Back in Victorian times, High Street and its approach was compared to a bottle, of which the approach was the body and the street the neck.
From the Churchgates (Sheffield Cathedral) the road tapered away until constricted at what was known as ‘Grundy’s Corner’ – the bulging portion of which had been an eye-sore for years.
Horse-drawn traffic was the problem, and every year the neck became increasingly congested.
Plans to divert traffic away from High Street were considered impossible, and the Town Council had considered an ambitious widening of the street as far back as 1875.
However, it involved demolishing buildings and prompted objections from shopkeepers concerned about compensation and property boundaries, and it wasn’t until the 1890s that work started.
These two illustrations from 1890, both taken from Coles Corner, showed High Street as was, and the proposed widening of the street.
It was completed in 1895-1896 and involved demolition of buildings on the south side (to the right), replacing them with elegant Victorian structures, including the Foster’s Building.
Sadly, the Blitz of World War Two destroyed most of the property and we are left with twentieth century replacements including what was once Walsh’s department store, an old Sheffield name that mutated into Rackhams, House of Fraser, eventually handed over to TJ Hughes.
Only one building survives both sketches and is as familiar today as it was then. Parade Chambers, built for Pawson and Brailsford by Charles Hadfield, and constructed by George Longden & Son between 1883-1885.
The recent post about Castlegate failed to mention that it is in the process of being part-pedestrianised, Phase 2 of Sheffield’s ‘Grey to Green’ project. Unless you visit this forgotten part of the city centre the relevance of the initiative might escape you.
It is part of an approach to transform ‘redundant’ road space into a network of public spaces, sustainable drainage and urban rain gardens, which aims to improve the setting of the Riverside Business District, Castlegate and the rest of the city centre and then on to Kelham Island and Victoria Quays, as a place to work, live and enjoy, whilst also dealing with the effects of climate change.
Phase 1 (West Bar/Bridge Street/Snig Hill) was completed in Spring 2016 and was funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Sheffield City Region Infrastructure Fund and Sheffield City Council.
The area suffered catastrophic river floods in 2007. With the completion of the Inner Relief Road in 2008, traffic was diverted away from West Bar. The opportunity was seized to replace the ‘grey’ impermeable ‘redundant’ roads into ‘green’ permeable beds, transforming the space with colourful meadow-like planting and significantly increasing surface water storage.
With advice on plant selection from the University of Sheffield Landscape Department this has created a new townscape that is different to anything done in Sheffield before. Over 40,000 bulbs, 40 new trees, 600 evergreen shrubs and 26,000 herbaceous plants were introduced to form a seasonal urban meadow.
The new road layout was designed to slow vehicle speeds and make walking and cycling more attractive. New paving, street furniture, colourful seating and five eye-catching public art ‘totems’ celebrate the local history of the West Bar area including its Victorian music halls and theatres, its lively street life, its complex relationship to the river and its legacy of industry and brewing.
Phase 2 (Castlegate to Exchange Place) is nearing completion, and Phase 3 (Gibraltar Street to Shalesmoor) will eventually transform 1.2km of ‘redundant’ road-space into an attractive new linear green public space.
The name suggests that this is one of Sheffield’s ancient roads, perhaps named after Sheffield Castle, this stronghold destroyed by Parliamentarians during the 1600s. Castlegate is the road that runs alongside the River Don between Blonk Street and the junction of Waingate and Bridge Street.
However, you might be surprised to know that Castlegate is a relatively modern road and celebrates its centenary in 2030.
The road is found on the site of the lost castle and was first suggested by Edward Mitchel Gibbs, the Sheffield architect, as part of his ambitious plans for a Viaduct Scheme connecting Great Central Station (Victoria Station) with Haymarket.
The River Don Road was the only portion of the proposal adopted by Sheffield Corporation and built to ease congestion around Blonk Street, The Wicker and Lady’s Bridge. Its construction was made easier by the council’s Castle Hill Market development built on the embankment of the castle.
Castlegate (or Castle Gate), 60 feet wide and 200 yards long, was built at a cost of £13,000 in 1930, using over 9,000 tons of material, with a one-foot layer of strong concrete laid below the asphalt.
It was divided from the River Don by an old stone wall which had to be reinforced by 14 concrete buttresses each weighing 50 tons. Over the buttresses was a solid mass of concrete stretching from the wall halfway under the road and taking the weight of the traffic.
It is a strange name for a small street in Sheffield. Esperanto Place is the short road that stretches between Arundel Gate, going down past Mecca Bingo, and into Fitzalan Square.
Many years ago, this was the eastern end of Norfolk Street, later separated by the construction of Arundel Gate, and insignificant to most people.
However, in 1974, when Sheffield hosted the British Esperanto Conference, this section of road was renamed in its honour.
Sheffield has been important in the world of Esperanto, hosting the British Esperanto Conference on four occasions, and is one of the few places in Britain to have a street named Esperanto.
Esperanto is a language created in the 19th century which soon became the most widely-spoken constructed international auxiliary language in the world. Advocates included film star Charlie Chaplin and writers J. R. R. Tolkien and Leo Tolstoy.
This extraordinary sketch shows a grand municipal square that was once proposed for the centre of Sheffield. The illustration from 1911 was by Alwyn Henry Holland, and showed King Edward Square, considered as a memorial to King Edward VII who died in 1910.
At the time, Alderman George Franklin had suggested that the Fitzalan Market should be swept away and the central block between King Street and Fitzalan Square used as a handsome open square. In its centre was to be an equestrian monument celebrating King Edward with fountains either side.
The proposal would have meant that the main streets of the city would run into the square and afford adequate space for dealing with increasing tram traffic.
It was understandable that Sheffield considered such a scheme.
The city was often compared to Leeds, with its city square and ornamental embellishments, and the architecture of its public buildings and offices were thought far superior.
Fitzalan Market, dating back to the 18th century, was considered an ‘eyesore’ and described by market traders as being like the “Black Hole of Calcutta.”
The scheme was subject of several meetings at the Town Hall, and serious consideration was given to the plan. Alas, with the cost estimated at £200,000 (nearly £24 million today), the idea was abandoned in favour of the much-cheaper standing figure of King Edward VII in nearby Fitzalan Square.
From the illustration we can determine where King Edward Square would have been.
The road at the centre of the sketch is Commercial Street, leading into High Street, with Fitzalan Square to the left. The road on the right side of the square is King Street. Several buildings are familiar, including The White Building on the left and the York City and County Bank (now The Banker’s Draft) in the centre of the picture. The spire of Sheffield Parish Church, now the Cathedral, can be seen behind.
Fitzalan Market was demolished in 1930 and a large part of the site was acquired by C&A Modes Ltd for a new department store. This was destroyed in the Blitz and replaced with a less spectacular building, later acquired by Primark, and now easyHotel.
NOTE:- Alwyn Henry Holland (1861-1935) was a little-known painter in watercolours who was initially articled to the architect John Dodsley Webster. He acted as Honorary Secretary of the Sheffield Society of Artists but, on the death of his father, succeeded to the family grocery business. Holland was the owner and architect for the Howard Fine Art Gallery on Chapel Walk, which opened in 1898 for the exhibition of old, modern, pictorial, and applied arts.
The King Edward VII Memorial in Fitzalan Square was unveiled by the Duke of Norfolk in October 1913. The statue, designed by Alfred Drury, is made of bronze, and set upon an Aberdeen Kemnay Granite plinth.
Around the statue pedestal are four panels whose meaning have been forgotten over time. This is probably not surprising because Sheffield’s industrial pollution meant the statue was covered in soot for generations.
Since cleaned up, some of the wording has weathered, and had it not been for the Sheffield Daily Telegraph explaining the meaning of each panel in 1913, then we might be unsure of their relevance today.
If you get the opportunity, visit the Grade II listed statue, and use this post for an understanding of each of the four panels. Click on each photo for an explanation.
“The front panel consists of two figures – Fame and Truth holding the inscription ‘Edward VII. 1841-1910’. The majestic figure of fame is portrayed with wings, as fame flies through the length and breadth of the land. Truth is represented by a serene figure with eyes uplifted to the source of Truth.”
“The back panel represents Peace – ever the great aim of King Edward – being crowned by Gratitude, who bears in her left hand an olive branch. Behind Gratitude is a woman holding a small winged figure of Liberty, which should be the outcome of peace. The other two figures express the idea of Rest and Contentment, brought about by Peace.”
“One of the side panels represents Philanthropy in the graceful and stately figure of a woman presenting the Crippled Children’s Institute to a finely built man typical of Labour. Near to him is a group of interested spectators, one of these being a poor little cripple who is evidently anticipating benefit from the Institution. Behind him is a poor mother and her baby, and an old man, delightedly interested in what promises to be of so great service to the class they represent. Behind the central figure of Philanthropy are two nurses, and to the left a mother and the babe she has gratefully received back from the Institution cured. Thus, are depicted on this panel Anticipation and Realisation.”
“The remaining panel is symbolic of Unity – a woman in the prime of life holding by each hand figures representative of India and China; the idea of Unity is further carried out most convincingly by the presence (behind these figures) of the North American Indian, the Maori of New Zealand and the Aborigine of Australia.”
Despite the mixed fortunes of Fitzalan Square, one structure has stood proudly for well over a hundred years. The King Edward VII Memorial in the centre of the square was erected in October 1913, Sheffield’s commemoration of the King who had died three years before. The bronze statue has seen out two World Wars, surviving the destruction of the immediate area during the Blitz.
It might seem hard to believe now, but Edward was a popular King with Sheffield people. His mother, Queen Victoria, had been a relative stranger to the city, but as the Prince of Wales, he had opened Firth Park in 1875, and attended the opening of an industrial exhibition by the Cutlers’ Company in 1885. There were also stories of Edward’s incognito visits, including those to friends in the suburbs and a town centre hostelry.
He visited again in 1905, this time as Monarch, to open the University of Sheffield and to unveil the Boer Monument to the York and Lancaster Regiment outside Sheffield Parish Church (now the Cathedral).
After his death in 1910, it seemed appropriate that Sheffield should honour him with a statue. As always, the proposal sparked debate amongst its people.
Sheffield Corporation made it known it intended to add an equestrian statue and fountains at both end of Fitzalan Square, already upgraded in 1909. However, opinion was divided because of the poor reputation the square had long held.
A grander scheme had also been proposed for a new King Edward Square nearby, on the site of the Fitzalan Market (where the easyHotel stands today). This scheme would have cost excess of £100,000 and after much deliberation was abandoned.
Any memorial to King Edward had to be funded through voluntary public subscription, and so Fitzalan Square was deemed more suitable as the cheaper option.
Sheffield Corporation had already been solicited by artists keen to work on the memorial, including Benjamin Creswick, Albert Bruce-Joy, Frederick Pomeroy, and Adrian Jones.
In March 1911, the city architect, Mr Edwards, invited artists to submit designs for both an equestrian statue and a standing figure. As well as those proposals already received, there were others from Alfred Drury, Francis Derwent Wood, William Goscombe John, Henry Alfred Pegram, Paul Raphael Montford, Thomas Brock and Charles John Allen.
It became known that King George preferred non-equestrian statues of his late father, and Sheffield respected those wishes with its choice.
The winning design was by Alfred Drury (1856-1944), a sculptor with a fine reputation in London. He quoted between £1600 and £2000 for the design, and £2000 as his fee, although he eventually received 2000 guineas.
A photograph of the design was published in December 1911, and the following month Fitzalan Square was officially announced as the chosen site.
Fundraising was slow, and the project might have faltered, had it not been for a £5,000 donation from Samuel Meggitt Johnson, of George Bassett and Co, on the condition that a home and school for ‘crippled’ children also be built in the city.
The statue was winched into place in October 1913, quickly covered, and officially unveiled by the Duke of Norfolk at a high-profile ceremony on 28 October, the same day that the Duchess of Norfolk laid the foundation stone of the ‘Cripples’ home in the Rivelin Valley.
Thousands of people turned up for the ceremony, curious to see the uncovering of a statue, something that was not commonplace in Sheffield. At the time, there were only three other statues on display – Queen Victoria opposite the Town Hall (now at Endcliffe Park), James Montgomery and Ebenezer Elliot. Sheffield had only recently possessed wider streets, and the old narrow congested roads had always been unsuitable for statuary.
Before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, the vast crowd was entertained by the bands of the 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters and the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons, playing in turn, while troops lined the enclosure around Fitzalan Square.
At 3.30pm there were speeches by Samuel Osborn (Lord Mayor), Colonel Henry Kenyon Stephenson (Chairman of the Memorial Committee), Thomas W. Ward (Master Cutler), Alderman William Henry Brittain (Town Collector), and Alderman John Hobson (Deputy-Lord Mayor).
The Duke of Norfolk drew the cord which allowed the covering to fall from the statue, to an outburst of cheering and the playing of the National Anthem.
“I highly esteem the honour of being allowed to unveil in this great city the statue of a great King. We have assembled to place a lasting remembrance in the centre of the city which will bring home to the minds of other generations who will only hear of him as a memory of the past, and as a historical character, the personality of their late King.”
The King Edward VII statue (2.9 metres high) was made of bronze, situated on top of an Aberdeen Kemnay Granite plinth (4.27 metres high), designed by a local architect, similar to one Drury had designed in Aberdeen, but also thought better to withstand Sheffield’s industrial pollution.
There are four panels in stone on all four sides of the plinth – ‘Fame and Truth’, ‘Philanthropy, ‘Unity’ and ‘Peace’, with the word ‘Peacemaker’ incorporated into a banner across one of the bronze reliefs.
What do you do with a problem like Fitzalan Square? Those of you that have seen it lately cannot have failed to notice its recent overhaul with a new grassed area around the statue of King Edward VII, and the addition of new trees. The square has also been given open access from Norfolk Street, across Arundel Gate, and down Esperanto Place.
The improvements to Fitzalan Square and the surrounding area are part of a £5.5million ‘Knowledge Gateway’ project to transform the area which runs from the Cultural Industries Quarter up to the square.
However, there will be doubters that look upon this work with a note of scepticism. Fitzalan Square has never lived up to its name, not helped by unremarkable twentieth century buildings on one side of the square, and a tendency to attract ‘undesirables’.
Its history goes back to 1869 when Sheffield Corporation started purchasing and demolishing premises on the east side of Market Street (where the top end of the square is now) and the south side of the old Haymarket.
Several properties came down, including the Star Hotel, Theaker’s Coffee House, the King’s Arms Hotel, the Blue Bell, Fisher and Sons, Mr Arnison’s drapery, and Mr Jeffrey’s pawnbrokers.
A large portion of the premises belonged to the Misses Shearwood. These two ladies objected to part with their property and refused to lend themselves in any way to the proceedings for acquiring it. Sheffield Corporation had to execute a deed poll vesting the property in themselves and paid money into a bank account for the benefit of the ladies. The Sheriff of Yorkshire was called in to give the Corporation possession of the property, and did so by placing in the street an article of furniture and getting the tenants to ‘attorn’ to the Corporation – that was to admit that the Corporation was their landlord. The money remained in a Bank of England account until the death of the ladies some years later.
When the property between Market Street and Jehu Lane (still standing off Commercial Street) was pulled down the open space was called Fitzalan Square, after the Duke of Norfolk’s family.
It was in 1882 that the council announced that it was obtaining plans and specifications for completing a new layout in the open space.
“The space will be levelled, and a retaining wall built along Market Street, surmounted with ornamental palisades, leaving a part open in the centre with steps down to the space levelled, at each of which is to be erected two small ornamental stone buildings, the one near the markets for the use of gentlemen, to contain a good reception or waiting room, lavatory, retiring and attendant’s rooms. The building at the other end near to Norfolk Street, for the use of ladies; to be provided with similar accommodation. The open space is to be well spaced with good flagstones, and in the centre a suitable fountain to be erected, or a statue to William Jeffcock, the first Mayor of Sheffield.”
It appears that the plans were rejected in full, the toilets not built, but some improvements were made to ‘Welshers’ Oval’, as the Sheffield Independent called Fitzalan Square.
“The police were asked to undertake the keeping of order in the open space,” said Le Flaneur in the newspaper. “I am afraid this open space will be very much like the proverbial white elephant. It certainly cost enough to get, and now a permanent addition of the police force will be necessary to keep it constantly free of the loafers, idlers and book makers that make it their daily resort.”
It was left to Police-constable George Warhurst to be the object of terror. Betting loungers were prompt to obey his orders to make themselves scarce, and it was a difficult task for the Chief Constable when Warhurst died in 1884.
Matters did not improve after a pagoda-style building, comprising tram waiting rooms, water closets and urinals, as well as a clock turret, was built in the centre of the square in 1885.
Far from enhancing the appearance of the square, it provided shelter to ‘mouldy old men and frowsy women’ and in a short time had acquired a shabby reputation.
“If only some of our worthy Aldermen and Councillors would make it convenient to spend a few hours each day, for a week, in the immediate vicinity of this structure, they would, I am sure, be earnest in their endeavours to put an end to the constant ‘loafing’ which takes place by ‘undesirables’ at this particular sport,” said one letter to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
It was a subject repeated day after day.
“The evil at the shelter is a radiating evil. It embraces all the seats around, for the reason that, while the shelter is the converging point of the very pick of Sheffield’s undesirable characters, they also use it as a kind of base from which they carry on their predatory prowling: a long rest, then a short spell of loafing at the street corners, – that is the day’s programme.”
“It has been a disgrace far too long, and from every point of view. In my judgement the lavatories themselves are a menace to public decency.”
The ‘Current Topics’ column in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph took up the matter and its biting words make painful reading today.
“The correspondents who are raising the question of this unpicturesque resort of the city’s Weary Willies and Tired Tims will do good service if they can stimulate the authorities into action. We will confess that we never pass through Fitzalan Square without experiencing a keen desire to turn a hose pipe on those seats, partly because it would be a pleasing novelty to see the people run, as in their abhorrence of cold water they would, and partly because both they and the seats they occupy look as if they would be the better for a smart wash.
“There need be no sentiment wasted over the denizens of Fitzalan Square. When we are really civilised, we shall transport such people to Labour Colonies and give them to eat exactly what they earn. Failing that there is neither reason nor sense in retaining them as permanent decorations to the city’s ‘finest site’. Fitzalan Square might be something to be proud of. At present it is only disgusting.”
Sheffield Corporation was indeed stimulated into action, probably the result of land at one end of the square being chosen as the site for the new General Post Office.
While land was cleared for the Post Office in 1907, councillors proposed reconstructing Fitzalan Square to harmonise with the new building.
It was probably one of the best known public spaces in Sheffield, but the most ardent son could scarcely claim that the pagoda-like structure which gave it its chief characteristic had added either architectural grace or dignity to this part of the city.
“The pagoda had served various purposes satisfactorily, and, notably, as a rendezvous for a little army of folk with apparently little to do than doze and gossip the day through.”
The council adopted a scheme for laying out Fitzalan Square in ornamental style as an open space, and at the same time taking advantage for utilitarian purposes. The scheme was worked out by Mr C.F. Wike, City Engineer, based on drawings prepared by the Sheffield Society of Architects and Surveyors.
At the time it was noted that there were more pipes laid through Fitzalan Square than through any part of the city. Here, the lines to the GPO, the National Telephone, and Electric Light Power stations converged. The Post Office was also laying cables to connect trunk wires to the new GPO building and on completion of work, in January 1909, renovation of the square commenced.
The contractor chosen for the work was George Longden and Son, but the original plan had been shorn of ornamental detail due to cost, although the property overlooking the square was nearly all rebuilt.
The ugly pagoda went and the central part of the square it occupied was enlarged. This was made possible by removing an old cab stand and filling up the slope on the south side of the square to make it level and wider.
The upper part of Baker’s Hill, a sloping road in front of where the new GPO was being built, had been done away with, and steps substituted as an outlet from that corner of the square into Pond Street.
The new scheme provided an ornamental stone balustrade, public conveniences at either end of the square, and a tramway office, all underground. At the four corners were electric arc lamps, with further embellishments, in the shape of a fountain and a statue, planned for a later date.
However, the scheme was embroiled in controversy, the council wanting to use Norwegian or Swedish granite because it resisted damage, but the majority wanting cheaper Stoke Hall stone. In the end, the balustrades were built of imported granite.
Fitzalan Square was formally opened on Wednesday December 8, 1909, by the Lord Mayor, Earl Fitzwilliam, at which he made an expressive speech: –
“We live in a time when the question – a burning question in some cities – of open spaces is bidding fair to see some very satisfactory accomplishment. In no city more than Sheffield are these open spaces desirable. In a city like Sheffield where we burned the very best ‘South Yorkshire’, they made the very best mess of the South Yorkshire atmosphere. Science has not yet taught us how altogether to avoid this murky effect, but by providing open spaces we might make best of the atmosphere that is left to us. Sheffield is especially fortunate in its open spaces and in this particular one, because although in the past they had had a space here, it had not been one worthy of the size or importance of the city.”
The improvements had cost £9,000 (about £1.1 million now), but the age-old problems refused to go away, and criticism was often scathing.
“Within a year an article appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, written by an anonymous correspondent, under the heading ‘THAT SQUARE’: –
“A good deal of the recent talk about Fitzalan Square may have been ineffectual, but if it did nothing else it sent me to inspect the place. Though my work brings me into the city daily, I had never had reason to descend to the bottom of High Street since the so-called improvement had taken place. Yesterday I determined to see for myself what the fuss was all about.
“I have no desire to exaggerate but I do not hesitate to say that Fitzalan Square is the most pestilently ill-favoured open space in England. This is patent without seeing all the others, for there is an instinct which tells you when you have seen the absolute nadir of ugliness. I have seen IT.
“If you are at all run down the effect of suddenly coming upon such a spectacle as this forlorn wilderness of paltry dog kennels and pretentious architectural incoherencies may easily cause a shock dangerous to health.
“The said ‘improvement’ consists of a stone balustrade round a large piece of nothing at all. What this petty stone fence is meant to enclose or exclude is not obvious. There are four lamp-posts of the most abysmal hideousness. Possibly there is poetic fitness in this, for they are meant to light the way below.
“It might be roofed in and let as a skating rink or turned into a rifle range. It might be dug up and let out to husbandmen. Unless three out of four of the surrounding buildings are absolutely wiped out and a big sum spent in covering up the alleged ‘improvement’ which has recently been carried out, nothing can be done to make the place decent.”
And so, the tone was set, for decades subject of ridicule, damaged during the Blitz, and often left to its own unsavoury devices.
The fountain never materialised and a plan to relocate a statue of Ebenezer Elliot from Weston Park to Fitzalan Square was abandoned. It was graced with a statue of King Edward VII (subject of another post) in 1913.
In time the underground toilets were removed, the trams disappeared, and even the taxis left for busier parts of the city centre.
When the area has become too down-at-heel there have been attempts to restore it, including a 2003 facelift, with the restoration of the King Edward VII statue, new sandstone paving, steel benches and improved street lighting.
The latest restoration comes at a time when this part of the city centre is in transition. A vast proportion of people have migrated to The Moor along with the old market, the old General Post Office now belongs to Sheffield Hallam University, and the future depends on the Castlegate development and most probably our student population.
The Fitzwilliam Street part of Sheffield city centre was developed in the early 19th century, from agricultural fields into Victorian terracing and warehouses. Of significance, is that the area was heavily bombed during World War Two and as a result was cleared and remained largely undeveloped until the 1970s and 1980s.
The boom in student accommodation has resurrected the area in the past decade, not least with another new planning application submitted to Sheffield City Council for a thirteen-storey block of 209 student studio apartments. If all current applications are approved, the area will once again revert to residential use.
But what is the history of Fitzwilliam Street?
Back in 1874, Samuel Everard, a prominent citizen of the town, made the following observations: –
“As we pass Bright Street, Fitzwilliam Street and Rockingham Street, let us know them as illustrations of the origin of our street names. They at once indicate the ownership of the soil by the house of Wentworth (of Wentworth Woodhouse).”
The last Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, married Mary, the daughter and heir of Thomas Bright, of Badsworth, near Pontefract, in 1752, who in her own right was Lord of the Manor of Ecclesall and owner of extensive estates in the vicinity.
It was said that the Marquis, when once taunted with marrying a woman of no blood, had replied, “If she had no blood, she had plenty of suet.”
The marriage brought the land into possession of the Marquis of Rockingham and it descended to his nephew, William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam.
The names of Fitzwilliam Street and Rockingham Street are familiar to us all, but Bright Street, named after the Lord of the Manor of Ecclesall, has long disappeared.
It ran directly from the bottom end of Fitzwilliam Street towards Cumberland Street, crossed by South Street (that we now know as The Moor). It broadly spanned the same line as does Fitzwilliam Gate today.
The mysterious disappearance of a sixteen-year-old boy from the slums of Sheffield got the tongues wagging back in July 1925, and it revealed a story that might take some believing today.
Our story begins in February 1911 when a poor woman, called Mrs Minnie Robshaw, kept a little general store at 111 Scotland Street and answered an advertisement asking for a home for a two-year-old child, and, on a payment of £5, a boy was surrendered to her by a woman named Mrs Weatherburn, who kept a boarding house at 22 Catherine Street, Liverpool.
Mrs Weatherburn brought the baby, called William Paley Weatherburn, and handed over the child at Midland Station. Before going away she told Mrs Robshaw that when the baby was twenty-one, he would come into a lot of money.
Shortly after, the baby became ill, and Mrs Robshaw wrote to the mother, but her letter was returned, as the address was unknown.
Thirteen years went by and nothing was heard of the mother.
The first intimation that he was not their legal son came to Willie in a curious way.
A young girl appeared in Sheffield and persuaded the boy to go away with her. She said he was his half-sister. Mrs Robshaw didn’t know where the lad had gone, but after a two-month absence she received a letter from a place unknown: –
“Willie had had a nice holiday now, and we have to get him a new suit and boots, and he has been on a farm at Spotforth and had plenty of good support.”
The boy came back, and the only thing that Mrs Robshaw could learn from him was that he had been on a farm and had been well treated.
He told his foster-mother that he had been to Liverpool and had been across to New Brighton. They had put him on the train for Sheffield without any money and without a ticket.
It appears that Willie was quite happy with Mr and Mrs Robshaw and was said to be the life and soul of the house.
Willie had attended a council school until he was 14, and had then been apprenticed as a painter and decorator.
In July 1925, a friend of Willie’s went into the shop for a penny bar of chocolate. “Where is Willie?” he asked. “What do you want him for?” asked Mrs Robshaw. “A lady at the bottom of the street in a motor-car wants him and has offered me sixpence if I return with him,” answered the boy.
Mrs Robshaw became suspicious, and saying nothing to Willie, went out herself. She noticed that in the car was a well-dressed woman accompanied by a man in a smart brown suit. As she approached, the woman noticed her and immediately drove away. Mrs Robshaw, however, had the presence to take a note of the number plate – KC 8209 – the registration mark for Liverpool.
Mrs Robshaw returned to the shop, and a little later a man came in. She was positive that the man was the same one that was in the car. He asked for Willie, saying that he wanted to take him for a drive. Willie was not in the house and she did not consent to the request, finding out later that Willie had been seen to enter a car a few streets away.
According to neighbours, an expensive limousine car was seen in the vicinity shortly before Willie had gone missing, and a stylish young woman in a black silk cape had visited premises close to where Willie lived, and had exchanged her fashionable hat for one less likely to excite comment, and her smart cloak for an old shawl.
A neighbour also spoke of a pretty golden-haired girl, who had been at the wheel of the motor car, and a well-dressed man who had made certain inquiries about the boy.
After his disappearance, Mrs Robshaw received a letter from Willie which read: –
“Dear Mum and Dad, – I have gone away on my own account. It is for my own good. I will write to you from time to time, but will not come to live with you anymore. Don’t trouble about me, as I shall be brought up as a gentleman, and not have to work for my living. With love, Willie. xxx.”
The address of the letter was in Manchester, but it appeared that the street did not exist.
Now there was a silence and each day his foster-mother wondered if he would ever return.
“I am convinced that it was Mrs Weatherburn who was in the car,” said Mrs Robshaw. “When she brought the baby to me fourteen years ago she told me that many years ago her husband (Percy Weatherburn) went to America, where he had since died. Shortly after he went she took a position with an invalid lady, and it was shortly after this that the child was born.
“After her husband’s death she met a man in Liverpool who said he would marry her if she got rid of the baby. So she advertised for a home for it, and it was her advertisement that I answered.
“So Willie came to us, and we looked upon him as a son, and did everything we could for him. Then he was taken away from us by these fashionable people, and we have heard nothing from him since. I have learned that Mrs Weatherburn had married the man she met in Liverpool. He is, I believe on the Stock exchange there.
“The letter we had from him bore a Manchester address, but the postmark was Portsmouth.”
No time was spared involving the police, and a search was made for Willie which extended to Liverpool, Cleethorpes and Ormskirk, and only ended when the lad was discovered at Formby, the house of his real mother.
The head of the family said in an interview with a Liverpool newspaper, that he was the step-father of the boy. It was stated that the boy had been a long lost son – a statement which Mrs Robshaw flatly contradicted, in as much that the mother knew where the boy was all the time.
“There is no real mystery about this so-called kidnapping,” said his real mother. “We simply decided to have him at home. When I found him, I said, ‘Willie?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I then said, ‘I am your mother. Would you like to come home?’ And that is all.”
By now, the story of Willie Robshaw was attracting the attention of newspapers across the nation.
“A story which, were it to be filmed by a cinema producer, would probably establish his reputation as a master of melodrama. It shows how the long-lost son of a wealthy family was discovered, after a 14 year search, living in one of the poorest districts of Sheffield. Now he is home again, with money and everything he could wish for at his command,” reported the Belfast Telegraph.
In August, the story took another twist when Willie returned to Sheffield. He arrived quite unexpectedly late on a Monday night, his dark hair now dyed a golden colour, and was warmly welcomed back by Mr and Mrs Robshaw.
Willie refused to give an account of his exploits, or to discuss the manner of his leaving, other than he had been riding about West Coast places in a motor car, but told his foster parents that he had come back to them of his own free will.
This decision, he said, was reached when, in company with the people from Formby, he visited Manchester. Whilst they were in a hotel, he stated he had slipped away from them and came to Sheffield, where he had been busy attending to his pigeons.
Some corroboration to the story was afforded by Mrs Robshaw receiving a telegram from Formby inquiring if Willie was in Sheffield.
The boy’s mother, at her home in Formby, said the family were proceeding no further in the matter for recovering the boy.
“Apparently he prefers to live his life in Sheffield rather than to accept our offer of being a gentleman and living a gentleman’s life, and he has gone back to it,” she said. “We are not going to trouble anymore.”
Mr R.F. Payne, a well-known Sheffield solicitor, addressed a letter on behalf of Mr and Mrs Ernest Robshaw to the Formby people claiming from them £377 for his maintenance at the rate of ten shillings a week from February 1911, when the Robshaw’s adopted the lad, to July, when he had left to go to Formby. No reply was received.
The Liverpool Echo had also discovered the mystery behind the Liverpool connection.
Willie’s real mother was Lilly Weatherburn, who had married Mr Clement Waring and lived at Rowan Lea, Liverpool Road, at Formby. The “charming, fair-haired” girl who drove the car had been Willie’s sister, Lily Paylor Brown, who had married a well-to-do widower, Walter Brown, a tailor, in November 1924 – he was 64, she was 22 – but he had died in August 1925.
Willie had been home for a week when he left Sheffield for Liverpool again. Mr Robshaw visited the city to determine what was happening and he was told by the boy that he was perfectly happy and promised to write home in about a week.
His foster parents heard nothing from him and at Christmas 1925 Mr Robshaw returned to Liverpool and visited the house where he was told not to make anymore inquiries about his adopted son.
Hearing nothing from Willie, Mr Robshaw made another visit to Liverpool in March 1926 and was told that Willie had returned to Sheffield, and although extensive inquiries were made the lad wasn’t discovered.
And that is where the trail went cold. Whatever happened to Willie?
I suspect that somebody in Sheffield will know how this strange story ended.