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Notes from a Waterman

Mexborough in 1849-52. Showing the areas which River Pirates favoured. Also the location of: the Plank Bridge; Peas Plantation; Hanging Wood; and Strafforth Sands.

River Pirates
From Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, in 1950, rasping out the immortal words ‘Ar Arrr Jim Lad’, stomping around the deck of the Hispaniola. To Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and his ship the Black Pearl in the films Pirates of the Caribbean. We have all seen pirates portrayed so often that the subject seems to have been exhausted. But what if I was to tell you that pirates were not the prerogative of the South Seas and were also to be found on our inland waterways, particularly those with outlets to the sea and which carried expensive cargos, such as silk and silver, like the River Don at the latter part of the 18th Century.

Many of us will remember Jim Rownsley, Mexborough’s last Horse Marine, who is pictured in our latest book ‘The People of Mexborough’. He gave us so much information on the history of both Mexborough and the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigational Canal, that at least two files bulge at the seams with it. A few weeks ago a relative of Jim came to see me, at Mexborough Library, and asked if we could discover something of his family history. I found that the family was working on the rivers, transporting goods, at the beginning of the 18th Century, prior to the Industrial Revolution, and while I looked through some of the information, left to us by Jim, I found some very interesting notes written by him. The first told of the dangers, incurred by the waterman with respect to River Pirates, something which, on the River Don, I had not heard of until this time.

Long before the existence of the canal and prior to a time when the River Don was made navigable, one of the most valuable products to come out of Sheffield was not steel, as it is today, but silk, this had to be transported from Sheffield along the River Don. It was necessary, in those days, to complete the journey from Sheffield to Mexborough during the summer months and in one day, when daylight hours were longer, as if the boat stopped and tied up for the night, as barges do now, the boatmen knew that they would be set upon by river pirates. When speaking of river pirates please dispel from your mind all romantic images of swashbuttling, cuttles wheeling, men in tricorn hats, these were a gang of ruthless killers who would prey on small boats which carried goods up and down the river.

One of the worse stretches, notorious for this, was between Rotherham and Mexborough Parish Church. One of the spots most favoured by the pirates was Peas Plantation and Hanging Wood, Old Denaby. There were several reasons for this: the first being that there was a good view up and down the Don Valley, the pirates knew that in summer there was less water in the river than at any other time and from this point it was simple to see a boat which had either run aground or tied up; also on the river below these points the river narrowed and was met by a road, named Meadow Lane, near which was a Plank Bridge, necessitating the boat slowing to allow someone to alight and remove one of the planks to allow the boat to pass; there was also an outcrop of rock where they could hide. To alert the crew of impending danger it became a necessity to have a boat’s dog, the most popular breed becoming the Airedale. But despite all their efforts if boats ran aground there was nothing the crew could do if they became prey. Like a pack of wolves the river pirates would descend upon the hapless crew, killing everyone on board and stealing the cargo. This was then carried away, one presumes, up Meadow Lane, which led to the main arterial road through Conisbrough and Mexborough and on to Chesterfield, Pontefract or much further.

In those early days the boats were only small, little larger than the average rowing boat and did not have cabins, but after some years they were added to enable the waterman to sleep while his assistant took over. This took away the need for boats to be tied up for the night in what could be a dangerous area where the river was not policed.

Strafforth Sands
The second item spoken of by Jim was how to cross a ford by boat.
Prior to the river becoming navigable and therefore made deeper to accommodate larger goods carrying craft. There was four crossings over the River Don at Mexborough these were, from west to east; the plank bridge, located at the end of Meadow Lane, Old Denaby; Mexborough Ferry, at the end of Ferry Boat Lane; the Nether Ford, situated approx 100 yards below the Ferry; then lastly Strafforth (Strafford) Sands, between the site of Denaby Main Colliery and where the Don & Dearne meet. Of these the only ford which could easily be wadded across, most of the year, was Strafforth Sands.

But if the river was shallow enough at that point to wade across then how in our early history could the Saxons have come up the river by boat to Mexborough? Also how do you get a laden craft over that point? Again Jim knew the answer.

When travelling from Sheffield to Doncaster, when reaching the ford, there were two methods of crossing it, the first was as follows. In the interest of safety, you would wait at Mexborough for a number of boats to collect and then sail down the river to Strafford Sand where a damn would be constructed with a sluice gate in the middle. The amount of water would then accumulate behind it and when sufficient water was enclosed the sluice would be opened to allow the boat to rush through on the resulting mini tidal wave. This was then repeated for the next boat in the group and so on. The second method was long and laborious and necessitates the offloading of the cargo, manhandling the boat overland, using rollers, and then reloading the cargo at the other side of the ford.

Travelling from Doncaster to Sheffield was a different proposition and took in the use of tides. In those bygone days, the River Don was a tidal river and to cross Strafforth (Strafford) Sands you would wait at Conisbrough until the tide came in and the level of the water began to lift, in some areas locally this was as much as 18in (50cms). As the boats were only small, in those days, this enabled the boat to float over, sometimes with the aid of a damn. But in the summer months, when there was little water in the river it may be necessary to manhandle the boat and cargo.

RIGHT - The type of Small Boat Used to Transport Goods Along the River Don in the 18th Century.

In 1697 Sir Godfrey Copley of Sprotborough, put it to parliament that the River Don should be made navigable, to allow South Yorkshire to move its saleable goods, but this was unsuccessful. Many other attempts were made and it took until 1726 for the Company of Cutters at Sheffield, together with the Doncaster Corporation, to get an Act passed through Parliament. By 1767 the river had been: dredged; long and shot cuts constructed; also tight bends removed, to allow the passage of larger, goods carrying craft.

It is my strong belief that because the River Don was made navigable, and mainly because long and short cuts were inserted where it was necessary to inject vast amount of water into the river system, the fear of running aground was removed, and therefore it became a safer river to operate on. It was therefore this that brought about the demise of the River Pirates.

News From the Local History Office
Programme Made For the BBC About Sapper Hackett VC
Last year we kept track of developments to build, and later to unveil, a memorial in Givenchy, France over the last resting place of Sapper Hackett VC, Mexborough’s own 1st.WW hero. The unveiling, as you will remember, took place in June 2010. Then on 23rd January 2011 I reported to you, for the first time, that a programme was to be made for the BBC on Sapper Hackett and the French Monument in his memory.

Filming began in February when a crew, on behalf of the BBC, arrived in Mexborough, where shots were taken to the front and rear of his home, on Cross Gate.

Then, on Fri. 5th August 2011, the granddaughter of Sapper Hackett, Freda Warren, began her long journey, which was to culminate in Givenchy, France, in order to visit the memorial, erected in honour of her grandfather. The journey began, as so many do, at Doncaster Railway Station where she caught the train to London. There she was met by a friendly lady named Maggie, a representative of the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham and where, for the first time, she was filmed by the crew who shot her alighting from the train.

Maggie then escorted her to the museum, where, wearing white archival gloves, she was able to, not just see her grandfather’s VC but also handle this precious item. The VC was donated to the museum in 1966 by Sapper Hackett’s daughter, Mary, at the presentation she stated: “It seems such a little thing to exchange for a life.” But this was a generation to which little things mattered a great deal

They were then off to France where Freda and friend stayed in a B&B. The next day Freda was filmed in Givenchy, standing on the site of the entrance to the shaft, where her grandfather is buried. It will be remembered by us all that in 1916, he lost his life, under such gallant circumstances, when he refused to leave his comrades and tried to save the life of his fellow Sappers, following a roof fall within the tunnel they were working.

Unfortunately, although Freda made enquiries of the film crew, as to when the programme will be broadcast, they were unable to tell her. She was informed that the project was still in its infancy, there was quite a lot of filming still to do and decisions had not been finalised as to whether it was to be a documentary or a docu/drama, which will take considerably longer to make.

Information Taken From:
The Memories of James William Rownsley
Freda Warren, Sapper Hackett’s granddaughter.
‘Shots from the Front the British Soldier 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes’.


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