“The children spent a warm spring afternoon playing beside the river. And when their energy was spent, they trod wearily the path across Alsop Fields, passing the old farmhouse that had once belonged to Aulsope Farm.”
This might have happened 300 years ago, and nothing remains of it except Porter Brook.
The large steel structure rising above Sylvester Street, on the outskirts of Sheffield city centre, is the latest chapter in the city’s development. A rural idyll, swallowed by the advancing town, used for industry, and when this declined, utilised for residential.
The Sylvester Street development is a £75m plan to construct 335 ‘build to rent’ upmarket apartments alongside Porter Brook.
More importantly, once completed, a stretch of the river will be spruced up and opened to the public.
The developer promises to plant vegetation along the edge and place rocks in the middle to slow down the water’s flow and reintroduce habitats for wildlife. A new pedestrian route will run parallel to the river, with a bridge allowing people to access the new buildings. The brook will remain culverted in places – here open spaces are to be created.
It will be respite for the river that suffered at the hands of Sheffield’s industrial development.
In 1789, a building called Sylvester’s Wheel stood nearby, land to the west was Joseph Broomhead’s garden, and land to the right was owned by Robert Walker. During the 1800s, Porter Brook was used to power industry and larger scale industrial buildings started appearing including Sylvester Works, Thomas Ellin, and the Oak, Stella, and Crown Steel Works.
By the end of the twentieth century, the downturn in Sheffield’s metalworking industry was reflected in the clearance of most of the site. In 1994, a large retail shed was built on the former Crown steel works, occupied by Carpet World and subsequently by Sofa World. This was demolished about 2009 as were most of the remaining industrial works.
And now, this massive residential development rises above this long-lost green space.
Let us dismiss a legend before we go any further. I cannot find any evidence that bodies are buried beneath Chapel Walk, but there again, nor can I prove that they aren’t. The only connection with the ‘dead’ these days is the number of empty shops and lack of pedestrians.
Since the 1990s, the decline of Chapel Walk is the most remarkable example of degeneration in Sheffield city centre. From being a busy thoroughfare, where people struggled to avoid bumping into each other, it has become a ‘ghost’ street, but one that has the most potential to be impressive again.
Chapel Walk is one of our oldest streets, with origins in medieval times, but its importance surfaces in the 1700s.
At that time, every house on Prior Gate (High Street) had long gardens behind them, backing onto Alsop Fields, a rural and agricultural area sloping down to the River Sheaf.
In 1660, followers of Rev. James Fisher, vicar of Sheffield, broke away from Sheffield Parish Church to form the beginnings of Congregationalism. They met in rooms around the town but in 1700 rented a site that faced ‘Farrgate’ and called it the New Chapel, the back of it looking across Alsop Fields.
On the death of the Rev. Timothy Jollie in 1714, the Trustees of the New Chapel appointed the Arian John Wadsworth, causing some dissenters to breakaway and build a new chapel.
They looked to John Tooker, an early Master Cutler, who lived on ‘Farrgate’ and agreed to sell a piece of garden behind his house for £60 to Elia Wordsworth, a prominent member of the seceding independents, to build a new meeting house.
The chapel, across gardens from New Chapel, was built in 1714 within Tooker’s Yard, access being from Tooker Alley (later Tucker Alley), a narrow thoroughfare, with the conveyance ensuring permanent right of way to the chapel from Fargate and Alsop Fields, and that the passage should never be narrower than two yards. Thereafter, Tucker Alley became known as Chapel Walk.
Because of their proximity to each other, New Chapel became the Upper Chapel with the one on Chapel Walk called Nether Chapel.
“One regrets that there is no picture available of the Nether Chapel of those far-off days. We can imagine the little congregation during a long sermon on a hot summer’s day being beguiled by the song of birds coming through the open windows. We can see them, through fancy’s eye, coming out after worship into the strong sunlight and indulging in a friendly chat under the shade of neighbouring trees, and then dispersing to their homes in the vicinity along narrow lanes with hedges of honeysuckle and hawthorn; the air fragrant with the scent of new-mown hay – the silence broken now and again by the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle grazing contentedly in the adjacent fields.”
The chapel was partly destroyed by fire in 1827, and foundations for a New Nether Chapel were laid in May. It cost £4,200 and looked towards Norfolk Street (built at the edge of Alsop Fields) instead of Chapel Walk which had done its duty for 113 years. Dr William Younge sold land fronting Norfolk Street allowing the creation of a new chapel yard.
Over the next hundred years, Sheffield changed considerably. Gone were those rural delights and solitudes. Nether Chapel now stood in the heart of a city of bricks and mortar. The countryside had been obliterated by factories, workshops, and offices, and Chapel Walk became a popular shopping street.
In 1963, congregations at Burngreave, Wicker, Queen Street and Nether Chapel resolved to unite and form one church and to build a new chapel in the city centre. Nether Chapel was demolished, and a new Central Congregational Church opened in 1971.
When the United Reformed Church was formed in 1972 from Congregational and Presbyterian denominations the Church became Central United Reformed Church. It was significantly altered in 2000 and stands at the Norfolk Street end of Chapel Walk.
Meanwhile, Chapel Walk has fallen on tough times. Not helped by the Fargate end being shrouded in ‘abandoned’ scaffolding for several years, attempts to regenerate the street have so far failed. However, with the right investment, this slender pedestrian walkway could rise again. Small independent shops?
NOTE:- Upper Chapel was remodelled in the 1840s, turned around to face across fields. It survives in solitude on Norfolk Street.