Mexborough - Discover the South Yorkshire town's wealth of talent
PUBLISHED: 00:16 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:55 07 June 2016
A South Yorkshire industrial town has a wealth of talent among its down to earth people as Bill Hearld discovers
‘Mexborough formed my life, I owe everything to the town’ – the words of one of its most famous sons, actor and adventurer, Brian Blessed. This South Yorkshire former industrial town has many famous sons and the occasional daughter. In fact it should have a section to itself in Who’s Who.
Actors Keith Barron and Kenneth Haigh, best known for his role in television’s Man at the Top, were born in Mexborough. So was Mike Hawthorn, the first British Formula One World Racing Champion in 1958; Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society; Dennis Priestley, twice World Darts Champion and William ‘Iron’ Hague, British Heavyweight Boxing Champion from 1908 to1911. Mexborough was home to former poet laureate Ted Hughes and poets Harold Massingham and Ian Parks. And it was the birthplace of the first Miss World, stage performer Lavender Leigh (real name Alice Hyde).
It is still the home of Tommy Joyce, former professional boxer who turned to charity marathon running after the death of his mother from cancer and ran himself into the record books. He was the first person to run 20 full marathons in 20 days and earned thousands of pounds for charity in the process at the age of 56. It also earned him the nickname, The Marathon Man, the title of Yorkshireman of the Year and the MBE in 2007. Since then he has run countless marathons and is still at it.
Brian Blessed was born in Mexborough’s Montagu Hospital in 1936 and though the family home was three miles away in Goldthorpe, the town influenced his early life. He used to visit a Mexborough cinema to watch Saturday matinee showings of the original Flash Gordon films. ‘We used to run home playing the parts we’d just watched. I never dreamed that one day I would be playing Prince Vultan the Hawkman in the film all those years later,’ he said.
He had to leave school at 14 when his father was crushed in a coalmine accident and sick pay was not enough to make ends meet. ‘I was devastated. I had to go round relatives and neighbours begging for sugar, soap, bread and milk, or stealing
peas and potatoes from the fields. We were bloody poor. Times were hard, it was a tough town but everybody helped each other.’
His grandmother served tea on the canal at Mexborough and he remembers the smog from the big industrial towns blotting out his vision beyond arms’ length. He worked as an undertaker’s assistant and a plasterer, but he had been keen on acting in his schooldays and he continued his passion in the evenings. He joined the Mexborough Theatre Guild and was taken under the wing of director Harry Dobson, his hero. ‘Of all the great directors I’ve worked for since, he was the greatest,’ said Brian, who now lives on a farm in Surrey and who is about to become the booming voice of the Tom Tom car navigation system.
Brian puts his success on stage, film and television down to his
early training in Mexborough and tries to visit the town every year.
‘My life is indelibly linked to Mexborough,’ he said.
Today, the town is very different to that of his youth. It is suffering after the industries on which it was founded have declined. The area was populated with coalmines which finally died off in the 1980s. There were huge glassworks. One, founded by Keith Barron’s forebears in the 1800s, became the country’s largest glass bottle works. There were potteries and stone quarrying, all helped by the proximity of the River Don and the building of the Dearne and Dove Canal, then the arrival of the railways. Today those industries have mostly gone and the once-bustling canal is now an attractive but fairly quiet waterway.
In a small room at Mexborough Library, Julia Ashby and her colleagues are beavering away ensuring that the rich heritage and history are preserved for posterity. Julia is chairman and research director of Mexborough & District Heritage Society, which is digitising old photographs, newspaper cuttings and records and producing books on the town’s past. Their latest, The People of Mexborough, is just out and is a fascinating photographic record of residents of the past. ‘We are immensely proud of Mexborough’s history; the town had so many firsts,’ said Julia.
It is a sprawling town with a small, but busy, town centre from where there are views of attractive countryside. There is some work at a local call centre and warehousing complex, but many people have to travel to nearby Doncaster, Barnsley or Sheffield for jobs. They are hoping their MP, Labour leader Ed Milliband, will do something about it. ‘The town has not really recovered from losing all its major industries and there are a few empty shops in the town centre. It’s a lot different from 1900 when Mexborough was a very prosperous town,’ said Julia Ashby. ‘Do you know of a town where you could go ice or roller skating, horse or dog racing, go dancing, to the cinema or theatre, watch boxing, athletics, football or cricket; see world-famous people at the local theatre or go for a flight in an aeroplane? That was once Mexborough.’
How to get there: Mexborough is set on the River Don, eight miles south-west of Doncaster and seven miles north of Rotherham. It is six miles from Junction 36 of the A1M and on the Sheffield-Doncaster-Hull rail line.
Where to park: There is plenty of pay car parking available in the town centre.
What to do: Indoor and outdoor markets are held on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, with
a second hand market held every Thursday.
The town is on the Trans Pennine Trail and is surrounded by attractive countryside with canal walks. Just north-east of Mexborough is Denaby Ings, a 40-hectare nature reserve with varied fauna and many varieties of visiting birds.
There’s a car park and refreshments.