This content is restricted to society members. If you are an existing member, please log in.

Existing Users Log In

Preface by Margaret Frost from 2006

When the Great Northern Railway was setting up a permanent workshop for its rapidly expanding company in the 1850s, Peterborough was earmarked for this development but Doncaster was eventually chosen, with GNR’s engineering works at Boston in Lincolnshire moving to Doncaster.

The smithy was the first section to open here in June 1853; by the end of that year the remaining workers and their families had made the move. Three quarters of the original workforce of 949 came here from Boston, and the departure of so many of its working population and their families caused serious problems for that small town.

The families included over 500 women and around 1,000 children, increasing Doncaster’s population by around 2,500. By the time of the 1861 census, Doncaster’s population had grown from 12,005 to 16,406, largely due to the setting up and subsequent expansion of the Plant Works.

Apart from the original Boston workforce, the Plant attracted workers from all over the country. Many displaced by the changing face of agriculture in Norfolk came north to find work at the Plant or in associated industries, while others came south from Northumberland and Durham.

As Doncaster became a “railway town”, its population mix changed, attracting incomers to work on all aspects of the railways, as well as the Plant itself.

In 1852, when the transfer from Boston was first mooted, there was concern about whether Doncaster could find sufficient housing for the expected influx of workers and their families; however a comprehensive building programme was soon in place, mainly in the Balby with Hexthorpe area. By the 1861 census the number of houses in Doncaster had increased by over a thousand. Later, most of the streets in the Hyde Park and Carr House Road area were built for railway workers.

In 1854, the Chairman of the GNR Board, Edmund Denison, who lived in Doncaster, took
responsibility for the moral welfare of the newly arrived families and felt there was a great
need for a church, particularly since the Parish Church of St George had been destroyed by fire in 1853. He also felt that a school was needed. After much opposition from reluctant shareholders, the GNR Board eventually voted £1,000 for a school but refused to fund a church.

The school, designed to hold 500 children, was built by the end of 1854 and opened in January 1855. There were separate departments for boys, girls and infants, and within six months the school was being well attended, especially in the infant department. The school was extended later to accommodate more pupils. A disastrous fire destroyed the school in 1895 but it was quickly re-built, although the boys, from January 1897, attended a new school opposite the cemetery on Green Dyke Lane on the East corner of Stirling Street. St James’ School finally closed in 1961, when the pupils were transferred to more up-to-date premises, and the building was finally demolished in 1993. The land, next to St James’ Church – which is still going strong – is now a car park.

Edmund Denison persisted with his plans for a church and, by means of voluntary donations, raised over £6,600 for his Church Fund. St James’ Church – the Plant Church – was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Built on a site very near to the works and alongside the railway, it was consecrated in October 1858 and completed in December of that year.

Denison then persuaded the reluctant shareholders to fund an annual stipend for a clergyman to conduct services there. The parish registers for baptisms date from 1858 and for marriages
from 1864. There is no burial ground at the church. Most burials at that time took place in
the town cemetery at Hyde Park which opened in 1856. The increase in population in the
1850s probably brought in many Non Conformists, as that decade saw the building of several
chapels for different denominations in and around the town.
“The Plant” – for the people of Doncaster – was more than an engineering works that
employed several thousands of workers in its heyday. It was part of the fabric of the town,
and everyone’s lives, for well over a century.

Margaret Frost 2006

Introduction by Brian Barber

For over a century, from the 1850s to the 1960s, the Doncaster railway engineering works, known locally as ‘The Plant’, was the largest employer in the town. It was established by the Great Northern Railway Company in 1853, not because Doncaster was particularly well-placed for this purpose but, it seems, because the redoubtable Edmund Denison, the company chairman, local MP and local resident (who lived in South Parade and who is buried a short distance away at Christ Church), thought it would benefit the town and, no doubt, his parliamentary majority.

In 1922, it became one of the works of the London and North Eastern Railway, established after the government returned the railways to private ownership following the First World War and then continued as part of the nationalised British Railways from 1948.

The beginning of its prolonged decline can be dated to the national review of railway engineering in 1962. From that date, although it fared better than some of its peers – for instance, Darlington’s North Road railway works were closed completely, capacity and labour force progressively diminished, until to-day the privatised facility that now occupies a small part of the premises is only a shadow of the works in its palmiest days.

At first, it was merely a works to repair locomotives and rolling stock that had been designed in-house but manufactured by a number of firms of engine makers, such as Kitson of Leeds and Robert Stephenson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Then in 1866, the GNR realised, as other major railway companies had done, that it could as easily built its own engines and rolling stock as commission others to build them for the company, since it already possessed the nucleus of the plant and personnel it needed. The works were considerably expanded and alongside the growth in premises came a growth in staff.

From under a thousand at the end of its first year, employment had more than doubled by 1870; there were just over three thousand by 1887 and a further five hundred by 1913.

The work of the Plant made use of a great range of workers: labourers, smiths (iron, copper and boiler), fitters and erectors, spring makers, joiners, sawyers and woodworkers, painters, carriage fitters and trimmers, as well as clerks and office boys, draughtsmen and timekeepers.

As in engineering everywhere, the workers were men: women joined the workforce only during the labour crises created by the two world wars of the twentieth century. Unlike the mill towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire or the cutlery industry in Sheffield, there were no opportunities for women workers outside the very limited spheres of retail trade and domestic service.

Much useful information about those who worked in engineering in Doncaster can, of course, be found in the successive censuses of population. But far more information is to be found in the personnel registers kept by the plant itself.

It is fortunate for family historians that these registers, containing brief but informative information about those it employed are now to be found in the safekeeping of Doncaster Archives. These give much more detail than can be found in the census enumerators’ books.

This volume is the first in a series of indexes to the staff registers of the Plant works. It contains the details of just over nine thousand of those employed in the locomotive department from October 1902 until January 1934. The registers give the employee’s name, occupation, date of birth, date of starting work, initial and final rates of pay, date of leaving and the reason for departure.

These registers have the Doncaster Archives reference DY/BRB/13/1/2-4. The earliest register begins in December 1897, but details are less complete for the first four thousand entries, and so the transcribing team decided to begin its work in 1902 when the details become more plentiful. The first register, containing name, date of starting and of finishing work only, can be consulted at Doncaster Archives. Later volumes in this series will provide indexes to other departments of the Plant for which staff registers are available.

Further Information
This is the second publication by Doncaster and District Family History Society to deal with the workers at Doncaster’s principal employer. The first, by Pamela Lindley and titled, The Train Builders: A Register of Doncaster Railway Plant Works Employees March 1887 was published in 2001. This indexes the names of 3,101 workers found in a series of books compiled to canvas for contributions to the town’s
memorial fund for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in March 1887. Readers seeking information about the broader context of the history of the Plant and the railway companies that successively maintained it can consult two essential books.

The most recent is Philip S Bagwell, Doncaster Town of Train Makers 1853-1990. This was published by Doncaster Books in 1991 and is still available for sale. An earlier work, still useful, is Charles H Grinling, The History of the Great Northern Railway 1845-1922, reprinted with updating chapters in 1966. This is available for reference use only in Doncaster Central Library.

Doncaster Archives holds the research papers of J E Day, a draughtsman at the Plant and a local historian, and these include a copy of his unpublished History of the Plant Works from 1853 to the Present Day, published for the centenary celebrations in 1953 and his own papers relating to the centenary celebration itself. There are also the archives of the Great Northern Railway Locomotive Friendly Society, a sickness and death benefit club for railway workers that functioned from 1850 to 1981.

The archives of the local engineering and surveying firm, Grantham, Brundell and Farran
include some map of railway routes that illuminate the history of route-planning, an issue that confused even Professor Bagwell.

Railway Company records are to be found at the National Archives in London, but the entire catalogue of its holdings,  including the former railway companies, can be found on-line on its website:

The National Railway Museum at York holds the plans accumulated by the drawing office at the Plant, but a copy of the catalogue can be found at Doncaster Archives.

Brian Barber
Principal Archivist
Doncaster Archives