West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

PONTEFRACT MILL HILL
SAND TUNNELS


by JOHN HOLMES

The main road to Carleton and Ackworth passes through a cutting and yet few know and fewer have entered the maze of tunnels (now filled) alongside the busy main road.

Nearly all my life I have known the mines at the top of our garden. When I was first aware of them in about 1940, there were entrances on the north and south side. Those on the north were mainly the result of old falls and involved clambering down. On the south side they opened into a small quarry. On the eastern side were openings on to Mill Hill, some of which were bricked up. Inside, the eastern part was fairly open, consisting of pillars supporting a five-metre thickness of rock; towards the west they became narrow tunnels and a candle was a necessary item for exploration. In various places were pools of still, clear water, so still that it was easy to walk into them without noticing, although none were so deep that a pair of Wellingtonís would not keep you dry. As time went by, frost would break away the sand from the entrance pillars so that in the end there was an inevitable collapse. Away from the entrances the temperature remained constant and it was possible to see original pick-marks. One large collapse was at the north west corner and a seven metre circular hole appeared in the field. On the south side a collapse occurred in the middle of the field and here a fault opened up a straight-sided hole with an overhang on the northern side. Another collapse was at the southern entrance and this went straight down, simply lowering the field level.

At the start of the Second World War, the Borough Council took over the first tunnel alongside Mill Hill Road and made it into an air-raid shelter, bricking off all the openings to the remainder of the mines. Also built were toilet compartments and blast walls. Wooden posts were put in to help support the roof. A low voltage lighting system was installed, as was piped water. A drain was also laid to take surface water into a gully in Mill Hill Road. This still operates and every so often the gully silts up and the water runs right down Mill Hill. 

The brick walls offered some support, so that in about 1946, when one of the pillars collapsed, they supported the roof and preserved access from the air-raid shelters to the rest of the mines.

In the 1950s Gordon Crofts, a local architect, built a bungalow in the field. He was the architect for a new building in Newgate (now ATS) and for an extension to Keyzerís shop on Southgate. He allowed much of the debris to be tipped into the north west hole and this was brought level with the surrounding field. Soon after his bungalow was built a further collapse near the north-eastern corner of his bungalow created a hole about one metre deep. For some time he left it, utilising it as a sandpit for his children! This was later filled.

Eventually he sold out and Mr. J.P. Hill of Albany Plant purchased the property. He filled in the south-east corner of the quarry and reduced a strip of land about seven metres wide alongside Mill Hill to road level. On this filled and levelled portion he had a bungalow constructed. Eventually Mr. Hill decided to sell out and he had the topsoil stripped down to the rock, exposing three holes into the mines below. Two of these were filled with small marl whilst the third was disguised as a well to maintain access via a ladder from one of the gardens of the three houses built. The house builders had 15cm holes drilled all round the site of each house, and where they went into mines, hollow brick pillars were built. Both holes and pillars were then filled with reinforced concrete to support the house rafts on the surface. The topsoil was replaced and a depression on the northern side was filled with clay and topsoil from Carleton Glen Housing Estate, which was being built at the time. There has been little change since then.

THE DISTANT PAST

T.W. Tew gives a few facts in Miscellaneous Papers in a talk on 4th November 1869. He mentions that at the time some 31,000 tons of sand per annum were being dug from the Darrington Ė Glasshoughton area; 840 tons from Darrington and Pontefract; 17,640 tons from Monkhill, and 12,520 tons from Glasshoughton. The Mill Hill sand was 94% pure sand while Monkhill was only 83% sand.

The only evidence of when and who dug at Mill Hill so far found is in the Tanshelf Rate Book. The first entry seems to be entry 216 of 1871, when the owner was Henry Buckle, and the occupier John Smith. The rateable value was £31 17s, indicating a possible rental of about £36 per annum. This compares with a rateable value for the Priory (a large house) of £39 19s, and the Toll House (much smaller) of £2 16s. The entries continue, but in 1872, the second rate, the tenants are John and Thomas Smith. My copy continues to 1874 and the entries remain the same each year. The 1849 Ordnance Survey does not show the mines, but that of 1892 shows the entrance to be very similar to how they were in 1940, and even the collapse on the northern side has taken place. On this collapse grew trees which still remain in the garden of the house with the well.

PRESENT SITUATION

All the entrances except Mill Hill Gates are now blocked and little change has taken place since the entrances were filled. Wakefield MDC have recently been concerned in particular with mines at Bexhill Close, where two houses suddenly collapsed. They had a survey of the Mill Hill mines done as a trial run for surveying the Bexhill Close mines, which have now been filled in. The writer has applied for permission to landscape the old quarry at the southern part of the Priory land but this will not affect more than a short tunnel to the north of the gate, which is showing signs of collapse where the limestone changes to marl.

POSTSCRIPT

Since the above article was written the Council engaged contratorís to fill this collection of caves. Use of Priory land was offered and accepted. A six-inch steel tube was pushed through the entrance into one of the caves and to this was attached piping to go in to the extremities of the caves. A JCB came on site and lorry loads of limestone were brought in and loaded into the hopper of the blower to be blown into the caves. As they were filled the pipe was moved back and once all was filled the entrance was covered. Holes were then drilled at various points around the houses and a large circular tank brought in. Into this was tipped Power Station Ash, cement and water to make a mixture which was pumped to the holes and allowed to run into the limestone to bond it together. Water had to be obtained from Mill Hill Lane by a hosepipe over the gardens.

John Holmes


Other studies by John Holmes

Pontefract Elections
Pontefract and its Manors Part One
Pontefract and its Manors Part Two - The New Hall


 

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