Let us not underestimate the importance of this building in the history of Sheffield. Completely gutted in the past few years, with office-space built around a central atrium and a glass roof extension, the outside of Grade II-listed Steel City House remains pretty much as it was in 1927.
This was once the Sheffield Telephone Exchange Building, occupying a triangular piece of land bordering Bow Street, Pinfold Street and Holly Street. I should explain that Bow Street later became West Street, the road we now associate with the building.
The origins of the building go back to 1879 when John Tasker, Mayor of Sheffield, opened the Sheffield Telephone Exchange, along with a dozen subscribers, later taken over by the National Telephone Company, operating out of Change Alley, and consolidating both companies on Commercial Street.
The General Post Office (GPO) took over the National Telephone Company in 1912, effectively nationalising the network, the beginning of one of Britain’s greatest technological developments.
As early as 1920, there had been a proposal for a telephone exchange system in Sheffield, including several new exchanges and the extension of underground cables to the city from London and other centres.
These were the days when making a telephone call meant speaking to an operator, who connected you with the recipient at the other end. However, times were changing, and talk was of a new automated exchange system allowing callers to dial a number direct.
In the end, the idea was postponed due to the long wait for new apparatus to be sourced, and it wasn’t until the latter part of 1921 that a decision was reached between the GPO and Sheffield Corporation.
As part of the agreement, a new central telephone exchange was to be built, designed by Henry Edward Treharne Rees (1871-1937), of His Majesty’s Office of Works and Public Buildings.
Work began on the site in November, oddly enough, the land prepared by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and it wasn’t until March 1922 that the construction was really appreciated with the raising of the girded steel frame.
What followed was a long-protracted development, repeatedly held up by red-tape, and not helped by having to lay thousands of miles of cable across the city. This alone, originally estimated to cost £85,000, was held up because a ‘patching’ policy was used instead, whereby new sections of cable were laid down and patched to existing wires.
The Sheffield Central Telephone Exchange opened in March 1927, but not before about 10,000 subscribers had been visited to have the new system explained to them.
Sheffield wasn’t the first city to get an automated service, that honour went to Hull, but it was the largest and biggest conversion undertaken. It was joined by further exchanges at Attercliffe, Beauchief, Broomhill, Ecclesfield, Oughtibridge, Owlerton, Sharrow and Woodhouse.
The main entrance was at the junction of Pinfold Street and Bow Street (West Street). The basement was used for telephone stores and heating chambers. The first floor was used as offices and showrooms for the telephone service, with similar offices on the second floor, and third floor offices let out to tenants.
Nearly the whole of the top floor was occupied by a series of “selectors,” together with “change” machines and “ringer” machines for supplying power. Another machine automatically registered every local call made.
Shops were available to rent in Bow Street and Pinfold Street, and a Post Office was moved here from Church Street.
In 1930, Martin’s Bank (later Barclays) rented a large space at the rounded corner of the building, taking over the main entrance and becoming the anchor tenant until modern times.
The exchange lasted until the 1960s, when it was replaced with a bigger facility at Eldon House, on Wellington Street, the building given over to offices. It was refurbished in 1995 but soon became outdated and “not fit for purpose.”
Steel City House, as it had become, was refurbished in 1995, and underwent its biggest renovation in 2015, part of a £10million plan by Scott’s Developments, gutting the interior and turning it into a new-age office facility.