled the trench back in and moved on.
Finally, we opened the third and last trench. Immediately we could see that the archaeology here was very different. Removing the turf and topsoil revealed a large patch of burnt clay, a layer of compacted clinker and the top of a curving stone wall. During the second week of the dig, further excavation revealed that the stone structure was semi-circular in plan and had at least two phases of construction. The clinker layers were sampled and archaeometallurgical testing showed that they were consistent with the debris that you would expect from a casting floor. They were surprisingly uniform in depth, with multiple layers built up over time, and very solidly compacted. This may suggest that waste products from the ironworks were being used to create a bedding layer or building platform on this part of the site. There was a large cut visible in the section, which suggests that the archaeology had been truncated during landscaping for the playing field in the second half of the twentieth century.
Once the stone structure was further excavated, we could see that it was the base of a calcining kiln, used to roast iron ore to remove impurities before smelting. The kiln is not shown on any of the mid-century and later maps that we have for the ironworks, suggesting that it is part of an early phase of the site. The location of the also kiln matched up with the geophysics results, confirming that further remains of the once mighty ironworks are likely to survive elsewhere, as shown by the geophysics survey, although the archaeology has also shown that elsewhere on site these remains are likely to be deeply buried.
A results evening was held at Elsecar Heritage Centre to share the results of the dig in November 2017. 60 local people came to hear about what had been found, and to view the work created by the artists and young people.
The Milton Dig has massively increased our understanding of the Milton Ironworks site, and uncovered part of the site that was previously completely unknown. It has also demonstrated that there is likely to be more of the once mighty ironworks surviving underneath the playing field, although these remains are also likely to be deeply buried. Our experience with the Milton Dig also helped us to plan our next community dig, at the Elsecar Newcomen Engine Boiler House.
To find out more about the dig, and to hear from some of the people who were involved, watch the short film that we made during the project.
To find out more about what was found during the dig, download the full excavation report by ArcHeritage using the link below (the link will open as a pdf).
Historic England have recently published a detailed Historic Area Assessment report on Elsecar, including research on the Elsecar and Milton ironworks, as part of the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone. Find out more on the Historic England website.