I recall visiting a sunbed salon at Leopold Chambers in the 1980s and climbing the huge Victorian staircase. I couldn’t help thinking that the old building was past its best. That was 37 years ago, and a lot has changed. The curved four storey building on the corner of Leopold Street and Church Street is home to a cafe, letting agent and tanning and beauty salon at ground floor level, with student accommodation occupying the floors above.
We looked at Leopold Chambers several weeks ago, built in 1893-1894 as new offices for Webster and Styring, an established firm of solicitors set up by George Edward Webster and Dr Robert Styring.
It was designed by Andrew Francis Watson (1856-1932), designer of many well-known buildings in Sheffield, including the Norfolk Market Hall, the old Fitzwilliam Market, Westminster Bank, High Street, showrooms for Mappin and Webb, and the offices of Messrs Vickers and William Jessops on Brightside Lane.
There are now plans by Ashgate Property Developments to convert the first, second and third floors into two studios, three one-bed and three two-bed apartments.
The plans involve reconfiguring the current units with no external works to the ornate Grade II listed facade and the ground floor retail units are unaffected.
“The building was constructed during the Victorian period and has seen various internal and external alterations and modifications over the years to the present day.
“The building has undergone extensive refurbishment and remodelling since its construction and little or no original features can be found other than the staircase which will remain.”
Here’s a building on Leopold Street with a thought-provoking history. St. John’s Buildings are now used as barristers’ chambers, the interior changed from its former use as the Bank of Scotland. However, a stone inscription (Ars Longa Vita Brevis) above the main entrance provides a clue to its original use.
Somewhere within, lies a foundation stone, and within its cavity is a bottle, a time capsule, containing Sheffield’s morning papers from June 1887, a conjoint prospectus for 1886-1887 for Firth College, Technical School, and School of Medicine, an old photograph, and a parchment engrossed as follows : –
“The Sheffield School of Medicine was built in 1828, at the corner of Surrey Street and Arundel Street, the foundation stone having been laid by Sir A.J. Knight in July 1828. The building having become inadequate to the requirements of the day in 1883, a proposal was made to amalgamate with or become a department of Firth College, the councils of the school and Firth College having met and fully considered points of co-operation, unanimously agreed that the union was likely to be advantageous to both, but before complete incorporation took place a new medical school was necessary.”
“I declare this stone duly laid in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. From this humble structure may we raise up a structure perfect in all its parts, and creditable to the builders.
“It will, in the course of time, grow as an oak did from the acorn, that it will spread its beneficial shadow over the whole of the town and neighbourhood, and communicate the blessings of true medica and surgical practice.”
Designed by architect John Dodsley Webster and built by W. and A. Forsdyke, of St. Mary’s Road, it was opened with an extravagant soiree, including a special address from Sir Andrew Clark, President of the Royal College of Physicians, in September 1888.
A site had originally been purchased from the Corporation in Pinfold Street; but at the request of the medical council the Corporation agreed to exchange the land for a plot in Leopold Street, opposite Firth College. The area contained about 550 yards and the price was £5 a yard. There was a frontage of about 50ft on Leopold Street, the main elevation being entirely of stone, and the treatment a sort of classic free renaissance, which caused the building to harmonise well with the surrounding property.
On the ground floor towards Leopold Street was a faculty room and library, a lecturers’ room, with porter’s room, lavatory, main staircase, and entrance hall. Also, on this floor, running towards Orchard Street, was an injection room and lumber room. A hoist connected the ground floor with the first floor.
On the first floor were two classrooms and at the back was a museum. The medical theatre was on the second floor, with circular seats in tiers, alongside a practical physiology and a dissecting room.
The School of Medicine was short-lived here, its entwined relationship with Firth College, and the Technical School, leading them to form University College, Sheffield, in 1897, and the eventual creation of the University of Sheffield in 1905, with the medical school moving to a new building at Western Bank (now Firth Court). In 1973, it moved again, and can still be found on Beech Hill Road.
After the school vacated, the building has been in almost continuous use. It will be recognised by those of a certain age as Sheffield Education Committee’s Central School Clinic, afterwards as a bank, and now St. John’s Buildings.
At the corner of Church Street and Leopold Street is a building typical of Sheffield’s Victorian architecture.
Leopold Chambers was built in 1893-1894 as new offices for Webster and Styring, an established firm of solicitors set up by George Edward Webster and Dr Robert Styring. The imposing four-storey Renaissance building, in mellow golden sandstone, provided a handsome rounding to the corner, with four shops built beneath the offices.
The architect was Andrew Francis Watson (1856-1932), designer of many well-known buildings in Sheffield, including the Norfolk Market Hall, the old Fitzwilliam Market, Westminster bank, High Street, showrooms for Mappin and Webb, and the offices of Messrs Vickers and William Jessops on Brightside Lane. He was also the architect for the London and Midland Bank in the Sheffield District and responsible for 1-9 High Street that survives as an extension of Lloyds Bank.
A native of Lamport, Northamptonshire, he came to Sheffield in his twenties and eventually went into partnership with Edward Holmes (creating Holmes and Watson, and no apology to Arthur Conan Doyle).
The partnership between Webster and Styring was dissolved after George Webster’s retirement in 1908, and Leopold Chambers (typically blackened by Sheffield’s sooty air) was later taken over by the Bradford Equitable Building Society (later to become Bradford & Bingley).
Following their departure, the offices were sub-divided and more recently converted into student accommodation, with shops at ground level.
Never did a street fall out of favour as Orchard Street did. This narrow thoroughfare was once the main route between Church Street and Fargate, bustling with commerce, with horse-drawn carriages and carts squeezing past each other.
Neither did the creation of Leopold Street diminish its popularity, although only a small portion of the street retained its name.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, and the creation of Orchard Square, that it was relegated to become the back door to shops, and a place for lads to have a quick wee on a Saturday night.
It is an incredibly old thoroughfare, though the name Orchard Street wasn’t given to it until comparatively late.
Formerly all the land in the triangle between Church Street and Fargate consisted of orchards and gardens, but warehouses, shops, and cutlery works gradually covered the space.
In the early 1700s, it is referred to as Brinceworth’s Orchard, while in Fairbanks’ Plan of 1777 it was known as Brelsforth’s Orchards, and in the 1787 Directory it is described as Brinsworth’s Orchards. A document of 1763 gives the address of a trader as Brinsford Orchard. Both Brinsworth and Brelsford, or Brelsforth, are old Sheffield names, and possibly the various names indicate changes of ownership of the orchards through which the street passed.
Eventually the personal names were dropped, and the thoroughfare simply became Orchard Street.
Our city centre is at a crossroads. The city is in flux and a street that highlights it most is Leopold Street. Buses no longer run along here, and all traffic is halted mid-way. Sheffield is going car-free, and with it our streets become soulless. Nothing is sadder than a street about to undergo pedestrianisation. It is blocked with traffic cones and concrete barriers and unsure what it wants to be.
As far as Sheffield streets go, Leopold Street is relatively new, a pet-project for town planners in 1873. Back then, access to Fargate and Pinstone Street was via Church Street, along awkwardly narrow Orchard Street, to its junction with Orchard Lane, and dog-legged towards what is now the top of Fargate.
Its making was the result of Sheffield Corporation’s three-street development scheme – the creation of Surrey Street, Fargate improvements, and the construction of ‘modern-day’ Pinstone Street. A new road was needed to link these streets with Bow Street (the road that became the bottom of West Street) and a link between old Sheffield Moor and Shalesmoor.
A long-standing road, South Street, was swept away, the land around it cleared, and the large sloping site bounded by the proposed new road, Orchard Lane, Holly Street and Bow Street (West Street) earmarked for educational purposes. It became the site of Firth College (1879), School Board offices and the Central School (both 1880). Of course, we now know these buildings as the Leopold Hotel and Leopold Square
By May 1880, half its length had been completed, 60-feet wide from Bow Street to Fargate, paved in wooden blocks, and converted to macadam in 1883.
The Watch Committee recommended that the new street be named after Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884), eighth and youngest son of Queen Victoria, who had opened Firth College in October 1879.
The addition of the Sheffield Medical Institution on the other side of the road in 1888 prompted one expert to say that Leopold Street would become a “street of institutions.”
It never became a street of learning. Firth College and the Medical Institution were the foundation stones for the University of Sheffield and moved away. By the late 1970s, the old education buildings were in decline, mostly unoccupied, but spared the fate that befell the nearby Assay Office and Grand Hotel, both demolished, and replaced with office blocks.
Our city centre may take on a new look if plans to pedestrianise large swathes of it get the go ahead. Sheffield City Council want to make foot and bicycle journeys easier and quicker, while streamlining public transport services.
The proposals include pedestrianisation to Pinstone Street and Leopold Street, linking Fargate with the Peace Gardens, as well as Charles Street between Union Street and Pinstone Street. The pedestrianisation of Surrey Street would create a traffic-free Town Hall Square.
Work would include more greenery, replicating the ‘Grey-to-Green’ scheme already seen between Castlegate and West Bar.
Bus gates would be installed in both directions on Furnival Gate, and along Arundel Gate to Norfolk Street
Rockingham Street would get a new bus hub with improvements to pavements, green planting, a pocket park, and bus stops.
Of course, there are benefits to the scheme – improved air quality, better accessibility to shops and businesses, a more attractive city centre, and public spaces that create city uniqueness.
Artist impressions paint a bright picture, but there are notes of caution.
Sheffield city centre is at a midpoint in its regeneration, with the pandemic decimating footfall, and placing even more uncertainty on retail, hospitality, and office space requirements.
The city centre is a travesty of its former self, Covid-19 exposing retailers already reeling from Meadowhall and the internet. And, after restrictions are eventually lifted, how many pubs, bars, and restaurants, will have survived?
Half-hearted attempts to open cycle lanes at the heart of the city, further reducing traffic flow, have met with lukewarm response. With respects to cyclists, our seven hills make four wheels the favoured choice in and out of the city.
The key to any redevelopment must take into consideration transport links.
Cars are already deterred from entering due to over-complicated traffic flow and the extortionate cost of parking. Our buses remain empty, not least because nobody knows where they go, or where to catch them anymore. Our elderly citizens must walk a distance to catch a bus, and the question remains whether they will bother anymore?
We must tread carefully, mindful that change must happen if our city centre is to be revitalised.
Any changes must take place before 2023 to qualify for a Government grant, managed by Sheffield City Region, and must be subject of public consultation.