Here’s the Montgomery Hall on Surrey Street, known today as a theatre and arts centre, but its heritage tells a very different story. We must go back to the 1880s and the long running saga of the Sheffield Sunday School Union, which had been looking to build a new hall and rooms in the centre of town.
The union was founded in 1812, with the intention of educating working children on Sundays, especially in literacy, and fighting for child labour laws to keep children out of chimneys. By 1884 the union comprised 108 schools, 3,340 teachers and 27,751 scholars. One of its founders was James Montgomery (1771-1854), local poet, journalist and reformer, and the new hall was to be named in his memory.
After first obtaining a site at (New) Church Street in 1873, the land was sold to Sheffield Corporation. Another site was secured at the bottom of West Street, adjoining Holly Lane, but this was also sold on. In 1883, union trustees bought 892 square yards of land between Fargate and (New) Surrey Street from the Corporation at a cost of £4,700.
The foundation stone for the Montgomery Hall was laid in July 1884 by the Right Hon. Anthony John Mundella (1825-1897), MP for Sheffield and president of the Sunday School Union of England and Wales. No sooner had work started, and it was temporarily abandoned, the building not completed until 1886. Built in Domestic Gothic-style at a cost of £15,000, it was designed by Sheffield architect Charles John Innocent (1839-1901), the union’s honorary secretary, and constructed by George Longden and Son.
Once completed, the Montgomery Hall contained a large galleried hall seating 1,000 people and a smaller hall for 350. The front of the building contained several committee and classrooms, a library, reading rooms, a reception room, ante-rooms, cloakrooms, kitchens and caretaker’s accommodation.
A newspaper described the building at the time.
“The front will be a welcome addition to the street architecture of the town. Built entirely of stone, in the centre of the front is the principal entrance, on either side of which are two shops built as a source of maintenance income. At each end of the front is another entrance. Over the shops are large windows which light the committee rooms and classrooms, the hall is at the back. Over each of the entrances an oriel window, with a slight projection, relieves the front and helps make it more prominent, while immediately over the door is a medallion bust of Montgomery.”
And so, the Montgomery Hall thrived, a home to Sunday schools, rented by other religious institutions, later becoming home to community theatre groups, schools and dance classes.
The union later became the Sheffield Christian Education Council with the hall always being used as a theatre, except during World War Two when it was used by the Government.
It was remodelled as a 427-seat auditorium after a devastating fire in 1971 and continues with an art gallery on the first floor and the old library being used as a space for workshops and rehearsals.
There are now plans for a multi-million pound refurbishment to be completed by 2023, concentrating on front of house, a new main frontage, the main auditorium and backstage facilities. Included in the project is the installation of a lift, a concept unheard of when the building was originally designed.