Once upon a time there was a small hamlet near Sheffield town that went by the name of Little Sheffield.
During the early 1800s, Sheffield’s rapidly growing population needed to expand outside the historical boundaries, and Little Sheffield disappeared.
We know where Little Sheffield was, but its boundaries blurred over time, with experts long contesting where it started and finished. The area has never been clearly defined, like those forgotten places of Port Mahon and Hallamshire.
We must go back to olden days when Sheffield was a town surrounded by fields and countryside. It gradually expanded until its southern edges skirted a gorse-clad swampy common called Sheffield Moor.
Today, we know this marshy land as The Moor with its surrounding streets.
A path was made by throwing up two embankments, between which was a deep ditch, with only a footbridge over Porter Brook.
By the 1760s, travellers had to go down Coal Pit Lane (Cambridge Street) and Button Lane (long disappeared) to Little Sheffield – a group of poor and time-worn cottages. The road to it ran across Sheffield Moor, thence up a sharp rise to Highfield. The only house you came to after passing Moorhead was Mr Kirkby’s, standing on Button Lane (opposite where the ramp to Sainsbury’s car-park on Charter Row now stands). There was one other building nearby, with a bowling green attached to Sheffield Moor. Beyond was Little Sheffield, the outlying hamlet.
By the nineteenth century, the fields around Little Sheffield had been swallowed up for the working classes, a poor and densely populated area, its houses with roofs of stone slabs, low windows, and red brick walls.
Nowadays, we can define Little Sheffield’s northern boundary as being where the Moorfoot Building stands, taking in Young Street, South Lane, St Mary’s Gate, London Road, and surrounding streets like Hermitage Street, Sheldon Street, Hill Street, John Street, and Boston Street (once called George Street), up towards its southern boundary at Highfield.
The fascinating story of Roger L’Estrange stands alongside Sheffield’s claim to Robin Hood, and if it is true, makes him one of our most remarkable sons.
This account begins in 1891 when Dominick Daly, barrister-at-law, and former editor of the Birmingham Gazette, was in Mexico City on private business, and was asked by his friend, Colonel Hoffman, of New York, to see if he could find documents that he could use in a forthcoming book about Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican Messiah – a strange legendary white man with a long beard, reputed to have imparted the doctrine and practices of Christianity on the Aztecs, hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquest.
Daly visited the city’s library and was allowed access into its archives.
“One day, I happened to pick out from amongst the contents of an old cedar-wood chest, a strongly, though roughly bound book of quart size, secured by a broad strap of leather.”
Written in English and Spanish, it appeared to be a diary written by Roger L’Estrange, ‘Sometime Captain of the Florida Army of His Excellency the Marquis Hernando De Soto, Governor of Cuba, and Captain-General of all Florida,’ who accompanied De Soto in the invasion of Florida in 1541, when the Mississippi River was discovered.
De Soto (1500-1542), the Spanish explorer and conquistador, was famous for leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where he died on the banks of its great river.
Daly spent the next few years translating the document and it was published as Adventures of Roger L’Estrange by Swan Sonnenschein & Co in 1896.
The book came with an impressive preface by Henry Morton Stanley, journalist, explorer, author, and politician, famed for his exploration of central Africa and his search for missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, whom he later claimed to have greeted with the now-famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
“What I most admire in Roger is that he is so fresh, naïve, and candid, and can tell a straight story. Even Daniel Defoe, of whose style he reminds me, could not have told it better.”
The reference to Defoe was not lost on a reviewer in The Bystander magazine:
“I read with immense pleasure the book by Mr Dominick Daly. The book contained an extremely interesting account of De Soto’s ill-starred expedition, together with an elaborate route map; but I confess I am still in doubt as to whether it was a work of fiction or fact. I accepted it as the latter; but many critics treated the book as pure romance.”
The Sheffield connection appeared in the opening chapter of the translation:
“My father, Roger L’Estrange, was son of a yeoman in a Yorkshire holding in fee by ancient descent a small but sufficient estate in land not far from the town of Sheffield. My mother was daughter of Sir Geoffrey Stanley, of the ancient and noble family of Stanleys of Hooton Manor, Cheshire.
“My early years were partly passed in my father’s house, and partly in that of a bachelor brother of his, Uncle Richard, who was a founder and worker of metals, at Sheffield, where he made knives, scissors, and cutting implements of all kinds, as well as many other useful things. Now Uncle Richard was much attached to me from my earliest youth, and desired greatly that I should come into his trade at Sheffield and keep it as my own business after he passed away. Therein I was nothing loth, nor was my father unwilling; but my good mother and the Stanleys were cold to a proposal which they said would turn me from a gentleman into a mere mechanic.
“So, though much was spoken about it, nothing ever came of Richard’s plan; though all the same I spent a good deal of time with him, and by his help gained some knowledge of the many curious arts of his business, and also of those appertaining to other trades carried on by artificers engaged in making metal implements and utensils, pottery, bricks, grindstones, charcoal, lime, and other things. For Sheffield is a town where there are five rapidly flowing streams, which are made use of to turn a multitude of wheels for all kinds of purposes. Besides which, great quantities of metallic ores, stones, and clays of various sorts, and wood, are found very near the town, or not far off. What I learned with my Uncle Richard in Sheffield was afterwards very useful to me.
“I was nigh seventeen years when my father died somewhat suddenly, and then my brother Hugh succeeded as heir to the paternal estate. Thereupon my Grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, sent to my mother to say that she should come back to Hooton to live again with him, and should bring me with her, and he would take charge of my education and future advancement.”
Roger L’Estrange, along with his cousin Stanley, eventually left Hooton, travelling to Bilbao, and via Madrid, ended up in the Florida expedition with De Soto, going through thrilling adventures and continuous fights between the Indians and the Spanish invaders. That was in 1538.
L’Estrange never returned to Sheffield but married an Indian woman and established a ‘Little Sheffield’ on the banks of the Mississippi River. He began making spades and ploughs made of wood, then, having built a furnace for melting copper, made hammer heads, nails, household utensils, and other useful articles. He built a large trade by barter with neighbouring Indian tribes.
Then the L’Estrange’s found iron and tin, and his implements and weapons greatly improved, the first steel saw fashioned from an old cuirass (piece of armour).
Roger eventually built a corn-grinding mill alongside his works, but they didn’t last long. The Mississippi River having little sympathy with foreign invaders, flooded the land, and ‘Little Sheffield’ was destroyed.
The story didn’t end here.
L’Estrange, looking into his affairs, found that he possessed a fortune in jewels, settled in Mexico with his Indian wife and five children, where Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish Viceroy, bestowed on him a large estate, and where, as alleged, he wrote his diary, subsequently lost, rediscovered, and then forgotten about.
In the 1930s, Mr Cecil L’Estrange Ewen, author of “Witch Hunting and Witch Trials’ and “A History of British Surnames,’ published a pamphlet designed to show that there never was a Roger L’Estrange, and that Sheffield’s claim “to have produced the first Englishman to navigate the Mississippi must be relegated to the limbo of the chimerical.”
The Telegraph and Independent responded:
“For our part, we intend to go on believing it – as in the case of Robin Hood. Learned persons assure us that Robin was a myth. Not to us, he wasn’t; Nor are we going to consign Roger to that category. Whether Mr. Ewen is right or wrong in the contentions he puts forward in his pamphlet we shall make no attempt to decide. But we don’t like parting with Roger and the ‘Little Sheffield’ story. If it wasn’t true, it ought to have been. It was just the sort of thing a Sheffield man would do.”
But it appears that Sheffield did forget Roger L’Estrange – ignored until now.
For my part, I’m afraid that “Adventures of Roger L’Estrange” was probably an elaborate work of fiction, a story brilliantly orchestrated by Dominick Daly.
With the benefit of modern technology, it appears there never was a Roger L’Estrange from Sheffield, neither does there seem to have been a Sir Geoffrey Stanley at Hooton Manor (although the family and house did exist until 1788). Colonel Henry C. Hoffman died in 1883, eight years before supposedly asking Dominick Daly to search the library archives. And, in 1891, the year of the diary’s discovery, Daly appears to have spent most of the year in the English law-courts, and not in Mexico!
But, there again, you never know, and it makes a compelling story.
On Tuesday April 4, 1923, about nine o’clock in the evening, London Road, at the corner with Sharrow Lane, was quiet, only a handful of people going about their business.
Suddenly, there was a deafening roar, a crash of breaking glass and – silence!
The loud explosion caused terror in the neighbourhood and within minutes hundreds of people swarmed out of their little houses and surrounded Highfield House at the bottom of Sharrow Lane.
Police officers from Highfield police station, about 100 yards away, rushed to the scene but had difficulty reaching the house through the crowd.
Highfield House was the home of Dr George Scott Davidson and he emerged at the front of the house to speak with the police.
Dr Davidson and his wife had just finished dinner and were traumatised by a loud explosion at the back of the property.
The police tried to move the crowds away from Highfield House and used flashlights to search the garden at the rear.
The house was unscathed, but remains of garden trellis work was strewed across the ground and glass in small garden frames had been destroyed.
“We rushed into the grounds, but could see very little, of course, except the frames were badly smashed,” said Dr Davidson. “I have not the slightest doubt the damage was caused by a bomb, but I cannot imagine any reason for the affair.”
And so, Sheffield newspapers filled their pages with the story of ‘another bomb,’ because a week earlier a similar explosion had occurred 200 yards away, in the back yard of a shop at the junction of Randall Street and London Road.
After the Highfield House episode, people told stories of the event.
“It was a noise like rumbling thunder,” said a woman who lived in a house some considerable distance away, “and the windows shook in their frames.”
A boy named Alec Winston, who was playing cards with a friend at 38 Sharrow lane, the nearest house, was thrown to the floor.
“It was a terrific bang, and I thought someone was showering stones onto the windows of the house.”
Closer inspection revealed that broken glass covered the window-sills and steps to No. 38, pieces of glass had shot over the 10ft walls from Highfield House into yards of several adjoining properties. Worse for others, soot had fallen down chimneys filling rooms and covering furniture.
The following day police began investigating the bomb explosion and worked on the theory that it had been thrown from one of the courts at the rear of Grosvenor Square or Sharrow Street, behind Highfield House, but no suspicious characters had been seen.
The neighbourhood was a small, congested area, a far cry from the days when Highfield stood in large grounds in the countryside. It was now isolated by shops on London Road, a large garden in Sharrow Lane, and the houses in Sharrow Street and Grosvenor Square behind.
It was suggested the bomb had been thrown towards the house but had hit the garden trellis causing it to fall short of its target.
However, further examination by police officers revealed a more menacing scenario.
A portion of time fuse was found in the garden, and furthermore the force of the blast had been downwards, suggesting a certain deliberateness that defeated the suggestion it had been thrown by some irresponsible person. It seemed the device had been made up from gunpowder or dynamite, possibly a mining or quarrying charge, because no fragments of a bomb were found.
The perpetrator must have entered the grounds to lay and ignite the fuse.
Police made numerous enquiries but could not find a reason for the bomb.
There were suggestions it might have been placed by those with Irish connections and suspicion was directed at the out-of-control gangs from around West Bar and Park.
The leaders of the Communist Party in Sheffield denied any knowledge.
“It is not in our line, and we would not do things this way.”
In the end, police believed the two separate explosions, undoubtedly linked, might have been carried out by a ‘desperate man,’ who might have got possession of an explosive.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph tried to downplay the incident, possibly at the request of puzzled police.
“It seems scarcely conceivable that anybody who deliberately was trying to cause serious damage would place whatever explosive in a cucumber frame many yards from the house, while such a receptacle would certainly add to the effect of any efforts merely to produce a ‘big bang.’
“On the whole there seems no cause for anyone to get very nervous, though the sooner the practical joker, or escaped lunatic, who is responsible, is brought to book the better.”
The mystery was never solved but the bomb scares caused many people to look uneasily at their First World War souvenirs – nose caps, cartridges, ‘dud’ bombs and in many cases live bombs which for the previous five years had occupied an honoured place on the mantelshelf or sideboard. Dozens of people paid hurried visits to the Central Police Station in Water Lane to hand them in.
NOTES: Built about 1788 for John Henfrey, Brightfield House was renamed Highfield House by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne in 1880. His surgery was later taken over by Dr George Scott Davidson. It remained a doctor’s surgery until the 1970s and later became the Charnwood Hotel. The house has since been converted into apartments known as Wisteria Gardens. In the 1920s, Randall Street ran from Bramall Lane to London Road but only exists today between Bramall Lane and Hill Street.
In 1885, a large and commodious house situated at the bottom of Sharrow Lane was threatened with demolition. The Sheffield Independent printed an article, ‘Doomed Houses at Highfield’, highlighting the plight of Brightfield House, along with an adjacent property fronting London Road, once a family residence, and in its declining years used as the Highfield Club.
“Brightfield House is one of the few remaining examples of comfortable homes of well-to-do manufacturers at Highfield, in the time when it was quite a journey to go ‘over Sheffield Moor’ to that region ‘then a bit of country.’ Where now are long rows of brick houses stood the mansions of the Brights, the Woodheads, the Henfreys, the Lees, and others.
“A long, square house, standing in its own grounds, reminds one of the olden times. It is a pleasant break in the landscape; but appearances point to its early demolition, the builder approaching perilously near with his army of mortar men ‘to make the old order give way to the new.’”
Astonishingly, it wasn’t demolished, the Highfield Club was, and Brightfield House still stands, a monument to Sheffield’s forgotten past. Today, it goes by the name of Wisteria Gardens, divided into apartments, but to many it is known as the former Charnwood Hotel.
As will be explained, Brightfield House lost its name in the 1870s, renamed Highfield House, until losing its identity altogether.
It was erected about 1788 for John Henfrey, a prominent scissor-smith, whose family had been involved in the scissor trade for generations. He became a Freeman in 1753 and was the fourth generation to be apprenticed by The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire. He went on to train his brother and his sons in the Brightside area, and was listed in the 1787 trade directory as having premises in Norfolk Street.
“He built for himself a country mansion at Highfield and being asked by his friends if he was not afraid of going over Sheffield Moor after dark, he replied that he took good care always to get home by daylight.”
At that time Sheffield Moor was ‘a shocking road for coaches’. There was quite a steep slope from the Moor head to the Horse Dyke (at the bottom of what eventually became Ecclesall Road), Sharrow Lane being the only road for wheels. Coaches coming from the south were often met by two extra horses at Heeley, to pull them up Goose Green to Highfield, and then up Sheffield Moor. It was a crooked road, with houses few and far between – there were practically none past Little Sheffield, and the surrounding area was rural.
It was no coincidence that John Henfrey built his house opposite Mount Pleasant, built for Francis Hurt Sitwell a few years earlier. This was on the Buxton Road which ran via Sheffield Moor, to Highfields, up Sharrow Lane, along Psalter Lane and up Ringinglow Road.
Brightfield House was named after the field it was built in, the suggestion being that Henfrey wanted to call it Highfield House, but a house of that name belonging to the Wilsons of Sharrow already existed at the top of the hill looking towards what became Sheaf House (yes, the pub on Bramall lane) with a large lawn bordered with fine sycamores and horse chestnut trees.
John Henfrey’s family was involved in a scandal when in 1791-92, one of his daughters eloped to Gretna Green with Thomas Leader, ‘one of those dashing young men of the time,’ a young Colonel in the Sheffield Volunteers.
After Henfrey’s death, Brightfield House became home to William Wilson, a member of the same family at Highfield House.
Following Wilson’s death, the mansion was offered at auction but failed to sell for several years, the empty house left in the care of a servant, and subjected to burglaries.
“Comprising drawing room, dining room, and breakfast room, lofty and well-lighted. Seven bedrooms, with closets and dressing rooms. Principal and secondary staircases, capital kitchens, dry cellars, bathroom, water-closet, and brewhouse.
“The views from the house, notwithstanding its proximity to the Town, are extensive and diversified, comprising, in front, the Park, studded with mansions and villas, and the line of the hill stretching towards Norton, and behind, ranging over Sharrowhead, the Botanical Gardens, Broomhill, Crookes, etc.”
It appears that Brightfield House was still in the possession of the Wilson family until the 1870s until bought by John Parkinson Mawhood, of Farm Bank, in 1874. He was head of Stevenson, Mawhood and Company, tool manufacturers, of Pond Street and later the Palm Tree Works at Attercliffe.
His tenure was short-lived and following the failure of the company in 1879 it was bought by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne, an Irishman, who came to Sheffield in 1875 when he purchased the practice of Dr Webb at Highfield, and built up connections in Sharrow, Highfield, and Heeley.
Gwynne became Honorary Medical Officer at the Children’s Hospital in 1879, after completing a special study of diseases in children.
In 1879, the nearby Highfield House estate was available for development, suggesting the mansion had been demolished, allowing Gwynne to rename Brightfield as Highfield House.
Gwynne died in 1906, and Highfield House became home to Dr George Scott Davidson, who ran a practice here with his son, Dr John Davidson, of Repton Lodge, in Sharrow.
Later this week we’ll look at a remarkable event that took place at Highfield House during Dr Davidson’s tenure.
Davidson practised for over thirty years, his son later moving into Highfield and taking over the practice, the house remaining a surgery until the 1970s.
It became the 22-bed Charnwood Hotel in 1985, opened by Chris and Valerie King, and operated almost 20 years as a wedding venue, along with two top restaurants, Brasserie Leo and the smaller more upmarket Henfrey’s.
The Charnwood Hotel closed in December 2004 after being unsuccessfully marketed for £1.3 million. It was turned into apartments in 2005 and renamed Wisteria Gardens.
The house and adjoining former coach house are Grade II listed by Historic England.
Some time ago, I wrote about Tapton Court, off Shore Lane, a big house that had fallen on hard times.
Tapton Court was built in 1868 as a residential villa before being converted into nurses’ accommodation in the 1930s. It was later taken over by the University of Sheffield and used as a hall of residence for student nurses.
Speaking at the opening of Tapton Court as a nurses’ home in 1934, J.G. Graves spoke of a Royal connection, seemingly forgotten today.
“Tapton Court is a historic house. It once belonged to Henry Steel, who was a friend of King Edward, and King Edward visited and probably stayed here.”
Those days of grandeur are long gone.
Today, Tapton Court lies empty, damaged by fire in 2010, and although the University of Sheffield carried out repairs, it is on Sheffield Council’s Buildings at Risk register and large sections of the site have been boarded up to prevent damage and vandalism.
Now plans have been lodged for the redevelopment of the grade II-listed building to create new housing.
PJ Livesey Holdings, supported by Pegasus Group, has submitted full planning and listed building applications to Sheffield City Council for the change of use and conversion of the buildings for residential use.
The application site includes the main house and adjoining terrace wall and conservatory , as well as the Ranmoor House Annexe, former stables block and lodge building.
Tapton Court would be converted to create 14 apartments, with a further 18 in the Ranmoor House Annexe. The Stables and Lodge would be converted into individual residential units. Four new houses would also be built to the north-west of the main building.
Admire this old building while you can… because its days are numbered.
Down it will come, to be replaced with a 27-storey residential development that will provide accommodation for more than 500 students.
Niveda Realty has been granted planning permission for the Calico Sheffield development on the site bounded by Hollis Croft and Broad Lane in the city’s St Vincent’s Quarter.
It will mean demolition for this 90-year-old building, originally constructed for the Hallamshire Tyre and Motor Company in 1930, and recently occupied by Sytner Sheffield.
The smell of oil, grease and petrol is a vague memory for the art-deco building, remarkable for the clever configuration of ground-floor windows that reduce in height with Broad Lane’s incline.
This area was once considered a slum, with an outbreak of cholera in 1832 blamed on poor sanitation. This caused an exodus of the better-off and the area became the preserve of the working-class poor, with a large influx of Irish immigrants seeking work in the growing cutlery trade in the years following the potato famine.
The site eventually became the Royal Oak public house, fronting Hollis Croft, with access to Court 2, Broad Lane, and a blacksmith. By 1928, they had been replaced with a large building for the Dunlop Rubber Company and shortly afterwards Nos. 2-4 Broad Lane were built alongside for the Hallamshire Tyre and Motor Company, tyre and tube repairers, petrol and oil dealers, motor-car, and electrical engineers.
It was owned and operated by Charles M. Walker, of Whirlowdale Road, and Maurice F. Parkes, of Hoober Road, who turned it into a limited company in 1932.
The firm became the Hallamshire Motor Company, specialists in Standard, Triumph, Ford, and Vauxhall cars. It subsequently became an Austin-Rover dealer on a new site, on the opposite side of Hollis Croft, until the franchise was transferred to Kennings who built a showroom next door.
The Hallamshire Motor Company became the Sheffield dealer for BMW, modernising the old workshops to sell used cars, and in 1995 was acquired by Nottingham-based Sytner Group to become Sytner Sheffield.
Sytner transferred to purpose-built premises at Brightside Way in 2017 leaving the old site vacant for development.
Had the building been anywhere else, it might have been suitable for use as an exhibition or art-space (reminiscent of the Kenning’s Building on Paternoster Row), but the area’s multiplying student accommodation meant the outcome was predictable.
Sheffield is one of 15 towns and cities to receive all the money they had bid for, in the Government’s Future High Streets Fund.
Sheffield will receive £15.8m in recognition of the ‘forward-thinking and innovative’ proposals to help progress plans to boost its reputation as an ‘Outdoor City’ with high quality public spaces for the community.
The historic streets of Fargate and High Street will become a high quality place to live, work, and socialise, in plans drawn up by Sheffield City Council and the University of Sheffield.
A radical programme of improvements and modern digital infrastructure will complement well-designed residential and workspace conversions, making the most of unused floorspace. Particular blocks will be redeveloped to increase density by adding height while opening up new green spaces and views.
This transformation will play a major role in completing plans for a ‘Steel Route’ through the city centre, turning a declining shopping area into a mixed-use link between the two distinct regeneration projects already underway in Heart of the City at one end and Castlegate at the other.
The funding has been awarded as part of the Government’s flagship £831 million Future High Streets Fund and will help areas to recover from the pandemic while also driving long term growth.
Every Christmas Eve, as the clock strikes midnight, a young boy materialises at the edge of the dark Lyceum Theatre stage. Ben, a lad of teenage years, glances into the auditorium to see if there is anybody he recognises. He runs barefoot into the centre of the stage, faces the audience, and takes a bow, the same as last year, and the year before that, and the same as he has done every year since 1893.
Ben is a good looking lad, with bright blue eyes, a mop of mousey hair, and the clothes of a horseman. He squints into the darkness and sees the shadows.
“Is that you Ben?” a woman’s voice calls from the circle.
He cups his eyes with his grubby right hand and looks upwards. His eyes adjust and he makes out his lady, standing in the same place as she did last Christmas Eve.
As always, the auditorium is soothed by pale light radiating from the old gas lamps.
And now, Ben can see her clearly.
The lady with beautiful hair, dazzling as ever, wearing the same long grey dress, and a single red rose pinned to her breast. She smiles and turns away, climbs a few steps, and then walks along a row of empty seats towards the other side.
“Aye, it’s me Estelle,” he replies. “Same as always.”
The lady stops at the end of the row and smiles.
“Merry Christmas Ben.”
“And to you Estelle, but tell me, what news?”
“Patience, my dear boy. We shall speak, but first I’d like to hear you sing.”
“I’m a horseman my lady, not meant to grace this fine stage.”
Ben looks around the auditorium and sees the others for the first time.
About a dozen people sit scattered across the stalls in various attire from different ages.
He grins and shows them his missing front tooth, lost when his favourite horse kicked him in the face.
“What news, ladies and gentlemen?”
“Sing Ben,” shouts an old lady. She raises her umbrella in greeting. “I like to hear you sing.”
“That’s reyt lad,” cries a flat-capped fellow a few rows behind. “A Christmas treat for us.”
“Who is this boy?” shouts a buxom woman at the back.
Ben stares at her, unaccustomed to her presence.
“I’m Ben Harker missus, a humble horse-boy, but I’ve never seen you here before.”
“I’m Mrs Edith Langford, and it’s been an awful week.”
“What news missus?”
The curvy woman fumbles in a handbag and finds a scrap of yellowing paper. She holds it up for all to see.
“I need to use this before it’s too late.”
There is a gasp from a whiskered fellow nearby.
“What do you have there missus?”
“My ticket. Aladdin. Tonight.”
“And you come alone missus?”
“My Albert is busy. He’s drinking with his pals at Marple’s. Same time every year… same as we both do… but this year…”
“But what, dear lady?” asks Estelle who floats gracefully from one side of the circle to the other.
“There were bombs,” says Edith Langford, “Lots of ‘em. They rained down on us. The cheek of it, just before Christmas as well! We all went down the cellar to drink, and then, as if by magic, it went quiet and the bombs went away… and now I want to see the pantomime”
There is a long silence.
“Would you like to hear me sing, missus?”
And the same as it does every Christmas Eve, a lonesome spotlight picks out Ben on the stage.
“I’m a young boy, and have just come over, Over from the country where they do things big, And amongst the girls I’ve got a lover, And since I’ve got a lover, why I don’t care a fig.
“The girl I love is up in the gallery, The girl I love is looking now at me, There she is, can’t you see, waving her handkerchief, As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.”
Ben gives heart and soul and the small gathering sings along.
“The girl I love is up in the gallery, The girl I love is looking now at me, There she is, can’t you see, waving her handkerchief, As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.”
The song ends to enthusiastic claps and cheers that echo around the theatre.
“A fine voice, Ben.”
“Well done lad.”
The same voices. The same cries of encouragement every year.
Ben closes his eyes, captivated by his audience, and ticks off each customary plaudit.
“I love that song, Ben.”
“Sing it again, Ben.”
“A fine young lad.”
“Bravo, my boy. Bravo.”
Alas, the voices fade until only whispers of the dead can be heard. Quieter and quieter they get, until a stony silence remains.
Ben opens his eyes, and the auditorium is black except for the wonderful glow around Estelle.
She unpins the red rose and throws it to him. He holds out his hands to catch it, but once again the rose that never reaches him drops into the abyss.
And then, Estelle has also gone.
Ben is all alone, and with a teary eye he walks into the shadows from where he came, but not before he turns to the empty balcony and in his soft voice repeats the same words as last Christmas morning.
“Farewell Estelle. Merry Christmas. I’ll see you next year… what news?”
And, once again, he too disappears… until next Christmas Eve.
I think we can agree that 2020 has been an awful year for us all. But we can be proud that the ‘Spirit’ of Sheffield is as strong as ever, and like other traumatic periods in our history, we will emerge a much stronger city.
The pandemic has played havoc with Sheffielder posts because time and resource had to be invested elsewhere.
However, the support has been unwavering, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you for taking time to read, comment and share the posts.
Things will be different this Christmas, but I would like to take this opportunity to offer my best wishes, and hopes for a better year ahead. Be positive, keep safe, and look after one another.
A few of us might argue that Sheffield has never been at the forefront of cultural excitement. This was never more apparent when, over a century ago, Alwyn Henry Holland put his money into the Howard Gallery.
His determination to give us an alternative exhibition space came at a cost and ended with the collapse of the family business.
Holland’s far-sightedness didn’t resonate with the public, and the only reminder of his folly is a stone relief set in a small portico above a doorway on Chapel Walk.
For many years, Alwyn Henry Holland (1862-1935), was the Hon. Sec. and member of the Council of the Sheffield Society of Artists, and probably the most enthusiastic artist in the city at the time. He was also a lay member of the Society of Architects, and Hon. Sec. and trustee of the Croft House Settlement.
He was born in Sheffield, the son of Alwin Hibbard Holland, provisions merchant, and was brought up as an architect.
The family home was at 11 Broomgrove Crescent, and he was educated principally at Brampton Schools, Wath. He then became a pupil, and afterwards assistant, with architect John Dodsley Webster.
On the death of his father in 1883, however, he succeeded to the business of A.H. Holland, at No. 9 Fargate.
In its day, A.H. Holland, was one of Sheffield’s finest grocery stores, famous for its high-class goods at low prices, and awarded three prize medals at London exhibitions.
He ran the business with his mother, Eliza, and, with Thomas Flockton, designed new shop premises as part of the Fargate widening scheme in 1889.
Like many Victorian businessmen, Holland dipped into the property market, and when land became available adjacent to No. 9 Fargate, on Chapel Walk, he designed and built eight single shops in English Renaissance style.
At the time of construction in 1897, Henry Fitzalan Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, was Mayor, and later Lord Mayor, of Sheffield, and the inspiration for naming the new art gallery that Holland built above the shops.
The gallery comprised two exhibition spaces, both 60ft in length, separated by a staircase, with light supplied by a lantern roof above. The main entrance was on Chapel Walk, with a separate carriage entrance around the back on Black Swan Walk.
The inclusion of the art gallery satisfied Holland’s notions as a watercolour painter, providing more suitable environs to display artwork, rather than on the walls of the shop that had previously been the case.
The Howard Gallery never intended to be a showcase for his own work but was to be used for rotating exhibitions of works by other artists.
Holland’s plans were extravagant, seeing it as a northern rival to the big London galleries. There were those who mocked his plans, but even the fiercest critics were astonished when the Howard Gallery announced its opening exhibition in April 1898.
William Marchant, manager of the Goupil Gallery in Regent Street, was persuaded to bring a collection of pictures and drawings to Sheffield – and the samples of work seem inconceivable today.
“The exhibition contains examples of Gainsborough, Constable, David Cox, Turner, Landseer, Corot, Guardi, J. Maris, Mauve, Israels, Whistler, and J.M. Swan,” wrote the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
Public opinion was favourable, the critics silenced, but William Marchant struck a note of caution that pinpointed what lay ahead:
“I must say that when I decided to take this collection to Sheffield, I was fully aware of the fact that I was not catering for the popular taste, and I may add that several people who witnessed my preparations laughed and predicted total failure. I cannot say that much of Sheffield’s gold has found its way into our coffers, and the visitors have been, if select, very few, but I must own that I never expected to meet with so publicly expressed an appreciation.”
Despite the lacklustre support the Goupil Exhibition was extended past its May closing date, with several works removed and replaced with new works by Peter Graham, John Syer, Henry Dawson, Niemann and E.M. Wimperis. Several local artists were also represented including Austin Winterbottom, James Moore, Frank Saltfleet, and Jean Mitchell.
In June 1898, Thomas Agnew and Sons, fine art dealers, brought an exhibition to Sheffield, including Gethsemane ‘Jesus In the Garden’, painted by Tom Mostyn, and the engravings from the canvases of Landseer, Peter Graham, and Rosa Bonheur.
The Howard Gallery hired glass cases for its next exhibition of artistic book-bindings, obtained on loan from the Ruskin Museum Library, and which had rarely been seen.
And so, there followed a cycle of short-lived seasonal exhibitions – Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter – all of which cost a lot of money and poor return.
In June 1899, Holland closed the East Gallery claiming that previous exhibitions had been too large for art lovers to properly view, but finances were diminishing and, apart from the annual Sheffield Society of Artists’ Exhibition, the major showings dwindled away. But the local press remained optimistic:
“There had been sneers at the Howard Gallery as a mere commercial speculation, but they only exhibit a complete ignorance of the motives with which it was founded, and their absurdity is as patent as their injustice,” wrote ‘Le Flaneur’ in the Sheffield Independent.
Holland launched a Winter Exhibition in December 1901, using the West and East Gallery, which had been used as a restaurant, and showing nearly 250 oils and watercolours, but, apart from a Frank Saltfleet exhibition in January 1903, the galleries were advertised as being available to hire for dances and evening entertainments.
Music recitals became a mainstay of the gallery, a popular home for the Sheffield Chamber Music Society, as well as for meetings including those of the Alliance Francais.
The principal use, from 1903, was for the Sheffield Gentlemen’s Club during the rebuilding of their premises on Norfolk Street. It occurred to Holland that the comforts and conveniences of the club might be appreciated by the public, so, with necessary alterations and additions, the Howard Gallery, and adjoining Rutland Institute (above No.9 Fargate) were transformed into a café and restaurant.
Holland auctioned his collection of paintings, pewter, and pottery, as well as fixtures and fittings, and the gallery became The Meerah Café in December 1904.
Once again, the undertaking received support from the local press:
“Mr Holland is an architect of considerable repute, and in the extensive range of rooms has given free play to his artistic ideas. The place is full of artistic surprises. They seem to meet you at every turn. The old-fashioned windows he has so daintily worked into his scheme, the many snug retreats, the originality displayed in the lighting and the decorations, all breathe art. The very atmosphere seems artistic. Even the furniture has all been studied with an artist’s care. The late William Morris designed some of the most comfortable of the chairs which will be found in the gentlemen’s quarters; but Mr Holland has designed the remainder of the furniture. The tables of solid old oak, also breathe of art. The names of the rooms sound artistic. There are the York Room, the Howard Room, the Wharncliffe Room, and the Rutland Room. Music is provided by Charles Callum.”
The café and restaurant fared marginally better than the Howard Gallery, but the overindulgences of the exhibition space and subsequent conversion, played heavily on the finances of A.H. Holland.
Alwyn and Eliza invited shareholders into the business, and it became Hollands Ltd in 1906, but the company went into voluntary liquidation three years later.
The shop and café were closed, and the contents auctioned to help pay off the creditors.
The last hurrah appeared in the Sheffield Independent:
“’It is a tragedy, that is the only word for it,’ said an old customer. The Wharncliffe Room of Holland’s Café was half filled with buyers, and about a dozen men hung about waiting for jobs to remove the purchases. A couple of dogs, which had strayed into the room, surveyed the scene, and made a faint effort to wag their tails. The firm, business-like tones of the auctioneer rang out, and soon the artistic fittings, pictures, crockery, and cutlery, were auctioned off.
“Hollands was well known for the original designs of the interior of the premises, Mr Holland being quite ambitious in this direction. The shop was regarded as an example of the art doctrines of Ruskin and Morris. Indeed, Holland made a special effort to introduce art into ordinary matter-of-fact business. Unfortunately, the effort failed.”
Afterwards, Alwyn Henry Holland faded into obscurity, no doubt chastened by his experience, and spent time walking, playing tennis and golf, and sketching.
His legacy is forgotten, his work little-known.
Some of his work hangs at the Cutlers’ Hall which had commissioned him to paint views of the banqueting halls as well as its exterior. Perhaps his most famous painting is Sheffield from above the Midland Station, included in the Sheffield Museum collection.
Holland died in 1935 at Patrington, near Hull, aged 73.
The Howard Gallery returned in name only, used by British Westinghouse and the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company as showrooms, and part of it used by Thomas Monkman and later H.C. Hibbert as a billiards hall.
In the time since, the gallery space has been sub-divided, but the Howard Gallery carving remains, as does the long glass roof, visible only from above.