The next time you pop into WH Smith on Fargate, cast your eyes towards the third floor. High above you might just be able to make out the carved heads of a sheep, cow, pig and ox, all clues as to the former use for this building.
For generations, this has been WH Smith, but its history goes back to 1881-1882, designed by Sheffield architect John Dodsley Webster for Alfred Davy, provisions merchant. This was arguably the flagship store for Davy, renowned for his sausages, hams, potted meats and pork pies.
Alfred Davy (1838-1902) was the son of James Smith Davy, a well-known member of the Society of Friends, who had a shop in the fruit market, now Fitzalan Square. Educated at Ackworth, he opened a provisions shop on Castle Street about 1867, subsequently opening other shops at Broomhall and Rotherham High Street.
Davy was alert, enterprising and good-hearted. He was described as upright and straightforward in his trading, having a good word for everyone, and never taking advantage of humbler competitors.
Like many contemporaries, he was a Churchman, sometime warden of St. John’s Church at Ranmoor, and was largely responsible for the formation of the Sheffield branch for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His chief recreation was chess and became a prominent member of the Sheffield Athenaeum Club.
In the early 1880s, Davy found that the Castle Street branch had grown beyond all bounds, and there being no further room for expansion, found it necessary to secure additional accommodation.
His opportunity came when the west side of Fargate was being redeveloped as part of an improvement scheme. Alfred Davy bought Nos. 38 and 40, as well as premises at the rear, employing J.D. Webster to build his fourth shop.
We’ve seen before that the Victorians were shrewd businessmen when it came to property. Above the shop he asked Webster to create a suite of offices on the first and second floors, known as Exchange Chambers, suitable for renting, and accessed by a spacious Serpentine staircase. (In later years, the shop expanded upstairs, utilising the first floor as the Victoria Café).
When the store opened in December 1882 it was designated as one of the “ornaments of Fargate.” The business claimed to sell seven tons of sausages and poloney every week, inspiring Davy to place one of three Williams ‘Perfect Silent’ Meat Cutting Machines in the window. From here, customers were able to see the machine in action, capable of mincing and mixing 3cwt of meat each hour.
In the days before supermarkets, Davy’s was where all respectable citizens bought their food. He boasted selling 2-3 tons of Danish, Normandy and French butter every week, British and Continental cheeses, Wiltshire, Cumberland and Derbyshire bacon, as well as Irish, American and Canadian Hams. He was also a purveyor of tinned fish and meat, pure leaf lard and appears to have cornered the market with Scotch oatmeal.
A newspaper at the time raved that Davy had adopted electric lighting, then in its infancy, and installed by Tasker and Son. “The steadiness and brilliance of these little lamps in Mr Davy’s shop are like a new revelation, and show what rapid strides are being made in the application of electricity for illumination.”
In 1887, Alfred Davy opened a large factory in Paternoster Row, used to produce meat and baking products, and which later doubled-up as its Head Office.
Alfred Davy built a house called Hill Crest on Ranmoor Cliffe Road, originally called Upper Ranmoor Road, and it was here that he died of nerve paralysis in 1902.
His sons, Arthur Cedric Davy (died 1935) and Ernest Richard Davy (died 1951) took over running of the business and masterminded the company’s rapid expansion. By 1924, Davy’s had 16 shops and two cafes in Sheffield, but the business soon expanded across the north.
The Davy family sold the business to Associated British Foods in 1958, disposing of it completely in 1974, although some branches were retained as Sunblest shops.
Afterwards, the store was bought by WH Smith which has remained ever since. However, in recent years it temporarily relocated to allow for repairs on the old Victorian roof that had started to collapse. The store was refurbished and reopened earlier this year.