When Sheffield’s black buildings got cleaned

A question often asked. When did Sheffield’s stone buildings suddenly became clean, removing memories of a time when they were gloomy and dark places to look at?

People of the younger generation will probably not understand what I’m on about here. I refer to Sheffield’s black buildings, largely forgotten, and thankfully no more.

Let’s go back to 1859 and find a clue from a newspaper correspondent as to why our old buildings turned black.

“On recently approaching Sheffield by rail, from Rotherham, after an absence of many years, I was forcibly reminded of all that I had ever heard strangers say of ‘black Sheffield’ – so murky seemed the whole atmosphere, so abundantly were tall chimneys belching forth their sooty contents, so thoroughly dyed with smoke were the outer walls of every workshop and factory within view as the train passed along, and even the line of the railway itself so thickly strewn – with the dark ashes from many smithy and furnace.”

During Victorian times, the industrial revolution depended entirely on coal, and the industries that established Sheffield as an important manufacturing hub created a toxic atmosphere. It was said that a hundred tons of soot fell on the town each year, and with it came a sulphurous smog.

Sulphuric and nitric acids in the air attacked everything, the soot steadily turning the town black, and deceiving children into thinking that Sheffield’s buildings had been built with dark granite.

For decades, the town (subsequently a city) achieved a notorious reputation, one that still lingers with our southern neighbours, who couldn’t resist having a dig at “Smoky Sheffield.”

It wasn’t a problem unique to the city.

A 1930 survey revealed those places suffering the worst air pollution, and Sheffield didn’t even feature in the top ten. Newcastle-on-Tyne was the dirtiest town in the kingdom. Liverpool came second and even London fared worse.

However, it didn’t stop George Orwell from writing that “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.”

When the City Hall was built in 1932, it was visited by Sir John Martin Harvey, an English stage actor, who wondered whether Sheffield City Council would have an initiative to keep its exterior clean.

“Civic authorities have not always had the imagination to appreciate the beauty of a fine, clean building. I wonder what the Sheffield City Hall will be like in ten years’ time, if the exterior is not kept free from grime. Let Sheffield take the lead in this matter. Liverpool possesses one of Europe’s finest buildings in St. George’s Hall, but nobody looks at it twice, because the outside is dirty.”

The ”Current Topics” column in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph concurred but thought it a hopeless cause.

“We agree entirely with Sir John’s contention that if possible, the exterior of the building should be kept clean, but the question is – how is it to be done?

“One of these days we shall abolish smoke and then it will be easy enough, but alas! One fears that before that day dawns the creamy delicacy of the City Hall will have faded into a dirty grey.

“There was a time when the Town Hall was good to look at, but now it is encrusted with the carbon deposits of forty years.”

That day eventually arrived.

In 1956, the Clean Air Act established “smokeless zones” in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. In less than twenty years the air became cleaner, the sun appeared above Sheffield again, and by 1972 the whole of the city had become a smokeless zone.

However, the damage from 150 years of black soot had left Sheffield a blackened mess, but it meant that at last something might be done to remove the grime.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a programme of stone cleaning occurred across Britain. London was most prominent, but also Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Glasgow and Edinburgh, represented the main body of cities tackling the problem.

The clean-up process was an operation that was gradual and therefore unnoticed by Sheffield’s residents.

The surfaces of buildings were sand blasted, the result of a pressurised flow of sand and water that cleaned the surface and restored it to something like its original appearance. Interestingly, when the Bainbridge Building (former Halifax Bank) was being cleaned on Surrey Street, workmen discovered stone carvings that had been lost and forgotten.

Don’t presume that the exercise was simply a case of aesthetics and enhancement of a building’s appearance.

Sand blasting was extremely expensive, and the cost of reviving public buildings had to be met by the council (ensuring that many of Sheffield’s dirty buildings were only cleaned as and when needed, a programme that lasted well into this century).

Other buildings, including banks, offices, shops, theatres and hotels, were cleaned using private funds.

The filth was also removed to protect the building fabric from decay, the cleaning process also identifying faults connected with care and maintenance, but also improving its character for many years to come.

And there we have it.