It might be out of the question now, but if you get chance to visit Spain’s capital city there is a Sheffield connection.
The answer lies in a tablet over the south door of St George’s Anglican Church, on the corner of Calle Núñez de Balboa and Calle Hermosilla in the barrio Salamancadistrict of Madrid.
“To the memory of William Edgar Allen. Born March 30th, 1837. Died January 28th, 1915. By whose generosity, this church was completed A.D. 1925.”
William Edgar Allen is a familiar name in Sheffield history. In 1868, he founded the firm of Edgar Allen and Co, Imperial Steel Works, at Tinsley. Taking advantage of his knowledge of continental firms, he soon obtained extensive orders for foreign arsenals, dockyards, and railway companies.
Besides other donations, Allen gave, in 1909, the Edgar Allen Library to the University of Sheffield, contributed £10,000 to Sheffield hospitals, and founded, in 1911, the Edgar Allen Institute (in Gell Street) for Medico-Mechanical treatment, the first institution of its kind in this country. It proved especially beneficial during the First World War; a great number of soldiers having recovered the use of their limbs through the effectiveness of the treatment.
In 1913, Edgar Allen, staying in Madrid, asked Edward Mitchel Gibbs, the famous Sheffield architect at Gibbs, Flockton and Teather, to visit the Spanish city and draw up plans for a Protestant Church.
The church, in Early English-style was to have seated 150 people, funded entirely by Edgar Allen. Unfortunately, the estimates for the building amounted to £10,300, a larger amount than Edgar Allen had anticipated, and the plan was abandoned.
However, at the suggestion of the architect, Edgar Allen, who was in failing health, bequeathed a legacy of £6,000 for a new church to be built.
Edgar Allen died at Whirlow House two years later, and his bequest was put towards the building of St George’s Church, the church of the British embassy, completed in 1925.
Spain was a Roman Catholic country, and rules as to the building of churches other than those of the Roman Catholic communion, were strict. Because St George’s was built on the premises of the British Legation, such restrictions did not apply.
“The workmanship and material of the church throughout were the best, and everything was in excellent taste.”
St George’s was designed by the Spanish architect Teodoro de Anasagasti, who blended elements of the Spanish Romanesque style (cruciform plan, semi-circular apse, bell tower, tiled roof) and the characteristic brick-and-stone construction of the uniquely Spanish “Mudéjar” tradition with specifically Anglican forms.
The chaplain of the church was the Rev. Francis Symes-Thompson, who received a grant of £250 per annum from the Foreign Office.
“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).
This is probably one of Sheffield’s best-loved buildings. A glance through social media shows positive words about the White Building in Fitzalan Square, and yet little appears to be known about it.
The building is Grade II listed by Historic England, more so for the ten carved friezes that adorn its fascia, but its simple past, as shops and offices, means it is largely forgotten.
The White Building was built in 1908, named after the white faience used to dress it, quite different from the stone used in other buildings of the time. This material was used because it was ‘self-cleaning’, an antidote against the soot that clung to our city centre buildings in the past. (Another example, still seen today, was the Telegraph Building on High Street).
However, it would not look out of place on a typical Parisian street and comes into its own on a bright sunny day.
It was designed by Edward Mitchel Gibbs, of Flockton and Gibbs, who built and owned the building. No surprise then that its construction came the same time that Fitzalan Square was about to be rebuilt. Gibbs, as a member of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Society of Architects and Surveyors, had consulted on plans for the square, and no doubt saw an opportunity to cash in on future success.
The White Building was built of four storeys with a raised attic storey in the centre. The use of French windows with balconies on the first and third floors provided welcome relief to the usual designs for commercial buildings.
The building was accessed by an arcaded ground floor, the entrance, still with its original name plaque, recessed behind one of the plain elliptical arches.
It is above these five arches that the ten friezes can be seen. These were created by Alfred Herbert Tory and William Frank Tory, the brothers using real workers as models, before sending away the designs to be cast as hollow tiles (the moulding was done with terracotta tiles in Leeds).
With thanks to Darcy White and Elizabeth Norman ‘The Sheffield Trades’ are as follows:-
“A Silversmith (with a blowpipe): a Chaser: an Engineer: a File Cutter; a Steel Roller: a Cutler: a Grinder (using a flat-stick): a Hand Forger; a Buffer; and a Steel crucible teemer (with sweat rag in mouth).”
The Tory brothers made five each, casting their initials beneath their work, although these have weathered badly and are now difficult to read.
After the White Building opened, its ‘first class shops and offices’ were in huge demand and proceeded to be so until the decline of Fitzalan Square in the 1970s and 1980s. It was altered in the late twentieth century, including the removal of decorative rooftop urns, but remains pretty much as it did when first built.
These days the old offices have been converted into apartments and the ground floor shops await the revival of Fitzalan Square.
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.
There are a few historic buildings in Sheffield up for sale at present. Just hitting the market are the Turkish Baths on Victoria Street, just off Glossop Road.
These once formed part of Glossop Road baths, the first public baths in the city, built in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic of 1832 and associated with the Public Dispensary (later Royal Hospital).
It was re-built in 1877-1879 by architect Edward Mitchel Gibbs of Change Alley, for the Turkish and Public Bath Company Ltd.
Turkish baths became popular in Victorian times, its proponents arguing that they achieved a degree of cleanliness “unattainable by any other expedient,” and its successes forced the medical profession to take notice.
Gibbs paid a visit to most of the chief Turkish Baths in the country, and his plans were based upon his experiences.
The heating system was installed by Vickers, Son and Company, the invention of Thomas Edward Vickers, and removed sulphur from the heated air and “that even in the hottest room there were none of the unpleasant sensations which were sometimes experienced under such circumstances.”
At the time, the Sheffield Independent wrote: –
“It is not often that Sheffield can boast of excelling other towns; but it may now take credit to itself for having the finest and most complete Turkish baths in the kingdom. Attendants in Turkish costume await his bidding, and while smoking a cigar – never so delightful as after a bath – he can have tea or coffee, or, the cigar finished, he may have light refreshments.”
While the rest of the old baths have been given over to leisure and residential use, only the interiors of the Turkish Baths, reputed to be the oldest in the country, has survived.
These Turkish Baths closed in 1990 after 127 years but were reopened in 2004 after SPA 1877 developers completed a £2million restoration, reviving many of the original features including mosaic flooring, glazed brick walls and arched ceilings.
Offers are invited above £695,000 for the landmark building.