Snig Hill – the mystery in its name

Snig Hill, looking down towards Bridge Street. Snig Hill Police Station can be seen on the right. Image: DJP/2022

Mention Snig Hill and most people will attach the name to the police station that has stood here since 1970. But Snig Hill refers to the sloping road between the bottom of Angel Street and West Bar. This was once a bustling thoroughfare but has been slowly downgraded because of traffic flow changes.

It is not an unpleasant place. The ‘grey-to-green’ project has seen the introduction of trees and wildflowers to re-connect the Castlegate area with the rest of the city centre and re-use redundant highway. And it soaks up rainwater that would have flowed into the nearby River Don, therefore reducing the risk of flooding.

The mystery about Snig Hill is how it got its name. It has mystified Sheffielders for centuries and various suggestions have been put forward.

Snig Hill, street sign. Image: DJP/2022

Once upon a time, there was a corn mill at Millsands, next to the River Don, and to access this, people used a packhorse track running between high banks behind gardens of old houses that stood on what is now the right hand side of Snig Hill going down the hill.

According to J.W. Farnsworth in 1939, this became so waterlogged in wet weather with rain and the sewage that drained from the Beast Market, that it earned itself the name of Water Lane (think, Hen & Chickens, now Castle Green).

When Snig Hill was made and cobbled, the ancient lane fell into disuse, and several townsmen built houses. On the opposite side, at what became the Black Swan Hotel, was Costnough Hall which stood just below the Irish Cross at the junction of Angel Street.

The hall disappeared, and Snig Hill became a narrow street, and the projecting upper stories of the houses gave an appearance of still greater narrowness.

J.W. Farnsworth’s sketch of old Snig Hill. Costnough Hall is seen on the left. Image: British Newspaper Archive

And so, to the name. In dialect English, of the word ‘snig’ there were five meanings: (1) To cut or chop; (2) to sneak off; (3) to drag over the ground; (4) close and private; (5) a small eel.

One suggestion was that ‘Snig Hill’ derived its name from the fact that it was the incline up which the ‘trees’ were ‘snigged’ from the lower area (the area down to the banks of the river, say) which no doubt was very well wooded at one time.

A ‘snig chain’ was also the chain used for hauling timber or attaching an extra horse to a wagon. At our Snig Hill, it was said that a horse was once kept to ‘snig’ up the hill any wagon that paid a small fee.

But Sidney Oldall Addy in ‘A Glossary of Words used in Sheffield,’ published in 1888, thought differently.

“To snig a load of anything up a hill is to take up the load in two or more instalments. For instance, a load of timber might be left at the bottom of the hill. Each portion brought up would be called a snig. The incline of the hill is not great, and the hill is small. Snig Hill thus appears to mean Little Hill. I think this is really the meaning, there being no proof that the timber was ever dragged up the hill in instalments.”

But he contradicted himself in ‘The Hall of Waltheof,’ published in 1893.

“The word snug, meaning lying close and warm is identical with the word snig used in this street name. It is not the hill in this case, which is snug, but the narrow old street, and had it been Snicket Hill, the meaning would have been clear.”

Others thought that it took its name from the practice of putting a ‘snig’ or length of wood through the back wheels of carts going down the hill to act as a brake.

Snig Hill, looking towards Angel Street. Image: DJP/2022

Willis Crookes, of Normandale, Loxley, said in 1930 that at the Bridge Street end  of Snig Hill, there was a depression in the road, where a pool once existed, and which was really a backwash of the River Don. He told of his boyhood (the 1870s), when he often talked to old men who told him that in their young days it swarmed with eels.

When anybody wanted a fish dinner they took a long stick with a cleft in it, pushed it into the mud of the pool, and dragged out an eel. This useful form of diversion was called ‘snigging.’

A far more likely explanation came about the same time from somebody who said that an old relative had been a stagecoach driver between Leeds and Sheffield. Among stories passed down in his family was one to the effect that the flour ground at Millsands was put into barrels and were ‘snigged up t’hill.’ He suggested that ‘to snig’ was to roll the barrel up the slope and put a under it.

However, it seems that the true meaning of ‘Snig Hill’ may never be known.

South Yorkshire Police at Snig Hill. It was originally built by B. Warren, Sheffield’s Planning Officer and Architect, as force headquarters for Sheffield and Rotherham Constabulary in 1970. It is now the police station covering Sheffield city centre. Image: DJP/2022

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.