Doncaster dance hall dating back to 20s gets new lease of life

The opening of the Empress Rooms in Mexborough. Submitted picture
The opening of the Empress Rooms in Mexborough. Submitted picture

It was once the place to go for young men and women looking for a dance.

It was once the place to go for young men and women looking for a dance.

John Iwrin, Jason Mace, and Jackie Irwin in the Empress Ballroom

John Iwrin, Jason Mace, and Jackie Irwin in the Empress Ballroom

And nearly 100 years on it is being brought back to its former glory.

The Empress Building, at Swinton Road, Mexborough, was built back in the 1920s, to be the town's main dance hall.

With its ornate ceiling and sprung dance floor it was a popular destination in the town for youths for years. Even in the 1980s it was still a popular destination, and held fundraiser cabarets for striking miners during the 12 month strike in 1984 and 1985. Old pictures show packed events including a South Yorkshire Times Christmas party in the 60s, with scores of people on rows of tables enjoying a busy social night, and a hall packed with young people in 1948.

But gradually it fell into disrepair.

The current owner, businessman Jason Mace, says he does not know very much about the building's history. He understands sections of it were used as a burger bar, as well as a bar and a sports shop over the years.

He said: "We do get people passing and dropping in saying they had their wedding reception here, or that they met their husband here at the dances. It seems like this was the place to go years ago for a lot of people in Mexboorugh. I hope they'll return for a bit of nostalgia."

Now it has seen the completion of the first phase of a refurbishment, with more to come.

It is a boost for a number of organisations which use the building, including a boxing club, a gym, and a young people's charity.

The first phase of the refurbishment has seen the opening of the new Empress Rooms bar and bistro. Its official opening was this month.

The next move is revamp the ballroom, which is currently used by the Dearne Valley Personal Development Centre charity.

Businessman Jason Mace, the managing director of Gala Tent at Manvers, is carrying out the work a year after buying the landmark building with a view to restoring it.

He had originally planned to spend around £150,000 transforming it, but is now expecting it to run to nearer £250,000.

The 46-year-old said: "The windows were falling out, and I put new ones in. The wiring was condemned, but I've had it rewired.

"We have made quite a turnaround returning it to how it used to be, but I thought it needed to be brought back for the people and the town.

"It's taken a year to get to this stage and we are going to start on the ballroom next. We're not going to touch the spring dancefloor - it's beautiful. And the beautiful high ceilings will be kept, But where repairs need to be done, they will be done."

"We'd love to bring back dances in their for nostalgia, and probably also have white collar boxing matches for charity, to raise money for the Dearne Valley Personal Development Trust, which is based in there.

"The plan is to have the ballroom finished before Christmas."

Turning lives around in the ballroom

Twenty years ago, John Irwin was one of the most recognised faces in Doncaster.

A Commonweath Games gold medalist in 1990, he won British and Commonweath boxing titles as a professional before retiring in 1999 after losing a European title fight.

Now, he and his wife Jackie, a former school teacher, are helping turn around the lives of disengaged schoolchildren, at the Empress Ballroom.

A boxing ring in at one end of the ballroom offers a nod to John's earlier career. And boxing is one of the activities available at the group.

But there are many others. Groups go out hiking, or fishing. They also take part in art projects and learn cookery and about healthy food

John, originally from Denaby, and Jackie, who hails from Conisbrough, decided to set up the Dearne Valley Personal Development Trust charity in 2012. Prior to that, John had run a windows company, while Jackie taught art.

Now, they work with schools across South Yorkshire to help children who are not fitting in well at school, often from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The couple's charity offers activities including sports, art and outdoor activities, which help re-engage the youngsters.

John said: "We decided to pool resources and set up the charity. We thought there was a need for this sort of thing."

Jackie said: "We approached local schools and there was interest. We built it up and offered more activities, and qualifications that those who come here can achieve. There is a range od staff working with us.

"We work with people who have low confidence and self esteem, and we build that up."

Sometimes the results are surprising.

"We get a lot of boys coming to us thinking they are going to be boxers," said Jackie. "But they then find out that they're really good at art and have a go at that. Some fine that learning to draw and paint helps express how they feel."

They see both sports and art as a way for youngsters to learn t concentrate and focus. Some of the youngsters have gone on to join Mickey's Athletic Boxing Club, based in the same building.

There are plans to extend the work the charity does.

The couple would like to start working with young people with learning disablities, and are currently looking into it. They feel it would make the charity more sustainable, and allow more use of the ballroom, after the current group finishes there in the early afternoon.

They are hoping to set up a scheme during the summer, which they hope will fill a gap left by day centre closures in recent years.