Rotherham – A Brief History

If you park your car at Boston Castle you can walk along a path taking you through the first settlements in the town. Canklow Woods had an Iron Age Hill Fort and evidence still exists of the fields farmed by those first settlers, three thousand years ago.

While at Boston Castle, take a while to view the Don Valley to Sheffield, the epicentre of the huge iron and steel industry.  Look to the right of centre, past the four floodlights of Millmoor and that’s where the Walker Family began making iron in 1746.  Look into the middle distance to see the Magna Centre and that was the Templeborough Works where two thousand men created records in steel production for war and peace and where, incidentally, the Romans had built a fort, many centuries earlier.

A walk down Boston Castle Grove takes you to the Cemetery. Until 1854 the people of Rotherham had their last resting place in the graveyard of Rotherham Minster, but a health report of 1851 had highlighted the presence of bones lying on or near the surface of the hallowed ground. Subsequent enquiry revealed that eighteen hundred known and many more unknown bodies had been interred in space suitable for only thirteen hundred bodies. The graveyard was closed and many bodies and gravestones were removed. The Local Board of Health bought the Cemetery on Moorgate and created a dignified and haunting space, where many of the important past residents of the Town now reside.

Walk further down Boston Castle Grove and to the right view the magnificent Thomas Rotherham College. Not a medieval building at all, but a creation of the 1880s, it was built as a College to train Methodist Ministers, replacing a much smaller, dilapidated building in Masbrough. As forecast, it was too large for its intended purpose and was sold, at knock down price, to Rotherham Corporation to become the third building to house the Grammar School. Herbert Austin (of the car company) and Sir Donald Bailey (of Bailey Bridge fame) were just two of its alumni. When Rotherham’s Secondary Schools were made into Comprehensive Schools in 1970, this became the Sixth Form College.

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As the visitor returns to the town centre, on foot, or by car/bicycle please note the white Italianate tower of Moorgate Grange where John Guest wrote the ‘Historic Notices Of Rotherham’, the starting point for any serious study of the history of the town.

The Town Hall was built in the 1930s to house the West Riding Police and Magistrates Court. It stands in the middle of what, previously, was the Beast Market. Before iron and coal, Rotherham was a market town. The size of its’ Minster signifies the importance of the trade passing through the town, from the farmlands of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire to the developing towns of the West Riding and Lancashire. In the eighteenth Century, it was said that the Rotherham Beast Market was the biggest supplier of live meat to the Manchester area; they were taken, on the hoof, over Woodhead, on Packhorse Routes which can still be traced. One of the main occupations in Thorpe Hesley was nailmaking, to shoe animals before they walked over the Pennines.

Go behind the Town Hall and three buildings of historical interest; the old workhouse; the Charity School; the home of Jacob Brettell. The old workhouse is now a dental surgery. It was built in 1694 by the Feoffees of the Common Lands of Rotherham. This group of men were charged with using the income from rents on the common lands to help the poor. After the common land disappeared with Enclosure of the town, in 1764, they bought and sold land and property in parcels to maintain their funds. In 1778 they built the Bluecoat Charity School at the other end of the Crofts. It was called the Bluecoat because the Feoffees bought the uniforms, in a blue material, for the children. Halfway between the workhouse and the school was the home and printing room of Jacob Brettell. He was a Unitarian Minister who encouraged the Corn law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, to raise his voice against the injustice of the Corn Laws, which protected the profits of the farmers, but made bread too expensive for the working poor. The gravestone of Jacob Brettell is in the graveyard of the Downs Row Chapel, and is well worth a visit.

Down onto High Street and the recent renovations, led by Chris Hamby. Here you get a chance to visit the Three Cranes, a beautifully restored timber framed town house, shop and pub. Higher up High Street is the town house of Thomas Badger, involved in most of the commercial activity in Rotherham in the early Victorian period. At the top of High Street are the Imperial Buildings; the internal space, with the cast iron tie bars, is magical on a sunny day. Across Corporation Street is the old market building. As the name suggests, this was the centre of the market, the reason for Rotherham’s existence. But before the Market Hall was built here, Edward Chrimes invented the screw down tap in his brass works here in 1839.

Back down High Street to the bottom and the Royal Bank of Scotland building, soon to become William’s and Glyns once more. In 1846 Rose Heseltine left here to marry Anthony Trollope in The Minster. She left behind her father, Edward Heseltine, the Bank Manager. Edward had a secret which probably kept him awake at night. He had been making unsecured loans to George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’ to help him enlarge his empire. When George Hudson went bankrupt, Edward knew the game was up; he had an apoplectic fit and died shortly after.

Round the corner is College Street, once known as Jesus Gate. Here, on the site now occupied by W.H.Smith and B and M Bargains, stood the Medieval College of Jesus, known throughout South Yorkshire for the quality of the education provided there. One student, Archbishop Thomas Rotherham, became Lord Chancellor of England under Richard 111. He also had the Chapel on the Bridge built, a Chantry Chapel, where prayers would be said in his memory, in perpetuity.
If you follow College street round and cross All Saints Square to reach Millgate, you reach a pub, now closed, called the Turf Tavern. The name celebrates and important nineteenth century commercial activity in the town – horse racing. In the 1850’s racing took place on East Dene. It was run for a number of years by The Bentleys, who were important brewers of beer. One suspects that they were more interested in selling beer than advancing the sport of kings, but it became popular entertainment, with special trains from cities like Nottingham on race days. The collapse of a grandstand frightened the organisers and it wasn’t until the 1890s that horse racing returned to Rotherham, this time on Herringthorpe Playing Fields.

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One important facet of Industrial Rotherham which is continually underplayed is the Stove Grate Industry. When the Walkers left Rotherham to invest their money and time in white lead manufacture, they left an iron trade in depression. A number of people who had worked for the Walkers took their knowledge and experience into stove grate manufacture and the phoenix became their symbol. One such was James Yates, who with George Haywood, established the Effingham Works on Thames Street. Rotherham became the centre of stove grate manufacturing and had a national and international reputation for the quality of its products. The Effingham Works still exist but the stove grate industry doesn’t.

For further information on the History of Rotherham – The Archives and Local Studies Service collects, preserves and makes available documents and publications covering all aspects of life in the borough from the earliest times to the present day.  If you would like more information about the service they provide, opening hours and contact details visit their website: http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/info/200062/libraries/718/archives_and_local_history