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Doncaster Features: The Doncaster Sand House

The following article appeared in Doncaster's out and about pamphlet/newspaper Entertainment Scene, Thursday 23rd December 1993:
Doncaster's Sand House
The Most Bizarre folly ever created?

The Sand House must surely have been one of the most bizarre follies ever created in this country and much ink was spilled in describing it in the local press.

Naturally enough it engendered considerable interest among the townsfolk of Doncaster and visitors came from as far away as Salt Lake City in America to avail themselves of the curious architectural phenomena. There seems no doubt that had this "Wonder of the Neighbourhood" been situated on a better and more accessible site, it would have proved to be an extremely profitable enterprise for Mr Senior and his family.

In his younger days, much of Mr Senior's time had been spent in oil painting, and there were many examples of his skill in this field within the house. He was also the proud owner of a large collection of old masters. Indeed, the entire place was full of pictures and other articles, some of which were extremely valuable.

Living conditions were apparently quite pleasant considering the unusual nature and construction of the building, not to mention its strange locality. It was warm enough during the winter but in summer the contrast between the sunshine outside and the cool conditions inside was most striking, and a fire had to be kept burning through the year to ensure an even temperature.

This of course, necessitated the use of considerable amounts of fuel.
Doncaster's Sand House
The bottom of the quarry in front of the house was transformed into a pleasant well kept garden, with neatly laid out flower beds and many fruit trees, mostly pears. It was occasionally used later by the local branch of the British Women's Temperance Association for meetings and garden parties, being entirely suited to this sort of gathering. Half way up a flight of thirty eight steps, which led into Victoria Street, was a ballroom which, when first completed is reputed to have been used for its intended purpose.

The great feature of the place, however was the 'tunnel'. The word tunnel hardly conveys a true impression of what the excavation really was, for much of its length it was of considerable height, with windows through which the sun shone in soft shafts of light, transforming the
place into a kind of grotto. Pillars and arches of great natural beauty supported the roof, which in places reached a height of twenty feet, and for a considerable distance every few steps revealed a magnificent piece of sculpture that had been artistically cut out of the rock. For instance there was a life size figure of an elephant, together with figures of an Irishman and woman, the national dress being perfect in every detail. The unmistakable features of Henry VIII, together with those of the 'Virgin Queen', Inigo Jones, and many others, stared with sightless eyes from walls of rock and sand.

Advancing further into the cavernous depths of this crypt like tunnel, numerous specimens of beautiful fungi were to be seen growing on wood placed there for the purpose, and also on the rocky walls. Many men of science visited the Sand House, expressing both surprise and pleasure at what they saw. Indeed in 1858 quite a sensation was made among naturalists by a large fungus of extraordinary dimensions and of a beautiful lacework pattern.

It had grown from a piece of timber fixed in the roof, and branched off until it reached some 15 feet in diameter. Gas lighting had been provided throughout the tunnel, as well as the house, stables and ballroom, and improvements and additions were constantly made to the whole complex while Mr Senior and his family occupied the premises.

After Mr Senior's death in 1901, the Sand House was occupied by various people until 1934, after which it was sadly allowed to fall into disrepair. After being used as a storeroom and depot, the work of filling in the quarry was begun by the Corporation in 1935, being completed three years later.

Part of the tunnel was located in 1975 during excavations to check that a proposed subway under Green Dyke Lane did not run over the top of it. Forty two rungs down a ladder in one of two specially sunk shafts, the sand tunnel was found to still wind its way beneath the streets of Balby. The vault like passages were still there, supported by the hand carved pillars and the figures which had once been a great source of interest to Victorian visitors.

The elephant (now minus its trunk) a grotesque clown's face, rosettes, a king's head, were still there marvellously preserved in what resembled a catacomb - all of which represented a lost memorial to the lifetime's work of the Mr 'Sandy' Senior. As a safety precaution, however part of the tunnel had to be filled in with concrete and the whole fantastic complex was sealed for eternity like a Pharaoh's tomb.

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