Abacus House

At first glance, this plain looking building, on the corner of Norfolk Street and Norfolk Row, looked to be a bit of a lightweight in terms of its history.

Oh, my goodness, what a challenge it has turned out to be instead.

According to Historic England, Grade II-listed Abacus House, home to the Coventry Building Society, was built about 1791 as three houses. And here lies the mystery. No manner of archive digging can reveal the builder and for whom it was built for.

We do know that Norfolk Row was built about 1780, running alongside the gardens of the Lord’s House in Fargate, to Norfolk Street. The Lord’s House was built in 1707 for Henry Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, and at the back of the house was a chapel where a Catholic congregation worshipped.

This was dismantled and sold in 1814, replaced with a new chapel two years later, itself demolished to make way for a new church in 1850, better known today as St. Marie’s Cathedral.

I have a suspicion that Abacus House may have been built by the Duke of Norfolk as the presbytery to the original chapel, and a day in the archives will have to resolve this mystery.

It was certainly used as the presbytery at one time but in the early 1800s it was being occupied by Sir Arnold Knight, a Catholic physician, appointed to the Royal Infirmary in 1852, founder of the Sheffield Medical Institution in 1829, and later establishing the public dispensary on West Street (later the Royal Hospital). Next door was Thomas Raynor, one of Sheffield’s first Chief Constables.

In the mid-19th century the houses were altered with additions, quite possibly around the time that a new presbytery was built on the opposite corner. It paved the way for a long line of occupants, some with quite fascinating stories, and its future use as office accommodation.

It was here that John Hyde – proprietor of private estate sales rooms, estate and commission agent, accountant, auditor and collector of rents and debts – had his business during the 1840s. He was charged with embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretences in 1851, subsequently absconding and arrested in Glasgow.

There was also Dr Alonzo Durant, a man of dubious character, who established the Medical and Surgical Philanthropic Institution in 1851. He was described as “a trifle extravagant, and not free from eccentricity,” and worthy of a separate post.

George Nichols was a military tailor, who established a business here during the 1850s and 1860s, later becoming insolvent and emigrating to Ontario, Canada, where he became Captain Nichols of the Alexandrian Company (No.3) of the 59th Regiment.

We should also mention Henri LeClere, a Parisian, who arrived in Sheffield in 1861 to set up a silver engraving company on High Street before taking rooms here. His son built up the LeClere family business and successive generations were in demand with aristocratic families and embassies across Europe. The company later moved to their most famous premises on Howard Street.

Add to the mix – J.F. Anderson, Chiropodist Surgeon, Madame Malbet, Stanfield and Hirst, law and general stationers, A. Thornley Walker, architect, and William Edwards, freight, passage and emigration officer, to name but a few.

At the start of the twentieth century the building had been renamed Rectory Chambers, now solely used as offices, and attracted a new generation of tenants.

Robert F. Drury was the first patent agent in Sheffield, his company surviving until the 1930s, Walter Harry Best was a stocks and shares broker, Frank Bibbings represented the Free Trade Union and this was also the office for The Expert Advertising Company, whose advertising appeared on theatre screens across the country.

And we mustn’t forget Madame Lille, whose maid recruiting agency was the “oldest and best known in the Midlands, and the only one in Sheffield to be on the ‘recommended’ list.”

There also appears to be Eliza F. Jones, tobacconist, who occupied part of the ground floor until the 1920s.

The Leeds Permanent Building Society moved in during 1931, a foretaste of a later occupant, the Coventry Economic Building Society, taking most of the building, and operating still as the Coventry Building Society.

And so, this brick building, with rendered and colour-washed walls, does have a lot of stories to tell after all. But can anyone explain the meaning behind Abacus House?