Norton is situated on the Magnesian Limestone Belt, a geological and landscape feature comprising a narrow north-south trending escarpment of limestone between the clays, sands and gravels of the Vale of York and Humber Levels to the east and the more elevated Yorkshire Coalfield to the west. The Magnesian Limestone Belt is typified by well-drained and fertile soils ideal for agriculture. During the medieval period, the area to the east was occupied by waterlogged, inaccessible marshes and the higher ground to the west by Barnsdale Forest, which was associated with the legend of Robin Hood, who preyed upon travellers on the Great North Road (the A1), which runs along the Magnesian Limestone escarpment some 3km west of Norton.
At the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086, Norton Manor was owned by Ilbert de Laci, Baron of Pontefract, and had a population of 100 persons, solely employed in agriculture. The Manorial complex, which included a Manor House, chapel, dovecote, moat, fishponds, field system and mill was located on the south bank of the River Went, 1km north of the present village centre. Norton Priory is believed to have been situated at the north end of Priory Road (or Hall Lane) close to the site of the Manor House, in the area known as Priory Garth. The priory never grew to be particularly significant and was subsequently demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1588.
In 1743, the Fellows of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge became the Lord of the Manor of Norton and, in 1756, obtained a private Act of Parliament empowering it to pull down Norton Hall, at that time described as a ruinous edifice with 35 rooms, and to use the materials to build a farmhouse on the site. Two farmhouses (Norton Priory and Priory Farm) now occupy the site of the hall and the priory. A handsome new Manor House was built in the village itself. At this time, Norton village comprised a number of farms and associated cottages spread over a distance of roughly 2km along a single road running from west to east. A back lane ran parallel with the main street on its northern side and each of the main street properties had strips of land of an acre or more extending to the back lane. All the buildings constructed prior to the 1850s were built of limestone obtained from local quarries at the western and eastern ends of the village. Clay pantile roofs were common. In the mid-19th century there were at least fifteen farms in the village, in addition to Westfield Farm and Cliff Hill Farm located outside the village to the west, Norton Priory and Priory Farm located near the River Went at the north end of Hall Lane, and Norton Common Farm located on the Doncaster-Selby Road (A19) at the eastern extremity of the parish.
In addition to the twenty farms located in and around the village in the mid-19th century, Priory Mill, a water-powered corn mill, stood on the banks of the River Went close to Norton Priory. Norton Windmill, a typical late 18th century tower mill, was located on higher ground to the west of the village. Originally part of the Campsmount Estate, it continued in operation until the 1880s. Thereafter, the Windmill House and adjoining buildings were converted into cottages. The windmill itself lay derelict until the 1970s when it was converted into a house. “The Folly” stood at the corner of West End Road and Spittlerush Lane (the road to Kirk and Little Smeaton, at the west end of the village. It was probably built in the 1840s alongside a couple of existing cottages (Lane Ends). Tradition has it that this three-storied building was built by a young man as a surprise home for his bride-to-be. Unfortunately, she took an instant dislike to the house and refused to live there, leading to it being known as “The Folly”. It was demolished in the 1970s.
In the early 19th century, there were a number of ‘Beer Houses’ in the village, usually situated within farm houses. Such ‘Beer Houses’ as the Forester’s Arms, Travellers’ Rest and the School Boy Inn were established to serve the local agricultural population. The beer house at Travellers’ Rest Farm would cease during the 1920s. The Forester’s Arms would have a number of distinguished landlords, including three generations of the Senior family, but closed in 1969 to be replaced by a small housing development. The School Boy Inn, which dates from before 1822 and was re-built in 1903, continues in operation today. There were other beer houses; the George and Dragon was located just below the cross roads in the centre of the village, probably in the property that would subsequently be called Woodbine Cottage, the home of my grand-parents after 1920. The Royal Hotel, located at the cross roads in the centre of the village was built in the 1880s and replaced the George and Dragon. It must have been one of the earliest brick built buildings in the village. There were at least three Malthouses within the village producing malt for the brewing industry.
The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church built a school and adjoining school house on Campsall Balk in 1862. This replaced a school for boys located in a building behind the School Boy Inn; the Parish Room. Initially, the new school only accommodated boys, girls being educated at a school where Campsall Cottages stand at the corner of Campsall Balk and Church Field Road. This school closed in 1874, after which both boys and girls were educated at the school on Campsall Balk. There were two chapels in the village; the Primitive Methodist Chapel located between ‘The Laurels’ and School Boy Farm, built about 1845, and the Wesleyan Chapel, situated behind the School Boy Inn, built in the 1870s. A church hall (the Mission Room), attached to the Parish Church at Campsall, was built in the 1890s.
The Parish Church, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, is situated within the neighbouring village of Campsall, about a mile to the south of Norton. The church was founded by Ilbert de Laci of Pontefract, Lord of the Manor, in the late 11th century and replaced an earlier wooden Saxon church. It was originally built between 1086 and 1160 in cruciform shape and extended in the 15th century when the two side aisles were added, together with the south porch. It is locally reputed that Robin Hood was married to Maid Marion at Campsall Church, the theory founded on the premise that St. Mary Magdalene is the only possible church in the area that fits the description in the 15th century ballad ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ published by Child in the 1890s, which states that Robin Hood built a chapel in Barnsdale that he dedicated to Mary Magdalene. However, no firm evidence exists for this supposition.
A station was opened in Norton in 1848 on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s Knottingley Branch, providing services to Doncaster and Pontefract. The line subsequently became part of the newly established East Coast Main line with the opening of the branch from Knottingley to Burton Salmon in 1850, which gave access to the York & North Midland Railway’s line from Sheffield to York via Normanton. However, the opening of a direct line from Doncaster to York via Selby in 1871 saw the end of regular express trains using the route but it remained busy with goods traffic, mainly coal from various collieries along its length, and local stopping passenger services until closure to passengers in 1948; 100 years after its opening. It continues to operate as a freight line and as an alternative route for passenger trains when the main line is under maintenance. The Hull, Barnsley & West Riding Junction Railway and Dock Company built a line between Hull and Stairfoot, near Barnsley, which opened in 1885 and passed through Little Smeaton, a couple of miles north of Norton across the River Went, where there was a small station. This line transported fish from Hull to the coalfield area around Barnsley and coal from the Yorkshire Coalfield to the port of Hull. The line became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923 and remained a freight line until 1959 when it was closed and dismantled.
The 1841-1911 Censuses provide detailed information about the population of Norton during this period. In 1851, the population of the village stood at 659 persons; almost two-thirds of the heads of the 148 households were employed directly in agriculture. Over two-thirds of the heads of households in 1851 were born in Norton and the immediately surrounding villages. Only eight of the 148 heads of households were born outwith Yorkshire. The population of Norton remained fairly static for most of the second half of the 19th century, around the 600 mark, although, with increasing mechanisation in farming, the population began to decline after 1871 and by 1911 had shrunk to 516 persons (126 households), by which time less than half the heads of households were employed in agriculture. Only half of the heads of households were born in Norton and the immediately surrounding villages.
At the start of the 20th century rumours that a colliery was to be sunk near the neighbouring villages of Little Smeaton or Askern led to the speculative erection of a number of rows of red brick terraced houses in Norton to serve the anticipated influx of miners. Victor Bevan, a builder originally from London, arrived in Norton and took up residence in Norton House (previously called ‘West House’) at the western end of the village. Bevan built rows of terraced houses (Bevan’s Buildings) at the west and east ends of Norton.
Prior to the First World War, Askern rivalled Harrogate as a Spa resort with spring water with healing properties. By the late 19th century it had five bath houses around a lake and a Hydro Hotel. The first pit shafts were sunk during the First World War, and by the 1920s, Askern was dominated by the new colliery and its associated new village of terraced houses. Its reputation as a Spa resort had disappeared. The local newspaper, the Doncaster Gazette reported enthusiastically that “The pit will bring in its train better facilities for the district, new housing and new schools for the colliers children and open up the neighbourhood.” It also reported that” The sinking of the coal pit is having its effect upon the reputation of the place as a spa. Owing to the boring operations at the new pit, Askern has already lost one of its most attractive features, namely the well-filled lake. The pit sinkers have diverted the springs and now, instead of the visitor finding a sheet of water, he is only able to gaze upon an empty basin of weeds save one patch of sulphurous water in the centre.” A New Village of colliery houses was built alongside the pit and it was decreed that “Askern would grow into such a town as to be almost unrecognisable as the quiet, sleepy, invalid-haunted health resort, which it had been for the past century”. How true this became!
With the establishment of Askern Colliery in 1916, over 100 new dwellings were constructed in Norton between 1911 and 1921 and the population of the village more than doubled from a little over 500 persons to 1142 persons. In the 1920s, further terraced houses were built for private rent and the local council commenced the development of semi-detached houses at Brocco Bank. Nevertheless, Norton’s core buildings remained its farms and associated rows of workers cottages along the main street, many of which were in a dilapidated condition. In 1925, a Ministry of Housing report commented that “Several houses are beyond repair, unfit for habitation and need drastic action”. Many of these houses would remain standing, semi-derelict and largely empty until well after the Second World War, when action would be taken to remove many of these rows of cottages, principally as a result of the widening of the main road through the village as car usage increased.
It is against this background that John William and Margaret Hope, my grandfather and grandmother, together with their five children; Eva (b.1908), Walter (b.1909), Elsie (b.1911), John (b.1913) and George (b.1914), my father, arrived in South Yorkshire in 1916. They spent a short time at Edlington, south west of Doncaster, where a new colliery, Yorkshire Main, had been recently established, before moving to Askern, situated 8 miles north of Doncaster. However, by 1918, they were resident in Norton, in a newly-built terraced house at the east end of the village where three more children, Douglas (b.1918), Margaret (b.1920) and Alfred (b.1922), were born. In 1923, the family of ten moved to Woodbine Cottage, a house with land near the centre of the village, which had previously been the George & Dragon Inn, a poultry farm and residence of the driver of a horse and trap for hire. They erected greenhouses on the attached land and created a market garden for the growing of vegetables, soft fruit and flowers, and built a shop next to the house. My grandfather would tend the market garden whilst my grandmother ran the grocers shop, assisted by her eldest daughter (Eva). My father (George) would help in the market garden and cycle to the station at Smeaton to collect fish from the daily fish train that ran from Hull to Barnsley and Sheffield. To find out what happened next, you will have to wait for the next post!