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Buildings Companies

The rise and fall of Sheffield General Post Office

A sketch of Sheffield Post Office, Fitzalan Square, in 1909. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

In this post, we look at the history of the Post Office in Sheffield, but a question before we start. Do you know where the Central Post Office is in Sheffield? I suspect a few might struggle to answer this, and I was the same. Answer at the end.

There is one certainty in the architectural world – we will never build Post Offices like we used to, if at all. Technology has done away with the need to create lavish buildings.

The story of the growth of the Sheffield Post Office mirrors the development of the city.

In January 1835, a Post Office and News-Room was opened at the Commercial Buildings in High Street (opposite where the Telegraph Building stands today).

A small room was all that was needed in those days, with postage stamps handed through a little door fixed in a hole cut through the wall. The population of Sheffield at this time was 91,692 but by 1851 this had risen to 140,000.

Sheffield’s first Post Office, in the Commercial Buildings on High street. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

The demands on the Post Office increased and the facility was removed to Angel Street, in a part of a building that had once been Shore’s Bank.

The next move was to the top of Market Place (Castle Square), a much grander building that coincided with the increase in postal demand.

Sheffield Post Office, Market Place. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

Sheffield’s industries were rapidly growing, and the population was advancing at an enormous rate. More general use was being made of postal facilities, and the authorities were improving the service, including the postal telegraph service, rates of postage to all parts of the world being reduced and the introduction of parcel post.

While the facilities in Market Place had been a great improvement on any previous office, there was a need for bigger premises.

In 1871, the population had reached nearly 240,000 and a new Post Office opened at the corner of Haymarket and Commercial Street (still standing, more recently home to Yorkshire Bank). However, by 1900 this was also too small and offices in Flat Street were opened and all that remained in the Haymarket was public counter work and the telegraphic department.

The Post Office had bought more land in Flat Street and Pond Hill from Sheffield Corporation as well as acquiring a site occupied by Mappin Brothers. By 1903, the Post Office had about one acre of land, a triangular plot stretching from Fitzalan Square and Pond Hill. Branch sorting offices were provided at Highfield, Broomhill, Montgomery Terrace Road, and Attercliffe, and sub-post offices opened all over the city.

These relieved the work at the central office, but still the business grew, and now, when the population was creeping up to half a million, a new office was provided at the top of Baker’s Hill, on the east side of Fitzalan Square.

The new Post Office, incorporating its Flat Street offices, opened in 1909, a Baroque-style building designed by Walter Pott of HM Office of Works. It coincided with Fitzalan Square improvement works and despite its grandiose appearance did not escape criticism.

In fact, the Post Office had been built on a hillside, and the result was that the greater proportion of the building was down below street level, and what people saw from Fitzalan Square was only the top.

The Post Office closed in 1999 and remained empty for several years before becoming the home to Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Arts in 2016. More about this building in a separate post.

And finally, the answer to that question. The Sheffield City Post Office can be found on the 1st floor of Wilko in Haymarket.

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Buildings

Castle House

I don’t think many people will realise that this iconic Sheffield building was inspired by a Sears Roebuck department store in Chicago, as well as a nameless shop in Amsterdam. These were the motivation for George S. Hay, chief architect for the Co-operative Wholesale Society, who designed Castle House for the Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Society in the 1950s.

It has positioned itself alongside Park Hill flats as not being particularly loved. A throwback to the sixties, but like many similar modernist buildings, has matured better with age.

Castle House was built between 1959-1964 for the good old B&C, formed in 1868, who wanted a flagship department store and combined head office in the centre of the city.

The Society’s previous tenure in the city centre had been disastrous. In 1914, it bought land in Exchange Street for a shop, central stores and offices. The First World War delayed work and construction wasn’t started until 1927, at which point the remains of Sheffield Castle were found as the foundations were being laid. The bastion and moats were presented to the public before building recommenced. It was finally completed in 1938, quite a grand affair, only to be destroyed by German bombs in December 1940.

The site was taken over by Sheffield Corporation which had plans for Castle Market (whose construction revealed the remains of Sheffield Castle once again).

In 1950, the B&C Co-op purchased land at the junction of Castle Street and Angel Street and built a temporary one-storey shop, named Castle House, a nod to its former City Stores premises. Accordingly, the one tower heraldic symbol became the familiar logo for the Society.

Castle House was replaced by the five-storey building we know today. It was built of reinforced concrete with Blue Pearl and grey granite tiles and veneers, buff granite blocks, glass and brick. George S. Hay designed it with a blind wall to the first and second sales floors, taking encouragement from the Chicago building.

The interiors were designed by Stanley Layland, the interior designer for the CWS, the crowning glory being a cantilevered spiral staircase linking all floors. The suspended restaurant ceiling was only the second such in Europe.

It opened on 13 May 1964, the total cost of build, including shop fittings, being £925,000.

The B&C planned to merge with the Sheffield & Ecclesall Co-operative Society in 1985, a move voted down by its members, although it changed its name to the Sheffield Co-operative. In 2007, it merged with United Co-operatives, which itself merged with the Co-operative Group shortly afterwards. In 2007, the group decided to close its department stores and Castle House suffered the humiliation of standing empty.

Some trading units remained including food, travel and pharmacy, and
also the Crown Post Office. The pharmacy was closed in 2011 followed by travel and the Post Office.

English Heritage (now Historic England) gave it Grade II listed status in 2009, and in July 2018 Kollider, the regeneration company, announced plans to take over the building, the result of a £3.5million funding deal with Sheffield City Council.

Kollider created a Scandi-style food court on the upper ground floor, Kommune, an all-day dining experience including independent kitchens, brewers, bakers, baristas, book sellers and artists.

The rest of the building has been turned into Ko:Host, an events space, and Kollider Incubator, a work space for innovative, digital and tech entrepreneurs.

Earlier this month, the US tech firm WANdisco, set up in California by Sheffield-born David Richards in 2005, announced plans to relocate sixty staff from its Sheffield head office to Castle House.

The Co-op sign remains, although this refers to the Co-op food store that still occupies part of the building on Castle Street.

Categories
Buildings

Castle House

The sign on this building shows Castle House with a defunct Sheffield Co-op logo high above. It was designed by Hadfield Hawkwell & Davidson in 1962, constructed alongside the Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Society’s new department store alongside.

It was occupied by Horne Brothers, men’s outfitters, who commissioned this glass fibre and metal sculpture, eight feet in height, in 1961.

The withered male figure represents Vulcan, patron of smiths and other craftsmen who use fire, and carries a bundle of metal rods in his right hand.

It was Boris Tietze’s second commission after leaving the sculpture department of the Slade School of Fine Art, metallic in appearance and supported on a ‘light and stable’ metal armature.

Tietze ‘decided to use the god of fire – Vulcan – as being representative of Sheffield.’ Although we know that Raggio’s conventional statue of Vulcan has stood on top of Sheffield Town Hall since Victorian times.

According to Sheffield City Council, Vulcan was removed in the 1980s, but was rescued by the Council’s Public Art Officer and subsequently restored to its rightful position.

The Co-op occupied a large part of the building, later using the ground floor as a Post Office, but it was closed in 2011. (The bulk of Castle House had been shuttered up four years earlier). The block is now part occupied by the The National Videogame Museum.

Categories
Places

Secret tunnels of Sheffield (1)

One day soon, Sheffield Castle might give up some of its secrets. The castle was one of the grandest and most powerful in the north of England before it was demolished by the parliamentarians in 1648.

The site of the castle was built over several times, the remains discovered in the 1920s, and covered over once again. And then Castle Market was built over it in the 1960s.

It might come as a surprise now, but during the 18th and 19th centuries there was doubt as to where Sheffield Castle had stood.

Most historians guessed correctly, and from here on, Victorians liked the romantic notion of secret tunnels running underneath the town, supposedly relics from the old castle.

Different generations handed stories down, with tales of hidden tunnels running from Sheffield Castle towards Manor Lodge, the Old Queen’s Head at Pond Hill, and towards Sheffield Cathedral.

We’re no closer to the truth now, but evidence has been uncovered over the years to suggest there might have been some legitimacy to the stories.

In 1896, during excavations for Cockayne’s new shop on Angel Street, a subterranean passage was discovered, arousing the interest of archaeologists and antiquarians.

However, it wasn’t enough to excite local journalists who were invited to accompany an exploring party up the passage.

Said one. “The expedition sounded attractive, but when I found that to gain admission it was necessary to crawl through a particularly small entrance, and that on the other side the passage had a covering of a foot of water, my exploring enthusiasm was dampened.”

He took consolation with the foreman’s claims that it was merely an “unromantic sewer,” his view confirmed by the explorers.

Alas, the march of progress ended any further exploration, and the passage was duly blocked up.

And there was another story from the same year, but one that didn’t emerge until 1920, when a retired reporter sent a letter to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.

“At the bottom of High Street, at the curve which leads off towards Bank Street, some excavations were made in connection with drainage works, and at a depth of several yards, the opening in the ground cut right through an ancient subterranean way.

“I undertook an investigation with the view of establishing the correctness or incorrectness of the generally accepted theory. The foreman of the works was good enough to detail one of his men to be my guide, and with a lighted candle we began to walk along the passage towards the church. The opening in the direction of the river had been so badly disturbed during the excavations that the ingress on that side was out of the question.

“It was quite plain to see, as we advanced, that the passage had been cut through stone – it was not hard rock, but a rather soft and friable substratum. It was three feet wide, and at first, we could walk upright, but its height diminished a little, and twenty yards or so from the opening where we entered, we had to stoop to make our way along.

“At length we emerged into a dark cellar, with thralls all around it. The roof was of stone, but without ornamentation of any kind, and, altogether, it had the appearance of one of those underground caverns – crypts, they are commonly, but wrongly, called – in which a business had been carried on hundreds of years previously, and which was, in the first instance, reached by steps from without.

“These steps had disappeared however, and my guide brought me to daylight again up ordinary inside cellar steps, and we emerged into a dilapidated building.

“Pursuing my enquiries, I gathered that the premises beneath which the cellar lay had been for many years, at a remote period, the business place of a wine merchant, And the explanation of the passage was that it was, in all likelihood, a drain to conduct water from the cellar to the river.

“It was objected at the time that the cost of such a drain was altogether against the correctness of this theory; but, on the other hand, it is an established fact that drains of this character were common in medieval times. The residents in a locality would combine to bear the cost and to reap the advantage of such a construction, and, doubtless, if my guide and I had a better light, or if we had been more careful in traversing the passage, we might have seen junctions with the drain coming from the other premises.”

It was a disappointment to those who thought that this was part of a tunnel running from Sheffield Castle to the Parish Church, but the so-called secret passages which ran underground in most towns were either sewers or watercourses.

The story was forgotten, only to emerge again in the 1930s, and subject of another post.