Rotherham: a personal cultural geography

‘Brother to the Ox’, ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘GB84′, ‘Weekend in Dinlock’, ‘Welcome to Everytown’, ‘Evening Harvest’…

Legacy of Steel, Coal and Ivanhoe.

Conisbrough: the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s Saxon fortress. Ivanhoe ranged across South Yorkshire, beginning with a journey from Sheffield to Rotherham. Bramley and Wickersley: Julian Baggini claims that 70% of Rotherham is rural. The woods that fuelled the industrial revolution can still be found. Thurcroft has a strong tradition as a source for writers. Clancy Sigal, the american author, Len Doherty and David Peace, all three had coal mining at the heart of their novels. Maltby: Fred Kitchen gave fictional names to many of the places he worked and lived. Maltby is ‘Little Norwood’.

In the late hours I lay in bed, sleepless. I am a teenager, pondering the nature of life, the universe… You get the picture. I gaze through the open curtains into the night. Imperceptibly at first, then more gradually, a warm orange and red glow lights the underside of the billowing clouds. I rush into my sleeping parents’ bedroom, ‘Look, look,’ I shout as I drag open their curtains. ‘It’s Jesus!’ 

The beautiful light hovers for a few seconds, and then slowly, graciously disappears. My father, patiently, turning over in bed, away from the fading light, returning to sleep, mumbles, ‘They’re tipping slag. Go back to bed.

The steelworks tips slag no more. Templeborough, Roman crossing point of the River Don, still towers over the valley, but now it is part of the heritage industry, not the steel industry, and it has been transformed into the ‘Magna science adventure centre’. But look more carefully along the Don Valley, and to the south and east along the Rother Valley, bisected by the M1. Sir Walter Scott imagined a different place. It is here, in the South Yorkshire Forest, that the legend of Ivanhoe began.

‘Welcome to Everytown’. Bramley, at the heart of postcode S66. In 2005 Julian Baggini chose to live here to find out what was on the English mind . According to Sir Walter Scott [Ivanhoe], in the middle ages it was the ‘fabulous Dragon of Wantley’ which haunted the forest.

Ivanhoe:
“In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham… here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.”
Ivanhoe (first published 1820) Sir Walter Scott, available from Penguin Classics.

Scott wrote, in his introduction to the Ivanhoe, of a “pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.”  The forest that swept from Sherwood to the River Aire has gone, but remnants still remain in the woods of Rotherham.

To the north east of Rotherham, further along the River Don lay another of Scott’s inspirations, Conisbrough Castle. Scott asserted that ‘the Saxon may as well attempt to scale the clouds, as the castle of Torquilstone (Conisbrough).‘ The castle, rises above the road, with a dominant view of the Don Valley. 

The saxon may as well attempt to scale the clouds, as the castle of Torquilstone. [Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott]

It is not difficult to imagine the chivalry, of Ivanhoe, saving Rebecca, the Jewess from intolerant crusading Templars, who had deemed her a witch and sentenced her to death. Conisbrough, like many villages surrounding Rotherham, once had its own pit. The 1984 miner’s strike was an attempt to save these pits and their communities. David Peace in ‘GB84’ fictionalises the events of the year long strike. He follows personal stories through the course of the strike, and includes the battle for Orgreave – in the Rother Valley, within sight of the M1 at Tinsley viaduct.

Sandbeck Estate. In the trees that lined this road Fred Kitchen, as a young child, saw goblins in the shadows. He used to sit on this wall and marvel at the world he saw beyond these gates. [Brother to the Ox, Fred Kitchen]

Fred Kitchen, a farm labourer born in the 1890’s, worked at Thurcroft and Maltby pits in the 1920’s. In his autobiography, ‘Brother to the Ox’ was first published in 1940. He wrote about his time as a farm, railway and mine labourer. He begins his story as a plough boy, working the fields behind horses. He has to sell his labour annually to masters at the Martlemass fair on the 11th of November – where ‘the first working year of a lad’s life could be bought with a five-pound note’. The annual fair stopped after the first world war. The 11th of November is remembered now for other reasons. 

He writes with compassion and humour of his experiences in the first three decades of the twentieth century, when rural villages like Thurcroft and Maltby were transformed into mining towns. He says the influx of labour to the mines and railways brought dramatic changes to village life, not seen since the invasion of the Danes twelve hundred years before. 

Fred Kitchen was born in 1891, and had to leave the Sandbeck Park Estate before he was twelve because his father, who was a cowman, died of diabetes. Fred moved the two miles to Meadow Lane, Maltby, and later, some happy years in Maltby’s Model Village. 

Slade Hooton: This line linked Peace, Doherty and Sigal’s Thurcroft with Maltby. Fred Kitchen worked at both village coal mines. Kitchen worked on the land, moved to the railways, where he heard navvies quoting Shakespeare, and then to the pit. He finally moved back to the land, eventually finding fame as a writer.

Kitchen’s mother took in sewing and offered teas to the many day visitors who visited the ruins of Roche Abbey and Maltby Crags. Maltby was then a country village of 300 people with one church, one Chapel, two inns, and four farms. It was the biggest place Fred had ever seen.

He began working life as a farm labourer in Hooton Levit, but later in his annual search for work Fred Kitchen moved from the land, to the mines, the railways and back again. This was the story for  many brought up in agricultural families  –  the lure of industry or ‘service’ in their youth, and later, if possible, a return to the land.

In May 1914, Kitchen started as a Sulphate House attendant at Maltby.  Then a series of catastrophes drove him back to the land. The 1921 coal strike cleared out his savings. His first wife died leaving him bereft. An accident on his motorbike on his way to work at the coking plant at Thurcroft compounded his misery. His fortunes only improved on his return to the land.  

The land becomes industrialised. Industry closes and the land it once used is reclaimed by the forces of nature. The slag heap of Maltby pit can be seen in the background. Fred Kitchen – land, railway, pit, land – has a rhythm too. A rhythm familiar to many working people during the advance of industrialisation.

Kitchen’s biography, published in 1940, reflected on his trials and tribulations, but also dwelt on the good things in his working life: the colliers, ‘brickies’, and farmers, who were good natured and helped him through his difficult times.

Julian Baggini, also found kindness, sixty years later in the villages of Wickersley, Bramley, Thurcroft and Maltby. He chose to move from his ‘metropolitan’ life in London and live in postcode S66 for six months in order to explore English values and the English mind. Baggini claimed this postcode, on the eastern edge of Rotherham, had the closest profile to the ‘national average’ of any postcode in England. For this reason he called these villages ‘‘Everytown”. 

At first, Baggini moved to Maltby but he thought things started to feel a bit ‘weird’. If only he has stayed a little longer before moving to Bramley. If only he had stayed in Maltby a little longer. He could have visited the ruins of the Cistercian Roche Abbey, nestling in a beautiful wooded valley, reduced to ruins by the dissolution of the monasteries in the time of Henry the Eighth.

The railway and coal mine were a ‘gold rush’ for Little Norwood (Maltby). Fred Kitchen describes Maltby before and after the opening of the pit. He later worked there. 

Maltby also has an interesting recent history. Such as the siege by striking miners, in 1984, of the old police station in the High Street. The confrontation outside Maltby Main in the woodlands to the east of the town along Tickhill Road, between 700 police and 6,000 striking miners, was second in size only to Orgreave.

In 2005 Baggini visited a Working Men’s Club in Wickersley. I had visited the same club as a teenager in 1974. We both came to the same false conclusion: the club was on it’s knees and would not see the year’s end. But somehow the club and the culture continue. Looking back on his work Baggini felt he might have been too critical and condescending, and fondly remembered acts of kindness – like living rent-free with neighbours in Bramley, being accepted as a ‘local’ in the Travellers Inn in Bramley, being taken to an ice hockey match by his new drinking pals. 

Peter Watson painted this scene in 1978. The painting is now in the National Mining Museum for England. It can also be viewed on the artuk.org Paintings web site. The winding tower was blown up in 2014.

Baggini encountered the same sort of good natured people encountered by Fred Kitchen, people shaped by occupational experience, by woodlands, farming, coal, steel, working men’s clubs and miner’s welfares. These forces still shape a culture in transition, a transition, that at times can be less graceful than the light that bathed and then faded from the clouds in the night hours of my adolescence, but a transition that seeks to soften some of inustrialisation’s harder edges. 

In the corners of Everytown there are signs and stories of deprivation but there is also kindness, sacrifice and hope. For many in this part of the world, the eloquent words of Fred Kitchen remain true  ‘…it’s no degradation to be brother to the Ox, for no man or beast can live without the support of the other.’ 

Good Companions: web sources*

Roche Abbey
Conisbrough Castle
Rotherham Walks
Clancy Sigal
Quote from Clancy Sigal’s web site: 
‘Weekend in Dinlock is my first book. It was written at white heat, over two weekends. I owe my writing life to a Yorkshire miner named Len Doherty who opened his heart, and his village (Thurcroft) to me. He’s the guy singing into the mike on the cover.’  
Paintings of Rotherham and more can be viewed on artuk.org *
* These are external web sites and are not the intellectual property of the editor of this site. The author of placesandculturaltraces.com is not responsible for the content of these external sites.