If you have heard of Hexthorpe, you are one of two things: a resident of the Doncaster area, or a train-spotter. I suppose I fall into the second category—I don’t spot them, but I do love ‘em. Anyway Hexthorpe is where Flying Scotsman was built (note the omission; true steamheads do not say “The Flying Scotsman”). It’s an inner suburb of Doncaster, an island of terraced brick streets shaped by the railway lines and river that surround it.
Hexthorpe was once an archetypal northern working-class community, the kind of place where housewives washed the front door step and trusted their neighbours enough to leave the kids in their care. And the men built world-beating steam locos—other fabled Gresley Pacifics, including the Mallard, came out of Hexthorpe. (Mallard holds the world steam speed record; Scotsman was first to break the 100 mph barrier). Altogether, Hexthorpe built over 2,000 steam locos, and many diesel-electrics, before closure of the loco plant in 2007. That kind of history gives a community pride and cohesion. People said it was a lovely place to live.
Today, “the Plant” has largely vanished, the pub at its entrance is boarded up, and the cohesion and trust are just a memory. In 2014, Hexthorpe hit national headlines when residents began to have trouble with their guest community of EU migrants from the Roma community. The list of keywords at the top of the online Daily Mail story sums it up: “Roma, terror, village, rubbish, Doncaster residents.” After January 2014, when UK entry rules were relaxed, several hundred Roma moved into the area, which has a total population of under 4,000. Having stayed in communist Eastern Europe, and knowing the esteem in which Roma were held across the bloc even in that time, I wasn’t surprised to read what happened.
“They are loud, aggressive and intimidating,” residents told the press. “They throw rubbish everywhere literally out of the windows into their garden.” In just four days, council workers reportedly collected 16 tons of dumped rubbish from Hexthorpe. “The kids cannot understand why they cannot play in the park any more. It’s just not safe.” Another resident complained that they made so much noise at night at elderly residents had to sleep with earplugs. “They don’t care about the village or our community. All they are here for is the benefits.”
If you change trains at Doncaster, you can walk into Hexthorpe and look around before resuming your journey. It’s only ten minutes’ walk from the station. I did so twice, in winter 2015, a year after the trouble, and summer of the following year.
The first thing that strikes you is that, despite its central location, Hexthorpe is almost completely isolated. There is only one way into it from the centre, via a railway bridge. It is easy to see why a clannish people would be attracted to it; it seems almost designed for creating a parallel community. You go past what is left of the loco works (modern industrial units) and find yourself in another world. Children play in the streets, like our kids did in the 1950s. Gangs of teenagers idle on corners and in the park, speaking Slovakian. They are dark, scruffy and very foreign-looking, in a way that other Czechs and Slovaks are not. They leer arrogantly at strangers. Their expressions say, “We own the streets now.” I’ve been leered at like this in another place taken over by Roma. Through a teacher acquaintance, I know what they can do to school classes. They are intimidating.
In fact, Roma from Slovakia are only part of the immigrant community here. But they set the tone of the place. A pair of shopkeepers reported that things have calmed down since the angry confrontations of 2014. But low-level lawlessness had remained a chronic problem. I googled the South Yorkshire police website, which has an online area-specific activity record (now removed). Under the title Hexthorpe – Anti Social Behaviour inc. vehicle nuisance and environmental issues, it reels off a telling litany of petty offence: alcohol seizures from alley at rear of Abbott St. 2 x 500ml cans of lager; 4 persons arrested in connection with a police inc on Urban Road; reassurance visits made; PND (Penalty Notice for Disorder) for Section 5 Public Order.; cigarettes and lighter seized from an underaged smoker; vehicle seized on Hexthorpe road for driving with no insurance; 1 X CLE 26 (vehicle not displaying tax) on; officers attended an address in Hexthorpe and discovered 59 mature cannabis plants; 2 x arrests for producing cannabis/abstract electricity (stealing power by siphoning off the grid); reassurance visit on Sheardown St. These are from a few days in 2014. Some days have four or five incidents.
Small stuff, yes. But big enough to undermine house prices. A terraced unit that would cost say £80,000 elsewhere in the region can be had for less than half that now. A house for sale in Abbott St. recently had a guide price of some £35,000—a level not unheard of elsewhere in the crappier corners of South Yorkshire, but this is ten minutes’ walk from a major railway junction. Some residents of Hexthorpe have lost tens of thousands of pounds through asset erosion.
The first time I was there, I was witness to one of the callouts. A fire engine suddenly pulled up near the park and then just sat there. After about five minutes of inactivity, I wandered over and asked through the open cab window what was going on. It turned out they were there because (I’m not making this up) two ferrets and a rat had been reported in an abandoned property. The alarm had originally raised with the police, who had promptly dumped it in the lap of the Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigade then found they first had to call in an animal welfare expert (I am still not making this up), as the the ferrets were presumed to be abandoned pets. There were at least four firemen in that cab, and it was all I could do stop myself laughing in their faces. Two ferrets and a rat? What, I wondered, was the cost of this Batmobile callout—crew wages, paperwork, emergency service coordination, petrol consumed? I asked whether the Fire Brigade callout level here was the same level as the rest of Doncaster. “I would not say that,” the guy drily replied. Small fires mostly.
The second time I visited, I had a long chat with a resident. He was not a local but somebody who had been staying there for some months while working on a contract in the area. I could tell he was English just by his appearance. Pale skin and a respectable air stick out in Hexthorpe streets now.
“I’d say the population is now majority Slovak and other migrant. Child benefit is a crucial factor because there are families with five or six children here. Under EU rules they can get benefits as long as they can claim to be self-employed—and they can do that by selling a few Big Issues in town.” (Benefits include housing, tax credits and child benefit, running to thousands a month in some cases, but this loophole is being tightened as of 2017). “The council has been throwing money at them, and anybody who complains about it gets called racist.”
I asked him if the citizens of Doncaster backed the council and approved of the expenditure.
“No. In fact the community is polarised. I’ve been called a racist myself. But you cannot keep importing people on this scale, millions in 10 years, and expect social services not to suffer.”
I have to confess, this is not much of a piece of journalism. Really, I ought to have interviewed some of the Roma themselves. But they don’t like people with notebooks and microphones (the tabloid reports I cite don’t have any Roma quotes either, interestingly). Also, I wasn’t sure my ten or so words of Czech were up to it. But mostly, I just didn’t want to talk to them. I have personal reasons for this, which I won’t go into here.
This piece is written as of 2016, so some detail may have changed. But I did get a more recent update from a copper I happen to know who is based in the Doncaster area. Had things improved in Hexthorpe? No, he said, not really. “Still a lot of social problems. If you know what I mean. It’s a shame. Used to be a really nice area.”
Yeah, I know what he meant. And Hexthorpe is only one corner of one unfashionable northern industrial town, isn’t it? Yes, but it is also an extreme example of something that is happening all over the country. A friend in Sheffield faltered as he told me how he drove some friends around the place he grew up in, Page Hall, an area of Sheffield now turned into a troubled Roma and Muslim ghetto. One of the elders of my own family bitterly described her feelings on revisiting the area of Birmingham her parents came from, now a Muslim enclave. As a UKIP member, I’ve heard many accounts of areas gone down the shitter—gas siphoned off, car tyres punctured to get the English to move out, a beating, of toilets being ripped out and replaced with holes in the floor to accommodate certain immigrants’ needs. Yeah, what a shame it all is. But, after all, you have to pay a small price for the blessings of enrichment, don’t you?
I feel a rant coming on. But it’s probably better not to go off the deep end on a public forum, so I will stop here.
© Joe Slater 2018