It’s hard to believe that the oldest part of The Benjamin Huntsman, on Cambridge Street, dates to 1879. Look closely, and you’ll notice that this is built with a cast iron frame, quite unique for its day, but responsible for saving the structure of the building on more than one occasion.
The Benjamin Huntsman has a lot of history, and had J.D. Wetherspoon not chosen to name it after one of Sheffield’s famous steel sons, there were plenty of other options available.
Strange as it might seem, very little has been written about the building, its past seemingly ignored.
It was originally built for William Wilson and Son, coachbuilders and harness makers, forced to move from its old premises at Moorhead due to road improvements. The golden age of the horse and carriage came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it was no surprise that the company soon turned its attention towards the motor car.
By the time it went into voluntary liquidation in 1924 the company was well-known in Sheffield as a car dealer and motor engineer.
It was next occupied by Quinton, Arthur and Co, ironmongers, trading from the ground floor with the Cambridge Billiard Club (proprietor Ernest Leonard Searle) opening on the floor above in 1925.
Quinton Arthur’s tenure was short-lived due to a serious fire in 1926, an event that caused its demise a few months later.
In 1927, the premises were rebuilt around the iron framework, advertised as a large sales shop and basement, including Cambridge Chambers, a suite of offices alongside the Cambridge Billiard Hall.
By 1929, the ground floor was occupied by R. Bamber and Company, a Southport-based firm of coachbuilders established in 1893, which had also started selling motor cars. Along with premises in Leeds, it moved into Cambridge Street selling “shop-soiled used cars,” and was soon advertising itself as the “Northern Motor Olympia.”
R. Bamber remained here until 1929 until handing over the premises to the Handsworth Motor Company, with a garage at the rear for forty cars.
It was a brief existence and very soon the building was purchased by J. Gilder, a company that came to prominence in Sheffield.
Jack Gilder’s grandfather began selling and servicing cars as far back as 1912, his grandson setting up a new company in 1938. Jack went off to fight in World War Two and it was while in Belgium that he came across a car which changed the company’s fortunes.
The business was relaunched with a Rootes franchise in 1946, but it was Jack’s obsession with the design and engineering of the Volkswagen Beetle that made him approach the German manufacturer with a view to selling them.
It was a courageous move for Jack to sell a German product so soon after the war, and it was from this building that J. Gilder sold the first ever Volkswagen Beetle in Britain and became VW’s first UK dealership.
Gilder’s remained on Cambridge Street before moving to Banner Cross in the 1960s, and is now part of JCT600, a West Yorkshire-based motor group.
While changes went on below, it’s worth mentioning the Cambridge Billiard Hall that subsequently became Faulkeners and remained until the 1980s. By this time, it was long past its best, fondly remembered for its “bad flooring, rubbish on the floor, poor lighting, cigarette smoke and freezing cold temperatures.”
The former car showroom became the Nameless Restaurant between 1979-1985, before becoming a takeaway. In 1987, a fire in the restaurant destroyed the whole of the building, including the old billiard hall, paving the way for J.D. Wetherspoon to rebuild it, once again using the iron frame, incorporating The Benjamin Huntsman (opened 1999) with an adjacent new build.