Why thousands visited Doncaster’s Hexthorpe Flatts….
The Manor of Balby-cum-Hexthorpe, consisting of 625 acres located around a mile to the west of Doncaster, had been acquired by Doncaster Corporation in the 1500s, partly from Alderman Thomas Elys, with the remainder of the estate coming from the will of Thomas Ellis in 1588.
Thomas Ellis was a former Mayor of Doncaster and it is possible that Thomas Elys was his father and that the family name changed from Elys to Ellis.
A Thomas Ellis was Mayor of Doncaster on six occasions in 1519, 1522, 1532, 1543, 1553 and 1559, although some earlier dates may be attributed to Thomas Elys. The estate which formed the Manor of Balby-cum-Hexthorpe, included Hexthorpe House, Hexthorpe Manor and an area by the River Don known as Hexthorpe Flatts, that was leased out to tenants.
The first record of quarrying at Hexthorpe is dated 21 December 1568. Two quarries were developed near to the River Don and lime kilns established. However, the limestone at Hexthorpe Flatts is from the upper level of the Magnesian Limestone where it forms thin plate-like layers. Quarries developed in the lower level where stone is thicker were more successful, and in the 1840s, Doncaster Corporation was struggling to find anyone to lease the quarries. In 1850, Doncaster Corporation decided Hexthorpe Flatts should be used for “the purpose of laying out and planting as a public pleasure ground” and approached Robert Paxton to advise.
However, Mr Paxton recommended building a cemetery and improving the town’s waterworks and the plan was abandoned. In 1849, the Great Northern Railway arrived in Doncaster and in 1850 the South Yorkshire Railway opened a line through Hexthorpe. The Plant Works was established in 1853 and Doncaster became a booming railway town, Houses were built in Hexthorpe and Balby and the local population drastically increased. Buoyed by the success of new pleasure grounds at Sandall Beat, Doncaster Corporation decided to create a second at Hexthorpe Flatts and in 1902 the corporation allocated £250 to the project. The money was spent on landscaping, providing tearooms and toilets, a bandstand, bowling green, playgrounds and a rustic bridge. The Doncaster Temperance Prize Band were engaged to play in the bandstand.
The pleasure grounds opened on August Bank Holiday Monday with several thousand visitors. The newly opened Doncaster Corporation Trams connected Hexthorpe Flatts with the town. The development was a tremendous success.. A path was laid between the two quarries down to the River Don and in 1904, a boat house was constructed, and Mrs Anderson won a contract to provide rowing boats for hire. In 1927, Doncaster Corporation decided to redevelop Hexthorpe Flatts into a formal park. A scheme costing £6,500 was drawn up with new entrance gates built with stone from the quarries, a pavilion, a café, bowling greens and tennis courts.
The flagship development was the conversion of one of the quarries into a landscape feature known as The Dell and designed by W E Forth, the Doncaster Estates Surveyor. The Dell would incorporate a new bandstand, ornamental gardens, a statue ofWilliam Shakespeare, an aviary and a spectacular water feature, with an artificial river incorporating waterfalls and cascades.
This water feature was powered by a wind pump which drew water from the adjacent river. The new Hexthorpe Park and Dell opened in April 1929 and from the 1930s to the 1950s were tremendously popular. The Dell was first illuminated in 1953.
. A Balby resident recalls a week’s holiday to Cleethorpes, from where a Mystery Tour brought them to The Dell for the day! The Park declined in popularity from its heyday but there have been positive developments. In 2001, the Dell was awarded Grade II listed status. In 2002 a special event commemorated the 100 years anniversary of Doncaster trams and of Hexthorpe Park. In 2007, a new boat shed was built for Doncaster Rowing Club. A new café has opened. A cycling track, skate board park and new play equipment has been provided. Finally, a community group, the Friends of Hexthorpe Flatts, are doing great work in promoting facilities.