The recent post about Castlegate failed to mention that it is in the process of being part-pedestrianised, Phase 2 of Sheffield’s ‘Grey to Green’ project. Unless you visit this forgotten part of the city centre the relevance of the initiative might escape you.
It is part of an approach to transform ‘redundant’ road space into a network of public spaces, sustainable drainage and urban rain gardens, which aims to improve the setting of the Riverside Business District, Castlegate and the rest of the city centre and then on to Kelham Island and Victoria Quays, as a place to work, live and enjoy, whilst also dealing with the effects of climate change.
Phase 1 (West Bar/Bridge Street/Snig Hill) was completed in Spring 2016 and was funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Sheffield City Region Infrastructure Fund and Sheffield City Council.
The area suffered catastrophic river floods in 2007. With the completion of the Inner Relief Road in 2008, traffic was diverted away from West Bar. The opportunity was seized to replace the ‘grey’ impermeable ‘redundant’ roads into ‘green’ permeable beds, transforming the space with colourful meadow-like planting and significantly increasing surface water storage.
With advice on plant selection from the University of Sheffield Landscape Department this has created a new townscape that is different to anything done in Sheffield before. Over 40,000 bulbs, 40 new trees, 600 evergreen shrubs and 26,000 herbaceous plants were introduced to form a seasonal urban meadow.
The new road layout was designed to slow vehicle speeds and make walking and cycling more attractive. New paving, street furniture, colourful seating and five eye-catching public art ‘totems’ celebrate the local history of the West Bar area including its Victorian music halls and theatres, its lively street life, its complex relationship to the river and its legacy of industry and brewing.
Phase 2 (Castlegate to Exchange Place) is nearing completion, and Phase 3 (Gibraltar Street to Shalesmoor) will eventually transform 1.2km of ‘redundant’ road-space into an attractive new linear green public space.
The name suggests that this is one of Sheffield’s ancient roads, perhaps named after Sheffield Castle, this stronghold destroyed by Parliamentarians during the 1600s. Castlegate is the road that runs alongside the River Don between Blonk Street and the junction of Waingate and Bridge Street.
However, you might be surprised to know that Castlegate is a relatively modern road and celebrates its centenary in 2030.
The road is found on the site of the lost castle and was first suggested by Edward Mitchel Gibbs, the Sheffield architect, as part of his ambitious plans for a Viaduct Scheme connecting Great Central Station (Victoria Station) with Haymarket.
The River Don Road was the only portion of the proposal adopted by Sheffield Corporation and built to ease congestion around Blonk Street, The Wicker and Lady’s Bridge. Its construction was made easier by the council’s Castle Hill Market development built on the embankment of the castle.
Castlegate (or Castle Gate), 60 feet wide and 200 yards long, was built at a cost of £13,000 in 1930, using over 9,000 tons of material, with a one-foot layer of strong concrete laid below the asphalt.
It was divided from the River Don by an old stone wall which had to be reinforced by 14 concrete buttresses each weighing 50 tons. Over the buttresses was a solid mass of concrete stretching from the wall halfway under the road and taking the weight of the traffic.
The former Castle Market site lays in transition waiting for the day when a park is created between Castlegate and Exchange Street.
It was demolished in 2015 allowing the few remains of Sheffield Castle to be excavated in detail.
The area might be run-down and demands attention, but had an extravagant scheme been completed over a century ago, the place might look vastly different now.
In 1911, Sheffield Corporation drew up plans to create a new street running from Great Central Station (Victoria Station) into the centre of the city. Objections were made by the Markets Committee that any such road would have made it impossible to complete its proposed new market scheme.
In response, the Sheffield architect Edward Michel Gibbs created an alternative plan whereby, instead of building the street at ground level, a new road could be carried on a viaduct, allowing the site beneath to be developed for market use.
“The street to the station would be similar in position to that recommended by the committee. It would run from Haymarket to Blonk Street, nearly in a direct line for the station, but instead of descending 26 feet to Blonk Street and then ascending 20 feet to the station yard, it would be carried on a viaduct on the level of Haymarket, then by a bridge over Blonk Street (26 feet high), and forward to a viaduct over the side of Smithfield Market to the station yard.”
The viaduct road would have resulted in level access to Great Central Station, avoiding traffic congestion in Blonk Street, and allowing for the expansion of the markets.
It was a radical scheme that also allowed for the creation of brand new market halls. A wholesale market would have been constructed underneath the viaduct, covering an area of 13,960 square yards, and built on part of the River Sheaf.
On top of the viaduct were to be retail markets, with bold balustraded parapets, and set back 40 feet on each side of the new street, fronting onto a decorative space almost as big as Fitzalan Square. With 5,555 square yards of selling space, the markets would have been bigger than the combined areas of the existing Norfolk Market Hall and Fitzalan Market.
Gibbs estimated the cost of the Viaduct Scheme to be £351,000, inclusive of land, road, viaduct, markets, and a new River Don Street from Blonk Street to Lady’s Bridge.
Unsurprisingly, Sheffield Corporation recoiled over the estimated cost (equivalent to over £16 million today) and refused to consider the scheme.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph favoured the proposal and filled column inches with reasons why the council should at least consider it.
“There can be no doubt that the streets abutting onto the station approach are a disgrace to the town. They are dangerous, congested and filthily dirty, and they give the visitor to Sheffield a first impression of squalor and sordidness.
“If they alight at the station, what do they see? On the right a piece of wasteland: on the left a road that dips under the railway and is flanked with ugly stone walls; straight before them a sloping road leading to a narrow street of dingy, mean-looking buildings, with a dirty, battered ‘convenience’ of the worst and most ancient type standing proudly as a centrepiece.”
Gibbs published a pamphlet to convince people about the scheme and the council eventually agreed to discuss the proposal. However, the projected cost had increased to £398,000 and the Corporation went for the cheaper option.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was unimpressed.
“The Corporation have before them a scheme which is only a tinkering with an admitted evil, not a bold and generous attempt to extirpate it. It will suffice only for a generation or so.”
Unfortunately, World War One halted all plans for the markets, and it was not until 1930 that Castle Hill Market opened, subsequently replaced by Castle Market in 1959.
What do you do with a problem like Fitzalan Square? Those of you that have seen it lately cannot have failed to notice its recent overhaul with a new grassed area around the statue of King Edward VII, and the addition of new trees. The square has also been given open access from Norfolk Street, across Arundel Gate, and down Esperanto Place.
The improvements to Fitzalan Square and the surrounding area are part of a £5.5million ‘Knowledge Gateway’ project to transform the area which runs from the Cultural Industries Quarter up to the square.
However, there will be doubters that look upon this work with a note of scepticism. Fitzalan Square has never lived up to its name, not helped by unremarkable twentieth century buildings on one side of the square, and a tendency to attract ‘undesirables’.
Its history goes back to 1869 when Sheffield Corporation started purchasing and demolishing premises on the east side of Market Street (where the top end of the square is now) and the south side of the old Haymarket.
Several properties came down, including the Star Hotel, Theaker’s Coffee House, the King’s Arms Hotel, the Blue Bell, Fisher and Sons, Mr Arnison’s drapery, and Mr Jeffrey’s pawnbrokers.
A large portion of the premises belonged to the Misses Shearwood. These two ladies objected to part with their property and refused to lend themselves in any way to the proceedings for acquiring it. Sheffield Corporation had to execute a deed poll vesting the property in themselves and paid money into a bank account for the benefit of the ladies. The Sheriff of Yorkshire was called in to give the Corporation possession of the property, and did so by placing in the street an article of furniture and getting the tenants to ‘attorn’ to the Corporation – that was to admit that the Corporation was their landlord. The money remained in a Bank of England account until the death of the ladies some years later.
When the property between Market Street and Jehu Lane (still standing off Commercial Street) was pulled down the open space was called Fitzalan Square, after the Duke of Norfolk’s family.
It was in 1882 that the council announced that it was obtaining plans and specifications for completing a new layout in the open space.
“The space will be levelled, and a retaining wall built along Market Street, surmounted with ornamental palisades, leaving a part open in the centre with steps down to the space levelled, at each of which is to be erected two small ornamental stone buildings, the one near the markets for the use of gentlemen, to contain a good reception or waiting room, lavatory, retiring and attendant’s rooms. The building at the other end near to Norfolk Street, for the use of ladies; to be provided with similar accommodation. The open space is to be well spaced with good flagstones, and in the centre a suitable fountain to be erected, or a statue to William Jeffcock, the first Mayor of Sheffield.”
It appears that the plans were rejected in full, the toilets not built, but some improvements were made to ‘Welshers’ Oval’, as the Sheffield Independent called Fitzalan Square.
“The police were asked to undertake the keeping of order in the open space,” said Le Flaneur in the newspaper. “I am afraid this open space will be very much like the proverbial white elephant. It certainly cost enough to get, and now a permanent addition of the police force will be necessary to keep it constantly free of the loafers, idlers and book makers that make it their daily resort.”
It was left to Police-constable George Warhurst to be the object of terror. Betting loungers were prompt to obey his orders to make themselves scarce, and it was a difficult task for the Chief Constable when Warhurst died in 1884.
Matters did not improve after a pagoda-style building, comprising tram waiting rooms, water closets and urinals, as well as a clock turret, was built in the centre of the square in 1885.
Far from enhancing the appearance of the square, it provided shelter to ‘mouldy old men and frowsy women’ and in a short time had acquired a shabby reputation.
“If only some of our worthy Aldermen and Councillors would make it convenient to spend a few hours each day, for a week, in the immediate vicinity of this structure, they would, I am sure, be earnest in their endeavours to put an end to the constant ‘loafing’ which takes place by ‘undesirables’ at this particular sport,” said one letter to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
It was a subject repeated day after day.
“The evil at the shelter is a radiating evil. It embraces all the seats around, for the reason that, while the shelter is the converging point of the very pick of Sheffield’s undesirable characters, they also use it as a kind of base from which they carry on their predatory prowling: a long rest, then a short spell of loafing at the street corners, – that is the day’s programme.”
“It has been a disgrace far too long, and from every point of view. In my judgement the lavatories themselves are a menace to public decency.”
The ‘Current Topics’ column in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph took up the matter and its biting words make painful reading today.
“The correspondents who are raising the question of this unpicturesque resort of the city’s Weary Willies and Tired Tims will do good service if they can stimulate the authorities into action. We will confess that we never pass through Fitzalan Square without experiencing a keen desire to turn a hose pipe on those seats, partly because it would be a pleasing novelty to see the people run, as in their abhorrence of cold water they would, and partly because both they and the seats they occupy look as if they would be the better for a smart wash.
“There need be no sentiment wasted over the denizens of Fitzalan Square. When we are really civilised, we shall transport such people to Labour Colonies and give them to eat exactly what they earn. Failing that there is neither reason nor sense in retaining them as permanent decorations to the city’s ‘finest site’. Fitzalan Square might be something to be proud of. At present it is only disgusting.”
Sheffield Corporation was indeed stimulated into action, probably the result of land at one end of the square being chosen as the site for the new General Post Office.
While land was cleared for the Post Office in 1907, councillors proposed reconstructing Fitzalan Square to harmonise with the new building.
It was probably one of the best known public spaces in Sheffield, but the most ardent son could scarcely claim that the pagoda-like structure which gave it its chief characteristic had added either architectural grace or dignity to this part of the city.
“The pagoda had served various purposes satisfactorily, and, notably, as a rendezvous for a little army of folk with apparently little to do than doze and gossip the day through.”
The council adopted a scheme for laying out Fitzalan Square in ornamental style as an open space, and at the same time taking advantage for utilitarian purposes. The scheme was worked out by Mr C.F. Wike, City Engineer, based on drawings prepared by the Sheffield Society of Architects and Surveyors.
At the time it was noted that there were more pipes laid through Fitzalan Square than through any part of the city. Here, the lines to the GPO, the National Telephone, and Electric Light Power stations converged. The Post Office was also laying cables to connect trunk wires to the new GPO building and on completion of work, in January 1909, renovation of the square commenced.
The contractor chosen for the work was George Longden and Son, but the original plan had been shorn of ornamental detail due to cost, although the property overlooking the square was nearly all rebuilt.
The ugly pagoda went and the central part of the square it occupied was enlarged. This was made possible by removing an old cab stand and filling up the slope on the south side of the square to make it level and wider.
The upper part of Baker’s Hill, a sloping road in front of where the new GPO was being built, had been done away with, and steps substituted as an outlet from that corner of the square into Pond Street.
The new scheme provided an ornamental stone balustrade, public conveniences at either end of the square, and a tramway office, all underground. At the four corners were electric arc lamps, with further embellishments, in the shape of a fountain and a statue, planned for a later date.
However, the scheme was embroiled in controversy, the council wanting to use Norwegian or Swedish granite because it resisted damage, but the majority wanting cheaper Stoke Hall stone. In the end, the balustrades were built of imported granite.
Fitzalan Square was formally opened on Wednesday December 8, 1909, by the Lord Mayor, Earl Fitzwilliam, at which he made an expressive speech: –
“We live in a time when the question – a burning question in some cities – of open spaces is bidding fair to see some very satisfactory accomplishment. In no city more than Sheffield are these open spaces desirable. In a city like Sheffield where we burned the very best ‘South Yorkshire’, they made the very best mess of the South Yorkshire atmosphere. Science has not yet taught us how altogether to avoid this murky effect, but by providing open spaces we might make best of the atmosphere that is left to us. Sheffield is especially fortunate in its open spaces and in this particular one, because although in the past they had had a space here, it had not been one worthy of the size or importance of the city.”
The improvements had cost £9,000 (about £1.1 million now), but the age-old problems refused to go away, and criticism was often scathing.
“Within a year an article appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, written by an anonymous correspondent, under the heading ‘THAT SQUARE’: –
“A good deal of the recent talk about Fitzalan Square may have been ineffectual, but if it did nothing else it sent me to inspect the place. Though my work brings me into the city daily, I had never had reason to descend to the bottom of High Street since the so-called improvement had taken place. Yesterday I determined to see for myself what the fuss was all about.
“I have no desire to exaggerate but I do not hesitate to say that Fitzalan Square is the most pestilently ill-favoured open space in England. This is patent without seeing all the others, for there is an instinct which tells you when you have seen the absolute nadir of ugliness. I have seen IT.
“If you are at all run down the effect of suddenly coming upon such a spectacle as this forlorn wilderness of paltry dog kennels and pretentious architectural incoherencies may easily cause a shock dangerous to health.
“The said ‘improvement’ consists of a stone balustrade round a large piece of nothing at all. What this petty stone fence is meant to enclose or exclude is not obvious. There are four lamp-posts of the most abysmal hideousness. Possibly there is poetic fitness in this, for they are meant to light the way below.
“It might be roofed in and let as a skating rink or turned into a rifle range. It might be dug up and let out to husbandmen. Unless three out of four of the surrounding buildings are absolutely wiped out and a big sum spent in covering up the alleged ‘improvement’ which has recently been carried out, nothing can be done to make the place decent.”
And so, the tone was set, for decades subject of ridicule, damaged during the Blitz, and often left to its own unsavoury devices.
The fountain never materialised and a plan to relocate a statue of Ebenezer Elliot from Weston Park to Fitzalan Square was abandoned. It was graced with a statue of King Edward VII (subject of another post) in 1913.
In time the underground toilets were removed, the trams disappeared, and even the taxis left for busier parts of the city centre.
When the area has become too down-at-heel there have been attempts to restore it, including a 2003 facelift, with the restoration of the King Edward VII statue, new sandstone paving, steel benches and improved street lighting.
The latest restoration comes at a time when this part of the city centre is in transition. A vast proportion of people have migrated to The Moor along with the old market, the old General Post Office now belongs to Sheffield Hallam University, and the future depends on the Castlegate development and most probably our student population.
I don’t think anybody saw this coming. Sheffield’s biggest ever development project – a £1.5bn plan to develop the area around Sheffield Railway Station, dwarfing the £480m Heart of the City II scheme.
The plan is to maximise the economic potential of the area and make the most of HS2, and will now go out for public consultation.
The idea stems from plans for HS2 trains to stop at Sheffield Station on a loop off the mainline which were recently given the green light by the government.
Sheffield City Council would co-ordinate the project, with funding coming from several organisations including the city council, HS2, SYPTE, Transport for the North, Network Rail, Sheffield City Region and the Department for Transport. The bulk of the costs – up to £1bn – would be from the private sector, which would build offices, restaurants, bars and potentially a hotel.
The project would see the closure of Park Square roundabout and Sheaf Street – the dual carriageway that runs in front of the station – would swap places with the tram route that runs behind.
A huge, landscaped pedestrian bridge would link Park Hill with Howard Street and the multi-storey car park on Turner Street would be demolished and moved further away.
It would be replaced by an office block – one of up to 12 planned in the ‘Sheffield Valley’ zone, including four outside the station, employing up to 3,000 people.
Up to 1,000 homes – flats and houses – could also be built.
The new tram route would run from Fitzalan Square, along Pond Street, stop outside the station and continue along Suffolk Road to Granville Square.
The bus station on Pond Street would be reduced in size to make room for the tram tracks and offices on stilts potentially built on top.
Park Square roundabout and Sheaf Street would become a park and link into the Grey to Green scheme at Victoria Quays, Castlegate and West Bar.
Under the plans the ‘Q park’ would move to the Wren-DFS site on nearby St Mary’s Road.
There would be a new, sheltered, taxi rank next to the station, but the taxi ‘stacking’ area would be moved ‘slightly further out’ improving access for drop-offs and people with mobility needs.
The area between St Mary’s Road, Queens Road and Sheaf Gardens, currently home to businesses including a Pure Gym, would be a new residential centre for up to 700 homes, with a further 300 spread throughout the area.
We’ve already had a look at the series of culverts and tunnels that hide the River Sheaf underneath Sheffield city centre.
The last part of the river to be covered was the stretch from the Megatron, underneath Exchange Street, towards the confluence of the River Don at Blonk Street Bridge.
This was covered in 1916 after the demolition of the Alexandria Theatre, another massive scheme that allowed the eventual construction of Castle Market above, the rebuilding of Blonk Street and a tunnel entrance that allowed the Sheaf to flow straight into the Don.
Following the demolition of Castle Market in 2015, Sheffield City Council announced that a park would be created between Castlegate and Exchange Street.
Alas, four years down the line, the plans are still on the table, but the council is committed to delivering the project.
Sheffield Council wants to take the roof off the underground culvert, which the river currently runs through and is in a poor state of repair, and bring the waterway back into the open, surrounded by grass, flowers, trees, seating and other landscaping. The aim is to make the area more attractive to visitors, bring in new investment and reduce the risk of flooding.
The scheme would also complement the proposed Castlegate development on the site of the former market, which the council and its partners are still pursuing, and which will feature the exposed ruins of Sheffield Castle.
The park has the working title of Sheaf Field.
A waterside meadow and an elevated viewpoint would be created at the waterside and low stone walls built overlooking the river. The weir within the Sheaf culvert will be lowered, and the river channel remodelled, to improve natural habitats.
The plans also involve using way markers or pavement art to follow the River Sheaf’s course where it remains in a tunnel under Castle Square, Sheaf Street, the railway station and through Granville Square. Also, temporary art installations and ‘interactive sound experiences’ could be set up in the Megatron.
In 2019, the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust was set up to promote and support the deculverting and improve the environment of the River Sheaf and Porter Brook. The group’s founders aim to open the waterways and are trying to recruit as many members as possible to help make that happen. One of their hopes is to make sure that Sheaf Field comes to fruition.