Gladstone Buildings

Sheffield’s grandest street is in a state of crisis. Once a prosperous hub, the magnificent buildings around Church Street are at midpoint, as the shift in shop and office space moves towards the Moor and the edges of the city centre.

But things are cyclical, and these buildings will most likely prosper again.

One such building, caught in the transition, is 1 St James Row, a Grade II listing building, better known to generations as Gladstone Buildings.

This tall late Gothic block was built in red brick with sandstone dressings by Hemsoll and Smith in 1885.

To understand its history, we must acknowledge William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), British statesman and Liberal politician, who served for twelve years as Prime Minister, spread over four terms beginning in 1868, and ending in 1894.

In 1882, it was announced that a new Sheffield company had been formed. The Gladstone Buildings Company Ltd was set up with a share issue of £15,000 (later rising to £25,000), with the purpose of buying land and erecting a “central, inexpensive and convenient club” for Liberal-minded supporters.

The Sheffield Reform Club, as it would be called, would pay an annual rent of £150 to the company, contributing to the upkeep of the building, further supported by office space on its top floors and shops at ground level.

The company bought a plot of land for £5,000 at the corner of the Parish churchyard (now the Cathedral) and requested four designs to be drawn up. The chosen plan was by William Frederick Hemsoll and Joseph Smith, a Sheffield-based architectural partnership between 1881-1891.

Described as being “Domestic Gothic of 15th century-style,” its steep slate roof had a fine arrangement of dormers and spiky turrets with wrought-iron finials and cresting.

There were arcaded ground floor openings for shops, two floors with double-mullioned and transomed windows for the principal club rooms – a dining room for 100 people, reading and writing rooms, a reference library, billiards room and members lounge – with offices above.

One commentator from the time had high expectations:

“Politicians, if my experience goes for anything, are clubbable people; and the discussion of political questions is made none the less interesting when accompanied by creature comforts, and in a well-furnished, well-ventilated and well-lighted room.”

Construction started in 1884 and moved at rapid pace, blighted by the death of John Hodgson, a 17-year-old crane driver, who died when his chain suddenly stopped causing the crane to collapse. He fell onto an iron girder in the cellar, the crane falling on top of him.

Gladstone Buildings was completed in 1885, set back to allow a carriageway from St James’ Row into St James’ Street, and was officially opened by the Earl of Rosebery on Tuesday 20 October.

The Sheffield Reform Club continued until 1942, its demise no doubt putting financial pressure on The Gladstone Buildings Company, which was voluntarily wound up in 1946.

Gladstone Buildings was adapted for additional office space whilst retaining much of the old club and became a listed property in 1973.

It wasn’t enough to save it from threat of demolition three years later, thankfully averted and rebuilt as offices behind the façade by Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson and Partners.