Thurgoland in Times Past

Thurgoland is a quiet village, five miles from Barnsley in South Yorkshire. In 1990, Fred Roebuck discovered over 1,000 glass photographic plates of the district taken by local photographer, Frank Downing, between 1898 and 1948.

The photographs taken by Frank Downing give a fascinating glimpse into past times in Thurgoland.

Thurgoland was a very important centre for the early iron-making and wire-drawing industries, from the 17th century onwards, and Downing’s photographs show that life changed very little until the 1950s.

The glass plates are in the care of the Barnsley Archive at the Central Library. Thurgoland Local History Group have published a book and DVD, ‘Thurgoland in Times Past’, with funding from the Heritage Lottery, Thurgoland Parish Council and Thurgoland Local History Group.

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The book is beautifully printed with 150 pages of photographs, capturing the characters and places of Thurgoland and the surrounding area at a time rarely captured on film.

The DVD features over one-and-a-half hours of entertaining photographic history of the local people and places of Thurgoland and the surrounding area.

Copies of the book and the DVD can be obtained from Maurice Williams, they are £2.50 each. Post and packing in the UK is £3 for both. If you wish to purchase, postage outside the UK please e mail Mr M Williams. maurice2ivybank@yahoo.co.uk.

Village Life

The photographs taken by Frank Downing and others capture what life was like in Thurgoland 100 years ago.

Thurgoland is located on the A629, the major route from Sheffield to Huddersfield, which also connects outlying villages with the market towns of Penistone and Holmfirth. The village was originally an agricultural community, and Downing photographed farming scenes such as ploughing or feeding chickens.

The village, which extends down to the River Don in the south developed as the iron-making and wire-drawing industries expanded. Most local people lived in the cottages built in the 18th and 19th centuries and worked in the forges and mills, or the stone quarries. The railway provided improved communications and an alternative source of employment.

Local People

Frank Downing must have been a local celebrity – well-known as perhaps the only photographer for miles around. It was a novelty at the time to have your photograph taken, as not many people owned a camera and it was a skilled technical operation.

Downing’s photographs were taken on a plate camera using dry plates. Most were taken outside, with the local countryside forming the backdrop.

Many are photographs of individuals leaning on a chair outside the door to their cottage; some are shots of couples on their wedding day; others are group portraits – a few lads outside a pub with a jug of ale, a large family group with a new-born baby, the local cricket team.

Industrial Heritage

Thurgoland has a long history of iron-working and wire-drawing. Of great importance is the nearby Wortley Top Forge, the oldest surviving 17th century iron forge (traced back to 1640), which is open to the public.

The Wortley ironworks consisted of three sites, Top Forge, Low Forge, and Tin Mill. And also the three wire mills on Old Mill Lane Thurgoland. Water power from the river Don was utilised to produce power for all these mills and forges. Wire drawing continued in Thurgoland until the early 1980s.

Wortley was one of several ironworks and blast furnaces owned by the Spencer family of Cannon Hall, Cawthorne, between 1658 and 1750. From 1739 the works were managed by John Cockshutt, a great innovator who developed the puddling process for making cast iron.

Sports and Leisure

Many of the photographs show local people at leisure. Several of the group shots are taken near to Frank Downing’s house.

As today, people used the riverside for quiet relaxation and there are photographs of boating in summer and skating in winter on the Back Dam at Wortley Top Forge. Other images show village celebrations on Easter Day or Whit Sunday.

Like many local villages, Thurgoland had a proud sporting tradition and local football and cricket teams are well represented. Also covered is the popular game of knurr and spell, which is rarely played today.

Heritage Trail

A short heritage trail has been developed to accompany the Thurgoland In Times Past book and DVD. This short walk from the village centre goes along Old Mill Lane, passing the sites of the wire mills which are now converted into residential properties. A pleasant circular walk of around three miles, the route passes Huthwaite Hall before returning to the village.

The trail follows public rights-of-way and hard-surfaced lanes and is suitable for wheelchair users and young families with children in pushchairs.

Discovering Thurgoland's local history is just one aspect of the trail, with views across open countryside and a rich wildlife also to enjoy.

Click below to download the heritage trail or pick up a copy from tourist information centres, libraries and local pubs and shops.