Let us go back to the early 1800s and visit a thoroughfare that was entered under an archway at the top of Haymarket. This narrow sloping lane was lined with squalid houses, little workshops, a few shops, and halfway down, on the left-hand side, was the Nag’s Head public house, that gave the lane its name. Nag’s Head Yard ended in a flight of steps that came out onto Shude Hill.
Despite its proximity to the old town, most folk avoided Nag’s Head Yard, for this was where you were likely to find many of the town’s thieves, brawlers, and drunkards.
Nag’s Head Yard is long forgotten, swept away in the late 1860s, when the construction of a new railway station for the Midland Railway on Sheaf Street necessitated road improvements to it.
Four approach roads were built to what became Sheffield Station. The first was down Howard Street, the second commenced on Sheaf Street, opposite the vegetable market, and passed along the River Sheaf into Harmer Lane. The third was a continuation of Cross Turner Street, emerging at the junction of Shrewsbury Road, Suffolk Road, and St Mary’s Road. And it might surprise you that the fourth approach was from Nag’s Head Yard, passing on arches over Shude Hill, and became known as Commercial Street.
This was one of two brand new roads built by Sheffield’s Street Improvements Committee, the other being Leopold Street.
Historians are easily confused by Commercial Street because there was already a road of the same name in proximity.
In 1834, the inhabitants of Jehu Lane wanted to change its name to something more in the spirit of the times. They asked Town Commissioners to allow street boards to be taken down and be replaced with a new name. Amazingly, the commissioners consented and told the residents to choose a new name. They chose Commercial Street, but this would be short-lived because the council started purchasing and demolishing properties on the east side of Market Street and the south side of Old Haymarket, to create Fitzalan Square, named after the Duke of Norfolk’s family.
This process of compulsory purchase didn’t go well, and Sheffield Corporation was involved in numerous court cases in which displaced residents and businesses demanded better compensation.
Nevertheless, the council pressed ahead with plans for a new 40ft street from the upper end of Old Haymarket, where Nag’s Head Yard was, over Shude Hill, near the gas works by a bridge, and into Sheaf Street.
The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent jokingly said that the new road might be called ‘Wrangle Street,’ but the surveyor of Sheffield Corporation announced in 1870 that the railway approach road would now become Commercial Street.
It confused locals and the Sheffield Independent’s ‘Spectator in Hallamshire’ asked, “What is the name of that street? I never know how to call it.”
Commercial Street allowed the construction of grand new buildings including the Post Office, at its corner with Haymarket, by James Williams in 1871, and offices and showrooms in 1875 for the Sheffield United Gas Company.
One of the most interesting developments involved the King’s Arms Hotel whose frontage faced Jehu Lane (old Commercial Street). The new road cut immediately alongside it, and in a stroke of brilliant business acumen, the proprietors sold the building to the Midland Banking Company for £20,000.
It demolished the front portion of the hotel for a grand new banking hall, designed by Salmon Linton Swann, and redesigned the remaining part of the hotel so that it faced onto new Commercial Street. The bank would eventually become Barclays Bank.
Both the old Post Office and gas showrooms survive but have been empty for years, the latter regarded as one of Sheffield’s finest Victorian buildings, and is now called Canada House, subject of a current planning application to turn it into Harmony Works, a new home for music education in the region.
However, Barclays Bank and the King’s Arms Hotel were both demolished in the late 1960s as part of further road improvements. It had been decided to make Commercial Street a dual carriageway, linking it to Park Square and Sheffield Parkway, and the two old buildings were swept away. The bank relocated to a newly constructed white office block (behind the site of the old King’s Arms Hotel) and subsequently became Commercial House, occupied these days by law firm Knights.
Ponds Forge International Leisure Centre was added to the bottom of Commercial Street by architects FaulknerBrowns for the World Student Games between 1989-1991.
But a few years later, Commercial Street underwent its biggest transformation with the building of Sheffield Supertram. The original line of the street was covered with new tram tracks, a gateway into the city centre, while the carriageway built on the site of the bank and hotel retained road traffic.
The construction of the iconic bowstring steel arch bridge allowed trams to travel over Park Square Roundabout, across Shude Hill, and onwards through the city centre.
Considering that Commercial Street is about 150 years old, building work has been limited, and there is no denying that recent times have been unkind. Empty buildings and graffiti blight the street, but with the redevelopment of Fitzalan Square, the Grey-to-Green project, proposals to develop Castlegate, and its proximity to Sheffield Hallam University, means that the future might be considerably brighter.
If buildings could only tell a story. Bell House is probably the oldest structure in Fitzalan Square. It was built after Sheffield Corporation spent a fortune from 1869 onwards purchasing and demolishing property between Market Street and Jehu Lane to create a new municipal open space.
The five storey building was the Bell Hotel (1872), its first landlord and owner being Henry Hardcastle, a wealthy man, previously of the Blue Bell in Commercial Street, one of those properties that was a casualty of the development.
For many years he had been a member of the 1st West York Yeomanry Cavalry, attaining the rank of sergeant-major, and proving popular with his comrades.
Hardcastle was good for a quick anecdote, could sing a good song, and make an admirable speech. Seemingly the right qualities needed for a publican. He was actively connected with the birth of building societies, whose meetings he allowed to be held in his pubs. He died in 1887 at the “ripe old age of 67-years” after collapsing in Snig Hill.
The Bell Hotel was put up for sale.
“That old established, substantially built and well-appointed hotel. Its central situation, and being within easy reach of both railway stations, the tramways and omnibus termini, secures for it a good commercial and country trade, and in the hands of an enterprising person it could not fail to continue a successful and prosperous undertaking.”
The woes of Fitzalan Square have been recorded in previous posts and at least one licensee fell victim to the area’s unsavoury characters. Annie Padley was one, pleading guilty to letting the Bell Hotel be used for betting purposes in 1901.
Another landlord, Arthur Browning, believed the Bell Hotel to be a gamble, one that might have rewarded him handsomely.
In 1902 he allowed the public house to be used for the trial of the Monarch fire escape, a convoluted device of poles, knitted ropes, hooks and slings, manufactured by Waddington and Co of Bradfield Road, to allow people escape from high-rise buildings. At the time, the Bell Hotel was one of the highest buildings in the city, the top floor window being about 50 feet from the ground.
Unfortunately, Browning was declared bankrupt in 1904 owing £1,398 (about £171,000 today).
The Bell Hotel (later The Bell) was for many years associated with Thomas Rawson and Co, a brewery long-established at nearby Pond Street, later acquired by Duncan Gilmour & Co (another local brewer), and finally falling into the hands of Joshua Tetley & Son. It closed in 1974.
Since then the ground floor has been occupied by shops and the upper floors converted into flats.
Look carefully above the three first floor windows and you can still see traces of the past – two pairs of bells above each window – one on top of each other.
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.