Having discussed two villages lost to the waters of reservoirs built in the first half of the twentieth century, I’m moving on this month to explore a village that existed for only a few years of that period: the village of Birchinlee, built to house those working on the construction, along with their families and the people required to support the village infrastructure.
In the 1900s, nearly 100,000 men and their families lived a nomadic existence, moving from one major engineering project to the next, regarded with suspicion by the locals and subject to abuse by their employers. When the flooding of the Derwent Valley was proposed, however, one of the conditions imposed on the Water Board was the provision of care and accomodation for all its employees and their dependents. And so Birchinlee was proposed, taking its name from the farm on land that was to be developed, and providing homes for up to 1,000 people at any one time: the married workmen and their families in blocks of four huts; groups of 8 to 10 unmarried men in larger semi-detached huts, presided over by a hutkeeper and his family; the foremen in semi-detatched huts, with their families. In keeping with Victorian values regarding strict class segregation, the managers and engineers overseeing the project lived away from the village altogether.
All the houses, and also the shops, school, and community buildings, were constructed from corrugated iron (hence the name Tin Town), lined with wood on the inside, and fitted with a ‘Derbyshire grate’ style fireplace. All houses were heated by coal and lit by paraffin lamps, with shared toilet blocks to the rear of each group of buildings – far more advanced than many workers elsewhere would be used to. Surviving internal photographs give the impression of middle-class rather than working-class life – certainly a step up from the days when navvies had to build their own houses from whatever materials they could lay their hands on.
Birchinlee village was well serviced by regular and visiting shops, including a greengrocer, a clothier and draper, a sweet shop and a post office (the latter two run by women), as well as horsedrawn butcher’s vans and a mobile fish and chip shop from Sheffield that called weekly. The village had only one public house: the Derwent Canteen, the beer cellar of which can still be seen beside the modern road around the reservoirs, although there was also a separate recreation hall which hosted dances – very popular with the inhabitants of nearby villages – and had two billiard tables, now in Bamford Village Institute (where I’ve played snooker on at least one of them). Beer was delivered to the Canteen in barrels by trains running along the railway line built specifically for the reservoirs project; although this was mainly a goods line, there was also a passenger service to and from Bamford, which had a station on the main Sheffield to Manchester line, for Birchinlee residents.
The village also held an annual Sports Day, first held to mark the coronation of Edward VII, which took place on the Abbey Field across the River Derwent from the village (and now under the waters of Derwent Reservoir). Competitions included a boys’ skipping race and various tug-of-war competitions, including one for the girls of the village school. The field also provided a venue for regular team sports as well as impromptu fights deemed to have become too heated to be resolved amicably in the Canteen. The tactic must have worked, since while the village had its own policeman and police station, no one ever had to spend a night in the cells.
When I visited Birchinlee last Friday, very little remained of the village on first glance, although a track leading down to the edge of the reservoir ended at a construction, which I suspect was part of the railway (if we’d had drier weather this year I might have inspected it more closely). The two main roads of the village can still be followed: the lower road lies under the modern road, while the upper road exists as a path through the woods, its route broken up by information boards detailing where in the village a visitor has reached. A third road, which was only a short cul-de-sac is more difficult to identify, as are the school and schoolmaster’s house which were sited close by. However, some of the foundations of the largest buildings, and the terraces built on the hillside to level the bases of the huts can still be spotted amongst the trees and grasses.
At the far end of the village is a memorial to the village and its inhabitants; however memorials are a topic all of their own, to be tackled later in the year.
Many more photographs and stories of Birchinlee can be found in Memories of Tin Town by Professor Brian Robinson, the descendant of a Tin Town family. There’s another blog post about Tin Town here, with images of the original plans. Information about the town can also be found via H2G2 here and British Archaeology here. For information specifically relating to the Derwent Canteen, I recommend an excellent entry on the Pub History Society website here.