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When Graves Park had an open-air theatre

Old sandstone quarry at Cobnar Wood. Photograph by Sheffield City Council

One day, in 1926, a lady walked through newly opened Graves Park and came upon an old quarry within Cobnar Wood. Well-known in musical circles, she was well-versed with acoustics and approached Sheffield Corporation with an idea.

This had once been Norton Rifle Range and formed part of land gifted by J.G. Graves to the city. In February 1927, undergrowth was cleared, and the ground levelled, in preparation for an open-air theatre.

“Around the natural cavity, at one side of which there is a wall of stone – part of the original quarry – the ground rises steeply and is covered with trees and bushes. On the left stands part of the Cobnar Wood, and it does not need much imagination to visualise the beauty of the scene on a fine summer evening. On the side of the hill accommodation will also be made for thousands of people to stand or sit.

“The theatre will not be confined to one class of entertainment. There could be music of all kinds – orchestral music, chamber music, bands, Pierrots, and others, chosen by the Parks Committee.”

A platform was erected under the quarry wall with seating arranged facing the stage.

The open-air theatre opened on June 16th, 1927, when a crowd of 3,000 people attended a concert in the presence of the Lord Mayor, who happened to be J.G. Graves.

“The beautiful natural amphitheatre became a vast arena of song when the first municipal open-air community singing concert was held. The basin, with its grassy slopes and fringe of trees, is admirably suited for events of this kind. The singing was led by the Sheffield Orpheus Male Voice Choir, conducted by Mr T. Ratcliffe, and although the audience was a little shy at first, they soon joined in the choruses lustily, and sang with real heartiness songs like Love’s Old Sweet Song, On Ilkla Moor Baht At and Pack Up Your Troubles. Four hundred chairs were occupied, and a good crowd behind the ropes.”

The success of this first evening led to further concerts by the Melody Minstrels and Motley Entertainers, and for the next ten years the public were treated to regular summer entertainment in the old quarry.

Sir Henry Coward conducts the last concert of the 1927 season at Graves Park. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

Despite its success, Sheffield Corporation brought an end to the concerts in 1937, the victim of unforeseen circumstances.

The quarry was to be no longer used because of midges. It had attempted several solutions including spraying the quarry before each performance and at the interval when attendants walked around with spray pumps.

As a last resort an outside expert had suggested spraying the surrounding woods, quarry walls and the ground with disinfectant and insect killer.

All attempts failed and the midges affected attendances causing one council official to say, “The day would come when performers would be singing to an audience of gnats.”

Alas, the open-air theatre was abandoned, and future concerts held in the Deer Park. Today, there is little evidence of its exciting past, the area overgrown, and only the old sandstone quarry walls providing a clue of its location.

An open-air concert at Graves Park. Photograph by Sheffield City Council
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Graves Park

Photograph by The Outdoor City

Earlier this week we highlighted Dr Robert Styring’s gift to Sheffield of the Brinckcliffe Tower estate (Brincliffe Towers) in November 1925, its former grounds now known as Chelsea Park.

One of Styring’s close friends was John George Graves, head of the successful mail order firm, and generous benefactor to the city.

It is extremely likely that Graves played an important part in Styring’s decision and came just two days after it was announced that Graves had made one of his biggest ever bequests.

This story begins in 1925 when the Norton Hall estate was broken up and sold by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Alexander Firth. He donated Norton Hall to the Joint Hospitals Board and negotiated the sale of 112 acres of land for £25,000.

The plan was to incorporate Norton Hall into a new hospital which would amalgamate the services of the Royal, Royal Infirmary and Jessop hospitals (although the plan never materialised).

Norton Hall

It left 154 acres of parkland still available and attracted the attention of speculative builders wanting to construct houses in a respectable part of the city. Sheffield Corporation recognised that the land might make a suitable park but was prevented from entering negotiations because it did not have sufficient funds.

However, the council need not have worried because, in October 1925, J.G. Graves presented a letter to Sheffield Corporation revealing that he had purchased the land and was gifting it to the city.

“In making the purchase I have had in mind, among other considerations, that it will be very advantageous to have a large area of land between the hospitals and the city kept open and free from buildings, thereby ensuring for the hospitals, as far as possible, in the vicinity of a great city, an atmosphere free from dust and smoke pollution.

“The estate which now belongs to me is varied in character and covers an area of 154 acres. It includes a great deal of beautiful parkland, well-wooded valleys in their natural state, and a lake suitable for boating which is, I believe, larger than any piece of water within the city to which the public have access.

“There are fifty or sixty acres of land, well suited for organised games and a picturesque summer residence which I think would make an attractive tea house with garden and lawn accommodation.”

The council accepted his generous offer and passed a resolution to call it Graves Park.

Photograph by DepositPhotos

Joining up with the hospital estate beyond Norton Church, the park was enclosed by a boundary wall which ran along Hemsworth Road and Cobnar Road. This continued along Cobnar Wood, on the west, via Meadowhead, and Chesterfield Road as far as the lodge leading up to the hospital site.

The greater part of the land was level and required little alteration in laying it out as football, cricket, and other sports grounds. On one part of the estate there was ample room for at least 20 football fields, welcome news to many amateur clubs in Sheffield who had been handicapped by the scarcity of suitable and convenient playing fields.

The estate included Bolehill Farm, North Croft, and three charming coppices known as Cobnar Wood, Waterfall Wood, and Summerhouse Wood. The southern portion of the park was separated from the hospital grounds by three small lakes, well stocked with fish, and quite large enough for boating, the largest of which already had a boathouse.

In the early part of 1926, about sixty men provided by the Guardians from the unemployed were engaged to lay out walks across the lawns and woodland.

The main entrance to the park was now on Cobnar Road, from which point a wide drive leading through the Deer Park, to the lakes, was built. Paths were made on either side of a ravine, uniting shortly before they reached a drive leading up from Meadowhead to Norton Hall.

The land nearest Cobnar Road was mown and rolled, and one of the prettiest areas was at the top end of the lawn, just over the wall from Bunting Nook, under the shade of beeches and sycamores, alternating with copper beeches. A long winding path was built here offering views towards the Derbyshire countryside and lofty moors, while walks around the largest of the lakes, adorned with rhododendrons, were widened.

Graves Park was opened to the public during the spring, but the official opening was on June 3rd, 1926.

The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, accompanied by Councillor and Mrs J.G. Graves head the procession at the opening ceremony.

Summer weather favoured the day, the sun shone, and the woods and grasses had been freshened after recent rains.

The Band of the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons played during the afternoon and evening, and a crowd of at least 15,000 attended the opening by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Benson, in the vicinity of the summerhouse.

It was left to J.G. Graves to make a philosophical speech: –

“Our parks and moorlands in no small measure help us to realise that ideal in our own city. Nature has been very generous and kind to Sheffield, for there are few cities in the world which are so favoured as we are in our surroundings. We hear a lot about what we have not got and what we ought to have, but sometimes I think we hear far too little of what we really do enjoy. It would not be at all a bad thing if we could occasionally have a municipal thanksgiving day, when we might count our blessings and realise, or try to realise, something of the value of the heritage of which we are all partakers.

“Both nationally and municipally we enjoy a great inheritance, and we owe much to those who have gone before us, and who have enriched the city, not merely by benefactions, but by voluntary service, seen and unseen, which in the aggregate had made for safety, sanitation, and a general high level of comfort and happiness.”

The Lord Mayor formally opening Graves Park

The day ended with the singing of the National Anthem and for the last 94 years Graves Park has remained a Sheffield institution, cherished for generations, enjoyed by young and old, and quite possibly reaching its zenith as a place of sanctuary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lady Mayoress crossing stepping-stones in Graves Park
Councillor and Mrs J.G. Graves chatting to the Lady Mayoress at the ceremony

And finally, a letter from August 1931 that appeared in the Sheffield Independent:

“Sir – I wonder how many of the numerous visitors to Graves Park on Monday evening about 6 o’clock recognised the donor strolling through this lovely picture of woodland beauty. It must have gladdened Mr Graves heart to see the many elderly people resting in the shade, as well as the hundreds of young folk enjoying themselves, all possible through his wonderful appreciation of others and the benefit that such places can confer on the individual.”

Councillor J.G. Graves and Sir William Clegg discussing horticulture at Graves Park