The Development of the Dearne

Below is an overview of the development of the Dearne across key periods.

Prehistoric and Roman

The earliest man-made features in the Dearne Valley landscape appear to be the linear earthworks known as ‘Roman Ridge’ which run close to the southern boundaries of Wath Upon Dearne and Swinton. Despite their name, there is uncertainty about their precise date or purpose: they could be Iron Age, Roman or early Medieval in date, and may have been defensive structures, a routeway or a boundary defining territories. A more definite Roman feature is the earthworks of a Romano- British settlement found in Wombwell Wood.


The landscape of the Dearne Valley is full of clues to its pre-industrial history. Much can be learned from the study of place names, which can help to date the origin of settlements (for example, ‘thorp’ is a Viking place name, whereas ‘ton’ is a Saxon one. Place names can also indicate former landscape features (for example, ‘ley’ refers to a woodland clearing, and ‘ing’ is the Viking word for a seasonally flooded field). Early patterns of settlement and landscape can therefore be traced through place names, as shown in the map below.

The earliest villages were located on the ridge tops and valley sides, above the floodplain. Many (such as Wombwell and Wath-Upon-Dearne) appear to have been planned villages, laid out with regular plots of houses on either side of a main road. Some of the early fabric of these villages survives- the churches at Darfield and Bolton-Upon-Dearne contain Saxon stonework.

Land below the villages, on the valley floor, would have been used for hay cropping and seasonal grazing, whilst the higher land around and behind the villages would have been used for arable agriculture, initially in large fields in which farmers were allocated their own strip. Further away from the villages (often on the highest or steepest land) were areas of woodland (coppiced for fuel and also used for grazing) and pasture.

Major routeways utilised the Dearne Valley, including a major east-west highway between Halifax and Barnsley to London (which ran through villages including Wombwell and Wath-Upon-Dearne) and a north-south road between Rotherham and Pontefract. Stretches of these former major routes survive as lanes today, as do several stone bridges.

Other surviving medieval buildings in the Dearne Valley include religious buildings (parish churches, churchyard crosses and Monk Bretton Priory) and the defensive structure of Conisbrough castle which overlooks the river Don and Sprotbrough Gorge. There are also some early manor houses such as Grimethorpe Hall which would originally have been associated with estates, deer parks etc.

At this time industry was localised and small in scale. It included coal mining, charcoal production, iron smelting and water-powered mills.

Eighteenth Century

The end of the 18th Century saw a major change in the Dearne Valley landscape from rural agriculture to industrial development and mining. The discovery of rich seams of accessible coal was the catalyst for the construction of the Dearne and Dove Canal. This navigation connected Barnsley and the river Don, enabling coal and other goods to be transported to markets in Barnsley, and to the river Humber. The canal, (which had connecting branches to Elsecar and Worsbrough) was started in 1793 and completed in 1804. By 1820 it was transporting 100,000 tons of coal annually, plus stone, timber, iron and corn. Long stretches of the canal, with locks, reservoirs and basins can still be seen today.

As well as providing efficient transport of coal, the canal system also enabled the development of other industries, including large-scale iron-smelting, glassmaking and pottery manufacture. Combined with the increased output of coal mines, this led to a rapid expansion of population and settlements.

The farming landscape also underwent a period of considerable change in the 18th century, primarily as a result of the enclosure of common land, and the change from farming in communal open fields to individual farms. Many new farms and agricultural buildings were constructed as a result of this process, giving us many of the field patterns seen today. At a similar time, large landowners such as the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth Woodhouse were laying out country estates using a naturalistic style of parkland planting, associated with grand houses and estate villages such as Wentworth and Hickleton.

Nineteenth Century

The 19th Century saw continued development of mining technology which enabled extraction from deeper seams and further increased the expansion of coal mining in the Dearne Valley. Associated industries, such as brick making and metal working also flourished.

The first railway in the area was constructed in 1840 between Rotherham and Normanton, and a network of lines quickly followed, with branch lines and sidings serving collieries.

The valley-side settlements expanded, often onto higher land, with terraces of houses constructed for miners and other workers. Accompanying buildings such as chapels, institutes and schools also became part of the built form of the area. However, settlements such as Grimethorpe, Cudworth, Thurnscoe, Goldthorpe and Ardsley remained agricultural hamlets.

The Fitzwilliam Family of Wentworth Woodhouse constructed the village of Elsecar on their Estate as an industrial settlement. They provided cottages for their workers, along with a mill, church, school, park and other amenities. Residents worked in the deep colliery, ironworks and other industries. These works, plus the houses and amenities built by the Fitzwilliam family now form the Elsecar Heritage Centre and Conservation Area. Also included is the Fitzwilliam family’s private railway station.

Twentieth Century

The 20th Century saw a huge increase in the population and industrial output of the Dearne Valley. This was a time of prosperity for the area, and had a marked effect on the landscape. Towns and villages continued to expand as mining output increased, and new collieries such as Grimethorpe were opened as deep seams were explored and extraction methods developed. Large mines and spoil tips became prominent landscape features.

The large pit villages which developed from hamlets during the 20th century are very distinctive in terms of their housing and associated buildings. Large housing estates were built, along with a distinctive urban fabric of pitheads, workshops, working men’s clubs, miners’ institutes, baths, band rehearsal rooms, sports facilities, parks and allotments. Shared work and leisure resulted in the development of a strong cultural identity. Many areas of 20th Century housing were developed on prominent hilltops and this, coupled with the new collieries, spoil tips and associated industrial development dramatically changed the landscape.

Valley-floor industrialisation, combined with engineering of the river banks in the mid-20th Century also resulted in a loss of visual connection with the river Dearne.

Threats to the Don Valley industries from German bombers in WW2 required the construction of air defences. The heavy anti-aircraft gunsite at Bolton- Upon-Dearne, with surviving gun emplacements and magazine, is now a Scheduled Monument. The air defences were never actually used. Pit disaster memorials are also features of the area, acting as reminders of the dangers of mining. Barnsley Main was the site of the Oaks mining disaster, the largest in English history.

Late Twentieth Century Onwards

The last of the Dearne Valley collieries closed in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in mass unemployment and social deprivation. Mine buildings, railways etc. were removed leaving a landscape which was derelict, and also lacking the features which had been distinctive landmarks for the past century. In the 1990s, the Dearne Valley received money for regeneration. Unfortunately, regeneration schemes were not always adequately thought through, with consequential loss of biodiversity and dynamism in the landscape, and the creation of new repetitive and anonymous landscapes. Large-scale industrial, retail and service buildings were constructed on low-lying areas of flat land which had previously been occupied by mines and sidings, for example at Manvers. New roads were constructed along valley floors to provide access to the new developments, but these have resulted in fragmentation of the area and a loss of pedestrian accessibility across the valleys. Most recently, large areas of brownfield land (both on valley floors and in higher villages such as Grimethorpe) are being used for residential development. This new housing uses many different architectural styles, but all contrast with the area’s older housing in terms of style, scale and layout.

However, the post-mining redevelopment and cleaning-up of the area has also resulted in a considerable increase in its biodiversity. The creation of valley floor wetlands (for example at Old Moor) has enabled the re-creation of the types of wetland habitats which would have naturally occurred in the valley floor before drainage for agriculture and industrial development. They also have an important role to play in flood amelioration. In the past 20 years the rivers have been transformed from polluted wastelands into a haven for wildlife.

These valley-floor sites are also important for recreation. Many are local nature reserves in their own right, but their biodiversity and recreational value is enhanced by the way they form chains along the valleys, linked by recreational trails which utilise the disused railway lines. The National Trans- Pennine Trail crosses the area east-west, following the Don, Dearne and Dove valleys.

Further recreational access and opportunities have been developed on former industrial sites (e.g. Dearne Valley Park – less than one mile from Barnsley Town centre) and on reclaimed spoil tips. Considerable reshaping and planting of spoil tips has occurred in recent years, enabling them to blend with the surrounding countryside, and to have a recreational role. Phoenix Park at Thurnscoe is a spoil tip which has been re-landscaped and planted as a Country Park. Pit wheels have been re-erected as semi-circular sculptures throughout the area.

Agricultural land in the Dearne Valley is also being restored. A significant proportion of the area’s agricultural land is under Countryside Stewardship or Environmental Stewardship, with some under Higher Level Stewardship. These agricultural grant schemes enable farmers to manage their land to the benefit of wildlife and recreation, for example through hedgerow, pond, wetland, woodland and grassland management, and through the provision of footpaths and interpretation panels. The resulting well-managed rural landscape greatly enhances the environment of the area and gives it a cared-for character.

Green technologies have also been promoted in the Dearne Valley. Wind turbines are visible on the higher land to the east of the area, and the area has a noticeably high proportion of buildings with solar hot water and/ or photovoltaic cells on their roofs.