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J.L. Womersley

Photograph by RIBA

If one man can be held responsible for defining Sheffield’s skyline, then it must be John Lewis Womersley (1909-1989), the City Architect between 1953 and 1964.

During his term, Sheffield’s housing grew upwards with multi-storey flats constructed at Low Edges, Park Hill, Hyde Park, Netherthorpe and Woodside. It was Womersley’s response to 13,000 families on the council’s waiting list and 10,000 condemned properties waiting to be demolished.

Womersley had previously been Borough Architect in Northampton, where he was responsible for the town’s first ten-storey block. In Sheffield, he presented an uncompromising vision of the future, one shared by the Labour council.

According to Ivan Morris, who worked in Sheffield City Council’s planning department until 1979, Womersley was “A blunt no-nonsense Yorkshireman with a burning desire to maintain quality of life by achieving high standards in his work.”

In his eleven years, Sheffield was a hive of building activity, his record perhaps stained by today’s  social problems in surviving tower blocks.

“Time and hindsight must not be allowed to judge too harshly the mark that Lewis Womersley left on the city,” said Morris in 1989. “For he gave his whole-hearted efforts unstintingly against economic restraints.

“Certainly, those who remembered the sordid and degrading conditions of the overcrowded back-to-back slums had cause for acknowledgement.”

His most famous legacy must be Park Hill, the “streets in the sky” claiming international recognition for Sheffield but dividing opinion across the city.

It is now Grade II* listed, the subject of a £100million refurbishment into upmarket apartments, business units and social housing (even though it seems to be taking an age to complete).

“Park Hill was certainly something of a masterpiece and is still relatively popular,” said one of his successors, Andrew Beard, over thirty years ago. “But with Hyde Park I feel he pushed the concept further than it was capable of going.”

And another of his projects, the Gleadless Valley estate, a mix of urban housing and landscape, described as “Mediterranean in appearance” when it was built between 1955 and 1962, might now be past its best.

But was that the fault of the architect, or simply under-investment in maintaining it properly?

Gleadless Valley estate

Most pronounced in housing, his work also extended to public buildings – schools, colleges, bus garages, fire stations and libraries. Amongst these we must mention Granville College and Castle Market, both demolished, but the former West Bar Police Station survives as the Hampton by Hilton Hotel.

Awarded a CBE in 1962, Womersley left Sheffield two years later, joining the Leslie Hugh Wilson partnership in Manchester, and finally retiring in 1978.