The Woodlands of Chapeltown
This continuous sweep of woodlands dominates the skyline along a five kilometre stretch of the west facing slope of the coal measures on the boundary between Sheffield and Barnsley between Tankersley and Thorpe Hesley. It provides an extremely important landscape feature and shelters Chapeltown from the intrusion of the heavt traffic on the M1 and the Stocksbridge bypass. Three sections of this woodland, Newbiggin Plantation, Thorncliffe Wood and Chapeltown Park Wood, are managed as heritage woods under the Fuelling a Revolution project. There could be no more appropriate candidates for inclusion in the project for they have been integral in the industrial developments of the area since the earliest times.
With its long history of iron working and coal mining the whole area was subject to high levels of pollution of all kinds. Spoil heaps and pits scarred the landscape, railway lines crisscrossed the historic woods, aerial ropeways clattered overhead with spoil or coal and the air was choked with the smoke and emission from the coking and chemical works. With the closure of the pits and the demise of heavy industry, however, the woodlands are recovering and areas which were once heaps of black spoil are covering with regenerated vegetation and are becoming valuable wildlife habitats.
Coal and Iron -
The Story of Thorncliffe Wood.
Thorncliffe Wood may well be part of the ‘pasturable woodland’ referred to in the Domesday book as belonging to the manor of Tankersley, although it is first mentioned by name in a document dating from around 1600, listing the woodlands belonging to Gilbert, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. At this time it was known as Thorncliffe Spring. Both the word 'Spring' and the description of the wood in the document show that it was managed by coppicing for the production of charcoal and other products. The entry reads;-
‘Thorncliffe Spring one half about nine years old, ye other half coalable—30 acres’.
This provides definite evidence that the wood was a coppice wood, half of which had been cut nine years earlier and half was ready to be cut for charcoal making. In 1657 the wood was included in a charcoal contract between Lionel Copley, a Rotherham ironmaster, and the 2nd Earl of Strafford of Wentworth Woodhouse.
By the end of the eighteenth century this landscape would be drastically changed, for in 1793 George Newton and Thomas Chambers, both of the Phoenix Foundry in Sheffield, signed a lease with the Marquis allowing them to build an ironworks on the site between the Blackburn Brook and Thorncliffe Wood to take advantage of the immediate availability of coal, iron and wood. Blast furnaces were built on the meadow beside the brook and coal and ironstone mines were sunk deep into the wooded slopes of Thorncliffe Wood.
of the works, drawn in about 1800, very clearly show the Thorncliffe Ironworks
in these early days. Two figures on horseback cross the bridge over the
Blackburn Brook in the foreground. Behind them stand the two open topped
blast furnaces which smelted the iron which is being carted and barrowed
to the heaps which stretch up the field. The tall building behind the
blast furnaces is a steam engine house which would operate the pump to
provide the blast of cold air into the furnaces. It is possible to make
out the end of the beam of the engine sticking out of the right hand side.
Thorncliffe Wood itself is still intact at this stage and forms a delightful
frame to the industrial scene below. About 300 men were employed at the
works; by 1900 Newton and Chambers Thorncliffe Ironworks employed over
Even before this date, in the mid eighteenth century, the beds of coal measure ironstone were being mined on a small scale along the line of their outcrop in the woods for the Chapel furnace in Chapeltown. Although deep mining was used, especially after 1840, a substantial proportion of the ironstone was still mined from shallow bell pits and would to the surface be a horse gin. Such gin pits would be sunk in rows along the outcrop and the results of this can still be seen in the disturbed and uneven surface of the Chapeltown woodlands today. Despite agreements that the pits would be filled and young trees replanted all the woodlands were considerably disturbed, the soil turned over and most mature trees felled. The woods were no longer managed as coppice.
The intensity of coal mining operations in the Chapeltown area was extraordinary. Although the earlier mines operated by Newton Chambers company were small drifts and adits deeper mines were sunk at Thorncliffe Main Colliery, Staindrop Colliery, Norfolk Colliery, Rockingham Colliery, Grange Colliery, Smithy Wood, Tankersley Colliery and Newbiggin pit. In the 1940s a major drainage system was built extending from Elsecar to Thorncliffe. By the 1890s the company was mining a million tons of coal a year from which 200,000 tons of coke were produced. The company continued mining operations until the pits were nationalised in 1947. By the second half of the nineteenth century the works of Newton Chambers had reached the proportions of a major industrial complex. The original blast furnaces were replaced by larger capacity furnaces in 1873 and the flat land along the Blackburn Brook was covered with other industrial buildings including coking ovens. A vast range of cast iron products were turned out.
The policy of replanting areas which had been worked out in the early nineteenth century actually resulted in the boundary of the woodland gradually extending. The oldest trees presently in the wood are mainly beech and sycamore of roughly 170—180 years old indicating that these non-natives are part of this replanting policy. To a great extent we can see the Chapeltown woodlands as good examples of successful early land reclamation schemes.
When first replanted the woods continued to be managed with thinnings used for pit props, poles and stakes. During the whole of the 20th century, however, little management took place and the woodlands were left to fend for themselves.
The range of products pouring from the gates of Newton Chambers continued to extend. Chemicals were produced as a by-product of the coking plant, the most famous being Izal disinfectant and during the wars production was turned over to munitions. In the First World War two million shell casings were manufactured and during the Second World War the new excavator division on warren lane was turned over to producing 1160 Churchill tanks, one of which has been preserved and stands on the site.
One of the firm’s most surprising products, however, must have been the cast iron houses which were produced in 1930. A few still stand on Mortomley Close nearby.
After trading for 180 years Newton Chambers was taken over in 1973 and much of it sold off. Today the site has been redeveloped into a trading estate, the local mines have long closed and the scarred landscape is beginning to recover. Some of the older, stone built buildings have been retained and South Yorkshire Forest Partnership offices now occupy part of the original office block of the company.
The Westwood Riots
The path from the car park on Taverner Way in High Green passes a large pond, formerly the reservoir for the Thorncliffe works, before passing, on the right, the site of Westwood Rows, a double row of miners cottages and a methodist chapel. This was the scene of serious rioting in 1870 when the houses were built to accommodate non-union miners while their own men were on strike. On the morning of Friday 21st January 1870 an armed crowd of hundreds of men attacked the houses and only when police reinforcements arrived from Barnsley did the ensuing violence, damage and looting come under control.
As a result of the days riots twenty three men were sent for trial to York assizes. Soldiers, quartered at the Workingmen’s Hall at Motromley for the next six months held an uneasy peace until the dispute was brought to an end.
Thorncliffe Wood is now a semi-natural ancient woodland. Although it is now dominated mainly by sycamore, it also has significant numbers of oak trees as well as a few beech and ash. The shrub layer consists mainly of young sycamore, and ash , plus a few willow and birch. It is one of the few local woods where elm forms a significant feature and indeed there are some large mature elms which appear to have escaped the ravages of Dutch elm disease. There is a rich ground flora, including a number of species characteristic of ancient woodland sites.
The footpaths from High Green and Mortomley approach the wood across areas of open grassland and scrubland which are very rich in plant, bird and insect life. The open areas between High Green and St Mary’s Junior Schools and the Blackburn brook are have a rich variety of trees including many elms, willows and some sweet chestnuts.
The edges of Thorncliffe wood on this side are not clearly defined and the woodland merges into the surrounding open areas of scrubland and grassland. These woodland edges, rides and glades are not only attractive they are also very rich habitats for insects, especially butterflies, and birds. The middle of the wood itself is dense. Little light reaches the woodland floor and the ground layer of flora is poor. There are, however, some good trees, especially the large elms which survive in the middle of the wood.
The Trans-Pennine Trail, part of a national network of multi-user paths, runs through the wood following the route of the old railway line. Access to areas of the woodland away from this, though possible, is less good especially in winter and wet weather when the paths are extremely muddy.
Under the Fuelling a Revolution programme, woodland restoration and access improvement work is taking place to restore Thorncliffe Wood to its former glory and to maximise its potential as a recreational and educational resource. Some thinning and group felling will be carried out in order to create a more varied woodland structure dominated by oak and other native trees. Sycamore, a non-native but highly invasive species, will be particularly favoured for removal. Access to the woodland will be improved by upgrading the path system and measures will be taken to prevent the damage currently being done to this by motorcyclists. This will partly be achieved through the construction of post and rail fencing around parts of the woodland boundary. Finally, the potential of the site as an educational and recreational resource will be developed through guided walks, events relating to the natural history and historic interest of the site, children's events and practical management tasks
Other nearby Heritage Woodlands are: