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Visits to Victorian Mexborough
by J R Ashby

Our gentleman, who came to Mexborough on his first visit, during the early years of the young Queen Victoria’s reign, came with his guardian on a holiday to fish for salmon.
He stated that at that time Mexborough resembled the valley close to Ramsey on the Isle of Man.
Visits to Victorian Mexborough The first time our Victorian visitor came to Mexborough was in the early years of the young Queen Victoria’s reign.
The gentleman, for that is what he was, came with his guardian on a holiday to fish for salmon, of which there was an abundance.
The country was still reeling from the effects of the Corn Laws, past by parliament to prevent the import of corn and therefore protect the livelihoods of the British Farmer.
But in effect it increased the price of stable foods, such as bread, to the point where only the rich could afford it and the poor starved.
Our gentleman, and his guardian, stayed at a hotel named the Masons’ Arms, the landlord of which was Mr. John Parkin, and despite the hardships, brought about by the Corn Laws, their host made sure they wanted for nothing and only charged them three shillings (15p) per day for their room and board.
In those far away days it was only a small village, consisting of a population of approx 1,100 people living in three hundred stone built houses, under the care of the Lord of the Manor, Captain Edward Cater.
The River Don was extremely clean, fast flowing and many Ply-Boats and other water vessels, from Sheffield, still used it to convey goods.
The area of the river between Mexborough and Conisbrough was thought of as an exceptional spot where to indulge in the gentleman’s favourite sport of fishing.

Mexborough was then known for the production of earthenware and there was two main manufactures of this type of pottery. These being Mr.Samuel Barker, of the Old Mexborough Pottery, and Taylor, Reed and Co., of the Rock Pottery, Bank Street. There were also many small quarries producing local sandstone with two, because of their sheer size stood out from the rest, these were owned by Mr. Samuel Bennett and Joseph Palfeyman.
But the main trades, by far, and in which the majority of men were employed was that of agriculture and the waterways, and it was as common to see men walking the town with weather-beaten faces, battered hats and sailor’s clothing as it was to see the farmer’s smock. The tiny parish church, which only consisted of an alter and an aisle, was under the care of the Rev. Leonard Jasper Hobson.
There was also three Methodist Chapels, one belonging to the Wesleyan’s, another the Primitive Methodists and lastly a little known, and now obsolete, religious body named the Methodist New Connexionists, or Kilhamites as were then known.
Our gentleman’s second visit was made when the railway line between Sheffield and Doncaster had recently been constructed, by the Midland Com. in 1849, and he tells us that his journey by ‘Iron Horse’ was dirty, cold and cramped as he made his way along the Don Valley in an open carriage.
But despite this he goes on to tell us that the scenery made it all worthwhile as at that time the journey down the Don Valley, at Mexborough, was one of the prettiest and most pleasurable that could be taken, with the river meandering through grassy hills and ‘romantic high rocky outcrops’ and enliken’s it to Ramsey and Glen Helen on the Isle of Man.
Indeed our visitor was so cold and cramped, by his open air journey, that when he came to alight at Mexborough, at the bottom of Ferry Boat Lane at the wooden construction which was used as both a station and platform, he could not manage all the treacherous steps down from the railway carriage and fell some distance before being rescued by Jonathan Carnelley, one of the constable of Mexborough. He first met Carnelley on the first fishing holiday he had made with his guardian some years previously, when Jonathan was the only constable and looked after not just Mexborough but all the villages in the area.
Now in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign he discovered that there was a District Inspector and four constables serving Mexborough alone. He also stated that Mexborough had increased in size with new houses, streets, works and industries. There was much demand for Mexborough Sandstone and many new quarries could be seen as well as many men found to be employed in its quarrying, carving and shaping. T
here was also an iron works, known as the Don Iron Works where a pottery had once stood. Another industry beginning to emerge was the manufacture of glass and he states that he had seen four sites where it was produced and glimpsed men working in the glow of large conical shaped buildings, as well as barges at wharfs unloading coal, sand, and limestone, and lines of wicker crates, standing packed and ready to be place on board.
He also stated that he was pleased to report that three potteries were still manufacturing their wares. On his last visit to Mexborough, in 1891, he found that Mexborough had changed out of all recognition. He again travelled by train, but this time in a comfortable, warm, covered carriage, and alighted on the platform of a purpose built station. Mexborough had grown tremendously since his last visit, with streets of new houses and rows of recently built well-stocked shops.
An imposing new bank had been constructed close to the new market place and hall, the latter of which was where the Local Board now met in their chambers.
The chapels, which had been there on his last visit, had either been extended or new ones constructed and the Local Board had built, for the children of its populace, large new Board Schools. In the forty years since his last visit one of the industries, which had been so prevalent then, had all but disappeared, this being that of the potteries and another was diminishing, this was the waterways, which was being replaced by the railways.
Many new works had sprung up, and ones which were in their infancy on his last visit were now international names. One of these was the Phoenix Glassworks, or Barron’s Glassworks as it is known locally.
Forty years previously it had employed 38 men and 39 boys, but now in 1891, 362 men worked at the glassworks and many more in their numerous warehouses at different ports around the U.K. But the main industry, by far, and the employer of a workforce which numbered in its hundreds, was the pits, with the vast complexes of Denaby and Manvers Main on Mexborough’s doorstep and dozens of others in close proximity.
He then goes on to tell us that although most people looked on the incoming of manufacture and industry with optimism, saying that it brought employment, prosperity, and a better lifestyle, other could only see the drawbacks. They stated that the River Don was now only a slow moving, sunken, open sewer, where no fish could possibly live, its water made foul by the sewage and foundry waste from Sheffield, Rotherham and every other town and village which occupied its banks.
Areas of Mexborough, instead of the picturesque views of yesteryear, were now like images from hell, with tall chimneys belching out the blackest of smoke and red glowing furnaces surrounded by men who scuttled around it to feed its insatiable appetite.
Also men could be seen walking the streets, black from working like a mole in the bowels of the earth Despite this our visitor states that all these things indicated progress. He goes on to say that he did not see the starvation and poverty he once did when Mexborough could only employ a few agricultural labourers and watermen.
The citizens, now that employment was guaranteed all the year round, were: better fed; better housed; and their educational and spiritual needs were catered for to a high degree, which he states can only be a good thing. In short Mexborough had had to make large sacrifices but on the whole the population were far better off in 1891 than they had been at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign when Mexborough had been a beautiful and picturesque place, known nationwide as an excellent spot for Salmon Fishing.

Information obtained from: Mexborough & Swinton Times March 1891.

(Copyright: this newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety without the permission of Mexborough & District Heritage Society.)