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Mexborough Almshouses

The Old Almshouse, Market Street, Mexborough.  Taken by Leonard Harrop c1908.
Although the houses were demolished for road widening, at the time this photo was taken they had become damp, cheerless and, although two storeys, only the lower one was useable.


For over three hundred years a tiny row of ‘one-up-one-down’, stone built cotts graced the north side of Mexborough’s old market place. These were Mexborough’s first almshouses, affectionately known as ‘Widow’s Walk’ which appears to owe their existence, indirectly, to the actions of Henry VIII, 129 years prior to their construction.
Arguments broke out between the Pope and Henry VIII concerning his need to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and in 1534 he declared himself Head of the English Church. Then between 1536 & 1540 he ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries: 800 monasteries were closed; alters and shrines removed; stained glass windows smashed; the fabric of the buildings, including the stone they were built from and lead from the roofs was sold, as was the land. It is at this time that we find Mexborough is removed from the jurisdiction of Monk Bretton Priory and placed under the authority of a Bailiff, Edmund Dewis.
The monasteries were not just seats of Christianity and prayer they were, in some cases, like small towns. They were seats of learning where the boys could receive an education. They employed hundreds of people who, almost overnight, became not just unemployed, but because they lived in tied accommodation, they and their families became homeless. Most had an infirmary where the old, disabled who could not work, sick, and others, could receive care. To thousands of everyday people, who were thrown out onto the streets, the closure of the monasteries wrought mass poverty, and starvation. Many died, particularly in the following winter, and others were thrown into beggary.
The repercussions continued for decades with 1/3 of the population classified as poor. By the reign of Elizabeth 1 the problem was still evident, many Poor Acts were past to try and alleviate the problem but it wasn’t until 1601, when ‘The Act for the Relief of the Poor’ was introduced, that a substantial significance could be seen. Part of the act stated that: “each individual parish was responsible for its 'own' poor and the impotent poor (people who can't work) were to be cared for in almshoures or a poorhouse”. It is following this that Mexborough obtained it first almshouses
From 1642-1651, because of the 2nd English Civil War, little thought was given to the construction of almshouses but by 1669 the country was beginning to catch up. That year seems to have been a busy one for both William Horne and Mexborough as the main area of the town, thanks to him, resembled little less than a building site. It was in that year that the home of William Horne, Mexborough Hall, situated to the west of Melton Street, was extended greatly and improved. That year also saw, farm buildings, at the top Doncaster Road erected. Also on the western edges of the town, thanks to his benevolence, a row of six, single storey homes was founded, these to be known as a ‘hospital’ constructed wholly for the use of the impotent poor.
But it wasn’t until fifty-two years later that a means of maintaining the almshouses, in addition to the subscriptions paid by the parishioners, was procured in the form of a will. On 25th April 1721 one Calverley (first name believed to been Robert) endowed the almshouses with an annual payment of £5, derived from the George and Dragon Farm. In 1893 this farm was in the ownership of Andrew Montagu and rent from the fields used to maintain the almshouses, came from meadows known as Spittlefield Leys situated at the top and south of Pastures Road.
In 1828 we see the almshouse extended upwards, and the homes, which until this point had been single storey now, had the luxury of an upstairs bedroom added. Following the alterations and improvements, eighty years later, Leonard Harrop describes the interior of one of the houses, in a sketch, as follows: the western gable still showed signs that once they had been single storey; the cottages were accessed by climbing five steps onto a forecourt 6ft wide, from Market Street; the entrance was through a single door into a large living/kitchen measuring 15ft (approx 5m) x 16ft (approx 5.3m); on the right of the door was a Yorkshire Light Window; in the wall to the left of the door, in a central position, was the fireplace and to the left of this stood a large cupboard; in a centrally position in the rear, or north wall, opposite the door, stood another large cupboard, concealing where a window had once been situated; to the right of this was a door leading to a stone spiral staircase leading, on the left, to another door giving access to the bedroom, almost equal in size to the living/kitchen.
It is also in this description, for the first time, that a plaque, which may have originally been sites at ground level, is mentioned. It originally carried the coat-of-arms of the founder William Horne and was engraved, in Latin with: “Deo et pauperibus per Gulielmun Horne, generosum, anno aetatis suae 54 anno D’ni. 1669”. This is now to be found in the graveyard of Mexborough Parish Church to the right of the main gates.
1839 saw the Tithe Map and Award drawn up, we discover that the once quiet spot, on the edge of town, where the almshouses where constructed, was becoming not so quiet. We find the two trustees, to be the ‘Vicar’ of Mexborough, Rev. Leonard Jasper Hobson, and Samuel Carnelly; we also find that they were occupied by Sarah Edward and others. Although the Green was still close by and had not, at this time, been built over, they were surrounded by cottages; there was a busy Methodist Chapel plus three potteries and bustling industrial wharves, by the side of the canal.
By 1879 Mexborough, thanks to the collieries, had become a bustling thriving town and the almshouses had become engulfed in a new wave of building. To accommodate the large influx of people another section of Mexborough, known as New Mexborough had even sprung up to the west. The need was felt for a new market place and the site chosen was situated close to the almshouses. By 1880 the brand new market, complete with a superb new Market Hall was completed, and plans were being made for a cattle market. The days of peace and quiet were over as hundreds flocked to the market three days a week from all over the area.
In 1894, in order to alleviate the pressure of traffic on Doncaster Road, brought about by the opening of the collieries, Church Street, was for the first time joined to Doncaster Road, at its most easterly extremity. By c1900 this had had a knock-on effect on Church Street and Market Street as the tiny roads, originally constructed to accommodate the occasional horse and cart were now expected to take commercial traffic, the result being that they couldn’t cope; the decision taken was to widen the road. The main obstacle, in the area of the market was the almshouse, the remedy by Mexborough Urban District Council was to demolish and relocate them.
By this time the Old Almshouses were in a dilapidated state and had become damp, cheerless, and although two storey, only the lower one could be used. In 1903 plans were made of the Old Almshouses and their immediate area, pending the purchase of the land, on which they stood, by M.U.D.C. An alternative site on Blaze Hill, at the junction of Pinfold Lane and Church Street was purchased for £205 14s (£205. 70) and in Sept. 1908 demolition of the old derelict forge/malt kiln and cottages began.
But construction of the New Almshouses seems to have been problematic as following the purchase of Blaze Hill firstly the plans had to be submitted to the trustees in the form of the ‘Vicar’ and Mr. Hepworth, for their approval, they then had to be sent to the architect of the Charity Commission for his. It lastly took an interview with the Charity Commission by: the Vicar’ and Mr. Hepworth representing the trustees; Alderman J.H. Watson; plus Mr. G.F. Carter, surveyor for M.U.D.C. to get the plans sanctioned. It also took a visit by the above group of persons, to the Local Government Board of Inquiry, for M.U.D.C.’s application for a loan of £952 for the building of the houses to be granted.


The new Almshouses taken 31st July 1990 Prior to alteration.

The New Almshouses were finally constructed by G.H. Smith, of Mexborough at a cost of £675. There were six single story homes, constructed of red brick with red tiled roof; inside they had a bedsit measuring 15ft (approx 5m) x 13ft (approx 4m) and a scullery and coal store. Unlike most properties of the day water was laid on and they had all modern conveniences. To the fore of the houses could be seen two groups of arms, those of the Horne Family and the Mexborough Civic Arms. The first of the lucky old ladies, who was to live there, took up residence at the beginning of January 1911.
By the turn of the millennium the ‘New Almshouses’ were almost 100 years old, and they were beginning to reflected this. In the 21st Century it is not expected that people should live in a bedsit without the basic amenities of life such as a bathroom, bedroom, or access to disabled facilities, if need be, and so the decision was made to knock two into one. Throughout October 2006 extensive alterations took place until they were furnished with a living/dining room, two bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, also, in a reflection of the times, unheard of previously, a gentleman moved in. Unlike previously the almshouses are fully occupied and stand as we hope they will, for many decades to come, a harbour of refuge from the riggers of life.

Information obtained from: Matthew Shadlake, Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign by C.J.Sanson Wikipedia: Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601. Text of the Act Reginae Elizabethae Anno 43 Chapter 2. Hearth Tax Returns for South Yorkshire Ladyday 1672 Edited by David Hey. Calverley is not found listed but a Robert Staverley is mentioned. With documentation, of this age, being what it is, likewise writing, I believe this to be gentleman in question. Memorials of Old Mexborough by William J.J. Glassby. Memories of Stella Batty (Bisby). Mr. Watson’s collection (Leonard Harrop). 1839 Tithe Award and Map. Mexborough Local Board Log. Book. Mexborough & Swinton Times 28.01.1911. Heritage Society’s own photo archives.

News From the Local History Office
Happy New Year Everyone
On Monday 23rd Nov. 1987 the inaugural meeting of Mexborough Heritage Society took place at Doncaster Road Junior School. So It will therefore not surprise you to learn that THIS YEAR IS OUR SILVER JUBILEE
The year 1912 must have been a terribly devastating one, not just for those in this area but for those world wide, for if there was a disaster looking for a year in which to happy it picked the year 1912. Everything horrible seems to have happened in that year.
On 15th April 1912 came the sinking of the Titanic with a loss of 1,500 lives. The Mexborough and Swinton Times was not just a newspaper, in those days, but also a travel agency and emigration office, as well as many other things. It had carried advertisements for the maiden voyage of, the pride of the White Star Line, the Titanic, the epitome of luxury and the largest liner afloat. When it struck an iceberg, off the coast of Newfoundland, and sank on the evening of 15th April 1912, the little ship the Carpathia, came steaming to her aid to reach survivors before any other. By coinsidance both the Titanic and the Carpathia had been advertised in the Mexborough & Swinton Times and, both carried local people.
Then on 9th July 1912 came the most significant pit disaster this area has ever known and deaths were to a degree that, as George V and Queen Mary returned to Denaby and Conisbrough, after their previous visit, there wasn’t a window without its curtains closed. Over 90 men lost their lives in the Cadeby Pit Explosion. The first took place in the early hours of the 9th July 1912 taking 35 lives. A rescue team was sent down but a 2nd explosion took place killing 53 of these brave men. The area was then bricked up but at 3a.m. on the morning of the 10th another explosion occurred, smaller than the others, which demolished the wall.
Accusations abounded as to the libility of Mr. W.H. Chambers with regards to the disaster. There had been three gobfires and an explosion, in the ara of the tragedy, and another fire had started four days before, but he had ordered work to continue. Even after the explosions of the 9th July work was still going on and it was only stopped when the inspectors ordered it and removed the men. But Mr. Chambers could not be prosecuted and a motion to amend the Mines Act was tabled in parliament. At that time, it was stated that he could not be prosecuted as proceedure had to commence within 6mths of the incident. In this case inspection of the area, as it was bricked up, was not possible so it was impossible to obtain facts from which to build a case. A report on the tragedy was not written up for 6mths after the explosions and thus proceedings could not commence. The adjustment to be suggested was for proceedings to begin within a 3mth period of the end of the enquiry. Another amendment suggested was that the Home Secretary was to be able, in future, to order an enquiry to ascertain blame.

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