People Streets

The strange tale of Willie Robshaw

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.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

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.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

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.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

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.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

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.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield
Buildings Streets

Queen’s Hotel

Photograph by Stephen Richards

The Queen’s Hotel, on Scotland Street, is one of those public houses that has seen a lot of changes over the years.

Scotland Street itself dates from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, built along a former boundary of an open field system. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, small factories, workshops and housing were built in the area, encouraged by an influx of Irish immigrants during the 1840s.

A public house stood here before. Built in 1791, known as the Queen’s Inn, later the Queen’s Hotel, and under the ownership of William Bradley & Co, and subsequently S.H. Wards, which bought it in 1876.

By the 1920s, the Scotland Street area contained some of the city’s worst slum housing, described as “hovels of the aristocracy” and “mansions of the poor.” It prompted Sheffield Corporation to demolish large swathes of terraced houses.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

Sheffield Corporation set about widening Scotland Street, and in the process purchased land from S.H. Ward & Co, including the site of the nearby Old Hussar public house, and part of the site of the Queen’s Hotel, on condition that they paid the brewery £2,875 towards the cost of rebuilding the Queen’s Hotel.

The new pub, built with stark, simple, exterior lines, opened in December 1928 with guest rooms on the upper floors, a large function room on the first floor and two ground floor bars.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

It could be said that the new Queen’s Head opened at the wrong time and experienced highs and lows ever since.

In 1934, over 50 shopkeepers from the Scotland Street, Meadow Street and surrounding area congregated inside the Queen’s Hotel, demanding that Sheffield Corporation reduce their rent and rates.

They argued that while a great many of their customers had been removed to new housing estates, their rent and rates had remained the same.

The shopkeepers had suffered bad trade for years because at least eighty per cent of the inhabitants had been either unemployed or on short time, and now they were losing their custom altogether. Now they had been left on the edge of a “desert.”

A long-term lack of investment, and a general state of decline, resulted in the area becoming down-at-heel by the middle of the twentieth century.

Many local factories closed, and the decline accelerated in the 1970s, as did the fortunes of the Queen’s Hotel, not helped by S.H. Wards being taken over by Sunderland-based Vaux Breweries in 1972. The brewery closed in 1999, two years after the Queen’s Hotel had closed its doors for good in April 1997.

Photograph by Sheffielder

As reported a few months ago, plans have been floating around to demolish the Queen’s Head and construct a new residential development comprising more than 220 apartments.

That day has now come, with Rise Homes, supported by DLP Planning and Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson, submitting an application to Sheffield City Council for the new development.

The derelict public house would be demolished as would the former Robert Neil & Co (Sheffield) Ltd building next door.

Photograph by Yorbex/Derelict Places

The new residential development would comprise three blocks of up to ten storeys, with a total of 229 apartments, with 145 one-bedroom and 84 two-bedroom units.

Visitors to the area will agree that this part of Scotland Street is now down-at-heel, within an area of transition, which is becoming characterised by more city centre living.

Planning applications were previously approved in 2005 and 2007 for residential developments that would have retained the pub. However, it has now been determined it is not viable to retain any element of the building.

With the demolition of the Queen’s Head likely to be granted it will be a sad end for the public house, especially when people are now heading back to live here once again.

Photograph by Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson

Buildings Streets

Stepney Street

Photograph by Cadenza VM

Stepney Street is a small road leading off Broad Street in the Park area of Sheffield.

Originally land owned by the Duke of Norfolk, it succumbed to cobbled-street slum housing, was shortened in length after redevelopment in the 1930s, and modern-day access restricted to a private car park and a garage business. Significantly, the railway line runs directly beneath it.

Housing on the street, along with those at Old Street, Bard Street, School Lane, Duke Street, Crown Alley, Crown Alley Lane, Bernard Street, Weigh Lane and Broad Street, were compulsorily purchased in 1934, demolished and redeveloped.

Photograph of Stepney Street, looking towards Broad Street, by Picture Sheffield

The surviving part of Stepney Street, with its cobbles, might become a residential area again, with a proposed new development of 100 apartments, a planning application submitted to Sheffield City Council by Six Developments, supported by architects’ practice Cadenza.

The gated building would be eight-storeys high featuring 100 private rental sector (PRS) apartments. A total of 95 one-bed flats would be provided, together with four studios and a single two-bedroom unit.

Watkin Jones previously secured planning permission for a development of 62-bed apartment building in December 2017, but this scheme was not brought forward. The developer had originally acquired the site to provide car parking for its Pinnacles Development.

Photograph by Google

Buildings Streets

Heart of the City II

Photograph by Sheffield City Council

Sheffield City Council is inviting comments on proposals for the next phase of Heart of the City II, which includes (Block H: Cambridge Street and Carver Street).

The Council and Queensberry recognise that people will have questions about the next stage of the scheme. Prior to the submission of planning applications, it has published proposals and will allow people to contribute to the final plans.

A wide-ranging development is proposed for Block H of the Heart of the City II development, with three distinct elements (H1, H2 and H3).

H2 will be a new building comprising about 70,000 sq ft of grade A office space, split across seven upper floors. It will feature a south-facing roof terrace, with retail and food and beverage units on the ground floor.

Proposals for the H3 element, to be known as Cambridge Street Collective, aim to retain as much of the existing fabric and façades along Cambridge Street and Wellington Street as feasible.

Plans include a large, industrial-style space, suited to a food hall or similar sociable, communal offer. Complementary shops, a bar and restaurant, and an upper level leisure space would also be created. The existing Bethel Chapel building will also be renovated, with plans for this to become a live entertainment venue.

Photograph by Sheffield City Council

The Block H site also includes Leah’s Yard (H1), a Grade II*-listed building housing a collection of small former industrial workshops. This site is not included in the application, but plans are still at an early stage to convert the property into workshops for creative businesses. Listed building consent is being sought to undertake the structural works required to make the buildings secure.

The new plans for this block proposes retention of more original architecture than envisaged in a previous masterplan. They now include the preservation and sympathetic restoration of the fabric and façades along Cambridge Street and Wellington Street, including the listed Bethel Sunday School and Leah’s Yard, as well as the Bethel Chapel and the buildings that formerly housed Brewhouse and Henry’s Bar.

Photograph by Sheffield City Council
Buildings Other Places Streets

Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework

Photograph by Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework.

I don’t think anybody saw this coming. Sheffield’s biggest ever development project – a £1.5bn plan to develop the area around Sheffield Railway Station, dwarfing the £480m Heart of the City II scheme.

The plan is to maximise the economic potential of the area and make the most of HS2, and will now go out for public consultation.

The idea stems from plans for HS2 trains to stop at Sheffield Station on a loop off the mainline which were recently given the green light by the government.

Sheffield City Council would co-ordinate the project, with funding coming from several organisations including the city council, HS2, SYPTE, Transport for the North, Network Rail, Sheffield City Region and the Department for Transport. The bulk of the costs – up to £1bn – would be from the private sector, which would build offices, restaurants, bars and potentially a hotel.

Photograph by Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework.

The project would see the closure of Park Square roundabout and Sheaf Street – the dual carriageway that runs in front of the station – would swap places with the tram route that runs behind.

A huge, landscaped pedestrian bridge would link Park Hill with Howard Street and the multi-storey car park on Turner Street would be demolished and moved further away.

It would be replaced by an office block – one of up to 12 planned in the ‘Sheffield Valley’ zone, including four outside the station, employing up to 3,000 people.

Up to 1,000 homes – flats and houses – could also be built.

Photograph by Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework.

The new tram route would run from Fitzalan Square, along Pond Street, stop outside the station and continue along Suffolk Road to Granville Square.

The bus station on Pond Street would be reduced in size to make room for the tram tracks and offices on stilts potentially built on top.

Photograph by Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework.

Park Square roundabout and Sheaf Street would become a park and link into the Grey to Green scheme at Victoria Quays, Castlegate and West Bar.

Under the plans the ‘Q park’ would move to the Wren-DFS site on nearby St Mary’s Road.

There would be a new, sheltered, taxi rank next to the station, but the taxi ‘stacking’ area would be moved ‘slightly further out’ improving access for drop-offs and people with mobility needs.

The area between St Mary’s Road, Queens Road and Sheaf Gardens, currently home to businesses including a Pure Gym, would be a new residential centre for up to 700 homes, with a further 300 spread throughout the area.

The Masterplan

Photograph by Sheffield Midland Station and Sheaf Valley Development Framework.

The Moor

Photograph by Exposed

Goodness me, here’s a story that seems to have passed by unnoticed. It seems that The Moor has been sold from under our feet, with Aberdeen Standard Investments offloading the biggest asset in its property fund to New River real estate investment trust.

The deal was completed in December after being put on the market with an £89.4million price tag.

The Moor, once again installed as Sheffield’s foremost shopping street, accounted for seven per cent of the £1.3billion Aberdeen UK Property Fund.

Back in December, outflows from Aberdeen Standard’s fund spiked after investors were spooked following the suspension of rival manager M&G’s Property Portfolio. M&G was forced to suspend trading in its £2.5billion property fund after investors rushed to withdraw money.

The Moor has thrived under the ownership of Aberdeen Standard Investments, with the addition of Moor Markets, the Light Cinema, Lane7 Bowling Alley, and new retailers including Primark, Next, River Island and H&M.

However, with retail in steady decline, it might appear that Aberdeen Standards Investments has divested of The Moor while the going is good.

It remains to be seen whether the next phases of development will go ahead, including the renovation of the block occupied by Boots, Melody, Lloyds Bank, Bodycare and Halifax Bank.

The deal was the latest in a string of acquisitions for New River, including a retail park in Northern Ireland for £40million, and sites in Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee and the Isle of Wight.


The Moor

I don’t know about you, but I never look in shop windows anymore. Frankly, there’s not much to look at, with only a handful of department stores making the effort, if at all.

We must thank Harry Gordon Selfridge for being one of the first to create window dressing displays to attract customers.

The American millionaire’s aim was to “make an art of window display” and resulted in copycat spectacles across Britain.

Nowadays, the skill of window dressing has been replaced with visual digital technology, and this hasn’t exactly helped our struggling shops.

The Moor at night can be a particularly gloomy place when shops have closed, and despite the best efforts of ‘arty’ street lighting, its attempts to attract a night-time audience are pretty much nil.

It makes this newspaper article from March 1931 about “the attractive thoroughfare” even more interesting.

“On leaving cinemas and theatres in the centre of the city last night, hundreds of people were attracted to the Moor, by the special lighting display arranged in connection with the ‘Display Week’.

“They discovered undreamed beauty at Moorhead. The Crimea monument has not been regarded with admiration by many modern citizens, but under the floodlighting this week it takes on special graces.

“The whole result is a credit to those who have contributed to the scheme, to the Electric Supply Department of the Sheffield Corporation, the Edison Swan Electric Company, and the proprietors of the various businesses on the Moor.

“Standing at Moorhead one has an uninterrupted view of the straight thoroughfare down a slight gradient, and the effect of the special lighting is most striking.

“After ordinary business hours the shops are keeping their well-dressed windows lighted. During the whole of last evening the Moor was thronged with citizens attracted by the more than usually bright appearance of the various establishments.

“Although the shops were closed and the interior premises were in darkness, the brilliant windows in which the best efforts of a peculiarly modern art were displayed, attracted many appreciative visitors.

“Until 10 o’clock the whole of the Moor was a blaze of light, and provided ample proof of the efficiency of the arrangements, as well as the business acumen of tenants and proprietors of premises along the thoroughfare which is regarded by many as the most attractive business centre in the city.”

Today, the Moor Management team can only dream at such high visitor numbers after-dark, but we should remember that this was the major road linking Pinstone Street with Ecclesall Road, and with a plentiful supply of cars, buses and trams going up and down.

And while we’re at it, the Crimea monument, seemingly lost for years by Sheffield City Council, before being found again, once earmarked for the Botanical Gardens, is still languishing in some dark corner.


Exchange Gateway

This is not the kind of street you might wander up after dark. Exchange Gateway, at the top of Fargate, is one of those forgotten parts of the city centre. Thousands pass its arched entrance every day, many of whom have never braved it up here. These days it acts as a service lane and fire escapes for properties backing onto Orchard Square and Fargate. Apart from its covered entrance there is little for the pedestrian to see. It is a dead end, and seemingly always has been, but its function has changed over the centuries.

At one time, this was a narrow street of multi-occupancy shops, houses, workshops and offices. A glance at an old directory shows that Exchange Gateway was home to small-scale tool manufacturers, cutlery producers, picture-framers and cabinet makers. This was also where the Sheffield Free Press newspaper was located, founded in 1850 – “a new impartial unsectarian journal” – but ending publication seven years later.

An 1867 newspaper tells us that “the buildings are old, four-storeys high of long range, and a considerable quantity of wood in their completion.” A fire had consumed the premises of Hobson and Wilson, brass-casters, and threatened to destroy the whole block. This was just one of many serious fires that occurred here, and no doubt contributed to its altered appearance.

For years, the street was unadopted by the council, its road surface out of character with the nearby thoroughfares. Its secluded location meant it was a haven for thieves, robbing people as they walked at night, and regularly breaking into properties. Its usefulness increased in the 1860s when the Cutler’s Hall, on Church Street, built a large extension at the rear, its approach being from Exchange Gateway.

The footprint of the street is virtually unaltered, but the greatest makeover was in the 1980s when Orchard Square shopping precinct was built, clearing old properties and replacing them with shops whose service doors lead out into Exchange Gateway. Nowadays the street is still out of sorts with its surroundings, a favourite for the homeless, drug-users and a sleeping place for the odd drunk.

Buildings Streets

Church Street

Look carefully at this photograph. Two Sheffield landmarks we are familiar with today. To the left, the Cutlers Hall, built in 1832 by Samuel Worth and Benjamin Broomhead Taylor, and on the right of the gateway, the former Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank, most recently known as the Church Street branch of HSBC (now closed). Together they provide an imposing façade facing Sheffield Cathedral.

However, if we go back to 1878, things didn’t look quite as straightforward.

In October 1878, the Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank had just opened a new extension, built on the site of an old rope works and wire shop. Designed by Henry Dent Lomas, the four Ionic columns and the Renaissance gateway seen here, mirrored the building’s original design (not seen in the picture), created by Samuel Worth in 1838.

Most people think the iron gate as being part of the Cutler’s Hall, but it was built as access to bank buildings behind.

Back in 1878, the Cutler’s Hall was also much smaller.

The frontage we see today was created in 1888 by J.B Mitchel-Withers, once again the result of an extension. The two Ionic columns to the right of the doorway mirrored the 1832 construction on the other side, cleverly placing the Cutler’s Hall entrance (once to the right) at the centre of the masterpiece.

Together, these buildings provide an insight into Victorian ingenuity, where two buildings were cleverly transformed by adding identical extensions.

But, the period between 1878, when the Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank extension was built, and 1888, when the Cutler’s Hall was extended, meant there was an unsightly presence between the two buildings. A blot on the landscape.

Said the Sheffield Independent in 1878: –

“Few persons can have passed down Church Street since the extensions of the Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank took definite shape, without wondering how the paltry brick shop wedged in between that and the Cutler’s Hall, has managed to hold its own, to the disfigurement of the handsome buildings on either side.

“It has not even the respectable appearance of a ham sandwich; it reminds us of nothing so much as a parched bit of unappetising Chicago beef spoiling two pieces of good bread.

“When things looked as if the Cutler’s Company meant neither themselves to swallow this up in some credible fashion, nor let the Hallamshire Bank have the chance of engulfing it, the public were inclined to be a little indignant at seeing a good street spoiled.

“For this relic of the middle-period Church Street, is not old enough to be picturesque and not substantial enough to be handsome.

“It is a specimen of domestic architecture at its worst period – if an erection of bricks, with holes left to do duty as windows, be worthy to be called architecture at all – and it breaks with unsightly violence, the most imposing row of buildings of which this not very beautiful town can boast.”

The Cutler’s Company did eventually purchase the shop and premises next door, demolishing it, and replacing it with the extension of 1888.


Cheney Row

My favourite walkway in Sheffield. Cheney Row, running alongside the Town Hall and Peace Gardens. It is a name transferred from Cheney Square, a group of nice houses destroyed when Surrey Street and the Town Hall were in the making during the 1890s. One of them was the residence for many years of Hugh Cheney, a doctor. The site of Cheney Square, being on the fringe of a small town, developed after the breaking up of Alsop Fields (a long-lost name), and with the building of St. Paul’s Church and the laying out of its large burial ground. The church stood on the site of the Peace Gardens and was demolished in 1938.