While you were sleeping last night. Backfields, 3am. A forgotten thoroughfare amid 21st century redevelopment. A street with an undesirable history. Our ancestors imperilled this narrow street to crime – stabbings, muggings, and death, and I doubt that Sheffield has another street which suffered so many devastating fires.
In 1872, a Dr Hime expressed his opinion that it was not surprising that there should be so much sickness in the town while there were such places as Backfields and the neighbourhood.
Backfields led from Division Street to Wellington Street, off which were alleys and passageways with access to Coal Pit Lane, and Carver Street. It was an area of dirty, dense, back-to-back housing, and small workshops.
It was a cess-pit of filth, but it hadn’t always been like this.
Once upon a time, Backfields was exactly that. The fields beyond Coal Pit Lane (now Cambridge Street), once the distant boundary of town, was where cows grazed, sheep gambolled, and children played in the meadows.
Cometh the Industrial Revolution, no trace of its rural past existed.
In the same year that Dr Hime pontificated about Backfields, the Sheffield Independent provided a unique account: –
“On the eastern side of a yard there is a privy that must do duty for a considerable number of houses, and it is scarcely equal to the duty. The ashpit is more than full – it is overflowing. It has made an encroachment almost into the middle of the yard, in front of the doors of some of the houses and extends about twenty feet until its further extension laterally is stopped by the water branch.
“It is the same in every yard. Near St. Matthew’s Church there is an ashpit adjoining the street, piled up high beyond the retaining walls, and the rubbish falls onto the footpath leading to the houses. The passages are worthy of exploration. A visit to them will show that the ashpit question, though a grave one, is not the only point affecting the sanitary position in Sheffield. Air, light, ventilation, and crowding have much to do with it, and many of these places ought to be improved off the face of the earth.
“There is a passage, the old entrance to which has been removed by the erection of a privy, and the actual passage left would scarcely admit the entrance to a turtle-fed alderman. But there are other privies, not only as bad, but worse. One could not be seen because the doors were closed. The other could not be seen because the doors could not be closed. But here, as in the other case, a solution has been found. Human necessity is strong in resources; and the depositions that should be made in the privies are made in or thrown into the passage. These premises are stuck over with notifications from the Health Committee enjoining cleanliness on the inhabitants, in circumstances and under conditions where it is impossible to be clean!
“Yet again, in these jennels and passages, there are active business proceedings carried on. In one of them, there is a bakery, where spicy-looking buns were being made for the delectation of young Sheffield, which may be very excellent in their way, though fastidious people would prefer that the materials of their food should not be exposed and manipulated in such unsavoury localities. In another passage, a large tray of pork pies was met ready for the oven. These ‘Melton Mowbrays’ may be all that could be desired; and the givers of picnics will perhaps feel obliged for hints as to the possible sources of their pies and buns, or other delectable confections manufactured over conditions of sweetness that may impart a flavour and improve the appetite.”
It took years for things to improve. A hundred years later, the houses had finally gone while recession claimed industry and commerce. St. Matthews is perhaps the only reminder of our inglorious past.
Sheffield did little to redevelop Backfields and it is only now, with the Heart of the City project, that the area has been embraced. Tower blocks are not long from completion, and people, maybe descendants of those who ate spicy-buns and pork pies, are returning.
But, as somebody recently pointed out to me, are we simply building the slums of the future?
©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.