Benjamin Biram was a remarkable man – an engineer, a colliery manager, prolific inventor and Earl Fitzwilliam’s loyal steward and superintendent. In this article, Dr John Tanner, Project Manager at Elsecar for Barnsley Museums, discusses the achievements and contribution that Biram made to both the mining industry and to Elsecar, the place and its people.
On the evening of 27th October 1856 over 500 colliers, workers from the New Yard and their families gathered together for tea and to give thanks to two men they knew well. One of these men was James Utley, the ‘general viewer’ of the village’s collieries. The other was a man approaching the final weeks of his life who had been closely involved in the village’s transformation over recent years and had led its expansion in the decades before. He could truly be said to have changed the lives of those who had gathered to celebrate him, particularly those who worked underground. That man was Benjamin Biram.
Following in the footsteps of his father Joshua, Benjamin became Steward (later titled ‘Superintendent’) for Earl Fitzwilliam after his father died. Born in 1803, he married his wife Helen at Sheffield Cathedral in 1828. The couple lived in Wentworth where Benjamin had been born, and by the 1850s were living at Chestnut Cottage with their five daughters.
The position of steward and superintendent carried a huge amount of authority, making Benjamin Biram second to only the Earl himself. Historians have noted that the Birams were charged ‘To act in the absence of Earl Fitzwilliam in the prudent management of the affairs of the entire establishment as his Lordship would himself do’, and that ‘Under the Earls Fitzwilliam, they [the Birams] practically ruled the Wentworth Estate’ (cited by Nigel Cavanagh, see link below).
During Biram’s tenure as steward and superintendent, Elsecar changed significantly. Rows of cottages were built as families flocked here to live and work. The first Elsecar school was built, followed by its larger replacement a few years later, along with Elsecar Holy Trinity Church, an impressive lodging house, shops, pubs, a cricket club and more. All of this was carefully planned and designed at significant expense by the Earl Fitzwilliam, as his model industrial village at Elsecar grew under his steward’s watchful and attentive eye. Biram was in constant correspondence with his employer as the village was created, ensuring their shared vision came to fruition.
The industrial activity of the village was also transformed. New workshops, to be known thereafter as the New Yard, were built for the estate’s carpenters, joiners, engineers and blacksmiths. The Dawes Brothers, ironmasters from the Midlands, took on our two ironworks in 1849 and started to modernise and expand their operations. In 1850, the first railway line was laid, alongside the canal, where it still is today.
Biram oversaw the sinking of two state-of-the-art collieries: Simonwood Colliery, next to the Elsecar canal basin, and Elsecar Low Colliery at Hemingfield, a mile or so along the valley. As well as directing the sinking of those collieries Biram was closely involved in their design and development, and somehow found the time to invent new mining technologies too. Contemporary accounts describe his ‘zeal and exertions’ for his work.
As an engineer and innovator, Biram’s contributions to the mining industry were immense. He came up with new ideas, discussed innovations with other engineers throughout the 1840s, including James Nasmyth who had close links with Elsecar, and developed a series of technological advancements that were introduced first into local collieries, patented and then rolled out across the country, and even abroad.
There were many threats to those working underground, with the possibility of roof falls and mechanical failures a constant danger, and regular causes of deaths and injury. The horrific disaster at nearby Huskar in 1838, when 26 children drowned after the mine flooded during a storm, demonstrated another hazard of working underground. Biram sought to do what he could to protect Elsecar’s collieries, and it was particularly in the battle against dangerous gases and in improving mines ventilation that Biram made very significant advances.
The need to carry fresh air and move deadly, toxic, explosive and suffocating gases from the workings was one of greatest priorities for mines safety. Firedamp (methane), Black damp (nitrogen and carbon dioxide), White damp (carbon monoxide), Stink damp (hydrogen sulphide) and others were a constant a threat to miners’ lives.
Collieries in Elsecar and Rotherham became amongst the first, if not the first, anywhere in the world, to introduce mechanical ventilation. Great fans were used to pull fresh air through, and remove foul air from, underground workings. It was Biram who introduced those first fans in the early 1840s. He also invented an anemometer to measure airflow around collieries and check whether ventilation was working. This anemometer, which became known locally as ‘Biram’s whirly gig’, had rotating sails akin to a hand-held windmill, with a series of dials at their centre. It was a hugely effective and widely introduced.
Made by John Davis in Derby, a small number of examples of Biram’s anemometer still survive. We’re proud to have one on loan at Elsecar from our friends at Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, and there is another on display at the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Biram also invented an improved miners’ safety lamp, an important contribution to the canon of innovation most popularly associated with Humphrey Davey.
These were Biram’s most prominent innovations, but there were many others, including machinery for washing coal at colliery screens developed in the last few months of his life. Day-to-day changes to designs, processes and ways of working underground were a constant part of his life’s work and interests. But despite Biram’s efforts, tragedy continued to hit mining communities all across the country, and very close to home too.
Through the 1840s, the sinking of Elsecar Low Colliery (now known as Hemingfield Colliery) had been a difficult process due to flooding and had taken many more years than anticipated. It eventually started to produce coal, but just days before Christmas 1852, disaster struck. Ten men were killed in a terrible explosion. It was noted that the explosion would have been much worse had it not been for the changes introduced by Biram, but the actions of the management and colliers were still heavily criticised. The effect that the explosion had on Biram personally is impossible for us to know or to imagine.
What motivated Biram? What drove his energy? There are glimpses of deep respect towards Earl Fitzwilliam and devout loyalty to his employer and the estate. This seems to have been coupled with a calling to improve the condition and welfare of those under his care and direction, potentially linked to his strong religious beliefs. There is evidence of a strong paternalistic attitude, perhaps reflecting that of the Earls, and it should be noted that Biram could be exceptionally strict too, including about criminality, drunkenness and the early emergence of trade unions. The influence of the Earl, manifested through Biram, went far beyond just the workplaces of Elsecar.
Benjamin died in early 1857, just a few weeks after that evening at the New Yard. Hundreds of colliers attended his burial at Wentworth Church on 5th February and did so voluntarily, as contemporary newspaper accounts emphasised. You can still visit his grave at Wentworth today.
Benjamin Biram is a fascinating figure from Elsecar’s past who should be remembered and his achievements celebrated. A few years ago, actor Wayne Swann brought Biram to life, performing one of his speeches for a film that is watched by thousands of people each year. Wayne is pictured below, in front of the Carpenters and Joiners Workshop where the gathering of October 1856 took place.
Biram’s Whirly Gig ‘anemometer’ was 3D printed for our ‘Museum in a Box’ project and an excellent original example is currently on loan from SIMT. It has provided the inspiration for a digital mystery game created by the Barnsley Museums Learning team, which you can take part in throughout August via our social media platforms.
Read the full accounts of the presentations, and a verbatim record of Biram's speech in October 1856 on the Graces Guide website. Find out about key inventions at Elsecar Heritage Centre including Biram’s Anemometer from the Barnsley Museums learning resources on our website (link will open as a pdf). Learn about the science behind coal mining and iron working and have a go at some experiments yourself. If you want to find out more about Benjamin Biram, Dr Nigel Cavanagh's PhD thesis, written as part of a AHRC doctoral collaboration between Barnsley Museums and the University of Sheffield, includes many insights into Biram’s work, influence on Elsecar and relationship with the Earls Fitzwilliam. You can download Dr. Cavanagh's PhD from the Whiterose website (link will open as a pdf).