Down on the farm in old Doncaster

A mid-19th century harvest cup  from the Cusworth Hall Museum collection
A mid-19th century harvest cup from the Cusworth Hall Museum collection
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Doncaster has come to be synonymous with Romans, racing, railways and coal mining.

However, it was once a vibrant and important agricultural district – a centre for innovation, experimentation and trade.

Elizabeth Rockett Stones with horse, an image from the exhibition Life on the Land at Cusworth Hall, Doncaster

Elizabeth Rockett Stones with horse, an image from the exhibition Life on the Land at Cusworth Hall, Doncaster

The vestiges of this important trading centre can still be seen in Doncaster’s architecturally notable market buildings. Life on the Land is a new exhibition at Cusworth Hall based on my original research as its curator.

The exhibition showcases the area’s rich and varied agricultural past, uncovering the hidden stories of rural Doncaster from landowners to labourers.

Items on display come from the unique collections of Doncaster Museums, Doncaster Archives and a private collection never seen before.

These include agricultural artefacts and iconic images that characterise Doncaster’s rural past, and a small but important private collection from a local farming family, which collectively offer new insights into Life on the Land.

The exhibition explores key themes including agricultural work and workers, housing conditions, innovations and the relationship between town and country.

The countryside surrounding Doncaster was varied in terms of landownership and land type, both of which affected the rural communities.

A number of notable local landowning families had an interest in agriculture and presided over agricultural estates.

Cusworth Hall is the perfect backdrop for this exhibition.

The 18th-century country house was home to the Battie – and later Battie-Wrightson – family, who had a home farm on their estate and exhibited at local agricultural shows.

Documents relating to their home farm, and other records relating to landowners’ interest in farming, are exhibited.

A large proportion of the population still lived and worked on the land in the area during the 19th century. This included regular and casual labourers and farm servants.

The Doncaster Statutes were vibrant occasions when farmers and farm servants gathered in the market place to secure employees or employment.

They were also controversial, with moral campaigns to abolish them, and yet they were popular as a day of leisure too.

Women and children were employed on the land too – attitudes towards women working in agriculture began to change in the mid-19th century with field work and working in gangs linked to immorality.

The dairy and domestic service was considered much more acceptable employment for women.

The exhibition includes photographs of agricultural workers in the Doncaster area, as well as a selection of agricultural implements.

A number of agricultural societies and farmers clubs were located in the Doncaster area, where ideas and practices could be discussed and experiences shared.

Landowners patronized the Doncaster Agricultural Society and their shows exhibited produce, livestock, and agricultural tools and machinery.

Ephemera from this society and a medal they awarded for the best sheep in around 1845 are among the items on display.

Competitions and prizes awarded included those for giant vegetables.

Thomas Wood, the land agent at Sprotbrough, was a leading member of the Sprotbrough Farmers Club and a successful agriculturalist.

He was reported to have grown a large white globe turnip which weighed 12lb and had a circumference of 31 inches!

The stories of people and places illuminate contrasting experiences of life on the land.

The exhibition features the Duffin family and explores what one farming family can tell us. From labourers and farm servants, the family became farmers and established important trade networks.

They moved to Thorne towards the end of the First World War.

Grange Farm was symbolic of the evolving relationship between agriculture and coal mining in Thorne.

A ‘harvesting fatality’ marked a dramatic shift in the family’s fortunes, forcing a sale of farm stock and equipment.

They moved from farm to farm and their farming story lives on in the documents and images they kept.

On display at the exhibition are cash books kept by the Duffin family, the auction sale book following that fatal harvesting accident, a hand-drawn map and a selection of photographs.

Life on the Land is at Cusworth Hall from next Saturday, June 11 to September 18 and is free to visit.

To accompany the exhibition, I will be delivering a free public talk, giving a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective of researching and curating Life on the Land, on Monday, June 27 at 1pm at Cusworth Hall. Book your free place via

A WEA workshop (fee £15) about researching life on the land and discovering more about your agricultural ancestors will run on Tuesday, June 28.

n Dr Sarah Holland is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham and specialises in agricultural and rural history.

She speaks at national and international conferences about her research and has published articles in the field, including one on the evolution of the Doncaster corn market.

She is currently completing a book on the rural history of the Doncaster area as well. In addition to her academic work, she is keen to take her research to wider audiences.

Her community engagement work has included public lectures, courses and workshops for the WEA, and of course this exhibition.

For information, email, visit her blog at or follow her on Twitter @DrSarahHolland