What the Inland Waterways Meant to the People of Mexborough
Last month I told you of how the River Don changed over the years from a small meandering river, carrying boats only capable of carrying a few out, into a canal which could take sea going "Billy Boys" (sea going coastal barges) carrying cargoes weighing over a hundred tons. But what did all these facts and figures mean to the average person I can hear you ask. Well, it simply changed life beyond all recognition.
Following the alterations to the river brought about in the C17th by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, this area had a link with the outside world, and many of our citizens met foreigners for the first time, when Vermuyden brought many Dutch workmen with him who stayed to live and bring up families, and names such as Scholes and Scholey came into our vocabulary.
Prior to the River Don being made navigable, goods had firstly to be got to a point in the river where a cargo boat could be docked, and it is interesting to note that prior to navigation, for three quarters of the year, cargo boats could get no further upstream than Doncaster, therefore goods had to be transported there by packhorse. This could explain why the packhorse track through Mexborough became so well used and well developed, (12th December 1883 the Mexborough Local Board Book tells us that a wall under construction on Harlington Road revealed paved remnants of the track which measured 17ft. 6in in width, how wide it was when the track was in full use we can only guess). The Early History of the Don Navigation by T.S. Willan tells of Thomas Patter of Warrington, who in c.1701 took his tobacco from the Mersey to Stockport by cart, and then from there by packhorse along the tracks, probably via Mexborough, to Doncaster, and then from there to Hull by water.
Large amounts of men, who became known as Navvies (short for Navigational Labourer) were also needed to make the river navigable by deepening it and constructing cuts, which again brought an influx of men from other areas who again stayed to live here. This was followed in 1758 by Lock Keepers, to look after Mexborough's two locks, Wharfingers (a man who looks after a wharf) also came to oversee the correct running of our wharfs, and porters on these wharfs, all of which needed houses to live in with their families which must have brought employment to Mexborough's masons.
Contact with the outside world, and the large deposits of coal and clay brought firstly the pottery industries. It is not certain exactly when the pottery industry started in Mexborough, but certainly the map now in the possession of the Borthwick Institute at York dated 1778, clearly shows a pottery on Lower Dolcliffe Road on the site of what became Mexborough Brickworks. As to whether it was purely a pottery is not clear, as many of the old houses in Mexborough built at this time, such as "The Old Farm" on Market Street, constructed during the Napoleonic Wars, have internal walls made from hand made local bricks, so it is possible that it combined the making of pottery with that of making bricks.
But although it brought industry, work and prosperity to Mexborough in some towns and villages it wrought disaster. For years the force of the river had been harnessed to power the wheels of iron and steel mills, and the owners of these mills mobilised themselves into a pressure group to stop the River Don from becoming navigable, as they knew that this would take away the power of the water needed to turn the wheels. One of these being a Mr. Savile, who had estates in Mexborough and owned an iron working mill called Ickles Mill, situated below Jordan Dam, between Rotherham and Tinsley. This is possibly the same individual who later became M.P. for Hayden 1747-54, M.P. for Shoreham 1761-68, and later, Viscount Polington and Earl of Mexborough. They were unsuccessful in their attempt to prevent the navigation, but to appease them cuts were put into the river to bypass the works. But despite the cuts unfortunately the rise in the popularity of the navigation meant the use of more water and eventually the navigation brought closure to many mills.
But one which was determined not to be closed down was Walkers of Masborough. Prior to the navigation Walkers had leased the water rights at Holmes from the Earl of Effingham where they had built a furnace and a rolling and grinding mill. They also had leased water rights at Thrybergh. On 23rd August 1770, Walkers paralysed the navigation and grounded a number of boats until the ironmasters received payment, Samuel Walker stating that "He would take every opportunity to impede the Navigation and he hoped his children would do it after him". The 15th September saw the navigation paralysed again when he set the forge to work, completely closing the Long Cut (this was the cut which stopped close to the church at Mexborough) and by the next day 70 or 80 boats were grounded. On 7th October, another 2 were aground and when the rolling mill was again set to work, a convoy of 30 boats ran aground. Samuel Walker again stating that "I left them there till they should be relieved by rain or till it should be Mr Walker's Pleasure to set them at Liberty". This compelled the navigation to pay the ironmasters 90 compensation annually, and to allow Walker use of the navigation free of charge from Holmes to Rotherham. This freedom from tolls must have come in very handy the following year (1771) when Walkers procured the contract to provide the Royal Ordinance with cannon, and their famous W.co began to be seen throughout the world notably on H.M.S. Victory, and barges carrying their cannon must have become a common sight on the navigation as they were carried through Mexborough to Conisbrough to be tried out at the quarry there, and many of their cannon balls were discovered on the canal bed at Mexborough in 1983 when it was drained for alterations.
Genealogists will have noticed that there is a disproportionately large amount of Sailors, Ships Carpenters, etc. in Mexborough per head of population from the 1830's to the 1850's. This is because during these times, large coastal sea-going barges known as "Billy Boys" could get up the canal as far as Sheffield, but after amalgamation between the canal and railway companies in order to favour the railways, the railway company ordered all swing bridges across the River Don to be closed so preventing these large barges from penetrating further inland than Goole.
Barges have always been pulled by horse, at times when there was no wind to fill the sails or when, for whatever reason, the mast and sails had to be removed. Following the decision by the railway companies to close all the swing bridges and to build low permanent bridges over canals and rivers used by barges, the use of the horse increased as the bridges necessitated the removal of both masts and sails. In areas such as ours where there was mass heavy industry and railway tracks were abundant necessitating the construction of railway bridges, yet another industry grew up, that of the horse marine, and many who already plied this trade on other canals were drawn here, and names such as Rownsley, Bisby and Roper became household names. The Horse Marine or Boat Hauler as many of you will know, was a man who owned one or two horses who would tow a barge to whatever destination you required for a fee. Mexborough was the furthest upstream to Sheffield a barge could get without the removal of its mast and sails, so on arrival here, the barge would firstly have its mast and sails removed at one of the wharfs to be found on Church or Market Street, then the captain would go to Ferry Boat Lane


Ted Hughes O.B.E. Poet Laureate
1930-1998

Ted Hughes was born in Mytholmroyed, Near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire in 1930 in a stone - built end terrace house backing on to the canal. Beyond the canal was the main trunk road which connected the woollen towns of Yorkshire with those of the Lancashire cotton mills. Close to the canal and road was the railway, then rising almost sheer from the valley like a monolith was Scout Rock.
Ted Hughes in a radio interview in 1961 states that he came to Mexborough when he was eight years old. His father William Hughes opened a newsagents and tobacconists shop on Main Street opposite St George's Church, and in 1938 he started his education at Schofield Street Junior School (which was pulled down 12th. Oct. 1998). In c1942 he went to Mexborough Grammar School, College Road, (now Mexborough Business Centre), and it was while he was there that he was much influenced by his English teacher Mr. John Fisher who he became extremely fond of, he nurtured the boy's prowess as a writer and in 1947 he sub - edited the Don and Dearne which was the magazine of the Grammar School and in it can be found some of his early works.
He loved to walk in the "cornfields" close to the River Dearne and one day as he was creeping on his hands and knees up the side of a bank he came within nine inches of a fox and they stared face - to - face for quite a while until finally the fox ran off. It was following this experience that he wrote one of his most famous poems "The Thought Fox".
In c1948 he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge but it was while he was there that he went through a crisis and found that he was unable to write going through a "block" so he dropped English and took up Archaeology and Anthropology. He left to become a teacher.
He was married three times. In 1956 shortly after he left Cambridge he met his first wife the American poet Sylvia Plath while she was still a sudent, this was at a Cambridge St. Botoph's Review and they were married a few weeks after. It was a very stormy marriage as she suffered from "black depressions" and tried to kill herself on a number of occasions, the marriage broke up in 1962 and in February 1963 she committed suicide. This suicide was followed several years later by that of his second wife Assia Wevill who also took to her grave their two - year old
daughter. His last marriage to Carol Orchard seems to have been a happy one as they were in all married for twenty - eight years.
He was given an O.B.E. in 1977, and was made Poet Laureate in 1984 following the death of Sir John Betjeman.
Early in 1998 he won the Whitebread Book of the Year Award which was his twelfth award for his "Tales From Ovid" published by Faber and Faber. In October 1998 he was appointed to the Order of Merit by the Queen the last "Faber" writer to be given this honour being T.S. Eliot in 1948. Matthew Evans, Chairman of Faber stated after he was given the Order of Merit that "Ted Hughes is widely recognised as the greatest living English poet and it is absolutely fitting that he should be honoured in this way.
He will be know by the younger generation not for his fame as a poet but as an author and I well remember reading to my own son one of his most famous "The Iron Man" this he wrote in 1968 and later he received the Kurt Maschler Award for this masterpiece.
He died on 29th. October 1998 aged 68yrs. after a long fight with cancer and was buried on 2nd. Nov 1998 in Devon close to his home.

Your Archivist J.R. Ashby