Being accountable… Elsecar Colliery Ledger 1796


Over recent years, through sustained research and the work of projects like the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone, we have started to understand just how special the village of Elsecar (home to the Elsecar Heritage Centre) is in historical terms. This research has also cast new light on some fascinating Elsecar documents in Barnsley Archives. One in particular – a colliery ledger from 1796 – gives a rare insight the early years of Elsecar’s industrial past. James Stevenson, archivist at Barnsley Archives, and Tegwen Roberts, Elsecar Heritage Action Zone officer, tell us more.  


The Elsecar New Colliery ledger is one of our Elsecar archive gems. It was produced in 1796, in the very early years of the development of Elsecar as an industrial settlement. Elsecar New Colliery, which opened in 1794-5, was the first deep colliery to be sunk in Elsecar. It marked the beginning of a new model industrial village, built by successive Earls Fitzwilliam from nearby Wentworth Woodhouse. The colliery is best known for its Newcomen-type pumping engine, installed in 1795. This is now the oldest surviving steam engine in its original location in the World and attracts thousands of visitors every year. 

Photograph of the Elsecar Newcomen Engine as it is today. A tall, narrow stone building with a slate roof. It has a wooden frame in front of it and a long metal rod that stretched from the top floor of the building down into the ground below. There is a row of historic cottages to the right of the engine and a low curving stone wall in front.
Elsecar Newcomen Engine, installed as part of the Elsecar New Colliery in 1795

The ledger details the accounts for coal sales from the colliery in 1796, as well as a summary of the general accounts for that year. The consistency of the handwriting in the volume suggests that it was an end-of-year ‘Fair Copy’ ledger, rather than a day-to-day working document. The column headings for each page also suggest that the volume was originally part of a much larger and more sophisticated accounting system, of which this ledger is the only known survival. However, although it is only a partial survival, the information in the ledger still gives a fascinating insight into the operation of this early industrial enterprise.

A historic ledger on a brown cushion. The ledger is closed. the front is a marbled blue pattern with a red leather spine and corners. A label on the front says Elsecar Colliery 1796.
The Elsecar New Colliery ledger gives a fascinating insight into the early years of the industrial village

It has previously been assumed that most of the coal produced in the early years of the New Colliery was sold to the nearby Elsecar Ironworks, which was established next to the colliery in 1795. However, this ledger shows that – at least in the very early years of operation – alongside supplying the ironworks, the colliery was also selling coal directly to local people, presumably for domestic use. Fascinatingly, the ledger lists numerous individual customers by name and place of residence. The majority of the accounts in the volume are for relatively small sums, between one shilling and £11/13/9. The majority of customers come from local villages such as Wentworth, Harley, Hemmingfield [sic], Hoyland, and Tankersley, but there are also customers from further afield, from places like Bolton, Brodsworth and Adwick-le-Street.

Interestingly, some of the customers are women, and a number are listed specifically as widows. They include Widow Wood from Newbiggin; Martha Oldham from Cockpithill; Widow Swift, Widow Ottley, Mary Carr, Sarah Beaumont, Ann Beaumont, Ruth Houghland and Sarah Cooper from Hoyland; and Widow Harrison and Mrs Roe from Harley.

Before the New Colliery was established, the main settlement at Elsecar was a small hamlet known as ‘Elsecar Green’ which was clustered around what is now the corner of Wentworth Road and Wath Road. The new industrial village of Elsecar was established further to the north in the 1790s, with new rows of workers houses being built close to the colliery. The colliery ledger lists a number of customers as residents of Elsecar, thus perhaps providing names of some of the earliest inhabitants of the new industrial village. The Elsecar residents listed include John Wigfield (senior), John Jinkinson [sic], Thomas Turner, William Hardy, John Hague, George Copley and Joseph Bailey.

The ledger also contains three more substantial accounts for ‘Messrs. Darwin & Co., Elsecar’, ‘Messrs. Longdin [Longden] & Co., Thorncliffe’, and ‘Michael Hague’. The most substantial of these three accounts is that of £1,227/6/- for ‘Messrs. Darwin & Co., Elsecar’. John and William Darwin were proprietors of the Elsecar Ironworks from 1795 until 1817, and this therefore supports the assumption that the ironworks was one of the colliery’s largest customers at this time. Their account includes a sum in respect of “Coals in 1794” which had previously been charged at an incorrect rate. This is the earliest dated reference to coal production mentioned in this volume, and the earliest known record of operations at the Elsecar New Colliery.

Excerpt from the colliery ledger. A table of numbers with 'The Right Honorable the Early Fitzwilliam to the Engine' written across the top in elaborate copperplate handwriting.
Ledger account for the Earl Fitzwilliam to the engine, presumably for coal used to power the boilers for the Elsecar Newcomen Engine in 1796

The ledger has two other intriguing accounts that refer to industrial sites in Elsecar, specifically “the Engine” and “the Brickyard”. The first is mentioned in an account entitled ‘The Right Honourable Earl Fitzwilliam to the Engine’. The account is for a total of £3 and 17 shillings. It is assumed that this refers to the Newcomen Engine at the New Colliery, known locally as the Earl’s Great Engine, although why the colliery accounts were charging the Earl separately for this is unclear. The engine was a fundamental part of the colliery – pumping water from the mine to allow the lower levels to be safely worked. It had been assumed that the low-pressure boilers for the engine would have been fed slack or lower grade coal from the colliery that couldn’t otherwise be sold. The ledger appears to confirm this, showing that the engine has been supplied with 27 loads of slack during March and June. The second entry is an account entitled ‘The Right Honourable Earl Fitzwilliam to the brickyard’. The account is for a total of 5 shillings. It is unclear which brickyard this refers to, and what the coal was being used for. It is only a small order and may therefore have been for something like an office fire rather than any industrial use.  

Towards the back of the ledger is the colliery’s General Account summarising the year’s income, expenditure and profit. This shows how much was spent on ‘coals getting’, ‘labourers’, ‘incidents’ and ‘hay getting’. The latter was presumably hay for colliery horses, including pit ponies, with an annual expenditure of £7 2shillings and 9pence. At the end is an annual summary compiled in the name of Benjamin Hall (1721-1805). Benjamin was employed as Superintendent of Works and House Steward to Charles, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782) and his nephew and successor William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833). The summary shows that the colliery made a ‘clear profit’ of £975 and 3 ½ pence for the year. This is the equivalent of over £95,000 in today’s money.

Excerpt from the ledger. List of items including coal getting, labourers, incidents and hay getting with costs of each in pounds, shilling and pence. At the top is General Account Mr Benjamin Hall in elaborate copperplate handwriting.
A general account summary is included at the end of the ledger in the name of Benjamin Hall, the Earl Fitzwilliam’s steward.

The ledger has recently been conserved by Sheffield Archives and is currently on display at the Elsecar Heritage Centre. You can also view a digital version of the ledger online. If you recognise any family names in the ledger, please do let us know. We’d love to know more about this fascinating document.

Elsecar Heritage Centre is run by Barnsley Museums and is open 7 days a week. It is free to visit. Visit our website to find out about events and activities https://www.elsecar-heritage.com/