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Sheffield Telephone Exchange

Let us not underestimate the importance of this building in the history of Sheffield. Completely gutted in the past few years, with office-space built around a central atrium and a glass roof extension, the outside of Grade II-listed Steel City House remains pretty much as it was in 1927.

This was once the Sheffield Telephone Exchange Building, occupying a triangular piece of land bordering Bow Street, Pinfold Street and Holly Street. I should explain that Bow Street later became West Street, the road we now associate with the building.

The origins of the building go back to 1879 when John Tasker, Mayor of Sheffield, opened the Sheffield Telephone Exchange, along with a dozen subscribers, later taken over by the National Telephone Company, operating out of Change Alley, and consolidating both companies on Commercial Street.

The General Post Office (GPO) took over the National Telephone Company in 1912, effectively nationalising the network, the beginning of one of Britain’s greatest technological developments.

As early as 1920, there had been a proposal for a telephone exchange system in Sheffield, including several new exchanges and the extension of underground cables to the city from London and other centres.

These were the days when making a telephone call meant speaking to an operator, who connected you with the recipient at the other end. However, times were changing, and talk was of a new automated exchange system allowing callers to dial a number direct.

In the end, the idea was postponed due to the long wait for new apparatus to be sourced, and it wasn’t until the latter part of 1921 that a decision was reached between the GPO and Sheffield Corporation.

As part of the agreement, a new central telephone exchange was to be built, designed by Henry Edward Treharne Rees (1871-1937), of His Majesty’s Office of Works and Public Buildings.

Work began on the site in November, oddly enough, the land prepared by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and it wasn’t until March 1922 that the construction was really appreciated with the raising of the girded steel frame.

What followed was a long-protracted development, repeatedly held up by red-tape, and not helped by having to lay thousands of miles of cable across the city. This alone, originally estimated to cost £85,000, was held up because a ‘patching’ policy was used instead, whereby new sections of cable were laid down and patched to existing wires.

The Sheffield Central Telephone Exchange opened in March 1927, but not before about 10,000 subscribers had been visited to have the new system explained to them.

Sheffield wasn’t the first city to get an automated service, that honour went to Hull, but it was the largest and biggest conversion undertaken. It was joined by further exchanges at Attercliffe, Beauchief, Broomhill, Ecclesfield, Oughtibridge, Owlerton, Sharrow and Woodhouse.

The main entrance was at the junction of Pinfold Street and Bow Street (West Street). The basement was used for telephone stores and heating chambers. The first floor was used as offices and showrooms for the telephone service, with similar offices on the second floor, and third floor offices let out to tenants.

Nearly the whole of the top floor was occupied by a series of “selectors,” together with “change” machines and “ringer” machines for supplying power. Another machine automatically registered every local call made.

Shops were available to rent in Bow Street and Pinfold Street, and a Post Office was moved here from Church Street.

In 1930, Martin’s Bank (later Barclays) rented a large space at the rounded corner of the building, taking over the main entrance and becoming the anchor tenant until modern times.

The exchange lasted until the 1960s, when it was replaced with a bigger facility at Eldon House, on Wellington Street, the building given over to offices. It was refurbished in 1995 but soon became outdated and “not fit for purpose.”

Steel City House, as it had become, was refurbished in 1995, and underwent its biggest renovation in 2015, part of a £10million plan by Scott’s Developments, gutting the interior and turning it into a new-age office facility.

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Buildings

Sheffield Telephone Exchange

A sketch of Sheffield Telephone Exchange taken shortly after completion in March 1927. The building survives as Steel City House, at the bottom of West Street, the subject of a recent £10million office conversion.

The triangular building was designed by Henry Edward Treharne Rees (1871-1937), of His Majesty’s Office of Works and Public Buildings, with construction starting in 1921 on a site that had been empty for years, and had “formed the forum for keen agitators among the unemployed.”

Now classed as Art Deco, but at the time described as being a “modern adaptation of Renaissance-style, harmonising with existing buildings in the area.”

It was built with 40,000 cubic feet of Portland stone, the rough blocks conveyed from Dorset with final sawing and dressing done in Sheffield. The floors were made of reinforced concrete with about 40 tons of reinforcing rods used in the construction.

With rounded corners, massive Doric columns supported a semi-circular portico to the main entrance at the corner of West Street and Pinfold Street.

The five-storied building was built by Henry Boot and Sons, based on Moore Street, which claimed to be Britain’s biggest builder, with a yearly output of £1.7million.

The iron and steelwork were by Manchester-based Lambourne and Company, constructional engineers, the cause of much disappointment to local steel companies which tendered for the contract.

The sole contractor for the installation of electric lighting was Marsh Brothers, which had showrooms on Fargate and works at Edmund Road.

The extensive plumbing and glazing work were in the hands of M. Newman and Son, of Union Street, and the installation of “regency” metal windows and ornamental cast ironwork completed by Williams & Williams of Chester.

The House of Sage – Frederick Sage and Company, of London and Leeds – executed the bronze metal and teak shop-fronts, entrances to the offices and the main entrance.

The electric lifts were installed by William Wadsworth and Sons, Bolton and London, which had installed lifts in several other Government departments.

Marble and terrazzo paving, crafted by Italian experts, were supplied by Hodkin & Jones of Queen’s Road, and interior painting and decoration was undertaken by Smiths (Decorators), with a showroom in Fitzalan Square.

However, the most important contract was reserved for Siemens Brothers, Woolwich, which designed and supplied the whole of the automated telephone exchange equipment, comprising nine exchanges across Sheffield.

Soon after construction, Martin’s Bank became an anchor tenant, moving from Leopold Street, taking over the main entrance between West Street and Pinfold Street.

It spent a small fortune decking the new bank with Cuban mahogany, the floors with polished maple and borders of oak and jarrah, a dark coloured Australian wood.

The telephone exchange operated until the 1960s when a bigger facility was built at Eldon House on Wellington Street. Martin’s Bank later became Barclays until its eventual closure.

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Buildings

Carver Street National School

By the time you read this, it should have been another busy night at The Viper Rooms, on Carver Street. Situated at the heart of Sheffield’s hectic night scene, this club is the latest reincarnation of a building with completely different origins.

Behind the glitz and glamour, you can see traces of its humble beginnings. Not least, a large plaque above the four-bay gabled centre, which declares that this was once the “National School – Built by Subscription – 1812.”

The National School was set up in 1811 by the National Society for Promoting Religious Education, providing an elementary education with teaching of the Church of England to children of the poor. Supported by voluntary subscriptions and donations, it was probably the first near-universal system of education in England and Wales.

Sheffield had a good supply of National Schools, conveniently distributed, allowing the working man a choice of schools within easy distance to which he could send his children.

The oldest of these was the Carver Street school, opened in 1813, consisting of two large rooms, one downstairs for boys and the upper one for girls, to which committee rooms were attached, and a playground outside.

In 1823, a report said there were 340 boys and 513 girls in attendance, although three years earlier three thousand children had squeezed inside for a rally.

The National School on Carver Street survived until 1882, its demise probably caused by rising population and a building unable to cope with demand. There was, also, the Victorian idea that all children should go to school, and in 1880 schooling became mandatory, all children attending until they were 10-years-old, initiating a school-building programme across the town.

The building stood empty, although parts of it had already been let to John B. Corrie, plumber and glazier, and the vast arched-brick cellars rented by J.J.G. Tuckwood as warehousing for his general supply stores.

The Sheffield School Board expressed interest in buying the building when it went to auction in 1884, but the remainder of the leasehold (99 years from March 1794) was eventually bought by the Sheffield Technical School for £538.

However, the technical school never used it, writing its history elsewhere, and the subject of a future post.

In 1913, the building was bought by Charles Constantine, builders’ merchants and hardware factors, complementing premises down the hill on Fargate.

Eventually, the business consolidated here and was joined by Woollen and Company, sign specialists and colour printers, in 1929, moving here from Holly Green, as a result of street widening for the new City Hall.

Generations of people will remember it as Constantine’s Ironmongers, remaining here until the 1970s, by which time the property had fallen into disrepair and after the closure of the business became derelict.

For younger readers, understand that Carver Street, along with Division Street, was very different to the area seen today. It was populated with small shops, factories and workshops, all past their best, and came as a surprise when the building was converted into a public house in 1981.

Opening as Dickens at ground level, it offered a separate venue, Le Metro, making use of the old arched-cellars to echo the Paris underground.

It was inspired planning, quick to exploit eighties bar culture, and became a must-go-to place on a Saturday night.

It subsequently became Ruby Lounge and Cellar 35, later reinventing itself as The Viper Rooms, along with late licence, and a credible reputation with Sheffield’s student population.

Next time you pay a visit, take a moment to look at the stone plaque above your head, and remember that this was once something far removed from its present use.

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Buildings Streets

Fargate

The long-term plan for Fargate is to address the decline of retail and focus on leisure instead.

The regeneration of The Moor as a retail destination and the future development of Heart of the City II, which on completion will consolidate the retail core to the south of Fargate, has prompted Sheffield City Council to bid for up to £25million of government funding to improve the pedestrianised street.

It comes as no surprise then that the council has granted planning permission for the conversion of the old Next building at the corner of Norfolk Row.

Woodhead Investments’ proposal for a dining venue, along with a roof terrace fronting Norfolk Row, was accepted by the council, seen as regenerating the area.

Next relocated to The Moor in August, and the empty store was used as a pop-up Christmas shop during November and December.

The unit will be renovated to designs by Pearce Bottomley Architects, using new glazed panels and stone cladding, with a minimalist clock placed at the front of the building.

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Buildings

Wesleyan Institute Building

The Carver Street Chapel (now Walkabout) was built on green fields in 1805, with the Sunday School premises of Red Hill constructed in 1812, and 73 years later additional vestries built behind the chapel. In 1897, new schools and classrooms were erected on Rockingham Street (now Soyo), to meet the ever-growing needs of the chapel and district.

In 1912, the centenary of Red Hill Schools, plans were discussed to enlarge its premises at Carver Street, but the outbreak of World War One delayed progress.

By the 1920s, the original scheme had entirely been remodelled and new premises were built on West Street, officially opened in 1929.

Designed by architect W. J. Hale, of St. James’ Row, the large block constituted shops at ground level with rooms above.

It was constructed by the William G. Robson Building Company, of Bamforth Street, a firm that had built cinemas, dance halls, institutes, hospitals, warehouses, showrooms, hotels and houses throughout the country.

Another firm that played an important part in the construction was the Sheffield Brick Company, of Rutland Road, providing an extensive range of plastic stock, “Winco” and rustic facing bricks.

The whole of the precast fireproof concrete flooring was “Armoured” Tubular Patent Flooring, made by John Cooke and Son, Huddersfield, its main advantage being “fireproof, soundproof, warm and well-tempered.”

At this stage, architects were realising the importance of aggregate concrete in building construction. This structure was no exception, with graded sands and gravels provided by the Yorkshire Amalgamated Products company, the largest quarry owner in the county, with offices on Queen Street.

The contract for the whole of the plumbing had been executed by George W. Rusling and Son, at Brook Hill, with a reputation of 40-years standing in plumbing, glazing, gas-fitting, and sanitary work.

The whole of the building was electrically lit, but it was the heating that was a novel feature for the time. Instead of the usual hot water pipes, a new system of tubular electric heaters had been installed, two inches in diameter. All this work had been undertaken by Charles Ross Ltd, of Heeley Bridge.

The decorative scheme inside was executed by W.J. Wollerton, house and church decorators and furnishers, of Stratford House, at Broomhill. Church decoration was a speciality of this firm, using Sanderson Fast-to-Light wallpapers and treating woodwork with “Durolave” paint.

The main entrance to the Institute was in Rockingham Street. On the first floor, at the top of the stairs, a room was set apart for the Deaconess, where young women and girls were able to take their difficulties and hopes and discuss them with Sister Hilda Morris.

To the right was the Girls’ Institute Room, a spacious room with polished floor, carpeted here and there, with beautiful curtains at the windows, the work of “Painted Fabric.” This was a large drawing room, open nightly for girls over 14 years of age. They had their own kitchen and cooking arrangements, with supervision from helpers. A Rest Room, Library and Handicraft Classes were included in the scheme.

Adjoining the Girls’ Room was the Primary – for children from six to eight years of age, a bright square room, and the Beginners’ Room, for tiny tots, aged three to five years.

“There, while watching the fairies on the walls, they will take in the simple stories that form the basis of all true life.”

The top portion of the Institute was the men’s department. One large room running practically the whole length of the building, containing six billiard tables at one end, and the other arranged with tables for chess, draughts and books.

More importantly, voluntary workers used the new Institute for various organisations, including the Lads’ Guild, the Boys’ Brigade and the Reserves, Girl Guides, Brownies, two Bands of Hope, Children’s Play Hour, Gymnasium, Girls’ Club, Men’s Institute, Wesley Guild, Teacher’s Preparation and fellowship Classes.

In every spare room, always tucked in and arranged like a jigsaw puzzle, were committees and working parties.

Many ministers were realising that it was impossible to expect poorer youngsters to spend all their spare time in prayer meetings, therefore it looked to involve them in activities to keep them occupied. These included three football teams, a cricket club, tennis club, and a playing field up at Hagg Lane.

The cost of the building was over £17,000, with £8,500 already raised through fund-raising, and the remainder underwritten by renting out nine shops, fronting West Street.

All the shops were roomy and contained basements that were easily accessible. These were let by W.F. Corker and Son, estate agents, of 19 Figtree Lane. One of the first to take advantage of the shops was F. Wallis and Son, furniture sellers.

The confusingly named Carver Street Wesleyan Institute opened on February 7, 1929.

Times changed, the kids moved on, and as you might have seen from Gordon Mason’s comments on a previous post, the first and second floors eventually became Unemployment Benefit Offices in the 1980s.

The shops below changed hands numerous times, with the largest development about to take place at ground level, with a new German-themed bar, comprising several units, due to open this year.

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Buildings

Rockingham Street Methodist Sunday School

The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, on Carver Street, was built at Cadman’s Fields in 1804, then green fields and trees, and a meeting place of political demonstrations.

The development of Sheffield westwards proceeded slowly until the end of the century, by which time the Carver Street Chapel was surrounded by housing, factories and shops.

These days we recognise the chapel as Walkabout, a vibrant city centre bar.

This was the biggest chapel in the town, and it expanded to meet the increasing popularity of Methodism.

The Carver Street Chapel built the Red Hill Sunday School on nearby Rockingham Lane in 1812, also adding an extension to the original building in 1885.

The Sunday School was one of 34 Wesleyan schools operating in Sheffield, with 1,096 teachers and 5,694 children across the city.

By the end of the century, the Red Hill Sunday School was considered too small, and in 1896 plans were made to build new facilities adjacent to it, fronting onto Rockingham Street.

Although the chapel had been in debt for most of its existence, it had consolidated its finances through generous donations and fundraising.

In 1898, the Carver Street Chapel was temporarily closed and the outside thoroughly cleaned of industrial grime. It was also the same year that the Methodist Sunday School was opened on Rockingham Street at a cost of £4,000.

Designed by Herbert W. Lockwood, this was a massive end of three-storeys with a tall gable, containing a lecture hall and 24 classrooms.

It proved to be a valuable addition in consolidating and expanding the work of the church.

“The area was indebted in no small measure for its record of successful spiritual work in a crowded district to the ability and zeal of its distinguished ministers and laymen.”

We’ve already seen that the Carver Street Chapel is now a bar, and these old schoolrooms also survive in a similar capacity.

These days the old building is home to Soyo, another trendy bar, making use of the exposed brick, and seemingly a million miles away from its Methodist roots.

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Buildings

Carver Street Methodist Sunday School

In another post we’ve looked at the history of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, on Carver Street, better known now as Walkabout, an Australian-themed bar.

The chapel was built in 1804 by Methodist minister-turned-architect, Rev. William Jenkins (1763-1844) and remained in use until the 1980s. It was converted into a bar at the start of this century.

If you take a walk alongside the former chapel, along West Street, and turn left into Rockingham Lane, you will see a brick building on the right with five bays and rounded windows.

Known today as Bishops Lodge, a series of luxury apartments, it was built in 1812 by the Carver Street Chapel for the Red Hill Methodist Sunday School (later extended into Rockingham Street, a building subject to a future post).

The former Sunday School was subsequently occupied by The Samaritans and Grade II-listed in 1995.

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Buildings

Carver Street Methodist Chapel

In this next post we take another look at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, on Carver Street, better known now as Walkabout, an Australian-themed bar.

The foundation stone was laid on March 1st, 1804, and once completed was referred to as the Methodist Cathedral of Sheffield. The Rev. William Jenkins, the architect, was also a circuit minister, one of the staff on the Wesleyan “Sheffield Circuit.”

The chapel was opened in 1805, on July 22nd, and a week later the first Sheffield Conference was held here, with 300 preachers assembled in the new building.

The first worshippers looked out on green fields and trees. The site was known as Cadman’s Fields and its selection aroused misgivings and opposition as being too far outside the town.

However, Henry Longden, a Methodist preacher, was quoted as saying that one day the town would spread and swallow up Cadman’s Fields.

And he was correct.

This photograph shows an extension built to the Carver Street Chapel, about 1885, in which band rooms and schoolrooms were built at the rear.

At the back of the Carver Street Chapel, on the opposite side of Rockingham Lane, the Red Hill Sunday School (seen on the right) was built in 1812, and subject of a separate post.

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Buildings

Carver Street Methodist Chapel

For the non-believers, the Methodist movement is a group of denominations of Protestant Christianity which derive their practice and belief from the life and teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791), a minister who sought to challenge religious assumptions of the day.

The movement was particularly strong in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a significant number of Methodist chapels built across Britain.

This being the case, I’m not sure what the old Methodists would think about the present use for this building, known to most of us as Walkabout, an Australian-themed bar, since the turn of the century.

This was originally the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, or Carver Street Methodist Chapel, built in 1804 by Methodist minister-turned-architect, Rev. William Jenkins (1763-1844). It was the first chapel designed wholly by him, the five-bay façade derived from Wesley’s Chapel at City Road, in London.

Afterwards, Jenkins designed about thirteen similar chapels, of which only five (including this) survive.

When it was built, the chapel was was surrounded by cornfields, known as Cadman’s Fields. Built in brick, with stone dressings, its spacious interior had a wooden single-span roof, impressively wide for its date, with a round-ended continuous gallery.

The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel opened in 1805 with capacity for 1,100 followers, the biggest of its kind built in Sheffield.

When the chapel was built it was surrounded by cornfields, known as Cadman’s Fields

Few non-conformist chapels in the city had their own burial grounds, but the Carver Street Chapel was an exception. About 1,600 burials took place here between 1805-1855, the gravestones sited in a small front graveyard and on both sides of the building.

By the end of the twentieth century the chapel had closed and was empty for several years.

And now to the shocking part, one that some people will find astonishing.

Some of the graves extended across modern West Street, as well as Rockingham Lane behind.

In 1993, in advance of the Sheffield Supertram project, bodies were exhumed from beneath West Street, long-hidden beneath the road surface.

And if matters couldn’t be worse, the opening of Walkabout inside the Grade II-listed chapel meant that a new beer cellar had to be built outside. This meant that a further 101 individuals were excavated from the old graveyard to allow its construction.

Finally, most modern-day revellers, taking advantage of the external beer garden, will be alarmed to find they are standing on top of old graves.

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Buildings

When Sheffield’s black buildings got cleaned

A question often asked. When did Sheffield’s stone buildings suddenly became clean, removing memories of a time when they were gloomy and dark places to look at?

People of the younger generation will probably not understand what I’m on about here. I refer to Sheffield’s black buildings, largely forgotten, and thankfully no more.

Let’s go back to 1859 and find a clue from a newspaper correspondent as to why our old buildings turned black.

“On recently approaching Sheffield by rail, from Rotherham, after an absence of many years, I was forcibly reminded of all that I had ever heard strangers say of ‘black Sheffield’ – so murky seemed the whole atmosphere, so abundantly were tall chimneys belching forth their sooty contents, so thoroughly dyed with smoke were the outer walls of every workshop and factory within view as the train passed along, and even the line of the railway itself so thickly strewn – with the dark ashes from many smithy and furnace.”

During Victorian times, the industrial revolution depended entirely on coal, and the industries that established Sheffield as an important manufacturing hub created a toxic atmosphere. It was said that a hundred tons of soot fell on the town each year, and with it came a sulphurous smog.

Sulphuric and nitric acids in the air attacked everything, the soot steadily turning the town black, and deceiving children into thinking that Sheffield’s buildings had been built with dark granite.

For decades, the town (subsequently a city) achieved a notorious reputation, one that still lingers with our southern neighbours, who couldn’t resist having a dig at “Smoky Sheffield.”

It wasn’t a problem unique to the city.

A 1930 survey revealed those places suffering the worst air pollution, and Sheffield didn’t even feature in the top ten. Newcastle-on-Tyne was the dirtiest town in the kingdom. Liverpool came second and even London fared worse.

However, it didn’t stop George Orwell from writing that “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.”

When the City Hall was built in 1932, it was visited by Sir John Martin Harvey, an English stage actor, who wondered whether Sheffield City Council would have an initiative to keep its exterior clean.

“Civic authorities have not always had the imagination to appreciate the beauty of a fine, clean building. I wonder what the Sheffield City Hall will be like in ten years’ time, if the exterior is not kept free from grime. Let Sheffield take the lead in this matter. Liverpool possesses one of Europe’s finest buildings in St. George’s Hall, but nobody looks at it twice, because the outside is dirty.”

The ”Current Topics” column in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph concurred but thought it a hopeless cause.

“We agree entirely with Sir John’s contention that if possible, the exterior of the building should be kept clean, but the question is – how is it to be done?

“One of these days we shall abolish smoke and then it will be easy enough, but alas! One fears that before that day dawns the creamy delicacy of the City Hall will have faded into a dirty grey.

“There was a time when the Town Hall was good to look at, but now it is encrusted with the carbon deposits of forty years.”

That day eventually arrived.

In 1956, the Clean Air Act established “smokeless zones” in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. In less than twenty years the air became cleaner, the sun appeared above Sheffield again, and by 1972 the whole of the city had become a smokeless zone.

However, the damage from 150 years of black soot had left Sheffield a blackened mess, but it meant that at last something might be done to remove the grime.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a programme of stone cleaning occurred across Britain. London was most prominent, but also Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, Glasgow and Edinburgh, represented the main body of cities tackling the problem.

The clean-up process was an operation that was gradual and therefore unnoticed by Sheffield’s residents.

The surfaces of buildings were sand blasted, the result of a pressurised flow of sand and water that cleaned the surface and restored it to something like its original appearance. Interestingly, when the Bainbridge Building (former Halifax Bank) was being cleaned on Surrey Street, workmen discovered stone carvings that had been lost and forgotten.

Don’t presume that the exercise was simply a case of aesthetics and enhancement of a building’s appearance.

Sand blasting was extremely expensive, and the cost of reviving public buildings had to be met by the council (ensuring that many of Sheffield’s dirty buildings were only cleaned as and when needed, a programme that lasted well into this century).

Other buildings, including banks, offices, shops, theatres and hotels, were cleaned using private funds.

The filth was also removed to protect the building fabric from decay, the cleaning process also identifying faults connected with care and maintenance, but also improving its character for many years to come.

And there we have it.