Social History

In the early days of Doncaster Museum only a few of the objects collected represented the ordinary lives of local people but from the mid 20th century interest grew in the working, home and social life of Doncaster people, including the mining and railway communities.

The Social History collection is now one of the largest single collections held by Heritage Doncaster and features over 20,000 items. It has been built up over the last 50 years through the generous gifts of local people and reflects all aspects of their lives from teddy bears and crinolines to miners lamps.

Collage of social history collection object

Although social history objects are often quite ordinary they hold a fascination for many of our visitors who can relate personally to familiar items. The stories behind the objects give even more importance and relevance to the item itself and reflect the history and achievements of Doncaster people and communities.

This is a selection of some of the items held in the collection – many more objects are on display in Cusworth Hall and Doncaster Museum.


Playbill for The Merchant of Venice, 1811This theatre playbill is an advert for 'The Merchant of Venice' performed at Doncaster Theatre in 1811, starring Mrs Siddons.

Sarah Siddons, member of the famous Kemble acting dynasty, was one of the most respected and glamorous celebrities of her day. This playbill records her visit to Doncaster in 1811, when she appeared in the role of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice at the Theatre Royal.

Siddons performed in Doncaster in 1811 as part of a touring group of actors organised by the theatre manager Tate Wilkinson. The group visited the town every year, usually during race week and again in October.

Considered to be the greatest of tragic actresses she was able to fill theatres, and was most admired for her role as Lady Macbeth, when she electrified audiences with the pathos and menace of her performance.

Doncaster Theatre Royal, which stood in the market place in the town, was built in 1776, and as Doncaster became a more important centre for elegant society Wilkinson included the theatre as part of his Yorkshire circuit of venues.


Hand-drawn hoax banknote, 1827
This spoof banknote was drawn by a local eccentric from Rawcliffe, near Goole, called James ‘Jemmy’ Hirst.

Doncaster Bank cheque, which bounced 1778.

Jemmy Hirst was born on 12 October 1738. From his early childhood he was noted for his peculiar sayings and doings and over time he became famous for his eccentricities.

His fame became so widespread that George III expressed a desire to meet him. At first he declined, saying he was busy teaching an otter to fish, but was eventually persuaded to travel to London.  His journey took three days and crowds flocked to see him at each town and village he passed through. He cut a splendid figure in his multicoloured waistcoat and lambskin hat with its 9ft brim. When he met the king, instead of kneeling at his feet he shook him by the hand and declared him to be a sensible old gent!

This banknote was drawn and signed by Jemmy in his 89th year. At first glance it is very much like the elaborate banknotes of the time, however, a closer looks reveals a sketch of him in his wicker carriage and a promise to pay the bearer the sum of five half pence. It is a fantastic monument to a truly unique individual.


Pink wool coat

Wool Coat

When Doncaster Museum first opened in 1910 the town was a very stylish place home to many fashion outlets.  While numerous dressmakers provided quality made-to-measure clothing for Doncaster society, many people still made their own outfits, and sewing skills were considered essential for women from all classes of society.

This cerise wool coat was machine sewn between 1914 and 1920 and is fully lined with pink silk.  It was worn by Edith Elizabeth Skinner (nee Batty) who was born in Stainton, Wadworth in 1883. Edith was clearly fond of good clothes and quite daring in her taste. One can imagine this coat causing quite a stir in Doncaster, with its bold pink colour unlike the more sombre colours generally worn during that period. This is certainly a coat ‘for best’ and would have been guaranteed to get Edith noticed.

Our costume collection houses around 8,000 items of male, female, juvenile and occupational costumes. Most have been worn by local people and the collection as a whole helps to form a record of Doncaster as a fashionable and hard-working town.


Sugar Bag

Italian Sugar Bag

Although many of the objects in the social history collections appear to be quite ordinary they have fascinating stories behind them. Sometimes the objects seem to be out of place. This Italian sugar bag is a prime example.

It was part of a consignment of nonperishable food sent by sympathetic Italian miners to the miners of South Yorkshire during the 1984 national miners’ strike. The bag was distributed through the NUM to the families of miners who worked at Bentley Colliery.

The sugar bag represents a feeling of international solidarity, and was a wonderful human gesture of support for fellow miners. It was both practical
and useful to everyone. Italy was not alone in giving help; other countries such as Poland were also most generous in helping the miners. There was also much local help, including from the wives of the striking miners who organised soup kitchens and hot meals throughout the strike.

The sugar bag was featured in the BBC’s online exhibition History of the World. It proved to be one of the nation’s favourite objects because of the story it had to tell, and what it represented.


Model of a ‘Stirling Single’ locomotive, c. 1984

This live steam model of a 4-2-2 ‘Stirling Single’ locomotive was built by Mr Denis William Woodruff, a former British Rail employee, between 1980 and 1984. This object represents the importance of the Plant works and locomotive building to Doncaster.

In 1853, the Great Northern Railway Locomotive and Carriage Building Works relocated from Boston iModel of a locomotiven Lincolnshire to Doncaster. The arrival of such a large engineering works altered the town forever.

Until the arrival of the Plant, Doncaster was a provincial market town with a population of about 24,000. However, this increased rapidly as men flocked to the town with their families to begin work in the Plant.

The first locomotive was manufactured in Doncaster in 1868, and so began one of the most significant periods in the town’s history.

Some of the most famous locomotives in the world were built at Doncaster including the world-renowned Flying Scotsman in 1923, and Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive ever at 126mph, in 1938.

Although much of the Plant works has now gone, and locomotives are no longer manufactured in Doncaster, its legacy lives on through the survival of those great engineering masterpieces.