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The sanitary state of Sheffield

In 1861, The Builder, a journal of architecture, paid a visit to Sheffield to discover the appeal of the town, with its swiftly growing population, and one commended worldwide for industry and enterprise.

High-ranking officers at the Town Hall welcomed the magazine, expecting a fair and favourable travelogue, but when the article appeared on 5 October, it was titled ‘The Sanitary State of Sheffield’.

The observations were undoubtedly honest, the consequences lasting for the next hundred years, and indication that living in those long-ago simple days was bleak.

Brace yourselves, the “best bits” make awkward reading.

“Street scavenging appears to be but imperfectly applied at Sheffield. The streets are partially swept before the shops are open in the morning; consequently, when these are to be cleaned out, the sweepings which are thrown upon the streets remain all day long, to be trodden into a thick greasy crust.

“Proceeding down Victoria Station Road, past the cattle market, we arrive at an area of nearly two acres in extent, completely covered by huge hillocks of filth.

“A special heap in one corner belongs to the Duke of Norfolk, as the sweepings of his Grace’s markets and properties are brought here, and upon which children, not pigs, are grovelling, whilst one infant sits, playing with offal, and gnawing a decayed leek.

“Leaving the neighbourhood, we skirt the canal basin, picking our way between mounds of sifted coal ash, mill and engine coal, iron bars, and steel bars – a rusty, dusty, gritty place to remember, passing the Corn Exchange and presently come into High Street.

“This is the centre of retail commerce, and like all Sheffield streets is inconveniently narrow, its shops poor and dingy, improving but little in this respect when it takes the name of Fargate.

“The same blotchy encrustations on the roads, and the same channels running across the footpaths, with liquid manure from houses and stables, are too frequent.

“The water provided for general use being of a colour we do not esteem nor envy, we are bent on visiting the sources of supply.

“Through a suburban district of small villas and large houses, climbing up a further ascent, we make our observations upon the first great dam (now Crookes Valley Park). Dead leaves are floating upon the surface, and in one bend, the corner nearest the Dam House, a thick slime was upon the waters. Moreover, ducks were swimming in it.

“The next dam, communicated by an open channel, had horses and cattle drinking from it in the corner of a field.

“Higher up, from dam to dam, and up to the great Hadfield reservoir, the same imperfections present themselves: banks that should be lined with sloping stones, and not an atom of decayed vegetation allowed to mix with the water, are planted to the water’s brink with overhanging trees and rank grass and weeds growing apace upon the shallow muddy shores, the water highly-discoloured and slimy.

“Considering the pulmonary diseases to which Sheffield workmen are especially liable, it is a miracle that they do not insist upon the removal of every other exciting cause of ill-health.

“The workman breathes an atmosphere impregnated with excremental and putrefactive smells and charged with dust. This immense concourse of people live, eat, drink, and sleep in a space crammed with cesspits full of their own ordure, and where the contents of their heaped-up ash and offal middens are retained within sight and scent of their dwellings.”

If bilious readers of The Builder were still unsure about visiting, then the last line was probably meant for them. “There is much to interest in Sheffield, much to praise.” And that was it.

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A century of rats

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. Old news is today’s news. back in September 1919 the campaign against rats in Sheffield went on without interruption. Sheffield Corporation had employed a rat catcher and demand had risen so fast that the council was considering employing another one or two experts. The busy rat catcher had visited all kinds of premises – houses, works, shops – and the number of his victims had run into the thousands. However, the council were reluctant to promote National Rat Week, scheduled for October, because the rat-catcher “already had enough on hand.” One hundred years later, our progress has been abysmal, with rats threatening to outnumber people in the city centre… and we have to pay to get rid of them. Hate them, hate them, hate them!

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Sheffield surnames

From the Sheffield Independent, September 1929. The newspaper looked at the most popular surnames in a list of Sheffield citizens. “Many illustrious names have disappeared from the official list of Sheffield citizens during the passage of more than eight centuries since Sheffield first became a manor. Of these, the family name of Roger de Buslin, the first Lord of the Manor, is now entirely unknown – a fate that is also shared by that of his early successors, the Lovetots and, whilst the family names of the Furnivals, the Talbots and the Howards are still in existence, they are by no means popular. To the name Smith – which comes to us from the Dutch, meaning ‘worker with a hammer’ – goes the palm for numerical superiority, it appears no fewer than 740 times, which at a moderate estimate of three in a family, would bring the total number of Smiths in Sheffield to well over two thousand.” The other popular family surnames in ranked order were Brown, Robinson, Wood, Jones, Wragg and Cook. Amongst the most unusual names were Godbehere, Reckless, Love, Hater, Strike, Charity and even a Virgin. Of this last list, I know at least one in modern Sheffield, but sadly have never met a Virgin.

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A Cornish mystery

Here’s a story that goes back to November 1912… one that takes place in Newquay, on the Cornish coast, but involves two people with Sheffield connections. This is a mystery that captured the attention of the British people and one that has never been solved.

On Saturday November 23, 1912, Marian Nowill, the wife of Sheffield merchant Sidney Nowell, went missing from the Atlantic Hotel at Newquay, Cornwall.

Nine days later her body was recovered from the sea near the hotel.

Her husband was Sidney Nowill (1851-1920), second son of John Nowill, who had left England when he was 15 years old, to be educated at the Greek College near Constantinople. After being apprenticed to a Scottish merchant he started his own business, later joined by his brother, Stephen, acting as overseas brokers for the family firm of John Nowill and Sons, Sheffield-based knife manufacturers. In time, Sidney Nowill and Co, extended business to other Sheffield firms and opened an office in Athens.

He lived abroad up until his marriage to Marian Foster (born 1877), whom he had known since she was a baby. When they married in 1900 Sidney was twenty-six years older than Marian. The couple settled at Sandygate House, 94 Ivy Hall Road, Sheffield, but Sidney made annual visits to Constantinople and Athens, and to Egypt every three years.

It was while the couple were travelling by boat to Port Said in 1910 that they met James Arthur Delay, a retired Singapore solicitor. The three of them became good friends and Delay was a regular visitor to Sandygate House.

In November 1912, Delay arrived at the Atlantic Hotel in Newquay, later joined by Marian Nowill and her mother. It didn’t take a lot of imagination for other guests to realise that Marian and Delay were involved in a romantic affair. The two played golf each day and spent most evenings together. She was described as a cheerful individual while Delay was often morose, nicknamed by guests as ‘The Singapore Tiger’.

On the night of November 22, they had dinner and talked for a while in the hotel lounge. She retired to bed and was seen at breakfast the following day, guests noticing distinct coolness between Marian and Delay. She appeared to be pre-occupied, very absent-minded, and repeatedly asked hotel reception about train times to London. She told her mother that Delay was “a bad lot,” subsequently accusing him of taking her purse.

In the afternoon, after returning from a walk with Delay she went out again wearing her golfing clothes, promising to return for tea, but was never seen again.

For two days, the lonely coast was beaten by search -parties, the man who was her intimate friend aiding in the quest. Delay was grief -stricken and in the middle of one search tried to throw himself off a cliff but was prevented from doing so by a coastguard.

At 11 o’clock on the Sunday morning Delay posted a letter, to whom it was never determined. In the afternoon he remained in the hotel, very depressed, later going to his room. Late on Monday his door was forced, and Delay was found hanging by braces from the hook in the door.

For more than a week the country was riveted.

Sidney Nowill travelled to Newquay to be close to the search, seemingly oblivious to the tragic liaison between Marian and Delay. There had been reported sightings across the country, but Sidney thought her dead, and nine days later, just as a telegram arrived stating she had been ‘seen’ in Southport, a body was spotted in the sea.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, a local fisherman, Joseph Harris, was looking over cliffs near to the Atlantic Hotel, when he observed the body amidst rocks and foam. The police arrived as did hundreds of people, including Sidney Nowill, while Coastguard Noad descended a rope ladder. He reached the safety of the sand, despite the huge breakers dashing over the rocks, and managed to secure the body that had become wedged. Despite it being dreadfully mangled the body was identified as being Marian Nowill. It had been high water for the previous nine days, and it was presumed that the body had been lodged, only to emerge at the next low water.

It was only afterwards that events took a sinister turn.

During the inquest a coastguard recalled seeing Marian and Delay on their morning walk. “The gentleman would walk a few yards and then take hold of the lady’s hand. She would push him away and appeared to have an altercation.”

We can only speculate as to the cause of the argument.

However, when Delay’s will became public, it revealed that he was in fact married, a situation unknown to his family and friends. He had wooed Mary Leslie Young, convincing her to leave her husband, Edward, a solicitor’s clerk. After marrying her in New York in 1911 she had settled in London, apparently oblivious to her new husband’s double-life. Was it this information that had caused a rift between Marian and Delay?

Even more sensational, was the news that Delay had left £30,000 to Marian Nowill. In time, Sidney Nowill managed to convince the Coroner to record Marian’s death as being on Saturday 23 November, two days before Delay’s suicide, therefore forfeiting any claim to the money.

And this is where the story ends, still a mystery all these years later.

Was Marian alone when out walking that fateful afternoon? Was she pushed? Did James Delay follow her? Why did he take his own life? Was it guilt, or was he simply grief-stricken? Did Sidney know more than he revealed? Or was it all just a terrible accident?

Sidney Nowill returned to Sheffield, immersed himself in business affairs, and in his last three years suffered failing health. He died at Sandygate House in 1920, the newspaper obituaries failing to mention anything about Marian, apparently air-brushed from his life.

Sandygate House still stands, as does the Atlantic Hotel in Newquay. 

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Death by paralysis

It’s a question asked by more than one person here and has appeared in more than one story.

I’m sure that after this, some qualified and knowledgeable individual will say that everything I write here is a load of rubbish.

But being the curious type, I’ve attempted to investigate a cause of death attributed so many times in Victorian and Edwardian Sheffield, that being “death by paralysis,” and even ‘death by creeping paralysis.”

Nowadays, the cause of death of an individual is more precise, largely due to the advance of science and medicine. Back then, paralysis might have been assigned to a death certificate for any number of reasons, unknown then, but common to us today.

“Death by paralysis” or “death by creeping paralysis” might have covered any number of causes – botulism, either caught through eating infected food or through an infected wound; multiple sclerosis; vitamin B12 deficiency as a result of alcoholism or eating disorder; cervical spondylosis; and even motor neurone disease.

However, the terms were often used to avoid family embarrassment, because death was caused as a result of syphilis or alcoholism.

Syphilis was extremely difficult to cure. Often patients would think that their disease had disappeared or been cured, only to have their bodies betray them with a resurgence of symptoms.

Concealment of the sexual disease was common, and women expected not even to show knowledge of the disease, with infection of families by men widespread across all classes.

Victorian case notes on venereal-disease patients, often follow a dishearteningly familiar pattern. Having responded well to treatment, many relapsed several months or years later. Stigmatising infections, lengthy treatments and uncertain outcomes took an emotional toll on patients.

Nineteenth-century doctors took seriously the notion that a diagnosis of syphilis could trigger acute despair and melancholia.

In fact, the final stages of syphilis triggered brain disease, characterised by dementia, progressive muscular weakness and paralysis. Unsurprisingly for the times, many ended up in mental institutions, diagnosed as “General paralysis of the insane.”

Oscar Wilde drew his last, laboured breath on November 30, 1900. He was only 46 years old. Ever since that moment, literary scholars, doctors and Wilde fans have argued about the precise cause of his death. The long-held theory was that Oscar Wilde succumbed to the ravages of tertiary, or end-stage, syphilis.

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Looks and Smiles

The 1980s might seem a long time ago now. This was the decade when Sheffield probably reached rock bottom, our historic industries on their knees, and prospects seemingly bleak . Unemployment was a selective virus, attacking some people more than others, and it wasn’t a good time to be a school leaver.

If ever there is a reminder of those depressing times then Ken Loach’s film Looks and Smiles, made in 1981, is the one to dig out.

It showed the effects on two Sheffield teenagers who leave school and cannot get a job. Loach, together with writer Barry Hines and cameraman Chris Menges (the same team who made Kes and The Gamekeeper) told a human story that added up to a very political film, immediately relevant to Britain of the eighties.

Looks and Smiles was made by Black Lion Films, in association with Kestrel Films, backed by the old ITV Midlands company ATV, using its ITC subsidiary (famous for The Champions, The Persuaders, Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, etc).

Shot in black-and-white during early 1981, it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. However, it was only ever intended as a deep-seated TV drama, airing on the ITV network in May 1982.

“When I started writing the story, it was going to be about courting, having your first girlfriend. But the issue of unemployment became more and more important like a storm cloud gathering,” said Barry Hines at the time.

Ken Loach pointed to the fact that one of Sheffield’s employment offices, which used to advertise “Jobs of the Week” in its window was then offering “The Job of the Week.”

The resulting two-hour film was still the love story of Mick and Karen, but against the depressing background of Mick’s struggle to find work, and whether the Army was for some of them the only alternative to a lifetime in the dole queue.

Available on DVD, Looks and Smiles now provides a fascinating view of Sheffield in desperate times, and evokes memories of an industrial scene and a city centre lost forever, including the Hole-in-the-Road.

None of the lead characters were professional actors. Graham Green (Mick), aged 17, was from Doncaster, and 16-year-old Carolyn Nicholson (Karen) was from Newcastle-on-Tyne. The third acting newcomer was played by a 17-year-old trainee mechanic, Tony Pitts (Alan) from Sheffield.

After making the film the boys went back to their trades and Carolyn back to her studies.

However, for one of them the film did have a deep impact.

Tony Pitts turned his back on being a mechanic, landing the role of loveable young rogue Archie Brooks in Emmerdale between 1983 and 1993. He’s since played key roles in Dead Man Weds, The Gemma Factor, Scott & Bailey, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and Wild Bill.

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City of Sheffield Lifeboat

he story of a boat called City of Sheffield. This is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Tyne-class all-weather lifeboat, No. 47-023, built in 1988, that is currently landlocked at the National Emergency Services Museum at West Bar.

The vessel was originally fundraised by the people of Sheffield, with the cost being met by Mrs Mary Mabel Walker. It was named City of Sheffield by HRH, the Duchess of Kent in July 1989 at Whitby Lifeboat Station.

It later served at Ramsgate, Hartlepool and Sennen Cove, Cornwall, before finding a permanent home in 2001 at Poole, in Dorset.

The “Big Orange Boat,” as it was affectionately nicknamed by locals, served Poole Harbour and coastline until being decommissioned in November 2016.

During its operational lifetime, the City of Sheffield was launched 557 times, saving 650 people, with RNLI volunteer crews onboard for 752 hours.

After being put in storage at Poole, it was moved to the National Emergency Services Museum on a five-year loan in 2017.