History of the catchment before the Industrial Revolution

Aerial view of Wincobank fort; much of the area's woodland was felled by the Romans; some ancient woodland still remains within the catchment; Monk Bretton Priory near Barnsley; Cistercian ware excavated at Monk Bretton.

Aerial view of Wincobank fort. © National Monuments Record, via York Archaeological Trust; much of the area's woodland was felled by the Romans; some ancient woodland still remains within the catchment; Monk Bretton Priory near Barnsley. © University of Sheffield Archaeology Department; Cistercian ware excavated at Monk Bretton by Sheffield University Archaeology Department. © University of Sheffield Archaeology Department


Much more prehistoric human activity occurred in the Don catchment than was previously thought.  There is evidence of early settlement, with archaeological finds dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age when the first clearings were made in the western catchment.

Agriculture was also occurring; pollen analysis suggests grazing of the hills, and aerial photography has revealed early field boundaries. There are several examples of Iron Age forts, the best-known being on Wincobank Hill in northeast Sheffield overlooking a strategic crossing of the Don.

Roman period

The Roman occupation of Britain between 43 and c.400 AD brought significant changes to the area. Prosperity increased, and a network of roads and defences was established. Doncaster (Danum) was a key strategic stronghold, built where the Roman road from Lincoln to York crossed the Don at the highest navigable point for ships travelling upriver from the Humber estuary. The Romans also built a fort at Templeborough, on the opposite side of the Don to Wincobank, suggesting that the river might have been the border zone between two British tribes, the Coritani and the Brigantes.

A huge number of roads, farms and field systems dating from this time have been found by aerial photography, although most arable activity seems confined to the northern side of the Don. Pollen analysis indicates that much of the forest cover had been cleared from the east of the catchment by this period, with woods also being managed for fuel and timber. Wheat, barley and apple trees were grown, and domesticated animals were also farmed.

Although much of South Yorkshire seems to have been prosperous in Roman times, there are questions over the last decades of occupation. It is probable that widespread flooding within the Humber basin destroyed the agricultural field patterns, and the population declined dramatically, possibly due to recurrent illnesses similar to the later Black Death. Towns were abandoned and much of the countryside reverted back to wood, heath and fen.

Anglo-Saxons and Vikings

During the Anglo-Saxon period Rotherham, a strategic site at the confluence of the rivers Rother and Don, grew in importance and by the fourteenth century was a sizeable market town. The area also seems to have had a strong Viking influence, with a large number of field and place names having Scandinavian origins. It is probable that the original Viking invaders were followed by more peaceable farmers, with agriculture once again becoming a major land use, especially in the east of the catchment.

The Norman period and the Middle Ages

The Norman conquest was followed by the arrival of deer parks, which were widespread in the Don catchment. Individual Norman nobles were granted huge estates, and on the edges of the Pennines, deer were hunted on the moors. Large parts of the Rivelin and Loxley valleys were turned into free ‘chases’, unfenced hunting districts. Before the tenth century, most people lived in scattered farmsteads and farmed in plots, but after the Norman Conquest villages became much more nucleated and surrounded by open fields. Agriculture was widespread, with pastoral farming being more common than arable. The population was still lower than it had been in Roman times but was growing steadily and the land was again being reclaimed from the edges of the woods, moors and fens.

Religious communities were also major landowners during this period, often owning vast estates including many mills and works - the variety of natural resources led to the early establishment of industries such as cutlery, ironworking and coal mining. The Tankersley ironstone seam stretched through the catchment, and the area’s monks became experts in mining and smelting iron. Roche, Monk Bretton and Kirkstead Abbeys were all-important religious communities during this time.

The expansion of cultivation and industry continued until the early fourteenth century when economic recession and declines in population occurred. The main cause of this was the Black Death, which killed over a third of Europe’s population. In the Middle Ages the total population of the area was probably under 50 000 and this did not increase substantially until the 18th century when the coming of the Industrial Revolution transformed the catchment.

Many thanks to Jenny Chambers, whose research into the history of the catchment informed this section.

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