A Mammoth Discovery!

In the 1870s, the Doncaster Water Company began constructing a series of reservoirs at Ravenfield and Thrybergh, to provide the town with its first public water supply not brought straight from the Don. A series of tunnels was constructed and inlaid with large-bore, cast iron water pipes. In 1878, the ground works reached The Crags… where the tunnelling engineers were stunned to discover a cache of massive  fossil bones…

Mexborough Times, July 5, 1878
Interesting Discovery of Bones of Extinct Animals at Conisbrough

Our scientific readers will be glad to note a most interesting discovery of ossiferous remains of animals of the Pleistocene age in the limestone crags at Conisborough (sic). The workmen engaged in excavating the cutting for the pipes in connection with the Doncaster Water Works, came upon several fossil bones of unusual size. Some of these passed into the hands of one of the men employed on the works, who kept them as a “wonderful find,” but was ignorant of their true character.

Information of the discovery reaching the ears of Mr E.B.Jenkinson, F.G.S., of Swinton, that gentleman purchased them, and others afterwards obtained, and sent them to Prof Boyd Dawkins, of Owens College, Manchester, for identification .

That gentleman being a distinguished palaeontologist, and noted cave hunter, identified them as the bones of the Eliphas, or Mammoth, the rhinoceros tichorinus (woolly rhinoceros) and the Horse, and also pointed out that some of the bones had been gnawed by hyenas.

To those versed in these geological facts, the discovery of relics of animals, totally extinct, now in Great Britain, is not a matter up for wonder; for at Robin Hood’s cave, in Creswell crags, Nottinghamshire, and at Wookey hole, near Wells, Somersetshire, and at Kirkdale, Yorks, the remains of the Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hyena, and other animals have been found in large quantities; but the non-scientific reader will be startled when he reads that our own country was once the habitat of the so gigantic, and so savage.

The bones found in the rocks at Conisbrough, are the femur, the radius, the tibia and the shaft of humorous, woolly rhinoceros, the metacarpal of horse; and the tibia of elephas (probably Mammoth).

The age of these bones is also incalculable. It is very improbable that man existed when these particular animals range the shores of rivers and lakes, and the forest covered our district. The length of time that has elapsed may be conceived when we consider that the River Don has cut out its present bed since the time when these animals lived; by a slow process through the hard magnesium limestone stratum, down to the coal measures, wearing away year by year. The limestone, unaided by the hand of man, or any force in nature, and carrying down the detritus to the low lying lands near Doncaster, and so becoming the comparatively narrow stream, pent-up by the hills of the limestone formation, that it now is.

The position, in which the bones were found embedded in clay, was most probably not their original resting place, but which was most likely one of the caves so common in the limestone districts. The fact of the bones been gnawed by hyenas, points to the existence of one of these homes of the carnivorous species.

No evidence of a cave, however, was to be found on the spot, though specimens of stalagmite show clearly how caves and crevices are formed in the strata, namely, by the action of water. If these animals, had been destroyed, died, near the edge of the River Don, which would then be a broad lake, extending across the Valley from Denaby on the one side, to Melton on the other, when they came to drink, it is scarcely likely that such a variety of bones would been found in one spot. It is most probable that an extensive cave existed higher up the cliffs, which was washed away and these bones were brought down with others, by the swirling waters, into one of the many crevices or ledges, always to be found in the limestone strata.

The lapse of time since the deposit of these curious remains, may also be gathered from the fact that there does not exist in the world, at this time, animals, like the mammoth, or woolly rhinoceros. These mammals were provided, unlike their successors with coats of short, thick hair. Why this difference between the present species and their Pleistocene representatives?

This woolly covering of these mammals indicates, what physical geology teaches, that there has been a great climatic change in our country. When these creatures lived, the average temperature was little above freezing point. It was an age of ice, when gigantic glaziers were grinding down mountains… animals with thick hides covered with hair were fitted to exist in the climatic conditions that would destroy animals of related species at the present time.

Several of these bones we are informed, will be lent by Mr Jenkinson, to the Weston Park Museum, where our readers can see for themselves these relics, which speaks so plainly of vast changes in the physical geography of our land.

Likewise, on the same date the Doncaster Chronicle reported:

Interesting Discovery

A discovery of ossiferous remains of animals of the Pleistocene age has just been made in the limestone crags at Conisbrough.

The workmen engaged in excavating the cutting for the pipes in connection with the Doncaster Water Works came upon several fossil bones of unusual size. Some of these passed into the hands of one of the men employed on the works who kept them as a “wonderful find”, but was ignorant of their true character.

Information of the discovery reaching the ears of Mr. E.B. Jenkinson, F.G.S, of Swinton, that gentleman purchased them and others afterwards obtained, and sent to Professor Boyd Dawkins of Owen College, Manchester [now Manchester University] for identification.

That gentleman being a distinguished palaeontologist and noted cave hunter, identified them as the bones of the Elephas or MammothMammuthus primigenius, Rhinoceros tichornus Coelodonta antiquitatis (woolly rhinoceros), and the wild horse Equus ferus; and also that some of the bones had been gnawed by Hyaenas.

To those versed in geological facts, the discovery of relicts of mammals utterly extinct now in Great Britain, is not a matter of wonder; for at Robin Hood’s Cave in Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, and at Wookey Hole near Wells, Somerset, and at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, the remains of the elephant, rhinoceros, hyaena and other animals have been found in large quantities …

The bones found in the rocks at Conisbrough are the femur, the radius, the tibia and the shaft of the humerus of the woolly rhinoceros; the metacarpal of the horse; and the tibia of elephas (probably mammoth) …”


Suddenly The Crags were a scientific hotspot… and Jenkinson conducted two groups from the University Students’ Association on the academic map, in the August and September.

Woolly Rhinoceros

Doncaster Chronicle, 9th August, 1878
A Scientific Picnic

On Saturday afternoon members of the University Students’ Association paid a visit to Conisbrough and the neighbourhood for the purpose of studying the “Permian” strata.

At Mexborough they were met by Edward G. [B.] Jenkinson Esq., F.G.S., who kindly promised to accompany the students and assist in their investigations.

The party at once proceeded to Andetron’s tea gardens where an excellent tea had been provided.

It was originally intended to have the tea at the gardens but as rain had fallen heavily in the morning, Mr. Anderton accommodated the students undercover, the tables being ornamented by a variety of bouquets.

After enjoying a social meal and studying the geological maps of the neighbourhood, Mr Jenkinson exhibited some bones discovered
in the neighbourhood, proving the existence of at least three extinct species of mammals they were the femur of a Rhinoceros tichornus, the tibia of an Elephas primogenious, both now extinct and the metacarpal of a Horse.

In these bones the teeth marks of Hyaenas were distinctly visible, the animals having been dragged into the cave of the hyaena and there gnawed.

Doncaster Chronicle, 5 September 1878

Excursion to Conisbrough

On Saturday afternoon a party of the University Students Association visited the pretty village for the purpose of exploring the Permian rocks so profusely found in its immediate neighbourhood.

The first object of interest was the upper coal measures found in the neighbourhood of Doncaster road. This spot is rendered more interesting as it is the only pace in Yorkshire where the upper coal is found, the whole of the formation with this exception has been removed by denudation and erosion probably before the deposition of the red marl resting unconformably upon it. The keep of the old castle was next visited, a portion of the party ascending to the summit and admiring the beauty of the panorama spread beneath them.

After enjoying a hearty tea the business of the Association was proceeded with.

The party inspected the quarry being worked in the Dolomitic limestone capped by red marl (a distinguishing feature of this formation). The idea of the Magnesian limestone being the result of an inland sea was discussed and several pieces of the rock were secured for future inspection and analysis.

This sea must have been filled with animals of a low type of organisation, portions of the rock being literally composed of “Globulina” and other
minute creatures belonging to the order Ostracoda.

Some specimens were found in which the shells of the lamellibranchiate (Arca antiqua?) were abundant.

The position occupied by the remains shows that they were slowly deposited on a sea bottom undisturbed by currents.

The party returned home much gratified and instructed by their excursion.

Following the visits reported by the Doncaster Chronicle, the Times then ran a further illuminating story about the discovery – in the text of a paper given to local university students.

Mexborough Times, August 16th, 1878
Visit of University Students Association to Conisborough

A paper read before the members of the University Students Association on their visit to Conisbrough, August 3, 1878 by Mr E.B.Jenkinson.


The stratum which we stand is known by the name of magnesium limestone; so named because it is a combination of the carbonates of magnesium and lime; the proportions are about 54.3% of carbonate of lime, and 45.7% of carbonate of magnesia. It is often termed Dolominic limestone, after the French geologist, M.Dolomineu will stop.

You will observe that it is crystalline in its character. For building purposes it is most admirably adapted; more especially the stone octane from the same stratum Southwest of Worksop. The houses of Parliament on cheaply built of the same, quarried near Mansfield.

Conisbrough Castle was built only soon after the time of William the Conqueror, the chisel marks of the workmen yet visible, is a monument not only of the scale of the builders, but of their wisdom in the choice of material. I never pass the massive key without contrasty the “shoddy” work of the modern, with a splendidly tooled work of those masons of the olden time.

As you are all aware the magnesium Limestone forms a part of the Permian system, so called by Sir Roderick Murchison, from the ancient kingdom of Permia. The Permian strata lies immediately over the Carboniferous system, and are composed of five divisions; Red Marl, Upper Magnesium Limestone, Marls and Sandstone, lower magnesium limestone and the Red Marl and Grits

The schoolhouse at Warmsworth is built on the Middle Marl, and the Friends Meeting House in the same village on the Upper Limestone, the Upper Red Marl is to be found on the Eastern Edge of the limestone as it dips beneath the surface. Magnesium Limestone extends to Leeds in the North and Nottingham in the South, but as you near the southern boundary, it becomes more arenaceous or sandy in its character. The thickness of the full Permian series has been proved in various places, and at Warmsworth, where four of the divisions are found, it may be estimated at about 250 feet. To the question, what is lime, we answer as a chemist might answer. It is calcium combined with oxygen and carbonic acid. We stay a moment to enquire how was Limestone made; the first fact we must digest is that all limestone has been made under the surface of water, either fresh or salt.

The entire of the valley of the Don was a mass of swirling waters, which abraded the strata, carrying down the detritus to make newer strata, and so forming at one time the picturesque valley of the district, and the rich lowland pastures of the Vale of the Trent. Formerly it was a favourite theory to attribute the mountains and hills of our country to volcanic action; but further research proves that the mighty agent in these formations had been water aided largely by atmospheric influences. As Tennyson says:

“O earth, what changes has thou seen!

There were the long street roars, have been.

The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow.

From form to form, and nothing stand;

they melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.”

I am not aware of any evidence of glacial action having taken place where we now stand, and from the sinuous character of the River Don, I am led to think that by the action of its own water It has cut out its bed. The outer, or convex curves of the river, from the force of the water would gradually extend outward, the cliff being worn away; whilst the concave or inner curves would have deposited near them the alluvium brought down.

You have a good example between Conisbrough and Sprotborough, the River near the old lime kilns having cut its way quite close to the limestone on the southside, whilst on the North there is a tolerably broad deposit of alluvium. A little beyond the Cliff Bridge the reverse you see, the alluvia being deposited on the south side.


Before I speak further of the limestone strata you will note this that the coal measures under our feet of complete. Every known bed of coal in the Yorkshire field lies beneath is. As you will see in the vertical plan which I have prepared, there are 15 seams of coal of two feet and upwards, including the famous Barnsley and Silkstone coal seams. Much fear has been expressed by Sir William Armstrong, Prof Jeavons and others that our coal fields will be speedily exhausted, and as a result, our nation becomes once again agricultural and Pastoral. At the instance of the House of Commons a Commission sat in 1871, and from the blue books in my possession. I find that Prof Ramsay states that there are 900 square miles of coal to the east of the margin of the magnesium limestone at Conisbrough, and that the total quantity of coal available under this area at a depth not exceeding 4000 feet, which is a workable depth, is 23,082 millions of tons.

The future Coal fields of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, when the town Barnsley has become efiete through the exhaustion of the minerals in its neighbourhood, will be bounded on the West by the escarpment limestone and will probably extend as far east as the banks of the silvery Trent.


I will now speak of a characteristic of the limestone strata generally which has been brought more particularly under my notice by the fortunate discovery by myself of the remains of extinct animals.

I refer to the existence of crevasses and caves which are very common in these rocks. How have these been made? The limestone as you can see is full of joints or divisional planes, and the water circulating through the strata, carrying with it, sand and stones, would, in time, by a mechanical process, cutout hollows in the limestone; but, this is not the only way, or by any means, the principal way in which the work has been done. The limestone as I have told you, is largely composed of carbonate of lime, which though insoluble in ordIinary water, is readily dissolved by any liquid containing carbonic acid. The acid is present in considerable quantities in rainwater, and is increased by organic bodies with which it comes in contact as it passes along. By this agent mainly have the caves which are so rich in fossil remains been excavated. The pieces of stalagmite by which you may find in the cutting near you, are proof of what I say.

The fossil bones were found about 20 feet below the surface, and though I was not present when they were dugout, I judge from careful examination of the cutting that it was not their original resting place. There was no cave there as far as as I could learn, and the bones were found embedded in clay containing detached pieces of limestone, which had apparently rolled down the slope and fallen into the crevasse.

The bones form a most interesting collection proving as they do the existence of at least four distinct species of mammals. The mammoth (Elephas Primigenius) rhinoceros (Tichocinus) Hyena (Spelieu) and Horse. That the remains originally had a place in a cave. Those who will study the habits of the hyena will at once conclude. This species of the order Carnivora takes its prey into caves for the purpose of devouring it, and after careful examination of the specimen (femur of rhinoceros) you will see most distinctly the teeth marks of the hyena.

The specimen of the rhinoceros and mammoth, both of which were woolly or hairy, indicate that a great climatic change has taken place in our country. Nature adapts itself to circumstances, and the intense cold of that epoch undoubtedly materially modified not only the habits but the physique of the animals.

Proffessor Ramsay gives it as his opinion, that the Indian Elephant is a mere variety of the Mammoth. The first Mammoth must have crossed over from the old continent of Europe when England was connected with the mainland; and after the severance took place, “crimped, convened and confined” within small as area the species gradually dwindled down and out and ultimately died off.

As no remains of man were found with these bones and from their discovery in the lower limestone, I have regarded them as of early Plienstocene age, but that opinion was to be taken lightly as bones of the same species have been discovered in Robin Hood’s cave, Creswell crags, accompanied by Flint and other implements clearly proving the existence of man.

I thank you for your attention to these crude remarks; let me urge you to prosecute your studies persistently.

Nature is a shy goddess, she must be ruled with unwearied assiduously before she will yield her charms; ardency of love is lost unless accompanied by unwearied efforts.

A few years later, more prehistoric bones were discovered – just a few hundred yards from The Crags, on the opposite side of the River Don, as the Cadeby railway tunnel was being excavated.

End of the right femur of a rhinoceros found in 1906
Probable humerus of a rhino or hippo, found in 1906. Apparently gnawed by a hyena.

The Naturalist (1906)
More Pleistocene Mammalian Remains near Doncaster”
Dr Henry Herbert Corbett 

In excavating for a deep cutting on the Dearne Valley Railway near Conisbro’ some fragments of bone were thrown out by the steam navvy. These were taken to the office of the resident engineer, Mr. Gibbs and were kindly given by him to me.

They consisted of part of an antler, probably Cervus elephas and two bones of Rhinoceros.

These latter have been submitted for identification to Mr. T. Sheppard (of Hull Museums) and by him to the British Museum Authorities.

Close to the place where the bones were found is a cave in the Magnesian Limestone and it is hoped that when this is further opened up, more bones etc. may be found.

Mr Gibbs has given orders that anything of interest discovered is to be handed over to me for our local museum. H.H. Corbett, M.R.C.S., Doncaster.

An editorial footnote by Thomas Sheppard said: “These are the ulna and tibia and one of them is distinctly gnawed, apparently by hyenas. It is to be hoped that further researches will result in as interesting a set of specimens being found as occurred in the Creswell Caves, which were also in the Magnesian Limestone. T.S”.
Dr Corbett was a celebrated Doncaster GP who became the first honorary curator of Doncaster Museum, in 1910.