Doncaster's doughty dozen leap to defence of town

JUST a dozen of them exist, and among their number is a famous opera singer, a classic sitcom writer, an accomplished jazz musician and a former trade union supremo.

Normally they would never meet, but their concern for their home town means they have now agreed to combine their talents in a bid to fight back against fierce criticism.

In recent years, Doncaster has suffered, first from industrial decline and more recently from repeated hammer blows to its reputation as a result of high-profile council failings.

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Some of those problems continue, and in response, those who have been made Freemen of the borough have formed a group and plan to use their influence for change.

Only 16 people have been made Freemen of Doncaster since 1974. Twelve of them survive, and the honour brings with it the right to carry the town's ceremonial sword through the streets.

The current group includes singer Lesley Garrett, Last of the Summer Wine writer Roy Clarke, jazz trombonist Dennis Rollins and former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe.

Each has pledged to support the new group and its chairman Tony Storey, who was made a Freeman after serving as head at a Doncaster school for 37 years.

Mr Storey said the Freemen had no interest in rehearsing the problems of child deaths in the borough, or the case in which two young brothers attacked two other boys.

But he added: "People rightly feel hurt that recent events in children's welfare should unfairly taint them and lead to 'broken town' soundbites emanating from national politicians.

"All the negative coverage has cancelled out what is good about the town – the things people used to be proud of – and we are concerned that this could have long lasting effects.

"We are totally non-political and have no interest in getting involved with current issues at the council, we just want to help people remember Doncaster's positives and long history."

Mr Storey and his colleagues are keen to remind people that the town is much more than a product of the industrial revolution.

In particular they want to draw attention to its Roman and medieval roots, its role in Britain's railways and its links with religious pioneers like the Wesleys and Pilgrim Fathers.

But they also want to sell the town as a place to do business in the future and as a place to live, pointing to recent developments like the revamped racecourse and Keepmoat Stadium.

Mr Storey added: "We are all in the position of Freeman because we have tried to be positive in Doncaster and none of us want that to change. We want to make a difference.

"There is so much to be proud of – manufacturing businesses which are international names, top-flight sports venues, an international airport and a brand new shopping centre.

"What we are trying to do is encourage people living in Doncaster, and people who have an interest in Doncaster to promote a positive image about the town and spread that image."

Plans in the pipeline include a book of positive Doncaster "icons", which the group hopes to circulate within the town and further afield, as well as a DVD and a new updated "town trail".

Freeman and group member Roger Tuby said he felt it was important to react to the criticism that Doncaster had faced separately from the troubled council. He said: "Our only objective is safeguarding the future of Doncaster, nothing else. We want to tell the world good things about the town, things that just aren't being said at present.

"We want to restore our reputation and we want people to be proud of coming from Doncaster, proud to be moving to Doncaster and proud to do business in Doncaster."


Among the positive icons of Doncaster the Freemen group wants to promote are:

Danum – the town's name when it was a thriving hub on the road between York (Eboracum) and Lincoln (Lindum)

The town's racecourse and its racing heritage, including the St Leger, the country's oldest classic horse race

The upgraded Frenchgate shopping centre

St George's Minster, which was rebuilt after the medieval church burned down in the 1850s

The town's Mansion House, which was designed by James Paine, builder of Nostell Priory, near Wakefield

The Keepmoat Stadium, home to Doncaster Rovers which also hosts concerts and events

Doncaster Market – the town's first market is thought to have started in Roman times

Railway heritage – Doncaster's huge railway plant built world famous steam engines Flying Scotsman and Mallard.