The Barnsley pit village that may have been cradle of the Industrial Revolution

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For years it was a pit village, an important cog on the wheel of coal that kept the West Riding turning.

But a raft of new discoveries suggests that the settlement of Elsecar, midway between Barnsley and Rotherham, may also have been the cradle of the industrial resolution in Yorkshire – and the first “model village”, half a century before Saltaire.

And though it is 70 miles inland, it might even have served as one of the region’s early “seaside” resorts.

Historians piecing together the history of the area have found the remnants of a complete industrial “estate village” built for the Earls Fitzwilliam, whose family seat a mile down the road was the biggest privately-owned house in Britain.

The fourth and fifth Earls built cottages, schools, pubs and a church for the workers at their mighty ironworks, and also put in a canal and basin to transport the finished product.

“It is absolutely the precursor of model villages like Saltaire and it is hugely significant to the industrial revolution – it’s Yorkshire’s Ironbridge Gorge,” said Trevor Mitchell, a planning director for Historic England, which last year designated Elsecar as one of 10 “heritage action zones” across the country.

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“We hadn’t realized there was so much evidence and such a big scale of ironworking around Elsecar,” Mr Mitchell said. “People always thought of it as a coal mining heritage site but it’s actually an iron site.”

He added: “We’re excited by what we’ve discovered. We didn’t know the ironworkers’ houses were still there, or the extent of the survival of the ironworks themselves.

“It’s an example of how the whole of the UK industrialised and a reminder that these aristocratic estates were enormous businesses, with a whole army of workers – an entire cross-section of society in this one place.”

Among the newly-discovered clues to Elsecar’s past is the entrance in a private garden to a mine. The future King William IV is thought to have used it to get access, in 1828.

But the area’s most distinctive feature was its canal, for which the Fitzwilliams also put in a reservoir further up the hill, to keep it topped up.

It became such a popular feature that day-trippers from Sheffield used it as a cheaper alternative to Scarborough for a few hours’ fresh air and a paddle. A shooting gallery was established later, and the village became known as Elsecar-by-the-Sea, a name that has stuck today.

Mr Mitchell said: “Fitzwilliam made a decision to invest in exploiting his iron, and the canal and its basin was the turning point.

“It was one thing getting it out of the ground, but transporting it 200 miles to where it was needed was an expensive process if you only had donkeys. With a canal they could load the iron onto barges and increase their production and their market share.”

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Wentworth Woodhouse, the country seat of the Earls Fitzwilliam, which has a façade twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace, is the subject of a £7.6 m Government restoration package.

Elsecar is one of four heritage action zones in the region, sharing funding with Hull’s Old Town, Greater Grimsby and Dewsbury’s “living market town”.

An initial £6m was made available to “unleash the power in England’s historic environment to create economic growth”.

Mr Mitchell said: “It’s a case of discovering how we can use heritage to improve people’s quality of life. Obviously when you make an exciting discovery that interests people, it’s going to drive interest and visitors and potentially drive business to an area as well.”