The early history of the Church of St. George, Doncaster is somewhat lost in the mists of time. It is known that the church, occupies the same site as the Roman fort of Danum and, indeed, a 18 metre stretch of the fort wall was discovered by excavation some thirty years ago and is to be viewed at the north east end of the grounds. A Norman fortification is known to have occupied the site and it is probable that the materials from that building were used in part, to build the early church but a precise date for its foundation is not possible.
Jackson’s history of the Church suggests a progression from Early English to Perpendicular style over the years from its foundation to its destruction by fire in 1853. The same work suggests a central tower surmounted by a spire in about 1300AD. A progression of additions and alterations is catalogued and a later woodcut suggests the spire had been replaced by a tower by 1430AD.
The church was described as “one of the noblest, of its own degree, if not in England, certainly in Yorkshire”. It had a lovely chancel screen, rather ugly galleries, a three decker pulpit, fine stained glass, and many memorials. Its Harris organ, and its bells were famous. But its crowning glory was the central tower standing 141 feet above the surrounding countryside. It was the pride of the town and the neighbourhood.
“In the centre of a wide and level district this rose before the eye with an air of ancient dignity, rich and pleasing in its proportions even from a distance, producing an immediate impression of stately solidity”
Thus its destruction, by fire on the night of 28th February 1853, was seen as a great calamity for the town and the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, within seven days, a rebuilding committee had been formed and raised over £11,000. Unusually Queen Victoria broke her own rule not to contribute to local charities and contributed £100 to the fund. The Archbishop of York sent £500 and the Town Council donated a generous £5,000. It is a tribute to the determination of all concerned that it was possible for the Archbishop of York to lay the foundation stone for the new church exactly one year to the day after the fire. The new building to the designs of George Gilbert Scott took four year’s to build at a cost of £43,126 4shillings and 5 pence. Great celebrations accompanied the consecration of the building by the Archbishop of York on 14th October 1858.
The new building was reviewed by the local newspaper (The Doncaster, Nottingham and Lincoln Gazette) thus: “We have obtained a building far superior to the one we have lost; an edifice worthy of the town and of the deanery, and equally worthy of the age in which we live most admirably adapted to the great purpose for which it is intended” It is undoubtedly better than the average Gothic revival building, and it has been suggested that it is the “proudest and most Cathedral-like of Gilbert Scott’s Parish Churches.”
This is most evident when entering the building through the West Door and the 169 feet length is equally balanced by the width of some 65 feet. The tower is 20 feet square and is supported by massive pillars with a circumference of 28 feet which are needed to support the full height of 169 feet as well a peal of eight bells within it. The observant will note that although the clock strikes every quarter hour there is no visible clock face on the exterior of the tower. The clock was designed by Lord Grimthorpe and made by Mr. Dent as was “Big Ben” and the chimes were first heard on 23rd October 1858 just a few weeks before Big Ben was first heard.
The visitor is struck by the rich carvings both inside and outside, the fine stained glass and the magnificent organ, which was added in 1862 by the famous Organ Builder, Edmund Schulze. The Forman Chapel, which also serves as the Baptistry, was built at the sole expense of William Henry Forman in memory of the Seaton Family and is built in an advanced Decorated style. In the centre of the chapel stands the massive Font carved out of a single piece of serpentine. As the civic church for the town visitors will note the ornate pew at the front of the nave where the Mayor sits on official visits and has a special stand for the official mace.
It was not until 17th June 2004 that the Bishop of Sheffield granted the Church of St George its Minster status in recognition of its unique position in Doncaster and district and its involvement in so much of the religious, social and cultural life of the town.
On 8th December 2008 the Minster was honoured to receive a visit from HRH The Princess Royal who came to view the building and meet many of the people involved with the current restoration programme.