Municipal Progress and the Mansion House.
The 18th Century saw great movements throughout the land. The rise of nonconformity and its spreading influence, the growing power of Parliament, the increased attention paid to the education and comfort of the people, the development of trade and industry – all these things are reflected in the life of the town.
By now, Doncaster had settled down into the character it possessed until our own time. Full rights of self-government ere centred in the Corporation. The old feudal days had gone forever. There was no lord of the manor to collect tolls and dues and have his say in the regulation of the town’s affairs. The de Mauley’s had passed away. One of their successors, a Salvin, brought an action against the Corporation to have it established that he was overlord of the town and owner of the manors administered by the Corporation but the Corporation practically bought him out by a payment of something like £3,000, and, in return, Salvin executed a deed in hich he renounced all claim on the lands and estates of the Corporation.
From that date there was no more disputation on that subject, and the Town Council was free to collect its dues, to spend them as it liked, and to pass its own laws for the government of the town. Writers of history call them “the good old times”, in a sense, they were. The modern manufacturing towns had not grown to their present dimensions. Factory acts were unknown. Life was more placid than it is now, not so feverish. There was no telegraph and no telephone; no steamship and no railway engine; and certainly no aeroplane and no motorcar.
But the “good old times” had their drawbacks. Education was outside the reach of the poor, there was a great deal of poverty. None of the comforts and amenities of modern civilisation had been introduced. There was no scheme of water supply, no lighting service, no sanitary institutions, no medical officers of health; people were thrown into prison for very small offenses, they were hanged for sheep-stealing; the towns were dirty and ill paved, and the country roads were infested with highwaymen.
To see how Doncaster, in common with other towns, emerged from this state of things and travelled, even if slowly, along the path that has brought us to our present perfection, is interesting.
The Corporation in the 18th century had great revenues. It still possesses remarkably rich and ample estates at Sandall, Wheatley, Balby and elsewhere, bringing in great revenues. But in the 18th century, these estates were much larger, and it is a thousand pities that the ancient manor of Rossington, which had been in the possession of the town for centuries, should have been sold in the early part of the 19th century, by a town council which thought more of the pleasures of life than of the possibilities which the ownership of such an estate possessed for future citizens. We may be sure that no modern town council would thus so lighly part with lands it had so strenuously fought to preserve against the legal attacks of wealthy landlords.
But in this matter Doncaster Corporation would only be on par with other towns. It built a handsome Mansion House as the centre of the civic life of the community, and for that wise action we can forgive much. As far back as 1771 it passed a resolution that the Mayor should wear a scarlet gown trimmed with fur, and also a gold chain with a medal (with the Corporations arms on the one side and the Kings arms on the other), and we have seen that the Aldermen and councillors were robed only a little less magnificently.
The civic pageants were gorgeous. The Corporation turned out in full splendour on the smallest excuse. Processions through the streets were regular sights. The old Town Hall in the Market Place was out of date, and the Corporation were ambitious to house themselves in a more fitting establishment. Hence the Mansion House – the imposing building in High Street which is still one of the great architectural features of Doncaster. It was begun in the reign of George II, and the curious may like to know that the London Mansion House was also erected in the same reign – in fact, there are only 2 years or so difference between erection of both these buildings.
It has been long a boast of Doncaster that it has one of the only three Mansion Houses in England, the other 2 being at London and at York. Thus Yorkshire had the distinction of containing the only Mansion Houses in England outside London.
Now, a Mansion House is what the name suggests. It is a Mansion, and it is to provide the Mayor with an official residence. Mayors of Doncaster for generations lived at the Mansion House. There was a staff of servants, there was a cellar – always well stocked with wine. Noblemen sent venison and game for civic banquets. Dinners, Balls and assemblies were of frequent occurrence. Ever since it was built, our Mansion House has been a centre of hospitality and gaiety, and a mere list of the entertainments it has provided, and the distinguished visitors who have dined and danced in its beautiful saloons, would be quite imposing. Nowadays, Mayors nolonger use it as an official residence. The Mayor has a private parlour which he uses for his correspondence, for receiving deputations, and so on. Corporation banquets and balls are of frequent occurrence during the winter. Meetings, bazaars, charity functions are held there by public bodies with the consent of the Mayor. Civic processions always assemble there and make a start from the steps that lead down from the massive door. Proclamations, such as election results, etc., are usually read to the towns people from these same steps, and during the war, the Mayor and Corporation many times stood upon them and reviewed the troops that were in training in the town.
It was in 1744 that the Corporation ordered plans to be drawn up for the building of a Mansion House, and in the same year it was ordered that the work should start. The money to pay for it was borrowed on bonds. It was ready for occupation in 1750. Its cost was recorded at the then considerable figure of £4,500, but at the time of the Municipal Reform Act in 1835 it was stated that the Mansion House, by then had cost the town £12,000, taking into account alterations, furnishing, beautifying, etc.
Not all the costs came out of the pockets of the town. For many years it was the custome for the aldermen to pay 15 guineas to the Mansion House “in Lieu of his customary feast”, and the sum was usually spent on plate, china, linen, furnishings, and so forth; and that is one of the reasons why the collection of plate and furniture is now so valuable and complete.
In fact, the Mansion House collection of insignia, silver-plate, cuttlery, epergnes, bowls, candlesticks, etc., is probably unique so far as regards a civic collection in the provinces. The maces and chain which form a part of the mayoral equipment are extremely old. Doncaster was given the right to have two sergeants-at-mace in Edward IV’s charter of 1467, and the sergeants still form part of civic processions, carrying silver staves or wands. Hpw old these are we do not know, but by resolution of the town council in 1759 they were ordered to “be made new”, signifying, surely, that they were then wearing out through usage. That date fixes them as having been in constant use for the last 161 years, and how much older than that they are we dare not even guess. They bear the Royal Arms before the union with Ireland.
In the case of the mace, a massive piece of silver-gilt, we have its full history. It was presented to the Corporation by Sir George Cooke, the first Baronet, of Wheatley Hall in 1683. According to the records it cost £70. It bears the following inscription:
” Ex dono Georgii Cooke de Wheatley in com. Ebor, Baronetti, 1683,” meaning ” Given by George Cooke of Wheatley, County York, Baronet, 1683.”
It also bears the Royal motto:
” Honi soit qui mal y pense”.
On receiving it, the Corporation appointed a mace-bearer at a salary of “four marks per annum”, the first office bearer being one Richard Brigham. It is believed that this mace is one of the very oldest Corporation maces in England. If any other Corporation owns one with a date earlier than 1683, they are to be envied.
The Mayor’s chain is not so ancient, but it boasts a long record. By resolution on 11th September, 1771, the council ” ordered that a scarlet gown trim’d with furr, and also a gold chain with a medal with the Corporation Arms on one side, and the Kings Arms on the other, shall be had for the use of the Mayor for the time being”. On New Year’s Day, 1772, the chain was ordered at a cost of £69 5s.
The Mansion House contains a ballroom, banqueting room, reception room, and saloon. Its outside frontage is quite imposing, and its interior, in the spaciousness of its noble apartments and the beauty of their decorative scheme, makes it a very valuable ornament of the town. On the walls are full-length portraits of Queen Victoria, George II, the Marquis of Rockingham, Earl Fitzwilliam, Sir William Bryan Cooke (first Mayor after the reform act of 1835), the Rev. Dr. Vaughan (a celebrated vicar of Doncaster, afterwards known as Dean Vaughan), Sir Frank Lockwood (an eminent Q.C. and M.P. of Victorian days, who was born in Doncaster), and one or two others.The corporation plate, which is signed for by each Mayor on his accession and is formally handed over to his successor at the close of his year of office, is kept in a strong room.
Other corporation buildings may be noted. The Guildhall, in Frenchgate, was erected in 1847. This was the building which in other places would have been known as the town hall. The police offices and cells were there. A large public hall was provided for dances and meetings. The County Court and the Borough Police Court are held in a special courtroom below. The Town Council used to meet there; but when the borough was enlarged in 1914, and additional members were brought into the council, the room set aside for their meetings was not large enough, and so the whole body moved across to the Mansion House.
Doncaster has been a market town for centuries. Markets and fairs were mentioned in some of the earliest charters granted by the Norman Kings. The tolls were originally claimed by the Lords of the Manor, but in time they reverted to the corporation and for many hundred years they have been a source of revenue for the town. The old mills on the river, which also paid revenues, which also paid revenues, have all gone, but the markets are more important than ever and the scene on a tuesday, when cattle are brought in from miles around and sold at auction, and on a Saturday when the country-folk display their products of farm and field and orchard, proves the commercial importance of this aspect of local life.
The market hall occupies the site of the old Town Hall and St. Mary Magdalen’s church. It was built in 1847 and was enlarged in 1871, when the corn excange was added to it.
The corn-exchange was the largest public building in Doncaster. In addition to serving as a corn market on saturdays, it is used for concerts and public meetings and many of the stars of the operatic world have appearerd upon its platform. It is a pity it was never completed by the the addition of a handsome towns organ.