One day, in 1926, a lady walked through newly opened Graves Park and came upon an old quarry within Cobnar Wood. Well-known in musical circles, she was well-versed with acoustics and approached Sheffield Corporation with an idea.
This had once been Norton Rifle Range and formed part of land gifted by J.G. Graves to the city. In February 1927, undergrowth was cleared, and the ground levelled, in preparation for an open-air theatre.
“Around the natural cavity, at one side of which there is a wall of stone – part of the original quarry – the ground rises steeply and is covered with trees and bushes. On the left stands part of the Cobnar Wood, and it does not need much imagination to visualise the beauty of the scene on a fine summer evening. On the side of the hill accommodation will also be made for thousands of people to stand or sit.
“The theatre will not be confined to one class of entertainment. There could be music of all kinds – orchestral music, chamber music, bands, Pierrots, and others, chosen by the Parks Committee.”
A platform was erected under the quarry wall with seating arranged facing the stage.
The open-air theatre opened on June 16th, 1927, when a crowd of 3,000 people attended a concert in the presence of the Lord Mayor, who happened to be J.G. Graves.
“The beautiful natural amphitheatre became a vast arena of song when the first municipal open-air community singing concert was held. The basin, with its grassy slopes and fringe of trees, is admirably suited for events of this kind. The singing was led by the Sheffield Orpheus Male Voice Choir, conducted by Mr T. Ratcliffe, and although the audience was a little shy at first, they soon joined in the choruses lustily, and sang with real heartiness songs like Love’s Old Sweet Song, On Ilkla Moor Baht At and Pack Up Your Troubles. Four hundred chairs were occupied, and a good crowd behind the ropes.”
The success of this first evening led to further concerts by the Melody Minstrels and Motley Entertainers, and for the next ten years the public were treated to regular summer entertainment in the old quarry.
Despite its success, Sheffield Corporation brought an end to the concerts in 1937, the victim of unforeseen circumstances.
The quarry was to be no longer used because of midges. It had attempted several solutions including spraying the quarry before each performance and at the interval when attendants walked around with spray pumps.
As a last resort an outside expert had suggested spraying the surrounding woods, quarry walls and the ground with disinfectant and insect killer.
All attempts failed and the midges affected attendances causing one council official to say, “The day would come when performers would be singing to an audience of gnats.”
Alas, the open-air theatre was abandoned, and future concerts held in the Deer Park. Today, there is little evidence of its exciting past, the area overgrown, and only the old sandstone quarry walls providing a clue of its location.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
I wonder how we might have survived without TV during the lockdown. It makes this story from almost 88 years ago even more remarkable and shows how far technology has advanced in a relatively short space of time.
In 1938, in a secret experimenting room on the remote outskirts of Sheffield, three men had received television programmes from London. One September night, George W. Bagshaw, K. Hopkinson and G. Thompson, all employees of mail order company, J.G. Graves, managed to receive an almost perfect picture and sound.
The television receiver used was the only one in the north of England and had been built by the three amateur radio enthusiasts, led by Bagshaw, the manager of the wireless department at Graves Ltd.
This was thought to be the first time that anybody had received television programmes in Sheffield.
The television pictures were being broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace to the London area. It started broadcasting in 1936, followed by the first outside broadcast in May 1937, the Coronation of King George VI.
The receiver was installed at Dore Moor, near Newfields Lane, the only giveaway being two large latticed wireless masts, which few people knew what they were for.
Bagshaw said that he had been receiving pictures for three weeks, the gap between London and Sheffield being one of the greatest distances that pictures had been transmitted.
“It was thought that television had a visual range as far as the eye could see. That is its true range, but it is possible to receive from greater distances,” Bagshaw told the Daily Independent.
“Working on ultra-short waves, pictures have been received further than was at first thought possible, and I have found that I can receive transmissions from Alexandra Palace.
“In Sheffield, we are 160 miles away from the transmitter, and it cannot be expected that our pictures are as clear as those in the London area.
“However, we have obtained pictures which, although they might not suit the critical onlooker, are very satisfying to the experimenter.”
Mr Bagshaw had been experimenting in television since its inception, and the first station was in the radio department of J.G. Graves, but after a time it was realised that interference from motor-cars and trams were hindering progress.
The site at Dore Moor had been chosen because it was almost ideal for radio work. It was 750 feet above sea level, remote from roads and electrical interference.
In the station was a bewildering collection of radio apparatus. The workshop was only small, but large enough to contain all its necessary equipment. The shed, built in 1936, housed over a thousand pounds worth of apparatus, with five short-wave transmitters and several ultra-short-wave receivers. The two radio masts on the site, nearly eighty feet high, both carried a large aerial.
Unfortunately, when the Daily Independent visited Dore Moor for a demonstration of television pictures, thundery conditions prevented the signals reaching Sheffield.
Asked for his views on the future of television in Sheffield, Mr Bagshaw pointed out that results were only obtained outside London by using very intricate and expensive apparatus and having special receivers.
Until there was a local transmitter there was little prospect of Sheffield people being able to receive television.
So far as the provinces were concerned, he thought the BBC and the Post Office were waiting for a better response in London before they put up provincial stations.
The first step towards the opening of a provincial station was thought to be the completion of a special cable between London and Birmingham, but as that cable had been completed some time before, and there was no news of a Birmingham transmitter, it was thought in radio circles that either the cable was not satisfactory in a technical sense, or the Post Office thought it much more useful for multi-channel trunk lines.
“The solution to the provincial station is a radio-link, which means using ultra-high-frequency transmitters between towns to convey television, sound and speech.
“All this is a very expensive undertaking, and to cater for the whole country at present would appear to be prohibitive in cost,” he added.
Sadly, despite the sale of 20,000 TV sets in the London area, the service was immediately shut down when World War Two started in September 1939. Transmissions didn’t resume until 1946, with a Midlands transmitter opening in 1949, and one for the North two years later.
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.
It is the “garden at the heart of the city”, and yet, the small plot at the corner of Barker’s Pool and Balm Green has never officially been named. It has been here since 1937, but these days most folk barely give it the time of day.
Barker’s Pool Garden, Balm Green Garden and Fountain Square are three of the names that have been attributed to it. However, when J.G. Graves, to whom Sheffield owes so much, attended the opening in 1937, he thought it unnecessary to give a name to the garden, but he had in mind its proximity to the City War Memorial.
“It will, I hope, provide a note of quiet sympathy which will be in harmony with the feelings of those who visit the War Memorial in the spirit of a visit to a sacred place.”
This garden, 400 square yards in size, would never have been created had it not been for the opening of the City Hall in 1932.
The land was owned by the adjacent Grand Hotel, the plot used as a car-park enclosed with advertising hoardings. But to J.G. Graves, it was an “eyesore”, obstructing the view of the splendid new City Hall from the Town Hall and the top of Fargate.
His solution was to negotiate the purchase of the land from the hotel. He paid £25 a square yard and outlined his plans in a letter to the Lord Mayor, Councillor Mrs A.E. Longden: –
“When planning the new City Hall, the architect, in order to give due importance and dignity to the elevation, placed the front of the building at some distance from the existing building line.
“This, of course, enhanced the architectural appearance of the Hall, but has had the incidental result of obstructing a view of the Hall from Fargate and the Town Hall corner, as is partially done now by the hoarding which surrounds the intervening plot of vacant land, and if in due course a tall building should be erected on the plot referred to, the possibility of a view of the City Hall from Fargate and the Town Hall would be completely lost.
“I feel it would be a misfortune if, through lack of action at the present time, building developments should proceed which would permanently deprive the city of an impressive architectural and street view at its very centre.
“With this in mind, I have arranged to buy the plot of land in question at its present day market value, with the intention of establishing thereon a formal garden, already designed by an eminent firm expert in this class of work.
“With this explanation I have the pleasure of offering the piece of land as a gift to the city, together with the garden which I propose to have established thereon at my own expense, and with the condition that the garden shall be maintained by the Corporation in as good a state as it will be when it is handed over on completion of the work.”
The gift was a personal one, not connected with the Graves Trust, and duly accepted by Sheffield Corporation.
In 1937, the Grand Hotel announced proposals for extensive alterations and to place their principal entrance on Balm Green. The whole of the corner was now thrown open and the new garden would later adjoin the forecourt to the Grand’s main entrance, running from Barker’s Pool to the building line of the hotel.
To complete the scheme the Grand Hotel management decided to reface the whole of the side of the hotel with a material approximate to the colour of the stone of the City Hall.
The garden had been laid out by “a famous firm of garden landscapers,” railed off from the footpath, with a border of shrubs, crazy paving, a fountain, and a water runway to a lily pond, and various flower beds.
A huge crowd gathered for the official opening on August 3, 1937.
“We shall always be proud of this garden, because it is not only a gift for all time,” said the Lord Mayor. “I hope the garden will become a real garden of remembrance for the future generation, who could thank the beauty of mind and heart which prompted the gift.”
Of course, two years later, Britain went to war with Germany again, the symbolism of the garden perhaps lost on the despairing public. However, the garden has remained, although J.G. Graves’ conditions seem to have been forgotten by subsequent councils.
The fountain was eventually removed, the condition of the gardens fluctuating between mini-restorations, but its current state is a pale shadow of its original glory.
We might do well to remember the terms of J.G. Graves’ gift, although progress often comes into conflict with the past.
In 2019, initial plans were announced by Changing Sheffield action group (formerly Sheffield City Centre Residents Action Group) to create a unique space featuring ten large musical instruments and mini-trampolines, although the status of the application is unknown.
In the first part of our story about Tapton Court, we looked at its role as a family home for John Henry Andrew, Henry Steel and Albert Victor Derry.
Derry moved to Bristol in 1931 and died in Cairo the following year. Tapton Court had been put up for sale, and it was left to his widow, Olga, to find a suitable buyer.
In the summer of 1933, the first indication of Tapton Court’s future use was found in the legal sections of newspapers.
Olga sought to alter covenants on the house and land, put in place by Henry Spooner in 1865, that forbid change of use to non-residential. Her application being successful, Olga then negotiated the sale of empty Tapton Court to the J.G. Graves Charitable Trust, which presented the house to the Royal Hospital as a nurses’ home.
The Charitable Trust, created by Sheffield’s ‘Fairy Prince’, J. G. Graves, was set up in 1932 with capital of over £400,000.
The nurses’ home was intended to replace existing accommodation in three different places – at the Royal Hospital, where nurses were removed from Eldon Street to make way for an x-ray extension, Ranmoor, and later Crookes.
The new nurses’ home, also with a Nurses’ Preliminary Training School, was opened on 20 July 1934 by Alderman J.G. Graves, the event reported in the Sheffield Independent: –
“A few months ago, it was a sorry reminder of Sheffield’s spacious days of entertaining. Dust clung to the walls, rust coated the iron of immense stoves and cupboards gaped, empty and desolate.
“A tiled entrance leads into a large nurses’ lounge, furnished in rose and green. Settees, easy chairs, carpets, a grand piano and all the furnishings have been provided through gifts. A grandfather clock is the contribution of the nurses and sisters.
“The beautiful ceiling, which was painted for the visit of King Edward, has been restored in its original colours.
“The old kitchen has been converted into a delightful dining room. Stone flags have been replaced by wooden flooring. Eight old stoves have ended their days on the scrap heap.
“The room is decorated in a soft green with rich flame-coloured curtains. Green rubber-topped tables are matched by bronze tubular steel chairs upholstered in green leather.
“Each bedroom is curtained and partitioned in a different sunshine shade, and each nurse has her own small suite of furniture in limed oak.
“Jacobean curtains give a rich note of colouring to the sisters’ lounge, and the settees and chairs are covered in bronze.
“Old fashioned covered baths have been replaced by modern ones in the three bathrooms. In the kitchen, a gas stove with two ovens has been fitted into a white tiled alcove, and a teak sink has taken the place of the stone one.
“Two lawns, large enough for a hockey field, skirt the house and the gardens are shaded by beautiful trees. Raspberries, loganberries and blackcurrants grow in the kitchen gardens and in a large vinery clusters of grapes are ripening.”
The opening was performed by John George Graves, the man responsible for buying Tapton Court and handing it over to the hospital:-
“Some thanks are due to those who have gone before and spent their money so lavishly in providing this wonderful house. I sometimes hear lamentations about the uses to which fine houses in the West End of Sheffield are being put. I do not share those feelings.
“Such houses as Tapton Court were provided for purposes which are perhaps not well appreciated today. They were built for entertaining, for people indulged in very elaborate dinners in those days, and the more successful of the people had ‘rich man’s gout’ which gave them an exclusive touch.
“Tapton Court is a historic house. It once belonged to Henry Steel, who was a friend of King Edward, and King Edward visited and probably stayed here.”
The cost of the scheme had been £25,000, but plans were already in place to add two new extensions to the old house.
By 1936, two new wings had been built, at a cost of £28,000, on the site of an old peach orchard, and included contributions from a fundraising campaign. A floor was named after each donor of £5,000, while bedrooms were named after each donor of £100 (in all, 20 people had rooms named after them).
The east wing was occupied by nurses on 20 March, and the west wing on 10 July.
“The re-adaptation of the old house is also in progress, and by removing the dome on the tower, the cost of maintenance will be reduced, and the structure more substantial. The supply of electricity has been improved by the building of a sub-station with transformers. It has also been decided, that as the electrical wiring in parts is no longer efficient, to re-wire throughout.”
The Duke of Kent officially opened the new extensions in October 1936. A canopied entrance from Tapton Court to a large marquee, where the ceremony was held, was lined by a guard of honour from the sisters.
“It houses the whole of the nursing staff in the pleasantest possible conditions, in five-acres of wooded grounds,” reported the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
“In the west wing is a light and spacious dining hall, opening out onto a paved terrace and loggia. Above the hall are 20 bedrooms for sisters with its own wash basin and oak furniture. The east wing is entirely devoted to nurses’ bedrooms and bathrooms. Each of the 100 bedrooms has a fitted wardrobe, and the colour scheme is bright and cheerful. Shampoo rooms and shower baths are among the amenities, and there are ironing rooms for home laundry work.
“The old house has been adapted for recreation and sitting-room purposes.”
There was a touch of nostalgia in the Royal proceedings, said the Sheffield Independent. “A little grey-haired woman, who left Tapton Court as a bride fifty years ago, saw the Duke of Kent open her old home as a home for nurses. She was Mrs E.W. Turner, formerly Miss Andrew, wife of the Rev. George W. Turner, Vicar of St. Judes’s Church, and daughter of the late John Henry Andrew.”
And so, the nurses lived in relative harmony until, that is, the Royal Hospital closed in 1978, by which time Tapton Court had fallen into the hands of the University of Sheffield and used as halls of residence. A three-storey north wing, bridging the east and west wings, had been added, as well as the modern-looking Ranmoor Annexe (120 bedrooms over three floors), all of which are empty today.
Up for sale, the interiors of Tapton Court remain a secret, hidden behind steel-gated windows to deter urban explorers, but the sales brief provides us with a final insight: –
“The original house comprises two floors centred on a top-lit hall surrounded by a gallery at first floor level on three sides. The central court (surrounded by the 20th century wing extensions) is approached from the external portico on the eastern façade, through the entrance hall and with a major room opening off the opposite side of the court. The southern side of the court is flanked by corner rooms separated by a central hallway which gives access to the garden and houses the main staircase. Sections of the original service wing to the north still survive.”
There is an old house at Ranmoor that is looking distinctly down-at-heel these days. Tapton Court, on Shore Lane, is shuttered-up and anticipating its reawakening. It is owned by the University of Sheffield, most recently used as student accommodation but now, along with adjacent Ranmoor Annexe, it awaits a buyer.
Fortunately, the university has been good to Tapton Court, given Grade II listing in 1995, and following a fire in 2010, made sure essential primary repairs and rebuilding brought the building back to shell condition in accordance with Listed Building Consent.
Tapton Court came to light after a recent post about Henry Steel (1832-1915), a ‘leviathan’ of the racecourse and one of the founders of Steel, Peech and Tozer, once a well-known steel firm in Rotherham. He lived here from 1879 until his death in 1915, but further research throws up an exciting past, and reveals that this house was visited by Royalty, possibly on more than one occasion.
The house was built on land sold by William Spooner, a member of a farming and landowning family with large holdings in Ecclesall, Crookes, Nether Hallam and Bradfield, in 1865. Three years later, John Henry Andrew (1824-1884), steel manufacturer, built an Italianate mansion here, one of many ‘brass castles’ that sprung up in this pleasant part of town.
He was one of Sheffield’s self-made men, head of the Toledo Works (J.H. Andrew and Co), and rose from the ranks of labour. Early in life he was apprenticed to Wilson & Sothern, in Doncaster Street, and when he was 22, became a partner in Richard Graves & Son, in Snow Lane, remaining there for fifteen years. For the next ten years, up to 1870, he carried on his steel works in Malinda Street, then removing to Toledo Works which he had built at Neepsend.
A former member of the Town Council and Cutlers’ Company, he declined the office of Master Cutler on account of ill-health, that also forced him to relinquish duties to his three sons. He died very suddenly from asthma on his return from Bridlington in 1884, by which time, he’d already sold Tapton Court and was living at Oak Lawn, on Oakholme Road.
John Henry Andrew sold Tapton Court to Henry Steel in 1879. He was a man who had made his fortune as a bookmaker on the racecourses of England, a close friend of Lord Rosebery and King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales.
This larger-than-life character made a huge success of Steel, Peech & Tozer, subsequently merged with other steel firms to become United Steel Companies of which he became chairman.
In later years, J.G. Graves, that great Sheffield entrepreneur and benefactor, revealed that the Prince of Wales often visited Tapton Court, perhaps secretly, to see his friend. His ascendency to King curtailed their friendship and they next met in 1905 when Edward opened the University of Sheffield. “He recognised Henry, left the procession, and shook him heartily by the hand.”
After Henry Steel died in 1916, a newspaper advertisement spelled out the magnificence of the Victorian house.
“A well-appointed stone-built residence of attractive appearance surrounded by full-grown forest trees. The property is situated at an elevation of about 600 feet and is clear of the low-lying fogs which so often envelop the city.
“The contents of the property comprise lounge hall, three large reception rooms, smoke room, billiard room, nine principal bedrooms, three attics, two bathrooms and excellent offices, with servants’ hall.
“Well laid-out grounds, with entrance lodge, tennis court, fishpond, large sloping lawn, kitchen garden, paddock, stables, garage for two cars, and extensive glass-houses replete with full bearing vines and peach trees.”
Amongst the first items to be sold were the contents of the greenhouses: carnations, cypripediums, heliotropes, and maidenhair ferns.
The house contents were sold from a marquee in the grounds, the four-day sale including cabinet furniture, principally made by Manuel and Son, silver and electro-plate, books, linen, glass and china. The item that attracted most interest was a trophy, the Brighton Cup 1874, staged with figures, stags and hounds and sold to a Sheffield gentleman for 72 guineas.
Tapton Court wasn’t sold until 1918 and fell into the hands of Albert Victor Derry (1872-1932), another man airbrushed from Sheffield history.
Albert Kochs, as he was known, was born in Manchester, the son of William Edward Kochs, of German extract. He was educated at Cardiff and South Wales University, and then articled to his father and for a time was placed at the works of the Humboldt Engineering Company of Cologne, Germany.
Later becoming a partner in W. Edward Kochs & Company, consulting engineers, of Foster’s Building, Sheffield, he set up in 1901, along with Charles Rudolph Altenhein and Dr Heinrich Koppers, a company to build coke oven plants across Britain and overseas.
During World War One, Koppers Coke Oven By-Products was taken over by the Government (Altenhein was detained during the war), and afterwards Derry bought the company back and called it Koppers Coke Oven Company, its biggest order being for the Gas Light and Coke Company, London.
Unsurprisingly, the war had seen Albert adopt his mother’s maiden name and was hereafter known as Albert Derry.
In 1917, Derry started British Tar Products, at Irlam, Manchester, with offices on Glossop Road, and shortly afterwards started the Coal Products and Derivates Company, as well as Senrac, for the purpose of making concrete blocks for houses, several examples of houses built from these were found on the Manor estate. Along with Koppers, Derry also formed the Building Engineers’ and Contractors’ Company, which erected several buildings, including Rawmarsh Public Baths.
In 1931, Albert, and his wife, Olga, extremely rich by now, and with another house in Italy, left Tapton Court and moved to Wick House, Bristol. However, within twelve months Albert collapsed and died in Cairo while visiting his wife’s birthplace.
In part two of the story of Tapton Court, we’ll look at the next stage of the house’s history, and its role looking after nurses from the Royal Hospital.