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Denis Baker 1930-2021

Denis Baker made a huge contribution to the history and industrial heritage of Coalville, Swannington and Whitwick plus the surrounding area.  History does not stop at parish boundaries and neither did Denis.  In many instances he used his membership of multiple heritage organisations to coordinate joint projects.

Denis Baker – The Family Man

Denis was born in Coalville.  His father died when Denis was 16, so instead of going to university he started work and did an external degree.  Instead of national service Denis worked at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment, then Dunlop.  He finished his career at Coalville Technical College (now Stephensons College).

Denis married Swannington girl Gwenda Thurman.  They had two sons, Ian is the Trust’s membership secretary, Gary died in a motobike accident.  A more detailed account of Denis’s life was published in the Trust magazine Now and Then in 2000

Coalville 150 And Coalville Heritage Society

Denis was a member of the Coalville 150 group that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Leicester and Swannington Railway.  The group later merged to form Coalville Heritage Group.  Denis was a prodigious researcher and often worked with others on research and publications.

Swannington Heritage Trust

Trust Formation

Without Denis Swannington Heritage Trust would not have been formed.  Three decades of Denis Baker’s hard work and inspiring leadership helped the Trust grow and thrive.

In 1982 Denis asked Swannington Parish Council what they intended doing to celebrate 150 years of Robert Stephenson’s 1832 Leicester and Swannington Railway.  The Parish Council felt it was an excellent idea to celebrate one of the world’s first steam railways and thanked Denis for offering to lead the project!

In typical Denis fashion he recruited a group of village enthusiasts and led them in planning and running a week long celebration of Swannington’s heritage.  The Swannington Festival from the 19th to 25th July 1982 included an exhibition in the school, guided walks, speakers, train rides on the Reverend Teddy Boston’s “Pixie” and the week ended with a costume ball.

The festival was a great success and Fred Coombes who owned the Incline suggested the festival committee acquire the site.  This led to the formation of Swannington Heritage Trust in 1984.

Trust Achievements

For a decade Denis was the Trust secretary, chairman until 2011, then serving a few more years on the committee until his final retirement.  During this period Denis was heavily involved in all aspects of the Trust’s work including:

  • Purchase of Swannington Incline 1984 and more than a decade of restoration work removing debris and excavating the winding engine buildings.  The National Coal Board’s offer of the Calcutta pumping rods inspection engine was accepted and the engine moved to the top of the Incline.
  • Purchase of Snibston No 3 site 1985 as a car park (then clearing hundreds of tons of debris, planting the area and installing the mining wheels).
  • Purchase of Hough Mill in 1994, the structural restoration 1999 and the addition of the fantail 2009.
  • Purchase of Califat Spinney 1993, replanting 2000-2005, excavation of the Alabama engine house 1993-1999, and ongoing excavation of the Califat engine house from 2006.
  • Hundreds of walks, talks, award entries, mill openings and other activities.

During the three decades Denis invested tens of thousands of hours in the Trust.  Trust records include a fraction of the hundreds of letters he wrote.  Numerous people thanked Denis for his help in tracing their family tree.

Doomed at Califat - Carpenter Jeremiah Rose (supported by Harry Clements) working to plug the flow of water into the mine - painting by Denis Baker
Watercolour painting or the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Swannington around 1900 - by Denis Baker

Leicestershire Industrial History Society

During the mid 1960s Denis Baker and others attending night school classes enjoyed them so much they formed Leicestershire Industrial History Society in 1969.  The same year Denis, his father-in-law and son Ian became the latest group to discover the Newcomen Boiler in the Califat Spinney, then owned by Wyggeston Hospital.  The hospital gave permission for LIHS to excavate the boiler and donate it to Leicestershire Museums Service at Abbey Pumping Station.  In 2012 Denis arranged for LMS to lend the boiler to Swannington Heritage Trust and the boiler returned to the spinney.

After Swannington Heritage Trust bought the Califat Spinney in 1993, Denis Baker arranged for LIHS to excavate the Califat Coal Mine’s Alabama Engine House from 1993-1999.    Likewise Denis arranged for LIHS to excavate the Califat Engine House in 2006, a project that is drawing to a close in 2021.  This included specifying the work required for the consolidation of the engine house in 2012 and boiler house in 2013, Denis supervised these Swannington Heritage Trust projects with daily visits.

Denis was a member of the LIHS team that surveyed the unused Moira Furnace and persuaded the National Coal Board not to demolish it.

Newcomen boiler in-situ in Califat Spinney 1972
Newcomen Boiler outside Abbey Pumping Station - before conservation
Newcomen Boiler with Denis Baker, a member of the 1972 excavation team

Whitwick Historical Society

Denis was a long-term friend and supporter of Whitwick Historical Group and a regular visitor to the Old Station.

During the Group’s formative period, he made a huge contribution to our resources and his association with WHG continued to bring benefits. His extraordinary store of local knowledge which was often linked to a wider context was invaluable. A talented artist, Denis’ sketch of a very young miner was used on the cover of the WHG publication “Banded Together”.

The support and guidance that Denis willingly gave to other WHG members with the methods and techniques of family history research was outstanding. Frequently, his encouragement was inspirational.

Whitwick Historical Group is proud of our links with Denis; working with him was a privilege.

Banded Together, the history of the Whitwick Colliery disaster 1898 - cover by Denis Baker
Denis supporting an Exhibition by Whitwick Historical Group in 2013