Institute of Arts (Sheffield General Post Office)

(Image: David Poole)

In a previous post we looked at the history of the General Post Office in Sheffield city centre. From humble beginnings on High Street, via Angel Street, Market Place, and Haymarket, the central post office ended up in Fitzalan Square.

However, the building now occupied by Sheffield Hallam University, was a long time coming.

In the first years of the twentieth century the Post Office acknowledged that facilities at the top of Haymarket had become too small.

By 1897, red-brick offices in Flat Street had opened and by 1900 all that remained at Haymarket was public counter work and the telegraphic department.

In fact, the Post Office had been buying up land around its Flat Street offices. By 1903, it had a triangular piece of land of one acre stretching from Fitzalan Square to Pond Hill.

(Image: David Poole)

The Post Office submitted plans to Sheffield Corporation for a building fronting Fitzalan Square, but the councillors were less than impressed. In 1907 it sent a delegation to see Lord Granard, who represented the Post Office in the House of Lords, to ask for a better building, including a finer elevation, than the one proposed.

Newspapers had been full of stories about a new post office and the people of Sheffield had started to think that the building might never get built.

However, the visit to London appeared to work and later that year plans were released by the Post Office for a new building in Fitzalan Square adjoining the existing Flat Street offices.

(Image: David Poole)

Work started in 1908, coinciding with Fitzalan Square improvement works, and an immense crane, 70ft high and with a jib 95ft long, dominated the skyline.

It was designed by Walter Pott, an architect who had started work with HM Office of Works in 1896 working in the London and Leeds offices.

The design was a modern adaptation of the Renaissance and allowed an additional storey over the wing in Flat Street.

Plan of Sheffield Post Office in 1909. (Image: British Newspaper Archive)

The principal front in Fitzalan Square was three storeys high, with a central portion having columns the full height of the two lower floors, these finished with carved Ionic caps and heavily moulded cornice and balustrade, which continued around the other fronts.

The front of Flat Street was treated in a similar manner but without the columns, and the corner with Fitzalan Square was rounded to accommodate a main staircase leading to the upper floors and finished with a dome.

The two principal entrances were in the wings of this portion, giving access to the public office, inquiry office, and Postmaster’s office. The upper parts of these were finished with heavy pediments.

Post boxes were at the base of the corner, with a large bracket clock (paid for by the council) above.

A sketch by Walter Pott of Sheffield Post Office in 1909. (Image: British Newspaper Archive)

The main post room, for the sale of stamps and postal orders, was 64ft long and 45ft wide, lit with windows back and front, and lined to a height of 8ft with marble, with a mosaic floor. Adjoining was a public telephone office with ‘silence boxes’ to allow messages to be sent without interference or risk of transactions being overheard.

The Postmaster, the Chief Clerk and writing staff, as well as the sectional engineer, were accommodated on the first floor immediately over the public office and front entrances, and on the floor above was the telephone switch-room and message-room. The basement was used for batteries and engineers’ equipment.

(Image: Picture Sheffield)

The Flat Street wing was set apart on the lower floors for retiring rooms for staff, for the messengers’ delivery room, and for storerooms. The first floor was entirely occupied by an instrument room.

The lower part of the site was in Little Pond Street, a much-needed extension to the existing sorting office, and for the provision of yards for loading and unloading mail and the storage of handcarts.

The new post office was designed throughout to meet modern sanitary requirements as regards light and ventilation, and the walls and passages occupied by staff were faced with glazed bricks. Four boilers, 146 radiators, and 1½ miles of heating pipe was installed by the Brightside Foundry and Engineering Co.

The building had been built on a hillside, and the result was that the greater portion was down below street level, and what people saw from Fitzalan Square was only the top.

Although history books give a date of 1910 for the building, it came into use without fuss during the summer of 1909. “The staff simply left their posts in one building and walked over to the incomparably better equipped accommodation across the Square.”

It remained in operation until 1999 and remained empty for several years, a ‘building at risk’, until rescued by Sheffield Hallam University which opened it as the Institute of Arts in 2016.

(Image: AxisArchitecture)
(Image: David Poole)

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Buildings Companies

The rise and fall of Sheffield General Post Office

A sketch of Sheffield Post Office, Fitzalan Square, in 1909. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

In this post, we look at the history of the Post Office in Sheffield, but a question before we start. Do you know where the Central Post Office is in Sheffield? I suspect a few might struggle to answer this, and I was the same. Answer at the end.

There is one certainty in the architectural world – we will never build Post Offices like we used to, if at all. Technology has done away with the need to create lavish buildings.

The story of the growth of the Sheffield Post Office mirrors the development of the city.

In January 1835, a Post Office and News-Room was opened at the Commercial Buildings in High Street (opposite where the Telegraph Building stands today).

A small room was all that was needed in those days, with postage stamps handed through a little door fixed in a hole cut through the wall. The population of Sheffield at this time was 91,692 but by 1851 this had risen to 140,000.

Sheffield’s first Post Office, in the Commercial Buildings on High street. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

The demands on the Post Office increased and the facility was removed to Angel Street, in a part of a building that had once been Shore’s Bank.

The next move was to the top of Market Place (Castle Square), a much grander building that coincided with the increase in postal demand.

Sheffield Post Office, Market Place. Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive.

Sheffield’s industries were rapidly growing, and the population was advancing at an enormous rate. More general use was being made of postal facilities, and the authorities were improving the service, including the postal telegraph service, rates of postage to all parts of the world being reduced and the introduction of parcel post.

While the facilities in Market Place had been a great improvement on any previous office, there was a need for bigger premises.

In 1871, the population had reached nearly 240,000 and a new Post Office opened at the corner of Haymarket and Commercial Street (still standing, more recently home to Yorkshire Bank). However, by 1900 this was also too small and offices in Flat Street were opened and all that remained in the Haymarket was public counter work and the telegraphic department.

The Post Office had bought more land in Flat Street and Pond Hill from Sheffield Corporation as well as acquiring a site occupied by Mappin Brothers. By 1903, the Post Office had about one acre of land, a triangular plot stretching from Fitzalan Square and Pond Hill. Branch sorting offices were provided at Highfield, Broomhill, Montgomery Terrace Road, and Attercliffe, and sub-post offices opened all over the city.

These relieved the work at the central office, but still the business grew, and now, when the population was creeping up to half a million, a new office was provided at the top of Baker’s Hill, on the east side of Fitzalan Square.

The new Post Office, incorporating its Flat Street offices, opened in 1909, a Baroque-style building designed by Walter Pott of HM Office of Works. It coincided with Fitzalan Square improvement works and despite its grandiose appearance did not escape criticism.

In fact, the Post Office had been built on a hillside, and the result was that the greater proportion of the building was down below street level, and what people saw from Fitzalan Square was only the top.

The Post Office closed in 1999 and remained empty for several years before becoming the home to Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Arts in 2016. More about this building in a separate post.

And finally, the answer to that question. The Sheffield City Post Office can be found on the 1st floor of Wilko in Haymarket.

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


Odeon Cinema

If World War Two hadn’t intervened, then this building might have looked very different. The structure that houses Mecca Bingo, on Flat Street, has stood since 1956, but its foundations and steel structure were put in place in May 1939.

It had been intended to complete the building by April 1940, but war meant construction was halted, and not resumed until 1955.

In 1937, Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941), the founder of Birmingham-based Odeon Cinemas, had his sights on South Yorkshire. New cinemas were to be built in Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.

The Sheffield Odeon, on a wedge-shaped strip of land on Flat Street, promised to be an Art Deco masterpiece.

Plans were drawn up by Odeon-architects Harold William ‘Harry’ Weedon and William Calder Robson for a 2,326-seat cinema, containing four shops and a three-storey office block.

When war started in September the main steel frame was already up, but building was immediately halted by the cinema chain.

By November, it announced that work would recommence, but ongoing shortages of building supplies and labour meant it remained a building site for the next seventeen years.

When building recommenced in 1955, the plans had been re-drawn by Harry Weedon and his new partner, Robert Andrew Bullivant, for a 2,319-seat cinema without the shops and office block.

The Odeon Cinema opened in July 1956, by which time the chain had been sold to the Rank Organisation after Oscar Deutsch’s death.

The opening was attended by actress Dinah Sheridan and her husband, Sir John Davis, chairman of the Rank Organisation, the occasion memorable for a guard of honour provided by personnel from RAF Norton. A suitable tribute because the first film shown happened to be Reach for the Sky.

The Odeon might have looked a little less impressive than originally intended, but it was typical of 1950s construction, unusual for having a single-storey wedge-shape glass foyer projecting in front of the brick-clad auditorium.

There were 1,505 seats in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting was via three rows of light fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in two decorative panels each side of the proscenium opening.

The cinema was equipped with Todd-AO equipment, a widescreen, 70mm format developed by Mike Todd and the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s to compete with Cinerama. The process meant that there were long runs for classic movies like South Pacific and Cleopatra.

By the start of the 1970s, the Rank Organisation had two cinemas in the city centre, the other being the Gaumont in Barker’s Pool. Attendances had fallen, and not for the last time, the company decided to consolidate with one cinema in Sheffield.

The Sound of Music was the last film shown at the Odeon, reputedly ending a phenomenal fourteen month run. It closed in June 1971, and following refurbishment became a Top Rank Bingo Hall that opened three months later.

Later renamed Mecca, the building will soon celebrate fifty years, making it one of the longest surviving bingo halls in the country.


Odeon Cinema

The Odeon Cinema, on Flat Street, was built between 1955-1956, later becoming the Top Rank Bingo Hall in 1971, and subsequently re-branded as Mecca.

However, the building’s history is strange because the structure we see today is a pale imitation of what was originally intended.

In 1938, Oscar Deutsch, the founder of Odeon Cinemas, set up a subsidiary company called Odeon (Sheffield) Ltd, registered at 39, Temple Row, Birmingham, intending to build an extravagant cinema on land bordering Flat Street and Norfolk Street.

Deutsch employed architects Harold ‘Harry’ Weedon and William Calder Robson to design an Art Deco theatre, making use of the unusual shape of land, incorporating four shops and a three-storey office block.

Harry Weedon was responsible for overseeing the Art Deco designs of Odeon Cinemas in the 1930s, and this artist sketch shows that his know-how was going to be applied in Sheffield.

Back then, it was called an “ultra-modern” design, with neon lighting to illuminate the spectacle at night-time. The tower-like device – known by architects as a fin – was to be the centre of the lighting scheme.

The building itself was designed in the shape of a flat iron, the point of which would form the frontage, with luxurious foyers to accommodate patrons who otherwise would have had to queue in the street.

A biscuit-coloured mottled faience was to be used on the Norfolk Street elevation, while the Flat Street side would be partly built in the same material, and partly in 2inch facing bricks.

A black faience was to have been used to form a base, and green and blue faience bands forming a background to the coloured neon tubes.

Inside there were to be 2,326 high-quality seats of the same design – 1,502 in the stalls, 824 in the circle – all divided into three blocks, the only difference in price being governed by the position of the seat.

In addition, there was to be a ladies’ boudoir, as well as several changing rooms.

Plans were made to install a “scientific scheme of acoustic correction,” ensuring perfect sound reproduction as well as a system of B.T.H. earphones for the deaf.

Work started on the cinema in May 1939, the main steelwork in place by the time war was declared in September. Construction was halted, and a shortage of materials and labour meant that it didn’t recommence until 1955.

By this time, the Rank Organisation owned the Odeon chain, and conscious of costs and changing trends, asked Harry Weedon to liaise with architect Robert Bullivant to create another cinema using the original steelwork and footprint.

The result was modern by 1950s standards, less spectacular than the 1930s design, but has stood the test of time, surviving longer as a bingo hall than it did as a cinema.

But, and we may ponder, what a building it would have been had the original design been built.



Work will start shortly on “Vista”, a 16-storey student tower block on a plot of land between Flat Street and Pond Street.

Sheffield Council approved a plan by Langland Estates to redevelop the entire former Head Post Office site in September 2015. Refurbishment of the listed buildings is complete, including the old post office which is now Sheffield Hallam’s Institute of Arts.

Langland’s initial aim was to build up to 22 storeys, but this was brought down to 16 two years ago after talks with the council’s planning department.

The development has now been bought by Liverpool-based Mount Property Group which is aiming to complete construction for the September 2021 academic year. The approved scheme is for 241 “student units” with ground floor reception, study lounge, coffee shop and bike store.

It is Mount’s first project in Sheffield, and will use its own building subsidiary, Mount Construction.