Humans and horses have a historical alliance dating back millennia; a connection joined by both tack and trust. Ever since the Bronze Age, the two species have coevolved in all aspects of life, from industry and warfare to transportation and leisure.
To commemorate this time-honoured relationship here in South Yorkshire, a new exhibition tells the ‘tail’ of how three great places in our area became allies with an entwined equine bond.
The Museum, The Mansion and The Mine looks at how the humble horse shaped the stories of Clifton Park Museum, Wentworth Woodhouse stately home and Elsecar colliery. Supported by the Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar project, the exhibition, based at Clifton Park Museum, harnesses anecdotes and artefacts to bring a new perspective to the South Yorkshire story.
From spirited hotbloods to patient coldbloods, horses helped construct many areas in South Yorkshire, both physically and metaphorically. There were celebrated racehorses living in the stables at Wentworth Woodhouse, hard-working pit ponies down the mines at Elsecar, and even a few circus performers at Clifton Park. Their legacies now dance around the museum walls and spill onto the floor.
A main part of the exhibition is the ‘Shadow Horse’ art installation which was created by local artist, Rob Young and brings life to the folklore and fairy tales surrounding these sites using puppetry. Rob was inspired by Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger’s Ghost, currently on loan to the museum, which in turn was inspired by George Stubbs’ iconic Whistlejacket; a painting commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham of Wentworth Woodhouse.
Life at Wentworth Woodhouse has always revolved around horses. At the end of his first tenure as Prime Minister in 1766, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, had John Carr design and build the elaborate stable block with no expense spared. The architectural masterpiece took 16 years to complete and housed the 84 horses used for hunting, riding and carriages. Until the 1900s it was the largest in the country, complete with riding school, saddlery and accommodation for stable-hands and gardeners.
Charles was a successful horse owner and gambler; his most prized thoroughbred being the famous Whistlejacket. George Stubbs painted over 20 of the Marquess’ horses, but he was also asked to paint the Wentworth family’s Elsecar Old Colliery – the only industrial painting he ever did – which featured the colliery chief standing next to the mine surrounded by horses. The eight pits at Elsecar were worked by a horse-powered winch.
After Charles died in 1782, the Wentworth estate, including the colliery at Elsecar, was inherited by his nephew William, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam. He expanded the colliery by adding steam winding engines in 1796. Two years later, he leased nearby land to the Walker family of Clifton House who developed an ironworks named after Fitzwilliam’s son, Viscount Milton.
The Walkers’ iron business began in the 1740s and had foundries across Rotherham as well as in London and Liverpool. They made cannon and supplied the British Army during the American Wars of Independence, having secured the contract from the Marquess of Rockingham when he was Prime Minister. Milton Foundry and Elsecar Colliery worked in partnership; the Walkers bought the Earl’s coal to power the ironworks and used his ironstone from Tankersley. They worked the furnace there for 22 years before giving up the lease in 1820. This coincided with a decline in business following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and a financially unsuccessful dip into the world of iron cast bridge building which inevitably sunk the business. The Walker firm ceased to operate in 1821.
Coal mining at Elsecar continued to thrive and further pits were subsequently sunk in the area by the Earl Fitzwilliams to expand their coal production empire – with horses helping to power the workforce. Little ponies pulled tubs of coal through the mines and lots of young miners started their careers as pony drivers. Boy and horse struck up an unbreakable companionship that brightened up those dark and solitary times underground.
The first recorded use of pit ponies was in 1750 in Durham but they became more prominent after the terrible 1838 Huskar Disaster at Silkstone, Barnsley which led to the ban of women and children working underground. It wasn’t until 1887 with the Coal Mines Regulation Act, followed by a Royal Charter in 1911, that pit ponies were protected. Legislation enabled working conditions to be inspected, use of a competent handler and no horse under four-years-old being able to work underground.
At the peak in 1913, around 70,000 ponies worked in UK collieries. Some stallions were used, but geldings were preferred for their even-tempered and kinder nature. All horses were carefully selected, and those that were sure footed, low set, heavy limbed and with a low head were favoured to manage the difficult conditions underground.
Pit ponies were very valuable to a colliery owner as, particularly before mechanical haulage was introduced, their productivity impacted coal yield and thus financial efficiency. In an eight-hour shift, a pit pony could cart 30 tonnes of coal if well-rested. They were also an expensive commodity to replace so good quality and comfortable stable conditions were paramount to extend their working lives.
Pit ponies spent 50 weeks a year stabled a quarter of a mile underground, shackled in pit gear and heavy bridles. Injuries were commonplace, with their hooves becoming stuck in the tub rails or their backs scraping against the rockface. But few working horses were given better care and respect than pit ponies.
When William (or Billy as he was known) succeeded the Earl Fitzwilliam title in the early 1900s, his wife, Lady Maud, became an advocate for pit ponies’ rights. An avid horsewoman, she was president of the Association of the Prevention of Cruelty to Pit Ponies and awarded teenage Elsecar miner, John Bell, a medal of kindness after he returned to save his horse following a rockfall accident.
Lordie and Lady Maud were equestrians through and through and it is thought their herd of studs, stallions, hunters and mares cost more to keep than the great House itself in the 1920s. Fitzbillie’s main passions were hunting and horse racing, his wealthy friends acquired from racecourses and hunting grounds across the country. He hunted six days a week and would even catch the overnight boat to Ireland on a Friday to spend the weekend hunting at his Coolattin estate.
Their children all hunted from the age of two; the four girls spent five days a week riding two horses a day. Their only son and heir, Peter, was quite the opposite and had a fear of horses as a child. This became an early source of friction between father and son and was a great disappointment of Billy’s.
Billy was a proud and well-respected man in the circles he mixed; his seat at Wentworth Woodhouse and the model village his family had developed at Elsecar were an exhibition of the Fizwilliam wealth and status. Yet he was also a very empathetic employer concerned for the welfare of his workers. At one point, his payroll covered almost everyone in Wentworth village, as well as residents at neighbouring Rawmarsh, Nether Haugh and Elsecar.
During the Great Strike of 1926, Lordie taught around 30 young pony drivers from Elsecar and New Stubbin collieries to play polo on their Shetlands, some of which were no bigger than a large dog. Not only was it light reprieve from the financial crisis around them, it was also a symbol of unity with Billy’s men and the genuine care and dependency he had for them. His company’s international standing would be nothing without them and for their loyalty they were rewarded with safe working conditions, good pay and comfortable lodgings.
Nationwide, mechanical haulage replaced pit ponies in later years but even in 1984 there were still 55 horses used by the National Coal Board. By the mid-50s, legislation had improved tenfold, with pit ponies only able to work three or four-hour shifts, no more than two shifts in 24 hours and no more than a 48-hour week.
While stories have long been told about the human workforce that powered our region, the herd of horses who accompanied them now have their legacies remembered with The Museum, The Mansion and The Mine exhibition which is on at Clifton Park Museum until the end of February 2021 but may be extended. Built in 1783 by Joshua Walker, the grand home, designed by John Carr, became a museum in 1893 following its sale to Rotherham Corporation. The museum now tells the Rotherham story and this latest exhibition sheds a whole new light on its industrial past.
At Elsecar, the team run special historical tours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm where visitors can discover more about the Earl’s colliery, ironworks and new yard workshops along with tales from the model village. A highlight is the chance to see the mighty Newcomen Engine, the oldest steam engine in the world still in its original place, and to look down the shaft and see it in action (weather permitting). Tours at Elsecar are just £5 per person and are bookable in advance by calling 01226 740 203.
At Wentworth Woodhouse, they have recently launched a Stable Block tour to coincide with the range of house and garden tours already on offer. While a lot of the Stables are currently derelict, the tour focuses on what life would have been like in its glory and over the subsequent years when it was used as the estate’s offices, an army base in the 1940s and latterly a gymnasium and classrooms for the Lady Mabel College. Tour guides will also reveal the ambitious plans to turn the site into mixed-use events space. This is priced at £12 for adults, £6 for children over five, with 50 percent discount for National Trust members. There are only ten places available per tour so if interested, book your place online in advance. www.wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk