During the First World War Doncaster High Street was a very different place, it was far busier with many handsome buildings that have since been demolished. Doncaster High Street in 1914 was already much changed from that of the Victorian era. Trams now trundled down the High Street with up to 60 people per carriage, shortly before the war a roof was added to their top decks. Like modern busses the trams had big adverts on, but they were for completely different products such as ‘Paisley Flour’.
The North Side
At the turn of the 19th century many of the buildings at the junction with Baxter Gate and French Gate had been torn down for the imposing new Bank Chambers. These banks were built on the north side of the road and still stand as HSBC and Barclays. We don’t know who owned these banks at the time, but we know the managers’ names were William Henry Spencer and James William Hainsworth.
The renovation on the north side of the street went down as far as around 4 High Street, where a number of un-lived-in shop stood. Among them was 6 High Street, Doncaster’s oldest known remaining building. It dated all the way back to the C16th. Now the Cornish Pasty shop, 6 High Street had the same sloped roof interrupted by a front facing gable. In 1908 it held a Jeweller shop called J. G. Bell, although its unknown if this was still there in the war.
Offices and shops carried on down the north side of the High Street. At 11 High Street, Charles Valentine Fisher had offices and works until at least 1915. By 1918 he was bought out by Charles Waldegrave Pennell and Walter Richard Pennell. During the First World War the Pennell brothers established garden and seed shops in Lincoln, Brigg, Doncaster, Gainsborough, Grimsby and Scunthorpe. They were very successful, and Charles had even served as Mayor in their home city of Lincoln. The company was supplied by their nursery on Brant Road near Lincoln which is now Pennell’s Garden Centre.
Next door to Pennell’s stood a small bank managed by Edmund Hanson, and later by Francis Forth. The rest of the north side of the High Street was unidentified shops and offices.
The South Side
On the south side of the High Street, at the junction with Cleveland Street, stood the Danum Hotel. Around 1908 or 1909 the Ram Inn had been demolished for the hotel. At the start of the war the hotel was managed by John and Hannah Humble, but by the end it was run by John Inmer. Curiously enough for the times John Inmer was German. The Danum Hotel is now the Mercure Hotel, it had the same dome crowned with iron filigree and a flag at the top.
A few doors down from The Danum at 35 High Street was a branch of Benn Franks, a Hull based opticians. As well as glasses, they sold anything that used lenses. Sprawling across numbers 36 and 37 was Herbert Haresign’s Florist and Fruitier shop.
At 38 High Street was Wilfred Charles Birkinshaw’s Fish and Game shop. Businesses like this were under intense pressure throughout the war. On New Year’s 1918 they were hit with beef and mutton shortages, even the price of rabbit rocketed as people fell back on it for Sunday lunch. On Saturdays the queues in town stretched out of the shop doors into the street. 38 High Street was also the start of what is now known as The Blue Building, it stretched down to number 40. This Georgian building did yet have its distinctive blue and gold mosaic decorating its frontage. In the middle at 39 High Street was an office, and 40 High Street was probably Thomas William Stott’s brewery.
Next to the Blue building at 31 High Street was William and Margaret Campbell’s Tailor Shop. One further along stood William Samuel Tate’s Pawn Shop, it specialised in furniture. The distinctive pillared frontage that now goes through to Priory Walk was at the time home to the Savoy Cinema. A few doors along at 44 High Street was home to Sheard Binnington & Co, a home furnisher in competition with Tate’s. They used to have the edge on Tate’s because joiner Henry Binnington made their furniture by hand, but he had recently retired leaving John Petereson Bone in charge. As winter 1914 approached Sheard Binnington sent a van around Doncaster to collect blankets for the men serving on the front.
Next door to Sheard Binnington was The Mansion House, the heart of public life in Doncaster. In 1914 the outbreak of war was announced there. August 1914 saw a plan to use it as a hospital for the war wounded, the hospital was disbanded in 1916 when the Arnold Auxiliary Hospital was established. This meant it could be used for council meetings again, as well as the meetings of the local tribunal that assessed exemptions from military service. Receptions for Belgian refugees were held at The Mansion House and in 1918 the Armistice was announced there. The facade of The Mansion House is actually based on Inigo Jones’ unused palladian designs for the Houses of Parliament.
At 49 High Street was Richard Henry Hepworth’s ‘Circulating Library’ and ‘Borough Printing Works’, they also sold stationery. At may have been the same Richard Henry Hepworth who served as Doncaster’s Civic Mayor in 1929. His neighbour, Samuel Balmforth was definitely the Mayor of Doncaster in 1915 and 1916. Samuel Balmforth was joint owner of the confectionery shop at 50 and 51 High Street. In 1817 as Parkinson & Son’s butter scotch had been invented by the owner of the shop, which they later supplied to the royal family! The shop was also a grocers and tea dealers, when Balmforth had bought it he took it more towards the confectionery side of the business. Mint lumps and toffee could also be bought there. The shop’s distinctive bow windows survive today as the Georgian Tea Rooms. A stained glass window from Parkinson’s, as well as early packaging can be viewed at the right end Doncaster Museum’s foyer.
Next door at 52 High Street was the Longbottom Ironmonger’s shop, a family business that had already been there for three generations. At 53 and 54 was the Meacock music shop, before the war the Meacock’s daughter, Gertrude, had offered music lessons there.
At 55 High Street was Equity Chambers, the office of solicitor Stafford Edward Somerville. He also served as Recruiting Officer making this the Doncaster Battalion Headquarters until 1916. Men went here for their medical assessments before going to war. Somerville caused something of a crisis by revoking every single medical exemption certificate. Despite this he was well liked by the tribunal when he stepped down in 1916.
Brian Elliott, A Century of Doncaster, pp. 13, 23 & 36-37
Geoffrey Howse, Doncaster Then & Now, pp. 21-23 & 32-35
Symeon Mark Waller, Doncaster in the Great War, pp. 36-37 & 82