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.
These ordinary looking student flats on Bramall Lane stand alongside the Sheaf House public house on a site that stretches towards Shoreham Street. It’s hard to imagine now, but the flats stand on the site of a remarkable building that was demolished in the 1990s.
Our story begins with Sheaf House, an early 1800s private residence, probably built for John Younge – “a much-admired mansion, in a very beautiful country” – and converted into pleasure grounds and hotel in the late nineteenth century.
By the 1870s, a sports ground had been established in the former gardens, and this was where Sheffield Wednesday played some of their early games.
At the turn of the twentieth century it was better known as the Sheaf House Cricket Ground, home to Heeley Cricket Club, surrounded by an athletics track used by Sheffield United Harriers, as well as being home to many local sporting events.
In 1909, there was dismay when it was announced that the 3½-acre sports ground had been sold, the site used to construct a skating rink.
“The proved financial success and popularity of roller-skating are now beyond dispute. For the last six years almost every town of importance in America has had roller-skating rinks, which should be a guarantee that this fascinating and health-giving pastime is a permanent one and provides the means of sound investment.”
These words are taken from the prospectus of Sheffield Olympia and Provincial Rinks Ltd, a company established at 7 East Parade, with three directors – Albert Ball, JP, a Nottingham-based councillor and property developer, A.S. Fawcett, a solicitor on Queen Street and John Lancashire, Sheffield architect.
There were already roller-skating rinks in Sheffield, but the Olympia promised a better experience.
In England, the first rink to use maple-flooring and ball-bearing skates was opened in Liverpool in 1907. This was the model used for the Olympia (and other sites in Rotherham, Manchester and Nottingham).
The sports ground closed in August 1909, and almost immediately construction started on the Olympia.
It was designed by Thomas William Newbold, an architect who had spent 18 years with the Architectural Department of Sheffield Council. Newbold had gone into private practice in January 1909, probably annoyed at losing out as Sheffield City Architect a few months earlier.
Building work was undertaken by Roper and Sons and took just eight weeks to build. It opened on 7 October 1909, with two entrances – on Bramall Lane and Shoreham Street, a “maple block soundless floor, semi-circular banked at each end, white and green decoration, statuary, palms, café and smoking lounge.” It was constructed so that in summer months the rink could be adapted for concerts, bazaars, cinematograph and other entertainments.
Soon after the doors opened about 1,200 people were skating, supervised by a staff of about thirty, including two lady instructors, and with “an especially good orchestra conducted by Herr S. Otto Mey.”
It is likely that the Olympia was rushed in construction to take advantage of the lucrative Christmas trade. In August 1910, just ten months after opening, the summer vacation was used to re-glaze the roof and redecorate the entire building. It also had a new manager, Mr Edgar K. Smith, who had moved from the American Rink on John Street, to replace R.W. Maude.
Newspaper reports from the time indicate that all was well with the Olympia, but in 1911 it was standing idle, re-opening in September as the Olympia Electric Palace Picture House, “the largest and most comfortable of its kind in Yorkshire.”
The cinema had nearly 2,000 seats, set on a sloping base that covered the centre of the hall, surrounded by a wide promenade.
The Olympia’s role was extremely short-lived, and according to the Cinema Treasures website lasted just three weeks before re-opening again as a roller-skating rink.
It was now Sheffield’s only place used exclusively for roller-skating, the bubble seemingly burst, and despite World War One, hosted the All-British Industrial Home Exhibition, organised by the Sheffield Independent in October 1915.
Roller-skating continued, before the Olympia was secured by the Sheffield Volunteer Defence Corps (17th and 18th West Riding Volunteers) as their headquarters in September 1916. (Part of the building was also utilised by Royal Mail for parcel traffic during the busy Christmas period).
After the war, with no chance of it ever hosting roller-skating again, it stood empty but during King George V’s visit to Sheffield in May 1919, Olympia was used as the assembly point for a march past of troops through the city centre.
By July 1919, the maple floor had been ripped up and the building was occupied by W.E. Chivers and Sons, haulage contractors, which remained until the late 1920s.
In 1927, Arnold Laver and Company bought remaining sports ground land next door , and built the Olympia Sawing, Planing and Moulding Mills.
Olympia became a Sheffield Transport bus depot until 1963 and afterwards was used by the as workshops by Sheffield Council’s Public Works Department, also by Yorkshire Electricity Board.
By the time of its demolition in the 1990s, the former Olympia building looked less grand and curiously different to its roller-skating days. The reason for this might well date to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940. Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground was damaged by German bombs and Arnold Laver’s property was all-but destroyed, and it is very likely that Olympia suffered a similar fate and later rebuilt.