No absence in noise in Middleton Park

Middleton park
Middleton Park has a rich history

Guest blogger Alan Shaw from the Friends of Middleton Park group has written this post about its history:

I was walking my dogs through the park the other day and I was suddenly struck by something! And no it wasn’t something coming down from the trees – it was a sudden thought. I was walking along listening to the rhythms of the park – I could hear a couple of dogs barking, children playing, and birds singing, but that wasn’t what struck me. I had suddenly realised that I could still hear Leeds.

Now Leeds is a large city and Middleton Park is an inner city country park. With most ‘country’ parks you might not expect to hear much of anything man made but here in Middleton Park I could hear cars, the odd horn, and a plane overhead, and the thought that struck me was that over the centuries there could never have been a time when those in the park had ever experienced an absence of noise.

Where now you can hear cars and planes, two centuries ago Middleton Park was an industrial centre and those just wondering around in the park (and there wouldn’t be many of those!), would be able to hear picks and shovels, the rattle and pump of a steam engine hauling coal to the surface, the jingle of harness and the creak of wagons moving coal to be transported to Leeds and beyond.

And several hundred years before that one might have heard shouts and the clash of swords – that is if the local folk lore surrounding the boundary dispute in November 1200 are to be believed. The boundary ditch resulting from this dispute between the lords of Beeston and Middleton can still be seen near the tram tracks.

There are records of mining activity in the park since 1632, although even before then the woods were managed as there are indications of internal sub-divisions within the woods (surviving as earthworks).

In 1646 there is evidence to suggest that mining was a major business bringing in £350 a year, the Middleton estate at that time being owned by a member of the Leigh family, a chap with the very unusual (and certainly not local) name of Ferdinand Leigh. The Leigh’s owned the Middleton estate for 377 years overall, until in 1706 it passed to the Brandlings by marriage, and it is under the Brandlings that the mining really took off.

The Friends of Middleton Park archaeological survey found there were 6 different types of mining undertaken in the park with the shafts reaching 4 out of the 6 different seams available. These two seams were the Middleton Little Coal at 2 foot 6 inches thick and the Middleton Main Coal at 4 foot 2 inches thick. The survey found that although there are some ‘Bell Pits’ in the park (the earliest form of mining) the majority of the shaft mounds that you can still see around the park are the remains of what was probably pillar and stall mining.

However there is one area of the park that has no evidence of any mining activity and that is The Clearings. This area was cleared of trees by 1867 (possibly used as pit props or as fuel), and was possibly used for agricultural purposes, however it’s from the early 1900’s that the Clearings really took on value. Just before the war the site had 6 cricket pitches, 6 football pitches, and 3 hockey pitches!

In the war years there was a searchlight and 2 listening posts and there were some indications of a prisoner of war camp too. Before the war Alan Cobham took his flying circus to the Clearings, although it appears that this wasn’t entirely successful as there are records of the deaths of 2 children. But at least there is still flying in the park as the South Leeds Aero Modellers use a runway mown into the turf.

What constantly strikes me as I look at all the mining remains in the park is that I am astounded by the amount of effort and work that went into taking the coal out of the ground.

The coal seams at Middleton are at least 17 metres underground and the only way that early miners had to get down to it and get it out of the ground was by hand or with early horse drawn gins (or en’gins’) and the only way to get it from there to where you could sell it was by packhorse. We worked out that each Bell Pit (pre-1700) would yield between 91 and 101 tons of coal, which would take up to 1010 pack horse loads to move! You can see a good example of the site of a horse drawn gin (or horse gin) about 100 metres from the lake – denoted by two donuts of earthworks around a square cut hole.

With all this work involved you can see why later miners wanted to reduce some of the burden! The Middleton estate was one of the first (1755) to use wagonways to move the coal – which went on to the river atLeeds. These are kind of the guided bus ways of the day and took the form of wooden rails that abounded a wooden track.

You can still see the remains of the wagonways in the park as some of them have been taken over as estate roads. We know they were wagonways because they run alongside some of the shaft mounds, are unusually straight, and are of a constant gradient. That constant gradient is the key as the filled wagons were not pulled by horses but rolled down the hill on their own, with a ‘driver’ on the back leaning on a brake to slow the descent (not a job for the faint hearted!). Horses (or probably ponies) pulled the wagons back up the hill so they could be filled again. At the bottom of the hill the coal was loaded onto the first commercially run steam railway (from 1812) in toLeeds.

Steam also featured heavily within the park as there is evidence that at least one of the pits was run by a steam locomotive. I am sure some of you have seen the picture of the ‘Middleton Miner’, well in the background you can see a steam engine. If you look carefully around near the site of Wood Pit (nearGypsy Laneand the South Leeds Golf Course) you can see evidence of where the engine stood and the reservoir used to keep it in water. You can imagine it working hard gurgling and thumping to bring the coal up from 40 metres underground.

Back to sound again as another historical feature in the park is the tramway that runs east to west near to the site of Wood Pit. This is the route of the number 12 tram fromLeedsto Middleton, which had its terminus onMiddleton Park Road near Lingwell Road.

The trams used on the number 12 route went particularly fast through the woods due to the gradient and the Friends have heard stories of those who used to ride on them being particularly excited at the speed through the trees. There were two tram stops in the park, one near the remains of Middleton Lodge (the Rose Garden), and one serving the clearings that you can still see the remains of beside the tram track.

Whenever I walk along the tracks I always like to imagine the trams rattling and banging along through the woods with their motors surging, so much so that I can sometimes feel them coming towards me!

Whenever I walk around the park I think of the park’s history and use my imagination to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ what went on before. Before we used the park for leisure and sport and play, when it was used to fuel the early industrial revolution. And as I look at the remains of the shaft mounds, Middleton Lodge, and the tram track I hear the sounds of the park from before fading into the sounds of 2012.

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