Billy the Bear was a star draw at the museum

Billy the Bear
Billy the Bear

At the beginning of the 20th century the area we still call Waterdale was far quieter than it is today, situated as it was on the southern edge of town.

On the north side of Waterdale was a line of terraced houses called Harwood Terrace. Modern shoppers will know it as the row of shops where Ward Brothers is situated.

Across the thoroughfare on the south side stood two large houses, Chequer House and Beechfield House, in five acres stretching down towards Carr House Road.

The corporation bought both houses and later demolished Chequer House so the new girls’ school could be built.

The nearby Chequer Lane, which ran down to Carr House Road, was widened to become Chequer Road. The triangular area in front of Harwood Terrace which is now a car park was once an oasis of grass and trees where people relaxed on benches.

Beechfield House was the first of the houses to be built back in 1812 by Henry Preston. William Henry Foreman purchased it in the 1860s and extended the house while improving the gardens. Then later on M Richard Morris took out a life-time lease on the property and created a magical garden of terraces, lawns and flowerbeds with exotic plants, palms, fountains, caverns and even grottos.

The whole thing was lit up by hundreds of coloured bulbs and on certain occasions it was opened up to the general public. So one of the two houses became a school while the other changed into something completely different.

The corporation at the time was not keen on providing the town with a museum, being content with the token effort of designating a room at the splendid Guildhall in Frenchgate but now they decided to make Beechfield House into the first museum in Doncaster.

The first floor became an art gallery in 1909 and six months later the museum was created. Together they were a very popular attraction in the non-television non-radio days.

Despite its large size Beechfield House wasn’t big enough to house all the exhibits on display and plans began in the 1930s to construct a new museum in Chequer Road but World War II delayed its completion which wasn’t concluded until October 1964.

A First World War tank christened Danum was placed in front of the building, where it remained until 1938 before being sold for scrap.

There are many stories regarding the museum including one concerning Billy the Bear, who had been brought over from Shipley Zoo in 1957 and proved a great hit with the kids, but sadly didn’t last very long, dying of cancer just two years later.

However, he’s not gone altogether, good old Billy is still around as, like many live exhibits who have passed away over the years, Billy had a visit from a taxidermist and is now part of the museum’s store of “ex-exhibits”.

If you haven’t been to the Chequer Road Museum for some time, then you really must go. Just a short walk from the town centre and well worth the effort. Being both interesting and educational at the same time it arouses the curiousity of young and old alike.

Readers of a certain age may have images of the Beechfield gardens tucked away, why not drop me a line:

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