It was an exceptionally cold evening, and the light was starting to wane, but this building stood out, magnificent against the clear sky, and all the time, a gentle warmth emanated from within its walls.
“I’ve never noticed it before,” said someone who has lived in Sheffield all his life. “When you think about churches in the city centre, you think about Sheffield Cathedral and St Marie’s. I would be hard-pressed to name others.”
I understood what he meant, but there are several churches besides, including this one, for which we will start at the beginning.
There was once a piece of land extending from Carver Street to Backfields and separated from Division Street by a row of shops known as Division Street market. Houses stood upon this land – some of them notorious dens of vice – but by 1855, these had been cleared and a church built in its place.
In the early years of this century, Carver Street surrendered to change, with most of its historical buildings on its upper section with West Street converted into bars. Nowadays we refer to it as Sheffield’s ‘Party Street.’
Further down the road, where thieves, prostitutes and urchins once scrabbled an existence, life is quieter and simpler, and St Matthew’s Church is still with us.
Late at night, each weekend, Street Pastors congregate here before going out to care for those youngsters who have succumbed to the ‘demon drink.’
The Parish of St Matthew’s was created in 1848 when the original Sheffield parish (now the Anglican Cathedral) was subdivided. Its first Vicar, J.F. Witty, held early services at the National School on Carver Street (now Viper Rooms), but sufficient funds were raised to build a permanent church.
“Since I came to this district, at the invitation of my friend, Rev. T. Sale, Vicar of Sheffield, I have always looked upon it as a missionary appointment – as one calling for more arduous labours than any regular organised district or parish. When I see that there is a population large enough to fully occupy the time of three ministers – that the population is suffering from negligence of years past, and from deep-rooted prejudice and gross ignorance, the alienation of the intellect as well as moral pollution, I see that there is great labour ahead of me.”
The foundation stone was laid in 1854 by H.M. Greaves, of Banner Cross, who was presented with a silver trowel which had on one side a view of the proposed church, and on the other an inscription.
The church was designed by Flockton and Son and was consecrated on 6 June 1855 by the Archbishop of York, Thomas Musgrave.
It cost £3,297 to build, the main benefactor being snuff-maker Henry Wilson of Westbrook Mill who contributed £1,020. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners granted £200 and the Incorporated Church Building Society gave £250. The rest of the money had to be raised by Witty and his congregation.
St Matthew’s was described as in the perpendicular gothic style of architecture, consisting of a nave, chancel, and aisles, with a small gallery in the tower at the west end.
It abutted adjoining buildings which meant that it had to be lit solely from windows in the clerestory and those at the west end where an octagonal tower was built – the first in Sheffield – surmounted by a spire of 65 feet, making a total height to the top of the spire 121 ft.
St Matthew’s survived German bombs in World War Two, but many nearby houses were not so fortunate, and those that remained were later demolished. Without a residential congregation, its fortunes dwindled, surviving a fire in 1956 and the threat of demolition to make way for a new road in the 1970s.
Its circumstances have improved with houses and flats returning within parish boundaries, and there have been several restorations since it was built.
“I often think about those who built these old buildings,” said my colleague. “I wonder what they would think to see that their work is still here all these years later.”
I too, think about those people, long dead and forgotten, and it always provides pleasure to seek out those responsible, each with a story to tell.
Mason’s work, James Powell; carpenter’s work, John Dutton and William Heald; plumbers, John Johnstone; slating, Roger Brown; plastering Thomas S. Harrison.
©2023 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.