Conisbrough stands high above a narrow point in the River Don valley; it lies about 6 miles south west of Doncaster and 12 miles north of Sheffield. Its strategic importance as a point from which movement along the Don valley could be controlled is witnessed by its name, which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘king’s stronghold’. Virtually everything else about the early history of the place, however, is pure legend. The only early historical facts of which we can be certain is that Conisbrough is mentioned in the will of Wulfric Sprott, dated between 1002 to1004, and that it appears again in the Domesday Book of 1087 as the centre of a very extensive lordship, with lands scattered across South Yorkshire.
A strategic site implies the presence of a castle, and the Conisbrough Castle is a remarkable Norman structure. The magnificent 90-foot cylindrical keep of Conisbrough Castle dominates the town and its surrounding countryside. It is certainly not the first fortification on the site, and Saxon earthworks have been found within its boundaries. At the time of the Conquest the manor was held by King Harold, but William the Conqueror gave Conisbrough to his son in law William de Warrene as tenant in chief. It remained in the Warrene family until the 8th Earl, John, died childless in 1347 and the property reverted to the crown. Hameline Plantaganet (half-brother to king Henry II) built the keep, which dominates the castle, who inherited the Conisbrough estate by marriage in 1163. The keep, built in glistening local limestone, which he probably had built in about 1180, is identical with one he had built at Mortemer, on his estates in Normandy.
The settlement was mainly an agricultural one, and the Normans seem to have been interested in the Conisbrough estates as a base for military and hunting purposes. Conisbrough suffered from being administered by frequently absent landlords, who held estates in other parts of the country. The survival of the castle in so good a state is a tribute to its military unimportance. It had already become ruinous in the Middle Ages, and played no part in the civil war of the 1640s. Had it done so, its fate would have been sealed, and Conisbrough would have joined Sheffield, Tickhill and other castles as a victim of government demolition shortly afterwards to prevent their use in the future.
The church, dedicated to St Peter, is even older than the neighbouring castle and is, indeed, the oldest building still in use in South Yorkshire. There is visible evidence that the church has an Anglo-Saxon core, perhaps dating from the eighth century, although it was enlarged by the Normans and then again several centuries later. Conisbrough was like Ecclesfield (now in Sheffield) and Dewsbury (in West Yorkshire), a mission church. It had at least eight of dependent churches, which in the Middle Ages became separate parishes. In the Doncaster area, these included Armthorpe, Braithwell, Fishlake, Hatfield, Kirk Sandall and Thorne.
In the 19th century the living was a discharged vicarage worth about £300 pa, and in the patronage of the Archbishop of York. Whatever its historical importance, Conisbrough remained a relatively small place until the twentieth century. Numbering 843 at the first census of 1801, the population had doubled by 1861. Thereafter it grew rapidly because the parish contained the newly created coal-mining village of Denaby Main within its boundaries.
There was a school built by public subscription in 1812. From ancient times there had been a ferry on the river Don, known as King’s Ferry, operating from King’s Wharf just below the castle. From a mainly farming community Conisbrough gradually developed into an area of more divers manufacturing. an iron works existed there in 1600. The sickle trade developed here, where a water wheel on the Don powered the lathes. There were two breweries in 1867 – the Hill Top and the Hollywell Brewery – and the South Yorkshire Railway had a repair establishment. An extensive brick, tile and pipe works existed, china and earthenware manufacturer was also at Conisbrough.
Conisbrough also boasted a magnesium quarry, a glass works built by Kilner Brothers of Thornhill Lees, Dewsbury, which opened in the early 1870’s. The Denaby Powder Works opened in 1889 for the manufacture of explosives.
Denaby Main colliery was sunk in 1867, bringing many jobs to the area; Conisbrough’s second colliery opened in the 1890’s and 90 lives were lost in the explosion on 1912. None of those killed in the disaster were buried in the churchyard, but in the cemetery which had opened in 1892. After this date there were few burials in the churchyard in existing graves, the last being in 1931.
Doncaster and District Family History Society has published :
- Baptisms, Conisbrough Methodists: 1842-1938
- Burial index for Conisbrough 1555 – 1931
- Cemetery Burial Registers: 1900-1950
- 1871 Census available on CD
The following records of Conisbrough, St Peter are available at
Doncaster Archives :
- Baptisms: 1559-1976
- Marriages: 1559-1992
- Burials: 1555-1931
- Banns: 1823-1987
- Indexed : 1555-1878, Marriages: 1588-1836, Burials: 1555-1871, Banns: 1823-1896
- Bishop’s transcripts 1600-1844