A History of Rotherham

By Tim Lambert

Early Rotherham

In the 1st century AD, the Romans built a fort by the river Rother. In time civilians moved nearby and a little town grew up. (The soldiers provided a market for the townspeople’s goods). However, in 407 AD, the Roman army left Britain. Afterward, Roman civilization broke down and Roman settlements were abandoned.

Modern Rotherham was founded by a people called the Angles. They started a settlement called Rother Ham, which means the village by the Rother. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Rotherham was a small village. It probably had a population of less than 100. Rotherham had a watermill where grain was ground to flour.

Yet by the 13th century, Rotherham had grown into a little town. It had weekly markets. It also had annual fairs. However, Medieval Rotherham would seem tiny to us. It only had a population of several hundred.

In 1483 the College of Jesus was founded by Thomas Rotherham the Archbishop of York. The College taught poor boys. It was closed in 1547 but the education of boys continued in a grammar school. Meanwhile, the town continued to flourish and grow. Also in 1483, the Chantry Chapel was built in Rotherham.

The Civil War between the king and parliament began in 1642. The Royalists occupied the small town of Rotherham in May 1643. It remained in the Royalist’s hands until August 1644. In the late 17th century and during the 18th century Rotherham continued to grow and in 1740 it was a prosperous little town with an iron industry. In that year a canal reached Rotherham. The canal made it easier to bring coal for the iron industry and as a result, it boomed.

Rotherham in the 19th century

Like many towns in the North of England, Rotherham boomed with the Industrial Revolution. In the late 18th century the iron industry grew rapidly. So did the population of Rotherham. By 1801 it was over 6,000. By the standards of the time, Rotherham was a medium-sized town.

In the 19th century, the iron and steel industry in Rotherham flourished and all kinds of manufactured goods were made in the town.

Like all towns in the early 19th century, Rotherham was unsanitary and there was an outbreak of cholera in 1832. However, things improved in the late 19th century.

Meanwhile, during the 19th century, Rotherham gradually gained amenities. A water company was formed in Rotherham in 1827 and the town gained gas light in 1833. The railway reached Rotherham in 1838. Rotherham Hospital opened in 1872. Then in 1871, Rotherham was made a borough with a mayor and corporation. Boston Park opened in 1876 and Clifton Park opened in 1891. Clifton Park Museum opened in Rotherham in 1893. Meanwhile, the first public library in Rotherham opened in 1887.

Rotherham in the 20th century

The engineer Donald Bailey was born in Rotherham in 1901. In 1901 Rotherham was flourishing and the population of the town was 61,000. In the early 20th century Rotherham was dominated by the steel industry although the town suffered during the depression of the 1930s.

Steel rods

Meanwhile, the amenities in the town improved. From 1903 electric trams ran in the streets of Rotherham and in 1911 the town gained its first cinema. The first council houses in Rotherham were built in 1920. Rotherham Central Library and Arts Centre opened in 1976. The York and Lancaster Museum moved to Rotherham in 1984.

Meanwhile, during the 20th century, the steel industry continued to dominate the town. However, at the end of the 20th century, the traditional industries in Rotherham declined severely.

Rotherham in the 21st century

Yet in the early 21st century service industries have become much more important in Rotherham. In 2007 Rotherham suffered badly from floods but the town soon recovered. In 2023 the population of Rotherham was 117,000.