This story is not unique to Sheffield. A once great house adapted over the years, and eventually falling on hard times. Across the nation there are many old houses that went this way, but they remain a fascination to us.
Brincliffe Towers was a town villa, built in 1852 in an area that eventually became one of the city’s most desirable suburbs.
At the time of writing, the old house is empty, awaiting redevelopment, but its former grounds are known today as Chelsea Park, one of those public spaces that attracts little attention with most city people.
For this post we should refer to the mansion by its original name – Brinkcliffe Tower – an imposing mansion in Gothic-style, which formed a conspicuous object on the landscape. It was built by James Wilson, solicitor, for his own occupation. Built of Greenmoor rock-faced stone, with ashlar facings, no expense was spared to render it complete with every modern convenience.
With its park-like surroundings of 24 acres, Brinkcliffe Tower was one of the finest gentleman’s residences in this part of Sheffield, commanding a prospect of the most rich and beautiful scenery in the district.
James Wilson, a descendant of the Wilsons of Broomhead Hall, was the senior member of Wilson, Young and Pierson, and for many years had been Law Clerk to the Cutlers’ Company. He died in 1867 and the estate was put on the market: –
“The mansion contains a dining-room, drawing-room, breakfast-room, and the spacious vestibule, entrance hall, and principal staircase are lighted from the roof by a handsome lantern light. There are seven principal bedrooms and dressing-rooms, bathrooms, etc.
“The kitchens, servants’ hall, and other arrangements are of the most commodious description. There are large and lofty cellars (cut-out from the valuable bed of stone known as Brinkcliffe Edge Stone), servants’ staircase, butler’s pantry, sculleries, store closets, and four large upper rooms of stores and servants’ apartments.
“In the large paved yard is stabling for five horses, loose box, saddle and harness rooms, hay chamber, granary, and a spacious carriage-house, sheds and all the requisite appurtenances for a family mansion.
“The kitchen gardens are extensive and laid out in the best possible manner, while the grounds are enriched with fine timber and ornamental trees with flourishing shrubs.”
“Water is of the most common character, and during the dry summers of 1864 and 1865, a most abundant supply was always at hand.”
The Brinkcliffe Tower estate was bought by George Marples, descended from an old family line with origins at Barlborough and Stavely in North East Derbyshire. Until 1879, he was head of Marples and Marples, solicitors, Norfolk Row, at which time he vacated the position in favour of his son, George Jobson Marples.
George Marples died of a heart-attack in 1881 leaving personal estate worth £218,000 (that is almost £27million today), leaving Brinkcliffe Tower to George Jobson Marples, a man who had trained at the Inner Temple, but never practised as such. For twenty years he was a county magistrate in Derbyshire and senior magistrate at Bakewell.
In the 1890s, George Jobson Marples bought Thornbridge Hall, near Bakewell, for £160,000, leaving Brinkcliffe Tower behind, and eventually putting it up for sale.
In 1897, it was acquired by Robert Styring (1850-1944), another solicitor, councillor, Lord Mayor, and a man whose contribution to Sheffield has been unforgivably overlooked, and subject of another post.
Styring remembered his father speaking of the building of Brinkcliffe Tower, which at the time had been regarded locally by many as “one of the seven wonders of the world.”
Not a man to miss an opportunity, Styring disposed of parts of the “valuable building estate” and in 1916 was involved in a dispute with Sheffield Corporation over land development.
An inquiry by the Local Government Board Inspector covered a scheme affecting Banner Cross, Brincliffe, Kenwood Park and Nether Edge. The Corporation had insisted that a maximum of twelve houses should be built per acre but, according to Mr Gibson, Deputy Town Clerk, Styring wanted to be free to build 25 houses to the acre.
Styring had married Annie Frances Hovey in 1880, and her death would have significant implications for the house and estate.
While addressing a meeting of women at the Victoria Hall in March 1925 she remarked, “Excuse me one moment,” sat in her chair, collapsed, and died.
Her death affected Styring deeply. “It was entirely due to her that I entered public life, and due to her efforts, won what was thought to be a forlorn hope, a seat in the City Council for St. Peter’s Ward in 1886.”
In November 1925, Styring decided to gift the Brinkcliffe Tower estate to the city. To be handed over after his death, as well as the house, there were twelve acres of grounds which were to be used as a public park.
“We have enjoyed the pleasure of the estate and nothing would have given her greater satisfaction than to know the purpose to which it was to be adapted.”
After handing over the deeds to the council, Styring remained at Brinkcliffe Tower until 1935, by which time he chose to enjoy retirement in Paignton, Devon. As a result, he vacated the property, gave the keys to Sheffield Council, along with three houses on Brincliffe Edge Road, and left behind a Japanese tapestry and two large oil paintings. He died in 1944, aged 94, at Lancaster House in Paignton.
For a time, the grounds were considered as a memorial garden, the alternative site for a Peace Gardens, proposed after the Munich Agreement of 1938, but which were eventually created on the site of St Paul’s Church next to the Town Hall. Instead, the grounds were turned into Chelsea Park, named after nearby Chelsea Road, once known as Palmerston Road, until renamed in 1886.
As for the house, as always, there was a dilemma for the council. It remained empty for a while, and for a brief period was a girls’ school dormitory during World War Two. It became a nursing home, known as Brincliffe Towers, and in 1959 was refurbished and enlarged with “modernistic” 1950s extensions, funded by the J.G. Graves Charitable Trust.
Eventually falling into private hands, the care home closed in 2011, victim of modern legislation, and since then there have been various controversial schemes to convert the house back into a single dwelling, funded by the conversion of the coach-house and erection of new houses in the wooded grounds.
Sadly, the property is in poor condition, but still retains original characteristics, including the main entrance overlooking Chelsea Park, beyond the balustraded terrace, elaborately carved timber bargeboards, carved stone bay windows, doorways, and towers.
The internal fabric of the building has diminished overtime. However, there are some original features remaining to ground floor rooms, including fireplaces, architraves and coving and ceiling detailing. Rooms to the upper floors have been significantly altered and reconfigured through partition walls, but the tower and ceiling light remains intact.