Once upon a time there was a small hamlet near Sheffield town that went by the name of Little Sheffield.
During the early 1800s, Sheffield’s rapidly growing population needed to expand outside the historical boundaries, and Little Sheffield disappeared.
We know where Little Sheffield was, but its boundaries blurred over time, with experts long contesting where it started and finished. The area has never been clearly defined, like those forgotten places of Port Mahon and Hallamshire.
We must go back to olden days when Sheffield was a town surrounded by fields and countryside. It gradually expanded until its southern edges skirted a gorse-clad swampy common called Sheffield Moor.
Today, we know this marshy land as The Moor with its surrounding streets.
A path was made by throwing up two embankments, between which was a deep ditch, with only a footbridge over Porter Brook.
By the 1760s, travellers had to go down Coal Pit Lane (Cambridge Street) and Button Lane (long disappeared) to Little Sheffield – a group of poor and time-worn cottages. The road to it ran across Sheffield Moor, thence up a sharp rise to Highfield. The only house you came to after passing Moorhead was Mr Kirkby’s, standing on Button Lane (opposite where the ramp to Sainsbury’s car-park on Charter Row now stands). There was one other building nearby, with a bowling green attached to Sheffield Moor. Beyond was Little Sheffield, the outlying hamlet.
By the nineteenth century, the fields around Little Sheffield had been swallowed up for the working classes, a poor and densely populated area, its houses with roofs of stone slabs, low windows, and red brick walls.
Nowadays, we can define Little Sheffield’s northern boundary as being where the Moorfoot Building stands, taking in Young Street, South Lane, St Mary’s Gate, London Road, and surrounding streets like Hermitage Street, Sheldon Street, Hill Street, John Street, and Boston Street (once called George Street), up towards its southern boundary at Highfield.
On Tuesday April 4, 1923, about nine o’clock in the evening, London Road, at the corner with Sharrow Lane, was quiet, only a handful of people going about their business.
Suddenly, there was a deafening roar, a crash of breaking glass and – silence!
The loud explosion caused terror in the neighbourhood and within minutes hundreds of people swarmed out of their little houses and surrounded Highfield House at the bottom of Sharrow Lane.
Police officers from Highfield police station, about 100 yards away, rushed to the scene but had difficulty reaching the house through the crowd.
Highfield House was the home of Dr George Scott Davidson and he emerged at the front of the house to speak with the police.
Dr Davidson and his wife had just finished dinner and were traumatised by a loud explosion at the back of the property.
The police tried to move the crowds away from Highfield House and used flashlights to search the garden at the rear.
The house was unscathed, but remains of garden trellis work was strewed across the ground and glass in small garden frames had been destroyed.
“We rushed into the grounds, but could see very little, of course, except the frames were badly smashed,” said Dr Davidson. “I have not the slightest doubt the damage was caused by a bomb, but I cannot imagine any reason for the affair.”
And so, Sheffield newspapers filled their pages with the story of ‘another bomb,’ because a week earlier a similar explosion had occurred 200 yards away, in the back yard of a shop at the junction of Randall Street and London Road.
After the Highfield House episode, people told stories of the event.
“It was a noise like rumbling thunder,” said a woman who lived in a house some considerable distance away, “and the windows shook in their frames.”
A boy named Alec Winston, who was playing cards with a friend at 38 Sharrow lane, the nearest house, was thrown to the floor.
“It was a terrific bang, and I thought someone was showering stones onto the windows of the house.”
Closer inspection revealed that broken glass covered the window-sills and steps to No. 38, pieces of glass had shot over the 10ft walls from Highfield House into yards of several adjoining properties. Worse for others, soot had fallen down chimneys filling rooms and covering furniture.
The following day police began investigating the bomb explosion and worked on the theory that it had been thrown from one of the courts at the rear of Grosvenor Square or Sharrow Street, behind Highfield House, but no suspicious characters had been seen.
The neighbourhood was a small, congested area, a far cry from the days when Highfield stood in large grounds in the countryside. It was now isolated by shops on London Road, a large garden in Sharrow Lane, and the houses in Sharrow Street and Grosvenor Square behind.
It was suggested the bomb had been thrown towards the house but had hit the garden trellis causing it to fall short of its target.
However, further examination by police officers revealed a more menacing scenario.
A portion of time fuse was found in the garden, and furthermore the force of the blast had been downwards, suggesting a certain deliberateness that defeated the suggestion it had been thrown by some irresponsible person. It seemed the device had been made up from gunpowder or dynamite, possibly a mining or quarrying charge, because no fragments of a bomb were found.
The perpetrator must have entered the grounds to lay and ignite the fuse.
Police made numerous enquiries but could not find a reason for the bomb.
There were suggestions it might have been placed by those with Irish connections and suspicion was directed at the out-of-control gangs from around West Bar and Park.
The leaders of the Communist Party in Sheffield denied any knowledge.
“It is not in our line, and we would not do things this way.”
In the end, police believed the two separate explosions, undoubtedly linked, might have been carried out by a ‘desperate man,’ who might have got possession of an explosive.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph tried to downplay the incident, possibly at the request of puzzled police.
“It seems scarcely conceivable that anybody who deliberately was trying to cause serious damage would place whatever explosive in a cucumber frame many yards from the house, while such a receptacle would certainly add to the effect of any efforts merely to produce a ‘big bang.’
“On the whole there seems no cause for anyone to get very nervous, though the sooner the practical joker, or escaped lunatic, who is responsible, is brought to book the better.”
The mystery was never solved but the bomb scares caused many people to look uneasily at their First World War souvenirs – nose caps, cartridges, ‘dud’ bombs and in many cases live bombs which for the previous five years had occupied an honoured place on the mantelshelf or sideboard. Dozens of people paid hurried visits to the Central Police Station in Water Lane to hand them in.
NOTES: Built about 1788 for John Henfrey, Brightfield House was renamed Highfield House by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne in 1880. His surgery was later taken over by Dr George Scott Davidson. It remained a doctor’s surgery until the 1970s and later became the Charnwood Hotel. The house has since been converted into apartments known as Wisteria Gardens. In the 1920s, Randall Street ran from Bramall Lane to London Road but only exists today between Bramall Lane and Hill Street.
In 1885, a large and commodious house situated at the bottom of Sharrow Lane was threatened with demolition. The Sheffield Independent printed an article, ‘Doomed Houses at Highfield’, highlighting the plight of Brightfield House, along with an adjacent property fronting London Road, once a family residence, and in its declining years used as the Highfield Club.
“Brightfield House is one of the few remaining examples of comfortable homes of well-to-do manufacturers at Highfield, in the time when it was quite a journey to go ‘over Sheffield Moor’ to that region ‘then a bit of country.’ Where now are long rows of brick houses stood the mansions of the Brights, the Woodheads, the Henfreys, the Lees, and others.
“A long, square house, standing in its own grounds, reminds one of the olden times. It is a pleasant break in the landscape; but appearances point to its early demolition, the builder approaching perilously near with his army of mortar men ‘to make the old order give way to the new.’”
Astonishingly, it wasn’t demolished, the Highfield Club was, and Brightfield House still stands, a monument to Sheffield’s forgotten past. Today, it goes by the name of Wisteria Gardens, divided into apartments, but to many it is known as the former Charnwood Hotel.
As will be explained, Brightfield House lost its name in the 1870s, renamed Highfield House, until losing its identity altogether.
It was erected about 1788 for John Henfrey, a prominent scissor-smith, whose family had been involved in the scissor trade for generations. He became a Freeman in 1753 and was the fourth generation to be apprenticed by The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire. He went on to train his brother and his sons in the Brightside area, and was listed in the 1787 trade directory as having premises in Norfolk Street.
“He built for himself a country mansion at Highfield and being asked by his friends if he was not afraid of going over Sheffield Moor after dark, he replied that he took good care always to get home by daylight.”
At that time Sheffield Moor was ‘a shocking road for coaches’. There was quite a steep slope from the Moor head to the Horse Dyke (at the bottom of what eventually became Ecclesall Road), Sharrow Lane being the only road for wheels. Coaches coming from the south were often met by two extra horses at Heeley, to pull them up Goose Green to Highfield, and then up Sheffield Moor. It was a crooked road, with houses few and far between – there were practically none past Little Sheffield, and the surrounding area was rural.
It was no coincidence that John Henfrey built his house opposite Mount Pleasant, built for Francis Hurt Sitwell a few years earlier. This was on the Buxton Road which ran via Sheffield Moor, to Highfields, up Sharrow Lane, along Psalter Lane and up Ringinglow Road.
Brightfield House was named after the field it was built in, the suggestion being that Henfrey wanted to call it Highfield House, but a house of that name belonging to the Wilsons of Sharrow already existed at the top of the hill looking towards what became Sheaf House (yes, the pub on Bramall lane) with a large lawn bordered with fine sycamores and horse chestnut trees.
John Henfrey’s family was involved in a scandal when in 1791-92, one of his daughters eloped to Gretna Green with Thomas Leader, ‘one of those dashing young men of the time,’ a young Colonel in the Sheffield Volunteers.
After Henfrey’s death, Brightfield House became home to William Wilson, a member of the same family at Highfield House.
Following Wilson’s death, the mansion was offered at auction but failed to sell for several years, the empty house left in the care of a servant, and subjected to burglaries.
“Comprising drawing room, dining room, and breakfast room, lofty and well-lighted. Seven bedrooms, with closets and dressing rooms. Principal and secondary staircases, capital kitchens, dry cellars, bathroom, water-closet, and brewhouse.
“The views from the house, notwithstanding its proximity to the Town, are extensive and diversified, comprising, in front, the Park, studded with mansions and villas, and the line of the hill stretching towards Norton, and behind, ranging over Sharrowhead, the Botanical Gardens, Broomhill, Crookes, etc.”
It appears that Brightfield House was still in the possession of the Wilson family until the 1870s until bought by John Parkinson Mawhood, of Farm Bank, in 1874. He was head of Stevenson, Mawhood and Company, tool manufacturers, of Pond Street and later the Palm Tree Works at Attercliffe.
His tenure was short-lived and following the failure of the company in 1879 it was bought by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne, an Irishman, who came to Sheffield in 1875 when he purchased the practice of Dr Webb at Highfield, and built up connections in Sharrow, Highfield, and Heeley.
Gwynne became Honorary Medical Officer at the Children’s Hospital in 1879, after completing a special study of diseases in children.
In 1879, the nearby Highfield House estate was available for development, suggesting the mansion had been demolished, allowing Gwynne to rename Brightfield as Highfield House.
Gwynne died in 1906, and Highfield House became home to Dr George Scott Davidson, who ran a practice here with his son, Dr John Davidson, of Repton Lodge, in Sharrow.
Later this week we’ll look at a remarkable event that took place at Highfield House during Dr Davidson’s tenure.
Davidson practised for over thirty years, his son later moving into Highfield and taking over the practice, the house remaining a surgery until the 1970s.
It became the 22-bed Charnwood Hotel in 1985, opened by Chris and Valerie King, and operated almost 20 years as a wedding venue, along with two top restaurants, Brasserie Leo and the smaller more upmarket Henfrey’s.
The Charnwood Hotel closed in December 2004 after being unsuccessfully marketed for £1.3 million. It was turned into apartments in 2005 and renamed Wisteria Gardens.
The house and adjoining former coach house are Grade II listed by Historic England.