So, you know I’m an archaeology student, right? Well anyway I can only suppose that is the reasoning behind the excitement I felt when I gazed upon the remnants of what was once a thriving community, Tin Town. I was not expecting to find anything worthy of a blog article on that particular sojourn near Ladybower Reservoir. I may be an Ancient Historian through and through but the industrial past of Britain, holds a great deal of personal wealth to me, as my own family is rich in coal mining history. As such though this sojourn was many weeks ago, Tin Town has been playing on my mind even through exam season, so here is at last an article upon it.
Tin Town also known as Birchinlee, stands only in remnants now beside the Howden Reservoir, scattered throughout a plantation forest. Tin Town was intended as a worker’s village and thus its fate was sealed upon the completion of the Derwent and Howden Reservoirs, this would be a process which lasted over a mere 14 years. This community was purpose built for the navvies and their families, employed to work on the dams. When the village construction began the Derwent was a narrow body of water, in March 1901 it was little more than 20 yards wide.
The influx of labour into urban centres meant that much greater levels of water were needed for the basic needs of urban concentrations of people. The populations of Yorkshire and Lancashire doubled from 3.8 million to 8 million between 1850 and 1900. A new system of reservoirs would be needed in order to sustain such population growth, a system of permanent stone dams, bigger than any before constructed in Britain. The Derwent Valley Water Board was called in being by a collective of the Sheffield, Derby, Leicester and Nottingham councils, to build the reservoirs and manage the water supply of these urban centres. The formation of this Board required an Act of Parliament and Royal assent, with governmental loans granted to commence work. Two sites were identified as suitable for the construction of dams, one on Howden Moor and the second to the north of Derwent village. For the construction of these dams over 2 million tonnes of stone would be needed, a light-gauge railway was constructed to transport such large amounts of stone from the quarry at Bole Hill near Grindleford. The engineer Edward Sandeman designed and oversaw construction of both dams. It would be George Sutton, an employee of Sandeman however that developed the village. George Sutton was also the village missioner, and was employed by the Derwent Valley Water Board to care for the spiritual welfare of the workforce. He was extremely influential in the community and even following the death of his wife in 1907, leaving 6 children in his care, his resolve to serve the spiritual needs of the community didn’t lessen. His was the last family to leave Birchinlee in 1915, having survived in the former Post Office building, as the rest of Tin Town was demolished around them. Sutton would write a sentimental essay on life in the village, the only resident of Tin Town to ever commit his memories of the area to writing.
Tin Town was referred to as such because the buildings were constructed distinctively from temporary materials such as corrugated iron and wood. These constructions would later be sold off or moved, upon the discontinuance of the Birchinlee community. One such construction can still be found in the Peak District village of Hope, where it is now employed as a hairdresser’s.
One Sidney Lloyd, who lived in Birchinlee in his childhood in 1982 told The Star that his father moved to work on the dams from Wales. He also recollects that ‘you might think a village of corrugated iron would be a bit rough and ready but it was well built and the homes were warm and comfortable’. The Derwent Valley Water Company constructed the village and they were by law required to provide acceptable facilities for their workforce. It was a common denominator amongst the workers of Birchinlee, the majority had been previously engaged in the construction of the Elan Valley Reservoirs in Wales where accommodation was basic at most. Birchinlee in contrast must have seemed a sort of paradise.
Birchinlee was a genuine community, it had its own shops, hospitals, church, school, recreation hall, canteen (pub), post office, rubbish dump with incinerator, fire and police stations, railway station and public bath house. Despite the existence of the police station lock-up it seems it was never used, instead resident PC Neil McLean resolved disputes by encouraging men to fight it out. One of the shops was owned by the Gregory brothers from Tideswell and was extremely well-stocked and integral to the local community. One William ‘Dick’ Motley ran the greengrocers for its owner, George Sweet of Sheffield. And Miss Bessie Bateman ran the confectioners. Edith Hallett was Birchinlee’s longest-serving schoolmistress, she moved to Abbey Grange, a house near the village outskirts which was one of the only pre-existing buildings in the area, upon her marriage to William Kennedy, the son of a local gamekeeper.
It was recognised by the Derwent Valley Water Company that decent facilities with a settled workforce meant greater worker productivity. To supplement their wages many workers took in lodgers. The days in Tin Town were long with the first breakfasts at 5am and supper being served at 10.30pm. In their leisure time Tin Town residents enjoyed singing groups, flower shows, whist drives, visits by concert parties, dances and hand-cranked cinema shows. The village football teams won cups in the Sheffield Amateur League, cricket and billiards were also competitive. Tin Town had two hospitals, one of which was an isolation hospital ½ a mile to the west of the main diaspora of the community, as there were times where infectious disease could threaten the entire community. The variety of shops for such a small community was astounding it included a draper, general store, cobbler, tobacconist, greengrocer, confectioner and a hairdresser. The phenomenon of the travelling tradesman was also prevalent in Tin Town, in example can be given the fact that no less than four butchers were licensed to sell meat in Birchenlee. The centre of the community was the recreation hall which was large enough to seat the village’s entire adult population for public meetings. The hall had a parquet floor and dances held there became so popular that they drew individuals from surrounding communities. The most popular area of the community however was undoubtedly the Derwent Canteen, a public house which was the single place in Birchinlee where the sale of alcohol was permitted.
The accommodation consisted of foremen’s huts, married workmen’s huts and workmen’s huts. The married workmen’s huts were decorated to a high standard for the time. The population of the town would rise to around 900 people. All houses in Birchinlee were prefabricated, clad entirely in corrugated iron on a timber frame. Each separate dwelling incorporated a Derbyshire grate and flute for a heating system, and paraffin was used for illumination and exterior street lighting. Water was piped from a smaller reservoir constructed with the intention of serving the village. The sewerage and drains ran to a treatment works which was remote form the communal areas. An interesting distinction however is that each individual dwelling in Birchinlee had a water toilet, in most cases this consisted of an outhouse. The distinction is interesting as most communities in Britain in the early 20th century did not have such modern hygiene facilities. The basic design of the homes was similar for almost 50 structures, single-storey dwellings some 40m in length and 4m in width. The houses of the village were arranged in three streets, each one parallel to the main village road. Three differing internal plans were used, 26 huts were open dormitories for single men, 15 were partitioned into 4 terraced houses for families, 6 were partitioned into two for foremen and village worthies. To the west of the village were garden allotments to which every resident of Birchinlee was entitled, enabling them to supplement their diet or perhaps their income.
The family accommodations would be grouped to the south of the village, providing distance from the single workmen’s dormitories in the north of the community. Further south from this and close to the railway station, were the houses of the village authorities and worthies, including a schoolmaster, missionary and policeman and village inspector appointed by the Derwent Valley Water Company. Many of the towns buildings would have been stark in appearance but were enhanced by the community, most of the shops had large display windows, the grocery store for example had wooden gables added. The recreation hall had a bell tower and was weather-boarded and painted white. The schoolhouse also had a bell tower constructed.
One interesting event in the towns history, appears to have been the appearance of abstinence campaigner Robert Batty who started a furious row with his claim to have found ‘the road dotted with poor groups of fellows who were obviously the worse for liquor’. He claimed that a padded cell was kept in the hospital for the worst cases of alcoholism. An enquiry in response to this made by Derwent Valley Water Company concluded that Mr. R. Batty has been misled in his own conclusions by ‘fanciful and untrue statements’ from workmen.
The Howden Dam was opened in 1912 with great fanfare, it was a big occasion with a formal ceremony and celebrations with dancing and fireworks. When the Derwent Dam’s construction was finally completed in 1916 however it was with little fanfare, the war had begun and the Birchinlee community dispersed elsewhere, their homes sold.
The working conditions that the men of Tin Town suffered, though a considerable improvement over Victorian gang-labour, were laborious and gruelling. Over the 14-year process of building the Howden and Derwent dams 18 men were killed, with an unknown number being injured. There was no single incident responsible for a group of fatalities, most incidents were singular. Arrivals to the dam projects despite this were numerous, new arrivals were however obliged to spend a week as residents of the doss-house in Hollinclough before admittance into the Tin Town communities. This was more than a preventative measure against antisocial tendencies, it also allowed the isolation of potential smallpox cases, an infectious disease rife throughout the country at the time. Wages in Tin Town were around two pounds and ten shillings a week, a third of what a skilled craftsman could expect in a Sheffield machine shop. Despite the disparity of wages people in Tin Town were happy, according to all surviving sources, in their model village and thriving community.
To conclude, in the best way I can, remember and value the industrial history of our country for what it was, a valiant struggle by the masses to survive, but also a time of strong communal ties. Industrial communities were perhaps the purest expressions of community that Britain has witnessed, because of the common struggle of the individuals within those said communities. An interesting observation that many have made is that although the life of workmen, navvies, within Tin Town looks dangerous and tough, all those in the photographs that survive are smiling and appear proud of the community which they created, no matter its temporary nature. My own ancestors lived in similar circumstances, and no doubt dear reader yours did too.