1.Ownership of the land……Unification

Before the romans came to Britain, the land was divided into tribal regions each run by chiefs and warlords. The romans gave some sense of unity, established a country wide transportation system and generally brought peace to the land. After they left around 400 AD, we reverted back to our all ways and this period was known as the dark ages. This existed up to the 10th century when Britain was divided into two great kingdoms; Mercia to the south ruled by the Wessex kings and Northumbria to the north ruled by the Danish kings. The boundary between these two lies right here on our doorstep. The whole of the Moss valley was in Mercia but Norton, Gleadless were in Northumbria the boundary running from Gleadless to Frechville then down though the Shirebrook valley to Beighton, In 926 king Athelstan of Mercia united the two kingdoms in rather a loose alliance and was crowned king of all England, but the northerners, Danes and Vikings, were never subjugated and trouble constantly flared. Mercia was under the dioceses of Canterbury governed by Saxon law and Northumbria under the diocese of York under Danelaw. In 1066 king Harold was fighting the Vikings around York when he and his army had to make a quick march south to face the Norman invasion at Hastings. The Normans won, William was crowned king of England, William the Conqueror as he became known, smashed his way through the old kingdoms without taking breath. However, the old border regions were still volatile and the great northern uprising of 1069 was ruthlessly suppressed, whole villages were annihilated, livestock and crops destroyed or confiscated, farm implements smashed so that the land could not be worked and fell into disuse. So great was the destruction that in the Doomsday book of 1086, border lands were a fraction of their former value, 8 acres of farmland at Norton was revalued at 18 pennies from 20 shillings.

The border lands were a wild and dangerous place for generations to come. In 1249 A John Reresby of the village of Rotherham (formally Northumbria) led a raiding party into the kings hunting grounds of the Moss valley (formally Mercia). He was declared an outlaw by the sheriff of Nottingham for “poaching the kings deer”, he was eventually caught and hung. A few years ago the BBC used the phrase “the republic of South Yorkshire” , perhaps we still see ourselves different to the southern invaders!!

1. Ownership of the Land…….Enclosure

The landscape, set in gently rolling hills, is a patchwork of irregularly shaped fields, bounded by hedgerows with scattered islands of woodland.

The above description captures the essence of the English countryside. But this landscape is relatively new, nothing like that existed before the 18th century and prior to that the landscape had remained largely unchanged since the Norman conquest.

When William the Conqueror became king of England he claimed ownership of all lands and property throughout the land then he granted vast estates to those who pleased him; his knights who helped him raise an army, those who distinguished themselves in battle and the church, he wanted a place in heaven. The Lords of the Manor kept some farming lands for themselves as well as vast areas designated as hunting forests. The lords reallocated land to those who favoured them and to hundreds of lesser tenants who were permitted to work their allocated plots. This was the feudal system. Surplus land which the Lords had no real use for became known as the Lords Wastes. People living near these wastelands used them to pasture livestock, gather kindling (but only by Hook or by Crook), to gather certain fruits from the woods and to fish and hunt within strict guidelines.(The Lords planted many Hazel trees which could not be harvested but  “nutterers*  poached the fruit and if caught faced severe punishment; similarly, all deer belonged to the king and only those  permitted by the king were allowed to hunt.) . These Lords Wastes were essential to supplement people’s livelihood and the very poor even built humble dwellings there. This land became known as common lands and all people acquired “rights of Common”.

Agriculture during this period was an open field system. An area was divided into three strips of about one acre each, two were cultivated in any one year whilst the third lay fallow. Thus, over a three-year period each strip would be rested, Tenant farmers were given a share of both good and bad land such that although one farmer could have several strips of land they could be widely separated. There were no hedges or walls to separate one farmer’s strips from the next, just earth banks formed by the plough. Even the land from one landowner to the next was not defined by hedges but simple marker stones. In the Moss valley there is such a boundary stone one side of which is carved with S (Sitwell) the other with D (Devonshire). Although small scale enclosure of land did take place it was only to protect livestock and never led to loss of common rights. The landscape was thus open, cultivated land merging into pasture, into meadow, into woodland, without walls fences or hedgerows. This landscape existed until 1760 when the first Enclosure Act was passed although there was a little blip in the reign of Henry V111 when he passed the act which led to the dissolution of the Monasteries. Both Welbeck and Beauchief abbey had major land and property assets in the valley. These were acquired by the King and Birley Hay for example owned by The Holy Cross at Eckington was seized by the king and gifted to Henry Savage in 1563. This however did not really change the feudal system of land use.

Prior to 1760 some did try to enclose common land but Charles 1, acting against the wishes of parliament. imposed massive fines on persons doing such acts. Bear in mind that parliament was composed of the landed gentry, the rich and famous elected solely by their fellow peers. Charles 1 was an absolute monarch, and he could impose laws, raise taxes, give as well as take land and properties from those that displeased him. Stopping the rich and powerful from taking common land for themselves some say was the spark that ignited the Civil War and led to Charles 1 being executed. After the war the monarchy no longer existed, Cromwell and parliament ruled the county. Even when the monarchy was restored under Charles 11, parliament enacted laws not the king.

The 18th century saw massive changes in society, cities expanded, industry required more labour, more raw materials, and thus more food. This was a golden opportunity for the landed gentry, the rich, the powerful, to exploit. So, between 1760 and 1830, under the reign of George 111, parliament passed a whole series of Enclosure Acts which not only allowed but required that all land be enclosed. Effectively the rich and famous, including the powerful church, voted that only existing landowners, meaning themselves, had the right to enclose land  including all common land. We were robbed.

The whole country was carved up, footpaths were lost, the old strip field system destroyed, and bigger, more productive field enclosures were created. Many tenant farmers lost their jobs, their houses, even small landowners who could not afford the cost of hedges or walls lost their land by default or for a pittance to the rich. Common land was given to those who could enclose it, the vicar of Eckington was given two acres at Troway for his own use, just imagine what a Bishop got.! The rich became richer and the poor worse off.

At this time Sheffield only had a population of less than 10000 and most people could access the Commons. Many supplemented their income by keeping livestock in their back yard; a pig, a cow or geese and these were taken to the commons during the day to graze. Enclosure stopped this. Much of the enclosed land was not even used for growing food but for the much higher value commodity, wool. Vast areas were given over to grasslands for sheep, some counties lost two-thirds of their cultivated farmland for wool production. There was mass starvation throughout the land both in cities and in rural areas. In Scotland, “The Clearances” led to mass emigration sometimes almost by force. Riots erupted all over the country and in 1791 a crowd tried to burn down Broom Hall, home of the parish vicar after he was given, and enclosed for his own use, Crooks Moor and Little Sheffield Moor both common lands. Following events like this Hillsborough Barracks was hastily built to house 200 cavalries. The Riot Act was introduced. A gathering of 12 persons or more were “read the riot Act”, failure to disperse meant force could be used and many injuries and even deaths resulted from cavalry charges. Enclosure robbed the people of their common rights, their freedom to walk the land, to supplement their income from the land and in some cases their entire livelihood.  A farm labourer in Northamptonshire wrote:

                           On paths to freedom and to childhood dear

                           A board sticks up to notice “no road here”

                           And on the tree with ivy overhung

                           The hated sign with vulgar taste is hung

                           As though the very birds should learn to know

                           When they go there they must go no further

                                                                                        John Clare

The face of the countryside was changed to become essentially what we see today. Perhaps the “Right to Roam Act” is restoring some of our lost rights.

2. Resources of the Valley………Water Power

Before the 1400’s the Moss valley was a thickly wooded area teaming with wildlife, an ideal spot to become the hunting ground for noblemen. But this steep sided valley which rapidly descended from Norton to Eckington also provided a source of waterpower which had been used since ancient times. A water grist mill for the grinding of corn is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. But a rapid expansion in the use of this source of power was about to change the nature of the moss valley which would become one of the most important industrial sites in England.

During the 14th and 15th centuries the population of England exploded. More food was needed, more mills to grind corn, more tools to harvest crops. The geology of the moss valley provided ample water for grinding wheels, wood for charcoal and outcrops of iron ore to make tools. As early as 1350 there is a record of John Tylly having a grinding wheel at Ford. Iron making is recorded in 1386 when the Abbot of Welbeck contracted with William Mason of Mosborough to build an iron furnace in Eckington Forest. Sickles and scythes became the trademark of the whole area with an ever-growing demand. During early Tudor times there was a series of wars with France and Spain and the demand for iron expanded, in 1507 at Ford, water powered bellows were introduced which not only increased the speed of iron production but resulted in a better product. This was some 50 years before water powered bellows became in general use. Acres of woodland were chopped down for charcoal and to build war ships. More dams, waterwheels, grinding wheels and tilt hammers were built throughout the valley and by the 17th century, the Moss valley was a major industrial site. In 1599 the newly build forge at Birley Hay had just started production.


This was a massive forge with two independent water wheels driving two tilt hammers and 10 grinding troughs which could all be operated independently. This was the biggest complex in the valley, Carlton wheel having just 9 grinding troughs.

The Sitwells, major landowners, not only leased out land for iron and coal mines, building of dams and smithies, but also had their own facilities as well as being merchants for many other smithies. In 1649 G. Sitwell and H Wigfall build an iron mill and furnace at Plumbley It is estimated that 10% of all the iron used in England passed through the hands of the Sitwells. Further, the valley became the major supplier of clout nails in the whole of England, nails being used to build ships, cabins, stockades, and fences and they were exported throughout the colonies.

The fever of activity continued right up into the 19th century. At its peak there were an estimated 50 smithies operating within the Moss valley. Looking at the Moss today it ia hard to imagine that the small river could support so many waterwheels but before all the surrounding estates were built, the flow of the Moss was at least 100 times greater than today. Bear in mind that water once used at one wheel such as Ford , flows down the e next dam say Never Fear, to be used again. But the event of steam power saw demise of the water powered industries in the valley. Although sickles and scythes were still manufactures in the surround region factories could be located more conveniently for local transport, such as the Phoenix works at Ridgeway

2. Resouces ……..Coal Power

Coal is made from the fallen and decaying matter of ancient forests formed primarily during the carboniferous period a few hundred million years ago. Several examples of fossilised tree ferns have been found in the valley which is not surprising since it sits atop the South Yorkshire coal seam. But just imaging walking in the valley 200 million years ago; a dense forest of 30 meter tall tree ferns, giant horse tails and club mosses, scurrying on the ground 2 foot long millipedes, cockroaches as big as rats and being dived bombed by dragonflies with 2 foot wing spans. Not exactly a stroll in the park!

Coal was mined and exported in roman times but not commonly used by the people of England, wood was the main fuel.  After the romans left there is little evidence of coal in widespread use until the 14th century, Tuder times. This period saw a massive population expansion thus more pressure was put on woodlands to supply increasing amounts of wood and charcoal used in both iron and lead smelting. It was clear that an alternative fuel to wood was required. In the Moss valley outcrops of coal and iron stone were features of the geology. Coal was picked from the surface or extracted vis shallow drift mines. As the ingress into the hillside became deeper, bell pits were opened. These were shafts sunk down to the coal seam, no more than 30 meters deep, then coal extracted in a circular manner forming a bell pit. Mining at this time was invariable a family affair, often a winter occupation for laid off agricultural workers. Drift mines and bell pits opened all over the valley and this type of small-scale mining, supplying a local need via pack mules, continued into the 18th century.

The 17th century saw coal becoming the dominant fuel with increasing demand. Indeed in 1640 the building trade in London was in crisis due to a shortage of coal used for limestone burning to produced building lime.  A major limitation in the valley was that coal was moved via pack mules. To enhance production near to Field Wheels dam a counterbalanced tramway was constructed which took tubs of coal from the bottom of the valley north up to Plumbley Lane where the coal could by moved in bulk. At this time canals had an impact; barges could transport much large quantities than pack mules at lower costs. However, pits had to be near canals and many spurs were constructed to service local pits. The real change came in the 19th century with the advent of the railways. Mass transportation reduced costs and enabled coal to become not just the fuel for industry but the fuel for domestic use. Small mines closed and big pits took over: Brook House, Birley, Norwood, Treeton, Orgreave. The railway led to the only deep shaft pit in the valley Plumbley colliery, But this being close to the valley floor had to have a massive engine house containing a steam driven beam engine to pump out the constant ingress of water into the mine workings, it became known as Seldom Seen. Seldom Seen was serviced by its own purpose build railway, the penny engine line, which not only moved coal to the iron works at Renishaw and to the Midland Railway at Killamarsh, but transported workers, the fare being one penny hence its name.


All the mines in the valley are now closed and the sites taken over by nature. Evidence of charcoal burning still exists in the form of circular mounds, Q pits. Here a wood piled up inside a circular depression was surrounded by a small raised bank, an opening in the base allowed air in, the structure taking the shape of a Q. Seldom Seen officially closed in 1917 but small scale extraction continued until 1930 leaving just the ghostly shell of the engine house.