Doncaster, South Yorkshire: a quick guide
Doncaster, South Yorkshire
Doncaster is in South Yorkshire, about 20 miles northeast of Sheffield in the low-lying area of the Don Valley. The town currently has a population in excess of 125,000 but it is the administrative centre of the larger Doncaster Metropolitan Borough that is home to more than 300,000 people.
It is known mainly as a centre of industry, based on the coal mines that were formerly active in the area. It grew rapidly in Victorian times due mainly to the development of an important facility for building railway locomotives and rolling stock.
The history of Doncaster
The “caster” element of the place-name is a clue to its origin during Roman times, when the fort of Danum was built where an important Roman road crossed the River Don.
The place became a Saxon settlement and appears in Domesday Book (1086) as Donecastre. King Richard I granted a charter to the town in 1194 and in 1467 King Edward IV allowed for the election of a mayor.
The ancient streets of Doncaster have names such as Hall Gate, Baxter Gate and St Sepulchre Gate, which suggest that the town might have been fortified at some stage. However, there is no evidence that this was the case, with the word “gate” simply meaning “street”.
There are also street names, such as Priory Place and Greyfriars Road, that indicate the former presence of religious orders of which no other evidence remains.
During medieval times Doncaster was an important trading centre.
Doncaster rained loyal to the Crown during the English Civil War and was granted the status of a “free borough” by King Charles II as a reward.
The heyday of Doncaster came in the 19th century when the coalmines were developed and the railway reached the town. The Great Northern Railway opened its Locomotive and Carriage Building Works in 1853. This factory played an important role in the development of Britain’s railways, with more than 2000 steam locomotives built there up to 1957.
Other industries that became established in Doncaster included a tractor factory (which closed in 2007), synthetic textiles and confectionery.
The history of horseracing at Doncaster goes back to the 16th century, although the current racecourse (two miles east of the town centre) was established in 1776. Doncaster continues to host the world’s two oldest named races, the Doncaster Cup and the St Leger.
The latter takes its name from Colonel Anthony St Leger who inaugurated the race in 1776. It was first run on the current Town Moor course in 1778, as a flat race for colts and fillies over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards. It is the oldest of the five English “classics” and also the longest in distance run. It is run every year in September.
Things to see in and near Doncaster
The Mansion House was completed in 1748 and is one of only four civic mansion houses in England (the others are in London, Bristol and York). It was built as a place for corporate entertainment rather than as a residence, and some of the rooms bear witness to this purpose, notably the splendid ballroom with its musicians’ gallery. The Mansion House can be visited on specified open days.
Doncaster Minster, built in 1858, is an important example of Victorian gothic architecture. It is notable for its 170-foot bell tower and the enormous organ, built by the German firm of Schulze and Sons, that is widely regarded as one of the finest in an English parish church.
The Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery includes many interesting items, including a Roman shield that was found locally, as well as an altar from Roman times that bears a Latin inscription.
“Aeroventure” is the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, housed in the original hangars of what used to be RAF Doncaster. Exhibits include several complete aircraft, of which one is a replica of the plane in which Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in 1909. He later took part in an airshow at Doncaster Racecourse.
Cusworth Hall, on the west side of the River Don, is an 18th century mansion that houses the Museum of South Yorkshire Life. The beautiful grounds are also open to the public.
Conisbrough Castle, to the southwest of Doncaster town but within the metropolitan borough, is notable for its preserved Norman keep that is 92 feet high and with walls up to 15 feet thick.
Doncaster is not on the usual tourist trail, but a visit could prove to be unexpectedly rewarding.