It is sad to be writing about a building that will soon be no more.
The Old Coroner’s Court on Nursery Street is to be demolished and replaced with 77 apartments, after a Government inspector overturned Sheffield City Council’s decision to halt the development.
Firestone, the developer, has been given permission to demolish the building as it is not listed, or in a conservation area.
It will be a miserable end for the building built in 1913-1914, one damaged during the Blitz, the subject of severe flooding, and an arson attack.
At the end of November 1912, it was agreed by Sheffield Corporation that a new Coroner’s Court and Mortuary should be built on surplus land remaining after the widening of Nursery Street.
Prior to this, the land had been an area of mixed domestic, retail and industrial buildings, a far cry from the days when this was “a green and pleasant land, when salmon could be caught in the Don, and flowers gathered in the meadow” of Spittal Gardens, or the Duke of Norfolk’s Nursery.
The new Coroner’s Court was championed by Dr W.H. Fordham, of the Heeley Ward, chairman of the special committee set up to build it. The urgency was to replace the old coroner’s court that had stood on Plum Lane, off Corporation Street, since 1884, and had long been a disgrace to the city.
The building was designed by Sheffield’s first city architect, Frederick Ernest Pearce Edwards (1863-1945), who had previously held a similar position with Bradford Corporation.
Built of brick and stone, it drew on the design of Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Baroque traditions of the nineteenth century. Construction was by George Longden and Son and cost £5,000 to build.
The main courtroom was 30ft x 20ft and 25ft high. Within the building were various mortuaries, waiting rooms, jury retiring rooms, coroner and doctor waiting rooms, viewing rooms, coach and motor houses, stables, and a caretaker’s house.
It was furnished throughout in oak and contained all the ‘up-to-date’ appliances, including fixed and revolving tables in the post-mortem room.
The coroner at the time was Mr J. Kenyon Parker, but the first case held here was in May 1914 when Dr J.J. Baldwin Young, deputy coroner, investigated the death of Edward Villers, a labourer, and determined that he ‘hanged himself while of unsound mind.’
Buildings behind were added in the 1920s, and following bomb damage in December 1940, new plans were drawn up by W.G. Davis, city architect, in 1952-1953 to extend the courtroom buildings.
The opening of the Medico Legal Centre on Watery Street, Netherthorpe, in the 1970s, brought an end to grisly proceedings on Nursery Street.
It became Sheffield City Council, Employment Department, Enterprise Works, and was subsequently sub-divided into 36 principal rooms. In later years it was known as the Old Coroner’s Court Business Centre.
Unfortunately, little remains of the original internal detail, but the outside is virtually untouched apart from minor restoration.
The building has been empty for several years and the developer had hoped to incorporate it into the new development, but this was considered unpractical.
And so, we lose another one of our historic buildings, to be replaced with something considered to be “favourable towards the character and appearance of the area.”
The Wicker Arch is one of Sheffield’s most famous landmarks, and yet, we take it for granted.
It is one of Sheffield’s greatest engineering projects and is a small section of a complex system of 41 arches completed in December 1848. The viaduct is 660 yards-long, and crosses the Don Valley, taking its name from The Wicker which the main arch passes over.
The Wicker Arches were built for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company, extending the railway from an old station at Clay Gardens (Bridgehouses), through the Nursery (Street), across The Wicker, over the River Don, the site of the old Blonk dam, the yard of the Sheaf Works, and the canal. The portion of the viaduct between The Wicker and Effingham Lane had increased width to accommodate the Victoria Station and was about 300 yards in length.
It was the brainchild of John Fowler, the Sheffield-born engineer-in-chief for the railway company, who later designed the Forth Bridge. The arches were made of brick, faced on each side with rows of stone quoins. The piers were massive and described at the time as being “built to withstand a bombardment rather than any pressure from above.”
John Fowler regarded the showpiece of the project as being the arch that crossed over The Wicker and employed Sheffield architects, Weightman and Hadfield, to add ceremony to the design, with construction carried out by Miller, Blackie and Shortridge
It was a wide elliptical arch, 30ft high and 72ft long, with voussoirs, flanked by single 12ft wide round-arched footways, edged by Tuscan pillars, with imposts, key-stones, and hood-moulds. Above each footway arch was a relief panel with a coat of arms. An attached building provided an entrance and staircase to the Victoria Station.
The Wicker Viaduct (as it was known until the 1850s, and later Victoria Station Viaduct) was not without its problems.
Several workmen died during construction, including three men who fell to their death when scaffolding collapsed underneath the right-hand Wicker Arch in 1848.
There were also several archway collapses, including one shortly before its completion, where one of the smaller arches collapsed with a “dull heavy thud.” It was a hazard of Victorian engineering, but nothing like the dramatic collapse of 20 arches at the Rother Viaduct, six miles away, built at the same time.
The project also cost the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway more money than envisaged, and it had to scale back construction to cut losses.
On 12th December 1848, a ceremony was held at the completion of the “great arch,” the final piece of the Wicker Viaduct. It was said that the viaduct contained a greater amount of cubic masonry than any other and was considered the largest piece of masonry ever constructed in Britain.
The Wicker Arch was decorated in banners and those present included Dr Mariano Martin de Bartolomé and Thomas Blake, both directors of the railway company, Thomas Dunn Jeffcock and William Fowler, company land agents, and John Shortridge, the contractor.
As the keystone was lowered into place, Dr Bartolomé acted as chief mason, and gave a brief but animated speech where he stated that “the eastern part of the railway should be characterised for what they had done, rather than for what they had said.”
He complimented the engineer and contractor on the solid character and appearance of the work, and afterwards there were three mighty cheers and “one cheer more” for the success of the line.
Shortly afterwards an engine and two carriages passed over the viaduct for the first time and continued to the junction of the Midland Railway at Beighton.
It is worth mentioning the heraldic carvings on the Wicker Arch, at the time considered by some in the railway company as being unnecessarily expensive and extravagant.
Those on the side of town are the coats of arms of the Duke of Norfolk and of Sheffield. On the other side are the arms of the Earl of Yarborough, chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway, and the seal of the company which were grouped in the arms of Sheffield, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Retford, and Lincoln.
Most of the other arches were later brick infilled and have served as workshops ever since, most now hidden with adjacent buildings.
The main Wicker Arch survived a German bomb that fell during World War Two, and which repairs can still be seen. And who can forget the flood waters that lapped around its piers during the floods of 2007 after the River Don burst its banks causing devastation all around?
The area has changed considerably but the Wicker Arch still imposes itself as it did when first built. Some of the arches were dismantled during electrification, and now it is mainly goods rail traffic that crosses over it.
In 1990 a partnership between Sheffield Development Corporation, Sheffield City Council, British Rail, and supported by English Heritage and the Rail Heritage Trust, restored the arches to their former appearance, although there are concerns about its present condition and preservation.
“If you want to see a monument to this man, look around you.”
Here is a man once described as “one of the makers of Sheffield,” for he was responsible for many of its principal buildings and played a leading part in changing the shape of the city.
His long list of work can be seen around Sheffield today.
In his earlier years, Edward Mitchel Gibbs was architect for the branch libraries at Upperthorpe and Highfield, and later designed the Mappin Art Gallery, St. John’s Church at Ranmoor, the University of Sheffield, the Sheffield Telegraph Building, Lodge Moor Hospital, Channing Hall, Glossop Road Baths, Foster’s Building in High Street, and the White Building at Fitzalan Square. He was also responsible for some of the finest shops of the time in High Street and Fargate.
E.M. Gibbs (1847-1935) was born in Sheffield, educated at the Milk Street School, and articled to architects Flockton & Abbott between 1862 to 1868, remaining as principal assistant. He attended classes at Sheffield School of Art and subsequently spent time in London, studying at the Royal Academy Schools and assisting in the offices of Alfred Waterhouse.
Gibbs worked as Superintendent of Works to Archibald Neill of Leeds from 1868 until 1872, when he was taken into partnership by Flockton & Abbott.
He continued in partnership with Thomas James Flockton after the retirement of George Lewslie Abbott in 1875, and the partnership was joined by Flockton’s son, Charles Burrows Flockton, in 1895.
Gibbs became senior partner in 1902 (as Gibbs & Flockton), and the partnership was joined by John Charles Amory Teather in 1908, and Gibbs’ son, Henry Beckett Swift Gibbs, in 1921.
Like all good men, it was only after his death that people appreciated his contribution to the city.
His funeral in December 1935 was held at the Unitarian Upper Chapel on Norfolk Street (in which Gibbs had designed much of its interior) where the Rev. Alfred Hall paid tribute:
“Gibbs’ aim was to make Sheffield beautiful. All his artistic insight and architectural skill were devoted to that end, and, though tastes and fashion had changed, all men would acknowledge that the buildings he conceived and erected were dignified and noble.”
The funeral achieved national attention because Rev. Hall read out a document left by Gibbs:
“Born of Unitarian parents, I was a staunch supporter of the Unitarian precepts for many years, but under the teaching of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer became an agnostic. I hope the Minister, if he accepts the responsibility of conducting my funeral, will do so in the simplest manner possible, remembering that I die an agnostic.”
The clergyman admired his “sterling honesty” after which Gibbs’ remains were taken to City Road for cremation.
During his lifetime Gibbs thought positively and deeply and was a man of definite views. He was afraid that the country might fall into the hands of extremists and had the foresight to see the danger it faced arising out of Germany’s ambitions.
But he was not just an architect.
Gibbs had knowledge of property values and was retained by Sheffield Corporation in all cases of arbitration under the Tramways and Street Widening Act of 1897.
He also published essays: ‘The Town Planning of Sheffield’ and ‘The Finance of Housing and Reform of Rating’. In 1895, he presented a scheme for a central railway station in the vicinity of Haymarket. The plans were dismissed, as was his big scheme for housing.
Gibbs’ grand expansion plan was based on garden city principles with radiating main roads linked by a ring road with suburban settlements at its junctions.
As well as being a city magistrate, he was a trustee of Woofindin Homes, a director of the Gladstone Buildings Company and a governor of the University of Sheffield, where he was awarded a Master of Arts, and was instrumental in establishing the Department of Architecture.
He was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1892 and was also president of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Society of Architects and Surveyors. Gibbs also succeeded Thomas James Flockton as Consulting Surveyor to the Town Trustees, for which he designed the Fulwood Park estate.
Gibbs was married to Lucy, daughter of a manager at the Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank, who died a year before him, and lived at Woodcroft, 7 Riverdale Road. On his death he left gross estate of £52,939 (about £3.8 million today).
The next time you are able walk into McDonalds or HMV, on High Street, be aware that you are walking into history. Before you go inside, take a moment and look above, and you will find that these popular ground floor premises are part of an elaborate building.
This is the Foster’s Building, built in French domestic Gothic style by Sheffield architects Flockton and Gibbs in 1896.
The origin of the Foster’s Building goes back to the Anglo-French Wars of the sixteenth century, and the entrepreneurship of William Foster, draper, tailor and outfitter, who opened a shop on High Street in 1769.
At the time that William Foster opened his business, High Street was a narrow thoroughfare, described by some as resembling a village street.
When peace was concluded with France, the British Government advertised for sale a vast stock of old uniforms and equipment, which had been given up by troops on disbandment.
William Foster took a coach to London and bought up large quantities of soldiers’ jackets and belts. These were brought to Sheffield and stacked in large crates and baskets outside his shop.
It was said that there was hardly a grinder or cabman in Sheffield who did not buy one of the jackets, not particularly concerned about appearance, but appreciating something cheap.
Being extremely durable they were suited to both trades, and a credible record suggests that the old workshops looked as though a regiment of soldiers was at work, for every grinding wheel had a red-jacketed attendant.
The army belts were of excellent leather, so the record runs, and were largely used by craftsmen for buffing and similar purposes.
Foster was afflicted with an obscure disease, the chief symptom of which was that he frequently fell asleep.
“Mr Foster fell asleep while seated on the hampers of soldiers’ clothes. These used to stand on the edge of the pavement, and there Mr Foster sold the contents, so long as he could keep awake,” said an old humourist.
According to George Leighton in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield (1876) there were other amusing consequences of Foster’s illness.
“I went once to him, as a boy, to be measured for a jacket. Standing behind him, he made me hold my arm horizontally, with the elbow bent, and I thought he seemed a very long time in measuring it. A person on the other side of the street, at York Street corner, was watching the operation, and, seeing him laughing, I looked round, and found that the old man had fallen fast asleep.”
William Foster made a huge sum of money from the transaction and left his family very wealthy.
He was succeeded by his son, also William, who subsequently went into partnership with his own son, George Harvey Foster, in 1860, and renamed the business William Foster and Son, operating at 12-14 High Street.
It soon became necessary to enlarge the premises, and for this purpose, they acquired an adjoining public house, the Spread Eagle, and incorporated it into the original building.
And so, we come to the building that we see today.
When Sheffield grew in prosperity during the late 1800s, the council considered various schemes to improve the condition of its streets. The High Street improvement scheme finally concluded in 1895, resulting in one of the city’s biggest redevelopment projects, and doubling the width of the street.
However, to allow the road widening it meant the demolition of the old properties on the south side of High Street, including buildings owned by William Foster and Son.
George Harvey Foster sold 400 yards of freehold land in High Street for £34,000 in 1893. He took £24,000 in cash for the site of the tailor’s shop, and £10,000 for adjoining land that he owned, and needed by Sheffield Corporation.
Foster died in 1894, his will confirming that he had sold the frontage of the High Street property to Sheffield Corporation for road widening, and empowering his trustees to rebuild and rearrange replacement premises.
In 1895, the first plans for the new building were issued by the architects, Flockton and Gibbs, and convinced the public that this was an “ornament to the widened street.”
The chief architect for the building was Edward Mitchel Gibbs with construction work starting in 1895, undertaken by George Longden and Son, with ironwork supplied by Carter Brothers (surprisingly based in Rochdale).
The building stood on a new street line, set back about forty feet, that allowed existing shops to continue trading during construction, and be demolished afterwards.
When the Foster’s Building was completed in late 1896, it accommodated previous tenants from the old site , Foster and Son being the principal tenant, with other shops for J. Harrison, hosier, C. Tinker, boot and shoe manufacturer, E. Brown, goldsmith and Mr W. Lewis, tobacconist.
Foster and Son had two entrances, with four large windows. Their frontage was 86 feet long and 100 feet in depth and came with a large back yard, and within, contained all three of their departments – ready-made clothes, children’s and bespoke tailoring.
A balcony extended across the top of the building, while Gibbs set back the main wall of the frontage about two feet, so that the supports would not interfere with ground floor window space, and was described as being a “huge showcase”.
The Foster’s Building, on a slightly sloping site, was built in a curved line, leading towards the bottom of Fargate.
The front of the showrooms, above the shops, was ornamented with light wooden tracery, and the upper parts of the building (four floors) was of Huddersfield sandstone, richly moulded, and with a steep-pitched slate roof. It was relieved by oriel windows, ornamental gables and turrets, and dormer windows.
The whole of the upper floors was utilised as rented offices, varying in size, approached by a staircase, ten feet wide, leading from High Street, and by a passenger elevator (see note at end). Each office was fitted with “electric wiring, gas tubing and all modern conveniences.”
The corridors on each floor were eight feet wide, with mosaic-tiled floors and tiled walls up to the height of the door heads, These were well lit by windows placed at the end of each corridor, and also borrowed light from the offices.
The office entrance was marked by a lofty arch, with oriel windows over it, surmounted by a gable, with turrets, and crowned with an ornamental tower, which was to have been the water tank for the elevator, had not “technology” quickly intervened.
Foster and Son remained in the High Street until 1931, by which time they had been here for over 160 years. It was the oldest tailoring firm in the city, with other premises at Waingate and Castle Hill, and had been run by the widow of William Joseph Foster, great-grandson of its founder, since 1905.
Foster and Son consolidated trade at its other shops, and while war had been instrumental in its initial success, it effectively led to its demise after the Waingate branch was destroyed during the Sheffield Blitz.
The Foster’s Building eventually succumbed to other retailers at street level and, for a time, was known as Norwich Union Buildings. It was refurbished during the late twentieth century, presumably with much period detail lost, and before it was Grade II-listed by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1989.
NOTE: – The Foster’s Building had the first American Elevator in Sheffield, built by the Otis Elevator Company, founded in Yonkers, New York in 1853 by Elisha Otis.
In 1890, Otis had entered the British market under the name of the American Elevator Company. Between 1870 and 1900, there had been a transition between hydraulic lifts to electric-powered elevators.
The Otis company advertised its new generation of elevators with the consideration that such an installation was no longer a complicated matter, and well-suited to places which could not have had one before.
The Foster’s Building had intended to have a hydraulic lift and Gibbs’ design included a small water tower on the roof for its elevator. After it was decided to install an electric-powered lift the tower remained, but instead used as a motor room for the American Elevator.
In 1897, a newspaper advertisement for potential occupiers of its offices described the lift as being able to “accomplish the journey from ground floor to fourth floor in THREE seconds.” Unlikely, even today.