During the 1920s, the bad lads of gangland Sheffield earned it the reputation as ‘Little Chicago’, and so it was appropriate that in November 1978 the Crucible Theatre staged the British premiere of Chicago, the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse musical.
First staged on Broadway in 1975, Chicago had been optioned by a London producer for a year, but Peter James, the Crucible’s artistic director, learned that it had lapsed and wrote to Kander and Ebb’s agent asking whether Sheffield could produce it.
“It was a hundred per cent diplomacy and a 10 per cent royalty.”
The approach was successful, and it opened with hardware, costumes, and scenery costing £13,000, and with nineteen boys and girls, the total estimated expenditure was £45,000.
Ben Cross was cast as Billy Flynn, the role gaining him recognition, and landing him the role of British athlete Harold Abrahams in 1981’s Chariots of Fire, before going on to be a stalwart of TV and film.
Antonia Ellis, a West End regular, played Roxie Hart, and went on to appear on Broadway. Following an accident, where she was hit by a car, she sustained leg injuries and abandoned her career.
Perhaps the most interesting story is that of Jenny Logan as Velma Kelly. She continued to work on stage and screen but became famous as the star of the Shake n’ Vac advert between 1980 and 1986 – “Do the Shake n’ Vac and put the freshness back.”
By opening night, nine West-End managements were vying for a transfer and it launched at London’s Cambridge Theatre in April 1979.
The Crucible production was billed as the European premiere, overlooking the fact it had already been staged at the Malmo City Theatre in Sweden in 1977.
However, it was the first chance that the British public got to see Chicago, the musical going on to become an unwavering favourite and subject of the Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere movie in 2002.
We walk over them regularly, and might be guilty of not giving them a second glance.
These are the Sheffield Legends, stars that line the pavement outside Sheffield Town Hall.
This is Sheffield’s Walk of Fame, honouring those who have achieved national or international acclaim. As in the Hollywood version, there are plaques with people’s names on them and why they are celebrated.
The idea was first suggested in 2005 when the people of Sheffield were asked who should be honoured after a local resident suggested honouring the footballer Gordon Banks, who grew up in Sheffield.
Nominations are considered by an independent selection board representing various sectors across the city such as the arts, sport, education, media, and business, and chaired by the Lord Mayor.
To date, the inductees are:
Gordon Banks – England’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Sean Bean – film and TV actor Joe Cocker – singer Sebastian Coe – Olympic medal winner and President of the International Association of Athletics Federation Derek Dooley – Footballing legend for United and Wednesday Dame Margaret Drabble – internationally respected novelist and critic Dame Jessica Ennis – Olympic Champion, double Outdoor and Indoor World Champion athlete Professor Barry Hancock – OBE, world renowned cancer expert Brendan Ingle – world famous boxing manager and trainer Def Leppard – top-selling rock band Nick Matthew – world squash champion David Mellor – internationally renowned cutlery designer Michael Palin – famous film and television personality Steve Peat – champion downhill mountain biker Helen Sharman – first British astronaut Joe Simpson – renowned mountaineer, author, and motivational speaker Joe Scarborough – one of Sheffield’s finest artists Michael Vaughan – one of this country’s most successful cricket captains Clinton Woods – world champion boxer Grace Clough – Paralympic gold medallist, rowing Tony Foulds – the man who inspired the spectacular flypast to remember those who died in the Mi Amigo wartime plane crash
I wonder how we might have survived without TV during the lockdown. It makes this story from almost 88 years ago even more remarkable and shows how far technology has advanced in a relatively short space of time.
In 1938, in a secret experimenting room on the remote outskirts of Sheffield, three men had received television programmes from London. One September night, George W. Bagshaw, K. Hopkinson and G. Thompson, all employees of mail order company, J.G. Graves, managed to receive an almost perfect picture and sound.
The television receiver used was the only one in the north of England and had been built by the three amateur radio enthusiasts, led by Bagshaw, the manager of the wireless department at Graves Ltd.
This was thought to be the first time that anybody had received television programmes in Sheffield.
The television pictures were being broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace to the London area. It started broadcasting in 1936, followed by the first outside broadcast in May 1937, the Coronation of King George VI.
The receiver was installed at Dore Moor, near Newfields Lane, the only giveaway being two large latticed wireless masts, which few people knew what they were for.
Bagshaw said that he had been receiving pictures for three weeks, the gap between London and Sheffield being one of the greatest distances that pictures had been transmitted.
“It was thought that television had a visual range as far as the eye could see. That is its true range, but it is possible to receive from greater distances,” Bagshaw told the Daily Independent.
“Working on ultra-short waves, pictures have been received further than was at first thought possible, and I have found that I can receive transmissions from Alexandra Palace.
“In Sheffield, we are 160 miles away from the transmitter, and it cannot be expected that our pictures are as clear as those in the London area.
“However, we have obtained pictures which, although they might not suit the critical onlooker, are very satisfying to the experimenter.”
Mr Bagshaw had been experimenting in television since its inception, and the first station was in the radio department of J.G. Graves, but after a time it was realised that interference from motor-cars and trams were hindering progress.
The site at Dore Moor had been chosen because it was almost ideal for radio work. It was 750 feet above sea level, remote from roads and electrical interference.
In the station was a bewildering collection of radio apparatus. The workshop was only small, but large enough to contain all its necessary equipment. The shed, built in 1936, housed over a thousand pounds worth of apparatus, with five short-wave transmitters and several ultra-short-wave receivers. The two radio masts on the site, nearly eighty feet high, both carried a large aerial.
Unfortunately, when the Daily Independent visited Dore Moor for a demonstration of television pictures, thundery conditions prevented the signals reaching Sheffield.
Asked for his views on the future of television in Sheffield, Mr Bagshaw pointed out that results were only obtained outside London by using very intricate and expensive apparatus and having special receivers.
Until there was a local transmitter there was little prospect of Sheffield people being able to receive television.
So far as the provinces were concerned, he thought the BBC and the Post Office were waiting for a better response in London before they put up provincial stations.
The first step towards the opening of a provincial station was thought to be the completion of a special cable between London and Birmingham, but as that cable had been completed some time before, and there was no news of a Birmingham transmitter, it was thought in radio circles that either the cable was not satisfactory in a technical sense, or the Post Office thought it much more useful for multi-channel trunk lines.
“The solution to the provincial station is a radio-link, which means using ultra-high-frequency transmitters between towns to convey television, sound and speech.
“All this is a very expensive undertaking, and to cater for the whole country at present would appear to be prohibitive in cost,” he added.
Sadly, despite the sale of 20,000 TV sets in the London area, the service was immediately shut down when World War Two started in September 1939. Transmissions didn’t resume until 1946, with a Midlands transmitter opening in 1949, and one for the North two years later.
Sometimes the subject of a post materialises by chance, and this letter from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in June 1926, caught the attention: –
“Sir, – In view of the present favourable conditions for long distance views from the hills about Sheffield, it would be interesting to know if it is possible to see Lincoln Cathedral from any vantage point about the district. Rumours have been current from time to time that Hagg Lane, Intake, is a suitable point, but it is difficult to get concrete evidence of this. On inquiries you are generally put off by ‘Well, I have heard my grandfather say that a cousin of his told him he knew a man, etc.’ Perhaps your readers in the Intake, Gleadless, and Ridgeway areas, might throw some light on the matter. Yours, etc., GREEBA.”
To start with, Hagg Lane is now known as Hurlfield Road, and these days we do not consider it to be part of Intake, more appropriate to say it borders Arbourthorne and Gleadless.
Ridiculous as the letter might appear, as Lincoln Cathedral was about 40 miles away, further curiosity was aroused a few days later in a response to the same newspaper: –
“Sir, – Greeba need not be in any doubt as to the possibility of seeing Lincoln Cathedral from Hagg Lane. It is a matter of considerable difficulty, of course, and needs a good glass, plus an exceptionally clear day, and from my own experience (it was visible from the garden of my house in which I lived for some years) I do not think it can be seen oftener than three or four times a year.
“During the coal strike of 1921, however, I saw it at least four times in one week, and after spotting it with the glass it was possible to see it with the naked eye.
“The normal appearance is that of a tower of immense height, but in 1921 it was possible to get a good idea of the whole building.
“The viewpoint I can recommend is that from the portion of Hagg Lane, between Gleadless Common and the old Handsworth Waterworks, but I should regard the sight of it by a casual visitor as highly improbable.
“I was looking for it on all suitable occasions for about two years before I succeeded in finding it, and I should imagine that visibility is worse now on account of the housing estate on Gleadless Common, the smoke from which will drift across the foreground, with a south-west wind, which normally gave us the clearest weather, – Yours, etc. W.W. WOOD.”
We must appreciate that in the late 1920s this part of Sheffield was still rural, and the new Gleadless Common council housing estate had just been built at the top end (since demolished and replaced with new builds). Hagg Lane, or Hurlfield Road, was slightly higher than nearby Manor Top with views across the surrounding countryside. The spot identified is approximately where Sheffield Springs Academy now stands.
Today, any notion of seeing distant Lincoln Cathedral from here is virtually impossible, the area built-up with further housing, restricting the view.
The question is how reasonable it would have been to see the Lincolnshire landmark about forty miles away?
Dust, water vapour and pollution in the air will rarely let you see more than 12 miles, even on a clear day. Often, the curvature of the earth gets in the way first, it curves about 8 inches per mile and, according to experts, standing on a flat surface, the farthest edge that you can see is about three miles away. Without the earth’s curve and from higher up you might be able to identify objects from dozens, even hundreds, of miles away.
This being the case, it might have been possible to see Lincoln Cathedral from Hagg Lane, especially as there was a coal strike at the time of the newspaper letters, making visibility much clearer.
Further evidence emerges more recently, albeit using the zoom lens of a modern camera. A quick search on Flickr, the photograph sharing site, reveals interesting images taken from the western outskirts of Sheffield.
Looking easterly, from Fulwood Lane/Greenhouse Lane, it is possible to see the Humber Bridge (52 miles distant), photographs by Vince Sellars reveal the two towers of the suspension bridge, and other contributors confirm that Lincoln Cathedral can be seen on a clear day from Ringinglow. Looking north from Grenoside, although there is no photographic evidence, it appears that York Minster (about 43 miles away) can also be seen.
In 2000, at the point of the internet boom, somebody at Sheffield City Council’s Archives and Local Studies department had the foresight to start digitalising its vast collections.
Picture Sheffield turned out to be one of the first digital resource libraries in the UK, and as it celebrates its twentieth anniversary, it remains one of the country’s best photographic anthologies.
The service collects and preserves original records and printed material relating to Sheffield and its surrounding area, dating from the 12th century to the present.
In these days of lockdown, Picture Sheffield can provide hours of endless free entertainment and shows us how things used to look, how our ancestors appeared and how the city has evolved.
For historians, it is a valuable point of reference, and on a personal level, I have spent ages examining photographs of buildings and streets to check bygone information.
It is estimated there are well over 60,000 local images available to view, boosted by last year’s acquisition of over 2,000 images from the Tim Hale Photographic Collection, bought with help of public donations (£2,500 bestowed within days) and a £5,000 grant from the J.G. Graves Charitable Trust.
Picture Sheffield is a non-profit making service and income received from picture sales and donations is used to cover the cost of managing and developing the service which includes adding over 100 extra images a month.
I don’t wish to alarm people in these sobering times, but there is another threat to the people of Sheffield, and it lies beneath our feet.
It’s almost eighty years since German bombers dropped around 355 tonnes of high explosives and 16,000 incendiary canisters on Sheffield during the Blitz of 1940. The bombers targeted residential and industrial areas and the city centre received incredible damage, with The Moor, Angel Street and King Street almost obliterated.
While death and destruction were immense, Sheffield’s citizens might have been forgiven that one of our nastiest periods had been consigned to history.
Alas, we are still likely to suffer the consequences for years to come.
According to experts, Sheffield is a ‘high risk’ area for unexploded bombs, those that fell from the sky, failed to detonate, and buried themselves deep underground.
Bombs often failed to explode because they were ‘dud’ – casualties of fast, furious and error-prone wartime manufacturing.
But why didn’t the authorities deal with them?
At terminal velocity, a bomb would have penetrated 3-4 storeys before detonating. If it failed, its downward motion sent it deep underground, leaving destruction behind and almost impossible for watchers to determine the exact number and location.
The legacy is that we almost certainly have dozens of unexploded bombs hidden under the streets of Sheffield, as well as in other cities across Britain.
It is only now that some of these unexploded devices are returning to haunt us. Over the years, bombs have been discovered near Bramall Lane, Hillsborough, Don Valley, Owlerton and Burngreave. And it is just four years ago that four bombs were successively discovered in Matilda Street.
Most of these bombs have been found on construction sites, the Construction Industry Research and Information Association stating that in one two year period an estimated 15,000 military items were extracted from UK building sites. Now that buildings are getting taller, foundations dug deeper, we are starting to uncover devices , about five per cent of which are still live.
Worryingly, discoveries are still being made as original sites are being redeveloped for a second time after blocks thrown up in the post-war building boom reach the end of useful life.
The problem with unexploded bombs is their unpredictability, with Army Bomb Disposal Units (split between the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corp Ammunition Technicians) having little information about how long it has been there and how it might have changed over time.
Most construction in the UK is now subject to risk assessment on the likelihood of unexploded bombs underground. These assessments may take the form of visual interpretation using historical photographs, as well as with geophysical and geothermic surveys. A similar set of processes was used when the site was cleared to make way for the construction of the Moor Market.
The situation is a lot worse in Germany where barely a week goes by without a new discovery. In 2014, a German digger driver was killed after accidentally striking an unexploded British device at Euskirchen, north of Frankfurt. And last year, a large explosion in a field near Ahlbach created a huge crater and turned out to be an undiscovered wartime bomb exploding after 75 years.
“According to the rule of thumb, if German ordnance hit the ground, it exploded, while Allied bombs were notoriously unreliable,” says Stephen Taylor, a period munitions expert.
It’s April Fools’ Day. No pranks here, but an attempt to determine why we stage hoaxes and play practical jokes on 1 April. It appears that nobody knows the exact meaning of the day although several historians have put forward suggestions.
It has been celebrated for centuries by different cultures and by embracing it, the media has ensured the unofficial holiday’s long life.
The earliest concrete records are from France and Holland in the 1500s and, because of this, people believe it must have been a northern European tradition that spread to Britain.
It is known as April Fish Day in some areas of Europe, believed to be because there are a lot of fish in streams and rivers around 1 April, and they are easy to catch – foolish fish!
In France, it is a common trick to attach a paper fish on somebody’s back on April Fools’ Day and give chocolate fish as gifts.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century, some arguing that a story told by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century – where a fox plays a prank on a rooster (who is almost eaten because of it) – is the first reference to pranks taking place on this day.
Chaucer doesn’t refer to 1 April though. In the poem, he says 32 “syn March began,” translated as “32 days since March began” which would be today.
On a wider scale, some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one. In the Julian calendar the new year began with the spring equinox on 1 April.
People who were slow to get the news, or failed to recognise that the start of the new year had moved to 1 January, and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through 1 April, became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were called April fools. These pranks included having the so-said paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolise a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.
Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to festivals such as Hilaria (Latin for joyful), which was celebrated in ancient Rome at the end of March by followers of the cult of Cybele. It involved people dressing up in disguises and mocking fellow citizens, and even magistrates, and was said to be inspired by the Egyptian legend of Isis, Osiris and Seth.
There’s also speculation that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather.
A certain local businessman was both ridiculed and humbled. He had a lot of friends, all of whom liked him but for a fatal weakness of his. This weakness took the form of patronage.
He was always talking about “his friend, the Earl of Wharncliffe,” and no matter upon which point conversation turned, he would drag in a reference to the Earl.
Tired at last of his lofty talk, and fully confident that he was not even on nodding terms with the aristocrat, his friends decided to play a prank.
The businessman received a letter on the morning of April Fools’ Day, and the contents of it caused his heart to palpitate.
“It has come to the knowledge of the Earl of Wharncliffe that you have been publicly claiming his friendship, and spreading vague rumours about concerning his affairs, and he has instructed me to write to you demanding an instant apology. The Earl will be at home between the hours of ten and one tomorrow and will be ready to listen to an explanation.”
Never doubting the genuineness of the demand, the businessman rushed to Wortley Hall the next day, and with a great deal of difficulty obtained an interview with the bemused Earl.
What took place at that meeting was never divulged, but afterwards the businessman never again mentioned “his friend the Earl.”
Sheffield has never been an aviation city, one of the biggest urban areas in Britain that failed to grasp the importance (or intrusion) of an airport.
However, within a decade of the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, the first aeroplane arrived in Sheffield.
The pioneering aviator was Robert Bertram Slack (1886-1913), a native of Nottingham, who had previously worked in the cycle and motor trade.
He was the 157th person to be granted an aviator’s certificate by the Royal Aero Club in 1911, qualifying at the Bleriot School at Hendon Aerodrome.
In 1912, he competed in the Irish Aero Club’s Dublin-Belfast Race and shortly afterwards was commissioned by the International Correspondence Schools (ICS) to tour around the country giving exhibition flights. The Bleriot monoplane was capable of speeds of 60m.p.h., its pilot’s seat presented to Slack by the aviator Henri Salmet as a mascot, the one in which Salmet sat while making a record high-flight of 9,500ft. Afterwards, the plane was to be bought for £850 by the ICS and presented to the War Office.
This was the reason for Slack’s visit to Sheffield in August 1912, although matters weren’t as simple as might have been expected and tells us that the weather played an important part in early aviation.
Slack started his 1,100 mile tour from Hendon Aerodrome seven weeks before, and had already visited Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Manchester, Carlisle, Edinburgh , Newcastle and Harrogate.
It was from Harrogate that Slack was due to fly on Friday 2nd August 1912 eventually arriving at a makeshift aerodrome at the former Redmires Racecourse, the weekend camping ground of the Sheffield Artillery, and generously donated by Colonel Charles Clifford. (More about Redmires Racecourse in a future post).
Due to arrive at seven o’clock in the evening, a small crowd waited for over an hour anxious to see this new and exciting mode of transport. By 8.30pm, the crowd was getting restless and it was only after a telephone call that it was discovered a strong wind had made it impossible to take off from Harrogate.
Instead, Slack took off at 5.20am the following day, running into a succession of fog-banks, and, unable to see his way, was several times in imminent peril. After some exciting adventures amongst factory chimneys, trees, and hill sides in the neighbourhoods of Leeds, he wisely decided to land. Later, he had a touch of air-sickness, and again descended and landed at Norton Priory between Pontefract and Doncaster.
When he was airborne again, Slack flew over Doncaster, before eventually arriving at Redmires about five o’clock. Broad white sheets had been stretched across the grass as a guide to him in his descent.
“The shrill cry of a lynx-eyed small boy announced the approach of the overdue flying man. There was just a little speck in the sky above the range of hills overlooking the Rivelin Valley. It was travelling at terrific speed, and soon became distinguishable from the crows. It was at least three thousand feet up, but gradually descended a thousand feet or so. As he neared the landing-place, Mr Slack took a wide sweep round to face the wind for his descent. Then suddenly the machine seemed to rest a moment in the air, and in a graceful vol-plane came hovering down to earth. The aviator had cut off his petrol at two thousand feet. He alighted on the ground as gently as a bird.”
Slack had been in close touch with his mechanics, who followed a set course in a motor-car, so that at each descent he was able to summon them by telephone.
He had an enthusiastic reception from a large crowd who had gathered on the racecourse and in the roadway and had been awaiting the delayed aviator with remarkable patience for several hours. The crowd came swarming into the ground and loudly cheered the descent, which was admirably neat and precise.
“Mr Slack, a well-set, broad-shouldered man, with a bronzed, good-humoured face, took the plaudits of the enthusiastic crowd who pressed round him with smiling ease, and genially obeyed the behests of the members of the photographic clan. After seeing to the housing of his monoplane, he went by motor-car to the city, being again warmly cheered as he left the ground.”
Slack described his adventurous flight in a chat with a Sheffield Telegraph reporter: –
“It was a beautiful morning when I left Harrogate,” he said, “although somewhat misty. Just after passing Leeds, however, I entered one of the thickest fogs I have ever experienced. I could see nothing; the ground was quite invisible at 300 feet. Hoping it would clear, I went on for five or six miles, steering entirely by compass, for it was impossible to follow my map, as I could not see the landmarks. Instead of clearing, however, the fog got worse, so I was determined to come down to look for landmarks.
“But you do know what you strike in a fog like that, and I had several narrow escapes. It was the fright of my life. I just missed some factory chimneys and some trees, and then right in front of me rose a steep hill. I had to point my machine upwards very smartly in order to get over it. I thought it best to turn around, so I made my way northwards and succeeded in alighting without damage at Seacroft, although I did not find a very good landing place.
“I soon got in touch with my mechanic and stayed at Seacroft till half-past eleven. My mechanic advised me to go more east if I encountered any more fog, and I followed his advice, for I had no sooner got away than I ran into a lot more very thick fog. By turning in an easterly direction, however, I soon got out of it. I was feeling very rocky, however, for my breakfast was not agreeing with me, and the air was bad; there was scarcely a breath of wind, and the machine was doing all sorts of things. The engine, however, was running well.
“I thought it best to come down again and found a very good landing place at Norton Priory, between Doncaster and Pontefract. I left Norton at 4.26, so the run thence to Sheffield took me 21 minutes, a rate of about 70 miles an hour. I travelled from Norton to Sheffield at an altitude of 3,000 feet. It was alright until I got to the hills, when it became very foggy again. However, I got through alright.
“Fog,” added Slack, “is the worst thing the aviator has to meet, although rain is bad enough.”
There was to be no exhibition flying, but people could see the strange flying-machine at a small charge. The aeroplane was overhauled and set to rest in a tent organised by Colonel Clifford, while Slack headed to London to plan for a trip to the south-west.
Back in Sheffield, Slack and his Bleriot was due for an early morning take-off on Wednesday 7th August, but this was prevented due to heavy rain.
He had hoped to take off for Rugby on Thursday at 4am but Slack suffered a bilious attack, missing his opportunity, and a slight mist and strong wind meant he had to wait all day, even indulging in a game of skittles.
A large crowd gathered at Redmires but at about five o’clock when conditions were favourable a message was received that there was a thunderstorm at Rugby.
On Friday, the weather was once again hindered by strong winds, and just when it was thought that the flight would have to be cancelled again, the wind dropped, and Slack quickly jumped into the Bleriot and made a sudden take-off.
He quickly reached an altitude of 600ft and flew due west for half a mile before turning towards Dore and flying onwards to Chesterfield. With this, Slack disappeared into the distance and the crowds quickly dispersed.
The drama didn’t end here though, Slack got lost in a storm near Coventry and his onward flight to Rugby was interrupted when he was forced to land at Nuneaton.
Robert Slack finally ended his tour at Hendon Aerodrome, but he went on to grab victory in an air race with French aviator Eugene Gilbert from Paris to London, as well as being a competitor in an ‘Aerial Derby’ round London in September 1913.
Considering the dangers that Slack faced every time he flew his aeroplane; it was tragic that he met an untimely death in a car accident on Watling Street between St. Albans and London in December 1913.