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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
What do you do with a problem like Fitzalan Square? Those of you that have seen it lately cannot have failed to notice its recent overhaul with a new grassed area around the statue of King Edward VII, and the addition of new trees. The square has also been given open access from Norfolk Street, across Arundel Gate, and down Esperanto Place.
The improvements to Fitzalan Square and the surrounding area are part of a £5.5million ‘Knowledge Gateway’ project to transform the area which runs from the Cultural Industries Quarter up to the square.
However, there will be doubters that look upon this work with a note of scepticism. Fitzalan Square has never lived up to its name, not helped by unremarkable twentieth century buildings on one side of the square, and a tendency to attract ‘undesirables’.
Its history goes back to 1869 when Sheffield Corporation started purchasing and demolishing premises on the east side of Market Street (where the top end of the square is now) and the south side of the old Haymarket.
Several properties came down, including the Star Hotel, Theaker’s Coffee House, the King’s Arms Hotel, the Blue Bell, Fisher and Sons, Mr Arnison’s drapery, and Mr Jeffrey’s pawnbrokers.
A large portion of the premises belonged to the Misses Shearwood. These two ladies objected to part with their property and refused to lend themselves in any way to the proceedings for acquiring it. Sheffield Corporation had to execute a deed poll vesting the property in themselves and paid money into a bank account for the benefit of the ladies. The Sheriff of Yorkshire was called in to give the Corporation possession of the property, and did so by placing in the street an article of furniture and getting the tenants to ‘attorn’ to the Corporation – that was to admit that the Corporation was their landlord. The money remained in a Bank of England account until the death of the ladies some years later.
When the property between Market Street and Jehu Lane (still standing off Commercial Street) was pulled down the open space was called Fitzalan Square, after the Duke of Norfolk’s family.
It was in 1882 that the council announced that it was obtaining plans and specifications for completing a new layout in the open space.
“The space will be levelled, and a retaining wall built along Market Street, surmounted with ornamental palisades, leaving a part open in the centre with steps down to the space levelled, at each of which is to be erected two small ornamental stone buildings, the one near the markets for the use of gentlemen, to contain a good reception or waiting room, lavatory, retiring and attendant’s rooms. The building at the other end near to Norfolk Street, for the use of ladies; to be provided with similar accommodation. The open space is to be well spaced with good flagstones, and in the centre a suitable fountain to be erected, or a statue to William Jeffcock, the first Mayor of Sheffield.”
It appears that the plans were rejected in full, the toilets not built, but some improvements were made to ‘Welshers’ Oval’, as the Sheffield Independent called Fitzalan Square.
“The police were asked to undertake the keeping of order in the open space,” said Le Flaneur in the newspaper. “I am afraid this open space will be very much like the proverbial white elephant. It certainly cost enough to get, and now a permanent addition of the police force will be necessary to keep it constantly free of the loafers, idlers and book makers that make it their daily resort.”
It was left to Police-constable George Warhurst to be the object of terror. Betting loungers were prompt to obey his orders to make themselves scarce, and it was a difficult task for the Chief Constable when Warhurst died in 1884.
Matters did not improve after a pagoda-style building, comprising tram waiting rooms, water closets and urinals, as well as a clock turret, was built in the centre of the square in 1885.
Far from enhancing the appearance of the square, it provided shelter to ‘mouldy old men and frowsy women’ and in a short time had acquired a shabby reputation.
“If only some of our worthy Aldermen and Councillors would make it convenient to spend a few hours each day, for a week, in the immediate vicinity of this structure, they would, I am sure, be earnest in their endeavours to put an end to the constant ‘loafing’ which takes place by ‘undesirables’ at this particular sport,” said one letter to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
It was a subject repeated day after day.
“The evil at the shelter is a radiating evil. It embraces all the seats around, for the reason that, while the shelter is the converging point of the very pick of Sheffield’s undesirable characters, they also use it as a kind of base from which they carry on their predatory prowling: a long rest, then a short spell of loafing at the street corners, – that is the day’s programme.”
“It has been a disgrace far too long, and from every point of view. In my judgement the lavatories themselves are a menace to public decency.”
The ‘Current Topics’ column in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph took up the matter and its biting words make painful reading today.
“The correspondents who are raising the question of this unpicturesque resort of the city’s Weary Willies and Tired Tims will do good service if they can stimulate the authorities into action. We will confess that we never pass through Fitzalan Square without experiencing a keen desire to turn a hose pipe on those seats, partly because it would be a pleasing novelty to see the people run, as in their abhorrence of cold water they would, and partly because both they and the seats they occupy look as if they would be the better for a smart wash.
“There need be no sentiment wasted over the denizens of Fitzalan Square. When we are really civilised, we shall transport such people to Labour Colonies and give them to eat exactly what they earn. Failing that there is neither reason nor sense in retaining them as permanent decorations to the city’s ‘finest site’. Fitzalan Square might be something to be proud of. At present it is only disgusting.”
Sheffield Corporation was indeed stimulated into action, probably the result of land at one end of the square being chosen as the site for the new General Post Office.
While land was cleared for the Post Office in 1907, councillors proposed reconstructing Fitzalan Square to harmonise with the new building.
It was probably one of the best known public spaces in Sheffield, but the most ardent son could scarcely claim that the pagoda-like structure which gave it its chief characteristic had added either architectural grace or dignity to this part of the city.
“The pagoda had served various purposes satisfactorily, and, notably, as a rendezvous for a little army of folk with apparently little to do than doze and gossip the day through.”
The council adopted a scheme for laying out Fitzalan Square in ornamental style as an open space, and at the same time taking advantage for utilitarian purposes. The scheme was worked out by Mr C.F. Wike, City Engineer, based on drawings prepared by the Sheffield Society of Architects and Surveyors.
At the time it was noted that there were more pipes laid through Fitzalan Square than through any part of the city. Here, the lines to the GPO, the National Telephone, and Electric Light Power stations converged. The Post Office was also laying cables to connect trunk wires to the new GPO building and on completion of work, in January 1909, renovation of the square commenced.
The contractor chosen for the work was George Longden and Son, but the original plan had been shorn of ornamental detail due to cost, although the property overlooking the square was nearly all rebuilt.
The ugly pagoda went and the central part of the square it occupied was enlarged. This was made possible by removing an old cab stand and filling up the slope on the south side of the square to make it level and wider.
The upper part of Baker’s Hill, a sloping road in front of where the new GPO was being built, had been done away with, and steps substituted as an outlet from that corner of the square into Pond Street.
The new scheme provided an ornamental stone balustrade, public conveniences at either end of the square, and a tramway office, all underground. At the four corners were electric arc lamps, with further embellishments, in the shape of a fountain and a statue, planned for a later date.
However, the scheme was embroiled in controversy, the council wanting to use Norwegian or Swedish granite because it resisted damage, but the majority wanting cheaper Stoke Hall stone. In the end, the balustrades were built of imported granite.
Fitzalan Square was formally opened on Wednesday December 8, 1909, by the Lord Mayor, Earl Fitzwilliam, at which he made an expressive speech: –
“We live in a time when the question – a burning question in some cities – of open spaces is bidding fair to see some very satisfactory accomplishment. In no city more than Sheffield are these open spaces desirable. In a city like Sheffield where we burned the very best ‘South Yorkshire’, they made the very best mess of the South Yorkshire atmosphere. Science has not yet taught us how altogether to avoid this murky effect, but by providing open spaces we might make best of the atmosphere that is left to us. Sheffield is especially fortunate in its open spaces and in this particular one, because although in the past they had had a space here, it had not been one worthy of the size or importance of the city.”
The improvements had cost £9,000 (about £1.1 million now), but the age-old problems refused to go away, and criticism was often scathing.
“Within a year an article appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, written by an anonymous correspondent, under the heading ‘THAT SQUARE’: –
“A good deal of the recent talk about Fitzalan Square may have been ineffectual, but if it did nothing else it sent me to inspect the place. Though my work brings me into the city daily, I had never had reason to descend to the bottom of High Street since the so-called improvement had taken place. Yesterday I determined to see for myself what the fuss was all about.
“I have no desire to exaggerate but I do not hesitate to say that Fitzalan Square is the most pestilently ill-favoured open space in England. This is patent without seeing all the others, for there is an instinct which tells you when you have seen the absolute nadir of ugliness. I have seen IT.
“If you are at all run down the effect of suddenly coming upon such a spectacle as this forlorn wilderness of paltry dog kennels and pretentious architectural incoherencies may easily cause a shock dangerous to health.
“The said ‘improvement’ consists of a stone balustrade round a large piece of nothing at all. What this petty stone fence is meant to enclose or exclude is not obvious. There are four lamp-posts of the most abysmal hideousness. Possibly there is poetic fitness in this, for they are meant to light the way below.
“It might be roofed in and let as a skating rink or turned into a rifle range. It might be dug up and let out to husbandmen. Unless three out of four of the surrounding buildings are absolutely wiped out and a big sum spent in covering up the alleged ‘improvement’ which has recently been carried out, nothing can be done to make the place decent.”
And so, the tone was set, for decades subject of ridicule, damaged during the Blitz, and often left to its own unsavoury devices.
The fountain never materialised and a plan to relocate a statue of Ebenezer Elliot from Weston Park to Fitzalan Square was abandoned. It was graced with a statue of King Edward VII (subject of another post) in 1913.
In time the underground toilets were removed, the trams disappeared, and even the taxis left for busier parts of the city centre.
When the area has become too down-at-heel there have been attempts to restore it, including a 2003 facelift, with the restoration of the King Edward VII statue, new sandstone paving, steel benches and improved street lighting.
The latest restoration comes at a time when this part of the city centre is in transition. A vast proportion of people have migrated to The Moor along with the old market, the old General Post Office now belongs to Sheffield Hallam University, and the future depends on the Castlegate development and most probably our student population.