Sometimes events, which may have seemed relatively unimportant at the time, can take on a symbolic, even mythic, power – the emptying of tea chests in Boston in 1773 or refusal, in 1642, by Sir John Hotham to allow King Charles I access through the gates of Hull, reputedly the first act of the English Civil War.
The butterfly effect…
Just such an event took place in June 1984 at the coking plant near the village of Orgreave, near Sheffield, when striking miners and ‘flying’ pickets attempting to stop lorries entering the plant were confronted by hundreds of well-armed police, drawn from all over the UK, in what has been dubbed The Battle of Orgreave.
Many people claim this to be the turning point in the conflict between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill. The NUM were subsequently defeated. It is suggested this led to the defeat of militant trade union power in Britain. It also accelerated the decline of the once mighty coal industry. In 2015, the last deep coal mine in Britain, just over the South Yorkshire border, at Kellingley, was closed.
The demise of coal and steel
Many people would argue that coal – a polluting fossil fuel, its methods of extraction requiring filthy, dangerous, working conditions – was in serious decline anyhow, overtaken by new cleaner fuels. But also in decline was the once mighty steel industry which for over two centuries had defined South Yorkshire as one of the great industrial centres and wealth creators of Britain.
Steelmaking has mercifully not vanished from South Yorkshire. A handful of (currently threatened) steel plants produce high-quality specialist steels and forgings, though with far fewer workers. Likewise, manufacturing of cutlery, knives and special tools is a fraction of what it once was. This world-famous industry began in Sheffield in the Middle Ages, in the many ‘little mester’ workshops and water-powered grinding mills along the five rivers that converge on Sheffield. But many present companies, household names, now source their manufacturing in the Far East.
What happened in the decades after Orgreave was the de-industrialisation of South Yorkshire on a disastrous scale, as communities built around these two great industries, coal and steel, were ignored by London governments who saw Britain’s future not in manufacturing, but in service industries, including financial services, and emerging IT industries in areas like Cambridgeshire and the London-Swindon ‘silicon’ belt.
The impact on communities in South Yorkshire was massive, even traumatic, with loss of skilled jobs, rising unemployment and growing poverty. Unlike similar areas of western Europe, such as Germany’s Ruhrgebiet, there was no massive investment in new engineering technology, or training in new skills. Successive Westminster governments wrote off South Yorkshire, even abolishing the progressive South Yorkshire Metropolitan Council in 1986.
Protest provokes change
Out of this long period of industrial, economic and social decline came protest, in the form of powerful novels, plays and films such as Barry Hines’s novel about a Barnsley boy with a passion for kestrels: A Kestrel for a Knave, which became Ken Loach’s internationally successful film Kes. The film Brassed Off celebrated the success of thinly disguised Grimethorpe Colliery Band winning national prizes even after the pit it served closed. The Full Monty told the story of disenchanted former steelworkers reduced to restoring their dignity ironically by organising a strip show.
Over the last two decades, things have begun to change. New green technology industries have been attracted to South Yorkshire to take advantage of its skilled workforce. Sheffield, which unlike its rival Leeds has an excellent light rail system, Supertram, has reinvented itself as a major regional cultural centre. Its two fine theatres include The Crucible, with a reputation for promoting local dramatists. Among several outstanding museums and galleries is Kelham Island, a nationally important museum of the steel, knife making and cutlery industries. The revitalised city centre now includes the attractive Peace and Winter Gardens.
The city’s two universities with around 60,000 students support a vibrant club, café and music scene. The ‘steel city’, as Sheffield is known, vies with Liverpool and Manchester as a focus for popular music, especially rock and indie. Such names as Artic Monkeys, Milburn, Def Leppard and Jarvis Cocker came from the city, whilst Yorkshire’s newest sensations, The Reytons, hail from Rotherham. The annual Tramlines Festival at Hillsborough attracts participants from all over the North.
The gradual transformation of South Yorkshire’s towns
Other towns and cities of South Yorkshire are enjoying something of a quiet renaissance. Doncaster was granted city status in 2022. As well as major city centre refurbishments, there is the Danum Centre incorporating the city’s museum, which celebrates both Roman and medieval history, and the city’s remarkable railway heritage, birthplace of both Flying Scotsman and Mallard. Though these two locomotives are in the National Collection in York, a magnificent Doncaster-built Ivatt Atlantic is on display.
Barnsley centre and market area has been transformed with the new Glass Works Centre, the name recalling the town’s long association with glassmaking as well as coal mining. It is a part of Yorkshire where you still hear authentic Yorkshire dialect spoken. At Elsecar, the world’s oldest steam beam engine still in situ is a central feature of a remarkable heritage centre and antique market.
On 1 August 2023 Rotherham will be the host town for Yorkshire Day, a celebration of all things Yorkshire, in and around the town centre. It will also showcase Wentworth Woodhouse, the great Georgian mansion with one of the longest facades in Europe, with a magnificent landscaped park and gardens.
A green revolution?
The real key to what is happening in South Yorkshire is the environment. Even three decades ago a journey from say, Barnsley to Rotherham would have passed a constant line of pithead wheels, slag heaps, rail marshalling yards, drab streets filled with smoke and dust. What you now see is a partially renatured landscape.
Slag heaps are now woodlands, mining flashes lakes and nature reserves, old railway lines walk and cycleways. Town centres such as Wath-on-Dearne are being returned to something like their pre-industrial charm. Wath Hall is now a heritage centre but also houses, as elsewhere in town, low-cost space for new business start-ups, some reviving traditional crafts and skills, some relating to information technology.
South Yorkshire is also now producing a new generation of film-makers, artists, musicians and writers. Even our government of old Etonians may come to understand that Yorkshire’s creative industries – film, music, performing arts, computer games – are part of a new industrial revolution. These are the drivers of the new green economy, driven by new local networks and a determination to succeed, born out of adversity.
The appointment of an elected mayor for South Yorkshire – first Dan Jarvis now Oliver Coppard – is a factor in this new sense of pride and self-confidence that has arisen. The decline of heavy industry and the partial rewilding of many areas now offer a quality of experience to enable and support economic revival. Parts of both Barnsley and Sheffield are actually within the Peak District National Park.
So what better area to live and work, launch a business, network with other entrepreneurs? South Yorkshire is at the start of Yorkshire’s – and England’s – green revolution.
Footnote: If you have enjoyed Colin’s articles, you might want to look out for his recent book: Yorkshire – Ancient Nation, Future Province (Gritstone Publishing), which will be formally launched at the House of Lords on 21 March, but is available now.