Doncaster St George's
This church is the ancient parish church of Doncaster. It is situated within the boundaries of the Roman settlement and the medieval castle. Whether St George or the church of St Mary Magdelene was the original parish church of Doncaster is at present unknown. St Mary Magdelene, located in the market place, was certainly a Norman structure, as was discovered on its demolition in 18. It had long been converted to use as the town hall after purchase by the borough corporation in 15 and its original function forgotten, wholly disguised by successive adoptions.
In any case, speculation is irrelevant for family history, as by the time parish registers begin in 1557, St George’s was definitely the town’s parish church. At this time, Doncaster was the largest, really the only, town in the area, a market town with its own borough council. The borough could trace its history back to 1194, when it received a royal charter from king Richard I, the ‘Lionheart’. The charter itself is still preserved, and can now be found at Doncaster Archives, along with the other dozen surviving royal charters granted to the town. The full privileges of the borough could originally only be enjoyed by those who could claim to be freemen. A complete list of these has been published (see below).
Although Doncaster was a market town and municipal borough, it was, by modern standards, a small community, numbering only about two and a half thousand inhabitants. They lived in the centre of the town, essentially an area bounded by present-day Duke Street, Cleveland Street, Silver Street and the market. In the eighteenth century, Doncaster began to grow in size consistently (reaching 5,697 inhabitants at the first census in 1801) but did not start to grow rapidly until the arrival of the Great Northern Railway workshops - the ‘Plant’ - in 1853.
As if to mark the break between the old market town and the new industrial one, the parish church was destroyed by fire in March 1853. It was rebuilt very quickly to designs by Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the leading architects of the day. Fortunately, the registers were rescued from the flames, but some still bear the marks of charring as evidence of the fate which nearly befell them. What the early parish registers tell us about the town makes life in Doncaster in some respects look fairly bleak. In almost 130 years, from the 1550s to the 1680s, there was an excess of burials over baptisms of nearly two thousand. The indisputably unhealthy town was relying heavily upon continued migration from the surrounding countryside to maintain its numbers.
The worst example of just how unhealthy town life could be can be seen in the burial register for the 1580s. On 18 September 1582, the register begins to record burials accompanied by a letter ‘p’, and from November these became frequent. The ‘p’ stands for ‘plague’, which indicates an epidemic of an unknown disease rather than plague in the modern medical sense. In the following year between February and November 1583, virtually all burials have the letter ‘p’ in the margin. By the end of the epidemic, 731 victims had been buried. So about a quarter of the total population of the town had perished in little more than a year. Urban life in the sixteenth and seventeenth century could have qualified for a government health warning.
As the town expanded in the nineteenth century, new parishes were created. These were Christ Church, St James (the ‘railway church’), St Jude at Hexthorpe and ST Mary at Wheatley. To-day St George’s church stands in isolation from the town centre, cut off from it by an inner ring-road whose route was chosen insensitively even by the standards of the 1960s.
Like many towns, Doncaster became a centre of nonconformity in religion. From the late seventeenth century, the town acquired congregations of Unitarians, Independents, Methodists, Quakers and other denominations, although their numbers (apart from the Methodists) were relatively small.
Doncaster and District Family History Society has published :
Pamela Lindley, Baptism, Marriage and Burial Records of the United Reformed Church, Hallgate, Doncaster 1798-1904, 1999.
Pamela Lindley, Freemen of the Borough of Doncaster 1558-1974, 1998.
Hyde Park index.
The registers of Doncaster, St George, available at Doncaster Archives are :
baptisms 1557-1924 marriages 1557-1925 burials 1557-1890 banns 1925-1973
indexed : baptisms 1557-1864 marriages 1557-1837 burials 1557-1890
bishop’s transcripts (none at Doncaster Archives)