Barnsley: a personal cultural geography

‘The Village Patriarch’, ‘Museum without Walls’, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’…

Barnsley Public Hall where Orwell went to oppose the blackshirts – but not in a way that pleased his host. The two were to settle their differences in a ‘lively’ fashion later that evening in the Three Cranes. The Public Hall was the scene of a terrible tragedy in 1908

Barnsley to Darfield.
The sun is shining and I am on the train at Platform 17 of Leeds station. While I wait to depart for Barnsley I skim over ‘Aspects of Barnsley’. My eye is caught by the chapter on George Orwell’s visit when he stayed in the town between the 11th and the 22nd March 1936. It appears to me that he left a prisoner of his preconceptions and the narrow experiences of his visit; preconceptions which were to appear later in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’  As the train departs I put down ‘Aspects’ and I am left with the impression that Orwell came to Barnsley looking for confirmation of already firmly held views. I am determined not to make that mistake. Orwell had 12 days in Barnsley. I have 4 hours. 

Barnsley Town Hall, built during the mid 1930’s. Orwell criticised the town council for building such an extravagant building at a time of widespread deprivation. This focus on poverty in Barnsley did not go down well with some of the locals, and still rankles today.

I find comfort in Jonathan Meades’ ‘Museum Without Walls’. He claimed his films were written ‘on the basis of prior knowledge, a lifetime’s curiosity (favourable), prejudice, memories, imaginative recreation, and a couple of flying visits’, and that too much reality gets in the way. I am traveling with my own preconceptions, built around childhood experiences of school in Maltby, a mining township to the south; organising weekly collections for Hatfield Colliery, Doncaster, as a teacher in my Bradford school during the miners strike of 1984-5, and a number of fleeting visits over a number of years: listening to the Wakefield author David Peace in the town hall; a couple of work related visits; reading Barry Hines’ ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’; watching and re-watching Ken Loache’s film ‘Kes’. Despite my intentions I gently remind myself, not to let too much reality get in the way.

In my late teenage years I cut grass for Rotherham Council in the ‘borderlands’ of Barnsley. I say cut, but we spent one afternoon drinking (NHS) Guinness and watching Mario Lanza on the television while the pensioner, who had the crate of Guinness sitting in her front room and whose garden we had lain in for most of the morning, stood by the window keeping an eye out on our behalf, in case our foreman’s van turned up.

During my school days I had travelled to the Inter-School Athletics at Wath – on – Dearne and, along with other members of my school’s 4×440 yards relay team, hid in the changing room rather than battle 440 yards through driving rain gasping for breath in the face of fierce winds.

We lined up next day outside the head teacher’s office, awaiting our fate, much like Billy Casper in ‘Kes’, only we didn’t have a fall guy. 

Helen met me outside Barnsley town hall where she took me straight to ‘Experience Barnsley’ and left me in the company of Brain Blessed, who bellowed from hidden speakers. I always thought he was from Doncaster, or was it Rotherham? It didn’t matter – he was local, wasn’t that enough? I was drifting into geographical confusion. I went outside to re-join Helen, who was sunning herself on a bench, and we headed down Market Hill to Queen Street. 

George Orwell went along with his friend after the public meeting at Barnsley Public Hall to the Three Cranes., which previously occupied this site in Queen Street.

Queen Street can be easily missed. But we lingered, trying to imagine the magnificent building that once graced what is now a cut through to the market. It was here, at the Three Cranes that George Orwell drank with his Barnsley guide and mentor Tommy Degnan. Both had returned from the Public Hall (now called the Civic), where they had opposed Oswald Moseley’s fascist meeting – but they had opposed it in different ways. Degnan had been ejected from the audience of 700, while Orwell had stayed on. Later that night they had a ‘lively’ ‘discussion’ about free speech and fascism in the Three Cranes.

The Three Cranes was a popular dance venue before being demolished and replaced with the modernist building we see in the previous photograph. (This Photograph by kind permission of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council Arts, Museums and Archives Service)

We passed the Market, and the temptation to visit Sailor Sid’s Sweets, where ‘Large Mouths and Small Mouths are catered for’, and stood across the road from the Civic Hall. I was keen to see the hall visited by Moseley and Orwell and Degnan, and the source of that ‘lively’ discussion. But Helen saw something else. She saw tragedy behind that beautiful façade.

On Saturday 11 January 1908 children came to the hall to watch a penny film performance. The hall filled quickly and the gallery became dangerously full.  Children were asked to go down the stairs to relieve the pressure, and this led to a stampede. Sixteen children, all of them under ten years old, died, and 40 others were seriously injured. A plaque, listing the children’s names was unveiled inside the building in a civic ceremony in 2008.

Ebenezer Elliot – the corn law rhymer – in residence at the Barnsley Experience, resolute, if a little weary. The voice of Brian Blessed booms the commentary.

The day was hot and promised only to get hotter. We sat in the art gallery café. I’d already spent two of my four hours. I mentioned Ebenezer Elliott, the anti – ‘Corn Law rhymer’ of the 1800’s, and his tombstone in Darfield Church to Helen. Ebenezer briefly aligned himself with the Chartists, and was passionate in his opposition to the Corn Laws; laws that kept the price of corn high, laws that brought starvation to the countryside. I asked Helen if we could go, not having a clue where Darfield was. Helen said, ‘let’s do it’, and we were off. 

Elliott, brought up in Rotherham, spent much of his life as an iron master in Sheffield, chose to retire three miles from Darfield at Great Houghton, as ‘I chose this place for its beauty, which, as is usual in affairs of the heart, is invisible to all but the enamoured.’ The beauty Elliot saw remains, and can be seen in All Saints Churchyard, Darfield.

Helen parked up at the Norman church where we heard the rasping sound of powerful strimmers. Volunteers were hard at work cutting the grass of Darfield Church. They were working much harder at cutting grass than I had with my  friends at Brampton Bierlow. These volunteers worked in the shade of the Beech trees on high ground. The sun was now intense, but below, in the distance, one man carved his own path, out of the shade of the trees in the searing heat, through the meadow flowers. With a sickle he cut a swathe around his family grave. The grass on the low ground had been left as a meadow, encouraging flora and fauna to beautiful effect. The lone man, in the heat, moving forward, arched over his sickle, saw something different; neglect of a family grave.

Ebenezer’s gravestone is guarded by ironwork, an acknowledgement of his craft as an Iron Master. He was laid to rest here after retiring to Great Houghton.

I became sidetracked. I had come to see the tombstone of the man who stood up against the misery and starvation of the Corn Laws. But I stumbled across two memorials hidden among the trees in this green and cherished churchyard. I was not looking for them, I was trying to escape preconceptions of Barnsley. But they were there, hidden among the trees. I tried not to dwell on coal – but it is impossible for me – it is hiding everywhere I look in Barnsley and its borderlands.  

This monument reaches up through the trees to the sky. The monument contains no names. The explosion made Identification of all 146 bodies too difficult. The graveyard holds another monument, to the ten killed underground at Great Houghton colliery six years after Elliot’s own death.

Time passed quickly wandering in that churchyard and I had to catch my train. Helen returned me to the station, the sun still shining. As she pulled away I realized I had failed, failed to reinvent my idea of Barnsley, failed, like Orwell, to leave behind preconceptions. In the Barnsley borderlands I felt the cool air under beautiful trees, smelt the sweetness of freshly cut grass, and had the chance to dream of a different Barnsley, but this grass, these trees are, for me, still rooted in black diamonds.     

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Barnsley Arts, Museums and Archives

Barnsley Experience

Billy Casper (Kes)

Ebenezer Elliott