The next time you visit Sheffield City Hall, look out for John and Samuel. These two old fellows are a pair of stone Assyrian lions who have quite a story to tell.
Their tale begins in the early 1930s at Middleton-by-Wirksworth, a small village the other side of Matlock.
Made of Hopton Wood stone, the two lions were created by Sheffield sculptor John Hodge, a man with an elusive history, “a tall mysterious figure,” seen regularly wearing a large-brimmed black hat and matching cape, and causing fright amongst children at night as he walked to and from his project at Derbyshire Stone’s works.
The two lions, each four-feet-high and weighing 2.5 tonnes, were predestined to be night cats, commissioned by architect Emanuel Vincent Harris to sit either side of the “Entrance of Honour” to the stage of the newly-built Sheffield City Hall.
When the City Hall opened in 1932 the two lions could be seen by everyone in the Oval Hall, admired at first, but soon subject of ridicule and anger.
The trouble, apparently, was that the lions split up a choir or orchestra, so that there was a lack of cohesion between artists on two sides of the platform.
The lions became subject of letters to local newspapers: –
“The proper place for the City Hall lions is outside, on the pedestals flanking the columns.”
“These ridiculous stone lions block up valuable space in the centre of the orchestra.”
“Admittedly they are a fine piece of work, but they ought not be there. They obtrude themselves on one’s vision, and hardly seem to fit in with the otherwise pleasing artistry of the interior.”
The most damning criticism came from Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor, and impresario, best known for his association with the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Addressing an audience of musicians on stage at the City Hall in 1935, he reckoned that the platform had been expressively designed for “clock golf.”
“AND THESE,” he shouted pointing at the two big cats,” “THESE MUST GO. I don’t know who devised them, but it looks like Epstein. I suppose they are works of art, but why can’t they be placed at the other end of the hall?”
In 1936, the Sheffield Hall Committee, perhaps influenced by Beecham’s description of them as “horrors” and “huge brown beasts,” recommended to the City Council that the lions be removed. The council, not be bullied, refused to do so, and the two lions remained on stage for thirty years.
It wasn’t until 1962, a year after Beecham’s death, that the lions were banished when the auditorium was refurbished.
The two lions were bought for £600 by John Hadfield, the sympathetic chairman of Derbyshire Stone Ltd. They were hoisted out of the hall, put on the back of a lorry, and reunited back in Derbyshire.
They were eventually built into the steps of John Hadfield House at Matlock, constructed in 1968 by Tarmac Construction, for Derbyshire Stone, and later becoming Tarmac Eastern’s regional office for over 30 years.
When the company vacated the building, the lions were moved to Tarmac’s Ettingshall office, Wolverhampton, and when that closed, the poor lions ended up at their regional office near Leicester.
After nearly fifty years living outside, the fate of the Assyrian lions took a remarkable twist in 2017.
As part of Sheffield City Hall’s 85th birthday celebrations, John, and Samuel, as they were now called, were cleaned up, returned to the City Hall, and given ‘pride’ of place in the foyer.