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Places

Graves Park

Photograph by The Outdoor City

Earlier this week we highlighted Dr Robert Styring’s gift to Sheffield of the Brinckcliffe Tower estate (Brincliffe Towers) in November 1925, its former grounds now known as Chelsea Park.

One of Styring’s close friends was John George Graves, head of the successful mail order firm, and generous benefactor to the city.

It is extremely likely that Graves played an important part in Styring’s decision and came just two days after it was announced that Graves had made one of his biggest ever bequests.

This story begins in 1925 when the Norton Hall estate was broken up and sold by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Alexander Firth. He donated Norton Hall to the Joint Hospitals Board and negotiated the sale of 112 acres of land for £25,000.

The plan was to incorporate Norton Hall into a new hospital which would amalgamate the services of the Royal, Royal Infirmary and Jessop hospitals (although the plan never materialised).

Norton Hall

It left 154 acres of parkland still available and attracted the attention of speculative builders wanting to construct houses in a respectable part of the city. Sheffield Corporation recognised that the land might make a suitable park but was prevented from entering negotiations because it did not have sufficient funds.

However, the council need not have worried because, in October 1925, J.G. Graves presented a letter to Sheffield Corporation revealing that he had purchased the land and was gifting it to the city.

“In making the purchase I have had in mind, among other considerations, that it will be very advantageous to have a large area of land between the hospitals and the city kept open and free from buildings, thereby ensuring for the hospitals, as far as possible, in the vicinity of a great city, an atmosphere free from dust and smoke pollution.

“The estate which now belongs to me is varied in character and covers an area of 154 acres. It includes a great deal of beautiful parkland, well-wooded valleys in their natural state, and a lake suitable for boating which is, I believe, larger than any piece of water within the city to which the public have access.

“There are fifty or sixty acres of land, well suited for organised games and a picturesque summer residence which I think would make an attractive tea house with garden and lawn accommodation.”

The council accepted his generous offer and passed a resolution to call it Graves Park.

Photograph by DepositPhotos

Joining up with the hospital estate beyond Norton Church, the park was enclosed by a boundary wall which ran along Hemsworth Road and Cobnar Road. This continued along Cobnar Wood, on the west, via Meadowhead, and Chesterfield Road as far as the lodge leading up to the hospital site.

The greater part of the land was level and required little alteration in laying it out as football, cricket, and other sports grounds. On one part of the estate there was ample room for at least 20 football fields, welcome news to many amateur clubs in Sheffield who had been handicapped by the scarcity of suitable and convenient playing fields.

The estate included Bolehill Farm, North Croft, and three charming coppices known as Cobnar Wood, Waterfall Wood, and Summerhouse Wood. The southern portion of the park was separated from the hospital grounds by three small lakes, well stocked with fish, and quite large enough for boating, the largest of which already had a boathouse.

In the early part of 1926, about sixty men provided by the Guardians from the unemployed were engaged to lay out walks across the lawns and woodland.

The main entrance to the park was now on Cobnar Road, from which point a wide drive leading through the Deer Park, to the lakes, was built. Paths were made on either side of a ravine, uniting shortly before they reached a drive leading up from Meadowhead to Norton Hall.

The land nearest Cobnar Road was mown and rolled, and one of the prettiest areas was at the top end of the lawn, just over the wall from Bunting Nook, under the shade of beeches and sycamores, alternating with copper beeches. A long winding path was built here offering views towards the Derbyshire countryside and lofty moors, while walks around the largest of the lakes, adorned with rhododendrons, were widened.

Graves Park was opened to the public during the spring, but the official opening was on June 3rd, 1926.

The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, accompanied by Councillor and Mrs J.G. Graves head the procession at the opening ceremony.

Summer weather favoured the day, the sun shone, and the woods and grasses had been freshened after recent rains.

The Band of the Queen’s Own Yorkshire Dragoons played during the afternoon and evening, and a crowd of at least 15,000 attended the opening by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Benson, in the vicinity of the summerhouse.

It was left to J.G. Graves to make a philosophical speech: –

“Our parks and moorlands in no small measure help us to realise that ideal in our own city. Nature has been very generous and kind to Sheffield, for there are few cities in the world which are so favoured as we are in our surroundings. We hear a lot about what we have not got and what we ought to have, but sometimes I think we hear far too little of what we really do enjoy. It would not be at all a bad thing if we could occasionally have a municipal thanksgiving day, when we might count our blessings and realise, or try to realise, something of the value of the heritage of which we are all partakers.

“Both nationally and municipally we enjoy a great inheritance, and we owe much to those who have gone before us, and who have enriched the city, not merely by benefactions, but by voluntary service, seen and unseen, which in the aggregate had made for safety, sanitation, and a general high level of comfort and happiness.”

The Lord Mayor formally opening Graves Park

The day ended with the singing of the National Anthem and for the last 94 years Graves Park has remained a Sheffield institution, cherished for generations, enjoyed by young and old, and quite possibly reaching its zenith as a place of sanctuary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lady Mayoress crossing stepping-stones in Graves Park
Councillor and Mrs J.G. Graves chatting to the Lady Mayoress at the ceremony

And finally, a letter from August 1931 that appeared in the Sheffield Independent:

“Sir – I wonder how many of the numerous visitors to Graves Park on Monday evening about 6 o’clock recognised the donor strolling through this lovely picture of woodland beauty. It must have gladdened Mr Graves heart to see the many elderly people resting in the shade, as well as the hundreds of young folk enjoying themselves, all possible through his wonderful appreciation of others and the benefit that such places can confer on the individual.”

Councillor J.G. Graves and Sir William Clegg discussing horticulture at Graves Park
Categories
Buildings Places

Brincliffe Towers and Chelsea Park

Photograph by David Poole

This story is not unique to Sheffield. A once great house adapted over the years, and eventually falling on hard times. Across the nation there are many old houses that went this way, but they remain a fascination to us.

Brincliffe Towers was a town villa, built in 1852 in an area that eventually became one of the city’s most desirable suburbs.

At the time of writing, the old house is empty, awaiting redevelopment, but its former grounds are known today as Chelsea Park, one of those public spaces that attracts little attention with most city people.

For this post we should refer to the mansion by its original name – Brinkcliffe Tower – an imposing mansion in Gothic-style, which formed a conspicuous object on the landscape. It was built by James Wilson, solicitor, for his own occupation. Built of Greenmoor rock-faced stone, with ashlar facings, no expense was spared to render it complete with every modern convenience.

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

With its park-like surroundings of 24 acres, Brinkcliffe Tower was one of the finest gentleman’s residences in this part of Sheffield, commanding a prospect of the most rich and beautiful scenery in the district.

James Wilson, a descendant of the Wilsons of Broomhead Hall, was the senior member of Wilson, Young and Pierson, and for many years had been Law Clerk to the Cutlers’ Company. He died in 1867 and the estate was put on the market: –

“The mansion contains a dining-room, drawing-room, breakfast-room, and the spacious vestibule, entrance hall, and principal staircase are lighted from the roof by a handsome lantern light. There are seven principal bedrooms and dressing-rooms, bathrooms, etc.

“The kitchens, servants’ hall, and other arrangements are of the most commodious description. There are large and lofty cellars (cut-out from the valuable bed of stone known as Brinkcliffe Edge Stone), servants’ staircase, butler’s pantry, sculleries, store closets, and four large upper rooms of stores and servants’ apartments.

“In the large paved yard is stabling for five horses, loose box, saddle and harness rooms, hay chamber, granary, and a spacious carriage-house, sheds and all the requisite appurtenances for a family mansion.

“The kitchen gardens are extensive and laid out in the best possible manner, while the grounds are enriched with fine timber and ornamental trees with flourishing shrubs.”

“Water is of the most common character, and during the dry summers of 1864 and 1865, a most abundant supply was always at hand.”

Photograph by Picture Sheffield

The Brinkcliffe Tower estate was bought by George Marples, descended from an old family line with origins at Barlborough and Stavely in North East Derbyshire. Until 1879, he was head of Marples and Marples, solicitors, Norfolk Row, at which time he vacated the position in favour of his son, George Jobson Marples.

George Marples died of a heart-attack in 1881 leaving personal estate worth £218,000 (that is almost £27million today), leaving Brinkcliffe Tower to George Jobson Marples, a man who had trained at the Inner Temple, but never practised as such. For twenty years he was a county magistrate in Derbyshire and senior magistrate at Bakewell.

In the 1890s, George Jobson Marples bought Thornbridge Hall, near Bakewell, for £160,000, leaving Brinkcliffe Tower behind, and eventually putting it up for sale.

Photograph by David Poole

In 1897, it was acquired by Robert Styring (1850-1944),  another solicitor, councillor, Lord Mayor, and a man whose contribution to Sheffield has been unforgivably overlooked, and subject of another post.

Styring remembered his father speaking of the building of Brinkcliffe Tower, which at the time had been regarded locally by many as “one of the seven wonders of the world.”

Not a man to miss an opportunity, Styring disposed of parts of the “valuable building estate” and in 1916 was involved in a dispute with Sheffield Corporation over land development.

An inquiry by the Local Government Board Inspector covered a scheme affecting Banner Cross, Brincliffe, Kenwood Park and Nether Edge. The Corporation had insisted that a maximum of twelve houses should be built per acre but, according to Mr Gibson, Deputy Town Clerk, Styring wanted to be free to build 25 houses to the acre.

Styring had married Annie Frances Hovey in 1880, and her death would have significant implications for the house and estate.

While addressing a meeting of women at the Victoria Hall in March 1925 she remarked, “Excuse me one moment,” sat in her chair, collapsed, and died.

Her death affected Styring deeply. “It was entirely due to her that I entered public life, and due to her efforts, won what was thought to be a forlorn hope, a seat in the City Council for St. Peter’s Ward in 1886.”

Photograph of Robert Styring by Picture Sheffield

In November 1925, Styring decided to gift the Brinkcliffe Tower estate to the city. To be handed over after his death, as well as the house, there were twelve acres of grounds which were to be used as a public park.

“We have enjoyed the pleasure of the estate and nothing would have given her greater satisfaction than to know the purpose to which it was to be adapted.”

After handing over the deeds to the council, Styring remained at Brinkcliffe Tower until 1935, by which time he chose to enjoy retirement in Paignton, Devon. As a result, he vacated the property, gave the keys to Sheffield Council, along with three houses on Brincliffe Edge Road, and left behind a Japanese tapestry and two large oil paintings. He died in 1944, aged 94, at Lancaster House in Paignton.

For a time, the grounds were considered as a memorial garden, the alternative site for a Peace Gardens, proposed after the Munich Agreement of 1938, but which were eventually created on the site of St Paul’s Church next to the Town Hall. Instead, the grounds were turned into Chelsea Park, named after nearby Chelsea Road, once known as Palmerston Road, until renamed in 1886.

As for the house, as always, there was a dilemma for the council. It remained empty for a while, and for a brief period was a girls’ school dormitory during World War Two. It became a nursing home, known as Brincliffe Towers, and in 1959 was refurbished and enlarged with “modernistic” 1950s extensions, funded by the J.G. Graves Charitable Trust.

Photograph by David Poole

Eventually falling into private hands, the care home closed in 2011, victim of modern legislation, and since then there have been various controversial schemes to convert the house back into a single dwelling, funded by the conversion of the coach-house and erection of new houses in the wooded grounds.

Photograph by David Poole

Sadly, the property is in poor condition, but still retains original characteristics, including the main entrance overlooking Chelsea Park, beyond the balustraded terrace, elaborately carved timber bargeboards, carved stone bay windows, doorways, and towers.

The internal fabric of the building has diminished overtime. However, there are some original features remaining to ground floor rooms, including fireplaces, architraves and coving and ceiling detailing. Rooms to the upper floors have been significantly altered and reconfigured through partition walls, but the tower and ceiling light remains intact.

Photographs by David Poole

Categories
People

J.G. Graves

John George Graves (1866-1945) packed a lot into his 79 years. He was a hard-working businessman, councillor, and cared a lot about his adopted city. A much-travelled man, he knew Europe intimately, and visited America, Egypt, South Africa, India, and Palestine, and spoke fluent French, German and Italian.

Seventy-five years after his death, his name still echoes across Sheffield, and yet, we are guilty of under-estimating the influence he had on the city.

J.G. Graves was born in Lincolnshire, grew up in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, and was educated at Batley Grammar School. When he was 15, he moved to Sheffield to take up apprenticeship with a German watchmaker in Gibraltar Street, and at the age of 20, he started his own watch-making business in town.

He moved to larger premises in Surrey Street where he expanded his business to include jewellery, cutlery and silverware. His decision to sell goods by mail order was pivotal and, through advertising on the back pages of the national press, became incredibly successful.

Graves was one of the first to embrace the idea of selling goods, notably watches, on ‘monthly’ terms, and by 1903 employed 3,000 people with products sold through extensive catalogues.

Graves was first elected to the city council in 1896 as a Liberal member for the old Nether Hallam Ward and retained his seat for six years. In 1905, he was returned to the Council as a member for the Walkley Ward but did not seek re-election in 1908. His third entry to the Council, again for Walkley, was as an Independent councillor in 1916.

Graves went on to serve as Lord Mayor in 1926 and was granted Freedom of the City in 1929.

“Alderman Graves brings to his work unusual gifts of business acumen and a kindly spirit towards the general welfare of the people,” reported the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1930. “A fluent, dignified speaker, with originality of thought, he can marshal facts well and present a case strikingly. He always impresses his hearers by his transparent earnestness and sincerity in whatever cause he is pleading. Truly, he is one of the big men of the Council – big in stature and big in vision.”

However, J.G. Graves should be remembered for being Sheffield’s “Fairy Godfather”, probably the city’s most generous benefactor in its history.

When he died at his home, Riverdale House, at Ranmoor, in 1945, newspapers calculated that he had gifted more than £1 million to the city, that amounts to more than £44 million at today’s value.

His first gift to Sheffield, probably Pearl Street playground in 1903, was the start of small projects for children, but these grew in significance with gifts that included Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Barker’s Pool Garden, Concord Park, Graves Art Gallery, Graves Park, Graves Trust Homes, Blacka Moor, and playing fields. He was a generous benefactor to Sheffield University and the Children’s Hospital, gave much of the land forming the green belt around Sheffield, made gifts of land to the National Trust, and at the outbreak of World War Two, made an unconditional gift of £250,000 to the nation.

Graves Art Gallery cost him £20,000 as well as a further £10,000 towards the cost of the Central Library. He had started collecting art in 1899 and throughout his life collected over 3,000 pictures, 700 of which he gave to Sheffield to be displayed in the Graves Gallery.

“It has seemed to me the most natural thing that I should engage in effort and outlay which has for its object the betterment of the city in which my own lot has been cast, and which I love and understand so well.”

Graves had loved the countryside and was a keen cyclist, with one of his ambitions being to provide Sheffield with beautiful open spaces. As well as Concord Park and Graves Park, he provided £10,000 towards the acquisition of Ecclesall Wood and gave much of the land forming the Green Belt around Sheffield.

One such place was Blacka Moor that had been owned by Norton Rural District Council since 1929. The small council was poor and unable to fight off advances from developers and so, in 1933, had approached J.G. Graves as a last resort. He bought the land and duly presented it to the city.

Ethel Haythornthwaite, a prominent environmental campaigner, recalled a conversation she had with Graves at the official opening in 1933.

“Now, after we’ve done all this for you (by ‘we’ he meant the Graves Trust) will you promise to never trouble us again?” I took a deep breath, thought I had better be truthful and said, “Whenever the countryside around Sheffield is in danger, I shall appeal to you.” He looked at me, severely but not unkindly. “Well,” he said, “Now we know.”

After his death, the mail order company was absorbed into Great Universal Stores, but his legacy lives on through The J.G. Graves Charitable Trust, a grant-making body established in 1930 derived from £400,000 of shares of his company.

Today, the Trust is managed by nine trustees, including Adrian Graves, the fourth generation of the family to serve on it, and continues to support projects that relate to the charitable interests of its founder.

These include parks, open spaces, recreation grounds, art galleries and libraries for public use, promotion of education and community projects, and medical, recreational and sporting facilities.

Periodically, the Trust is in a position to make significant contributions including the J.G. Graves of Sheffield Lifeboat (1958), the redesign of Tudor Square (1990), the J.G. Graves Tennis Centre (1991), the J.G. Graves Woodland Discovery Centre (2007) and the purchase of ‘Comfort Blanket’ by Grayson Perry for the City’s art collection in 2016.