It’s funny that a building should survive so long without attracting attention. And we only notice it when there are plans to demolish it.
I’m talking about 136-138 London Road, a modest building, which is deceptive because alterations in the 1960s make it look ordinary and disguise its fascinating past.
However, this was once the Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House, built in 1877 by Sir Frederick Thorpe Mappin to designs by M.E. Hadfield & Son.
Now there are plans to demolish it and build a five-storey building consisting of retail use at ground floor with twenty-two apartments above. The new development would also use the site of the former Tramways Pub which was demolished in 2015. The new building would link with plans to refurbish and extend an adjacent office building behind, on Broom Close, to create further accommodation.
Now that plans are in the spotlight, there are several heritage groups with objections, including the Victorian Society, and Hallamshire Historic Buildings that has already applied to have it added to the South Yorkshire Local Heritage List.
But there are likely to be objections from bodies interested in modern architecture. The Modernist Society has already pointed out that the building also includes interesting twentieth century artwork.
“Where buildings look as good as this one, complimenting the street scene as they do – and where they are so intimately connected with Sheffield’s history of social reform, we need to keep them,” says Hallamshire Historic Buildings. “ The building is a reminder for future generations of what Mappin did for Sheffield. It’s rare to find such an interesting person and such an interesting story all tied up in one building. History matters, and heritage counts in planning, as do appearances. The building has architectural merit and adds important character to the area.”
The Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House opened in April 1877 and was featured in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent: –
“The house is two storeys high. Though there is not much exterior ornamentation, the house being simply of brick with stone dressings sparingly used, it is a decided improvement upon the houses in the immediate neighbourhood.
“On the ground floor fronting the street are two rooms but may be used as one large room. The first is to be called the coffee room and the other a reading room. Both are fitted with armchairs and with marble-topped circular tables, like those seen in clubs in the better class of refreshment rooms. The ‘bar,’ which, however, will only dispense non-intoxicants, is at the rear, and near the kitchen.
“A spacious staircase leads from the coffee room to the second storey, which comprises a capital billiard room, and an excellent reading room. The latter will be supplied with local and other newspapers, magazines, etc., and in the billiard room there are to be three tables, chessmen, and cards. The two rooms are connected by folding doors, so that they may be thrown together in the event of their being required for lectures and entertainments.
“The rooms are lofty, and much ingenuity has been exercised by the architects in accommodating the plan to the exigencies of a very irregular site. In the rear of the building is a piece of ground which is now being covered with a light roof of glass and iron, and which will be used as a skittle alley.
“It will throw open its doors each morning at half past five and will remain open every night till eleven o’clock. No charge whatever will be made for admission to any part of the building, but a small fee will be taken for billiards and other games.
“Refreshments will be supplied at the cheapest possible rate. Thus, a pint of coffee or cocoa can be obtained for a penny, or a smaller cup for a half-penny. Tea can also be had at an equally cheap rate, and so can bread and butter, and other eatables. But it is not at all necessary that persons making use of the house should purchase food. This they can bring with them and eat it there.
“Coffee, cocoa, and tea will be sold ‘off the premises.’ This is the object in view in having the building open so early in the morning, as it is believed working men on their way to work will bring their breakfast cans with them and take away a supply of coffee or cocoa instead of waiting to have it prepared at home.”
While Frederick Mappin spent over £4,000 to buy the land and pay for its construction, there is evidence to suggest that the idea might have been the brainchild of Rev. Lamb, vicar of St Mary’s Church on Bramall Lane, who wanted a place where working men could meet and socialise without being enticed into public houses. The two of them visited establishments in Liverpool, Oldham, and London, and refined the model for Sheffield.
The Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House thrived, popular with workers from nearby Portland Works and Stag Works, but by the new century there were ‘modern cafes’ opening, and business declined.
By the time it closed in 1908 it was known as Highfield cafe, and operated by the Sheffield Cafe Company which said it was too large for the requirements of the district.
“The improved facilities for going to and from the centre the city have not been beneficial to such institutions standing midway between the city and suburbs.
“Apparently, coffee houses have never succeeded in catching the public-house popularity; and this coffee house at Highfield can hardly have realised the expectations of its revered founder.”
The building was taken over by Hibbert’s confectioners and then by George Barlow & Sons, shopfitters, in the 1950s. They first decided to impress potential clients by updating the ground floor frontage with tiles, and then in 1967 added frieze panels.
“These are a bit of an enigma,” says The Modernist Society. “Who made them, and how? Someone out there knows the artist or recognises the style. Was the pattern carved in a wet medium, such as Faircrete?
“If anything is meant to be depicted, it seems industrial. There’s a rosette feature picked up from the 19th century terracotta detail, made to look a bit like a factory extractor fan. There may be some cocoa pods – or are they crucibles? If the latter, they are matched by part of a stylised crucible furnace. That might even be a bandsaw over to the right. As for those rough-textured linear features, could they represent that most Sheffieldish of by-products, crozzle?”
And so, a thought-provoking building, echoed a hundred years later by the likes of Starbucks and Costa Coffee, and the use of recyclable coffee cups.
What a shame it would be if we allowed it to disappear!
Two photographs that show how a Sheffield street lost its identity.
Hereford Street is shown as a wide thoroughfare in 1951, a continuation of Charlotte Road, and intersected by narrow St Mary’s Road, and Porter Street (that became the lower end of Eyre Street). It joined The Moor that continued south towards London Road. Note that Bramall Lane roundabout did not exist.
Seventy years later, the outline of Hereford Street can still be seen but is split by two dual carriageways – St Mary’s Road and Eyre Street. Gone are the factories, houses, and small shops, and the Moor-end is pedestrianised, and this section of The Moor lost beneath the Moorfoot Building.
Sadly, this area has become an unloved part of the city centre with Hereford Street falling on hard times.
Most astonishing is that few buildings appear in both photographs. Most were swept away for road development, factories were surplus to requirement, and old houses and shops deemed unfit for purpose.
St Mary’s Church, on Bramall Lane, does appear in both photographs. In 1951, it was covered in soot and suffered from air pollution, but look how large the churchyard was, and how much was taken away to make St Mary’s Road a dual-carriageway.
Buildings to point out in the modern-day image are the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Headquarters and Moor Markets (left), Decathlon and Deacon House (centre) and, of course, the Moorfoot Building (bottom).
Moorfoot is a brute of a building, dominating the Sheffield skyline, and 40 years after it opened, remains one of the city’s most controversial structures.
Its origins are in 1973 when Edward Heath’s Conservative Government created the Manpower Services Commission (MSC), to co-ordinate employment and training services in the UK through a ten-member commission drawn from industry, trade unions, local authorities and education interests.
Pat Duffy, the Labour MP for Attercliffe, excited by the prospect of 2,000 jobs, campaigned for the new headquarters to be built in Sheffield. Two years later, Harold Walker, Under Secretary at the Employment Department, told the House of Commons, “The decision has been made to locate the headquarters in Sheffield.”
It was an accomplishment for a down-at-heel northern city, but the citizens of Sheffield weren’t prepared for what came next.
The futuristic new headquarters was designed by the Government’s Property Services Agency – “A truly monolithic brutalistic office building. Red brick bands between rows of windows separated by concrete panels.” – eleven storeys high, with stepped levels across east, west, and north wings. Something of a pyramid, it earned nicknames like the ‘Aztec Temple’ and ‘Dalek City.’
That it would be built on land at the bottom of The Moor was even more controversial, cutting off Sheffield’s main shopping street from busy London Road, and depriving road and pedestrian traffic of a popular and historic route.
To compensate, it was designed to allow pedestrian access through the building, starting with an elevated ramp near the corner of Young Street and South Lane, before proceeding via a tunnel through the building, exiting above the car park, and using ramps to ground level on The Moor.
The route never opened, allegedly because IRA activity posed a threat to a government building, and the upper parts of the elevated walkway were left suspended mid-air before eventual removal.
The MSC opened in 1981, and for such a high-profile building, it was shrouded in mystery. Apart from the cavernous office-space, restaurant, bar, and basement squash court, were there really underground nuclear bunkers and a luxury apartment for Government hierarchy? Even today, the amount of information available about the building is incomplete – no floor plans, no design architect, no history forthcoming.
The MSC building was famous for its management of the Youth Training Scheme and various other training programmes intended to help alleviate the high levels of unemployment in the 1980s, but after 1987 the MSC lost functions and was briefly re-branded the Training Agency (TA), before being replaced by a network of 72 training and enterprise councils.
The MSC Building gave way to other Government agencies, including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Home Office. However, it was too big and expensive to maintain, with departments vacating over a twenty year period.
In the late 2000s, the MSC Building was bought by Sheffield City Council, and with demolition in mind, wanted to create a new financial services district in its place.
The timing could not have been worse, and the monetary crisis of 2007-2008 prompted a rethink, and the building was overhauled, renamed Moorfoot, with potential office space for 2,600 council employees, and consolidation of various departments from around the city centre.
As for the Moorfoot’s future, it is likely to stay, worthy of a facelift and a bit of greenery might not go amiss. The iron gates at ground level could be opened to allow public access between The Moor and London Road. And, as the aerial photograph shows, there is a chance to create a green square in front of its main entrance (demolition required).
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.
On Tuesday April 4, 1923, about nine o’clock in the evening, London Road, at the corner with Sharrow Lane, was quiet, only a handful of people going about their business.
Suddenly, there was a deafening roar, a crash of breaking glass and – silence!
The loud explosion caused terror in the neighbourhood and within minutes hundreds of people swarmed out of their little houses and surrounded Highfield House at the bottom of Sharrow Lane.
Police officers from Highfield police station, about 100 yards away, rushed to the scene but had difficulty reaching the house through the crowd.
Highfield House was the home of Dr George Scott Davidson and he emerged at the front of the house to speak with the police.
Dr Davidson and his wife had just finished dinner and were traumatised by a loud explosion at the back of the property.
The police tried to move the crowds away from Highfield House and used flashlights to search the garden at the rear.
The house was unscathed, but remains of garden trellis work was strewed across the ground and glass in small garden frames had been destroyed.
“We rushed into the grounds, but could see very little, of course, except the frames were badly smashed,” said Dr Davidson. “I have not the slightest doubt the damage was caused by a bomb, but I cannot imagine any reason for the affair.”
And so, Sheffield newspapers filled their pages with the story of ‘another bomb,’ because a week earlier a similar explosion had occurred 200 yards away, in the back yard of a shop at the junction of Randall Street and London Road.
After the Highfield House episode, people told stories of the event.
“It was a noise like rumbling thunder,” said a woman who lived in a house some considerable distance away, “and the windows shook in their frames.”
A boy named Alec Winston, who was playing cards with a friend at 38 Sharrow lane, the nearest house, was thrown to the floor.
“It was a terrific bang, and I thought someone was showering stones onto the windows of the house.”
Closer inspection revealed that broken glass covered the window-sills and steps to No. 38, pieces of glass had shot over the 10ft walls from Highfield House into yards of several adjoining properties. Worse for others, soot had fallen down chimneys filling rooms and covering furniture.
The following day police began investigating the bomb explosion and worked on the theory that it had been thrown from one of the courts at the rear of Grosvenor Square or Sharrow Street, behind Highfield House, but no suspicious characters had been seen.
The neighbourhood was a small, congested area, a far cry from the days when Highfield stood in large grounds in the countryside. It was now isolated by shops on London Road, a large garden in Sharrow Lane, and the houses in Sharrow Street and Grosvenor Square behind.
It was suggested the bomb had been thrown towards the house but had hit the garden trellis causing it to fall short of its target.
However, further examination by police officers revealed a more menacing scenario.
A portion of time fuse was found in the garden, and furthermore the force of the blast had been downwards, suggesting a certain deliberateness that defeated the suggestion it had been thrown by some irresponsible person. It seemed the device had been made up from gunpowder or dynamite, possibly a mining or quarrying charge, because no fragments of a bomb were found.
The perpetrator must have entered the grounds to lay and ignite the fuse.
Police made numerous enquiries but could not find a reason for the bomb.
There were suggestions it might have been placed by those with Irish connections and suspicion was directed at the out-of-control gangs from around West Bar and Park.
The leaders of the Communist Party in Sheffield denied any knowledge.
“It is not in our line, and we would not do things this way.”
In the end, police believed the two separate explosions, undoubtedly linked, might have been carried out by a ‘desperate man,’ who might have got possession of an explosive.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph tried to downplay the incident, possibly at the request of puzzled police.
“It seems scarcely conceivable that anybody who deliberately was trying to cause serious damage would place whatever explosive in a cucumber frame many yards from the house, while such a receptacle would certainly add to the effect of any efforts merely to produce a ‘big bang.’
“On the whole there seems no cause for anyone to get very nervous, though the sooner the practical joker, or escaped lunatic, who is responsible, is brought to book the better.”
The mystery was never solved but the bomb scares caused many people to look uneasily at their First World War souvenirs – nose caps, cartridges, ‘dud’ bombs and in many cases live bombs which for the previous five years had occupied an honoured place on the mantelshelf or sideboard. Dozens of people paid hurried visits to the Central Police Station in Water Lane to hand them in.
NOTES: Built about 1788 for John Henfrey, Brightfield House was renamed Highfield House by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne in 1880. His surgery was later taken over by Dr George Scott Davidson. It remained a doctor’s surgery until the 1970s and later became the Charnwood Hotel. The house has since been converted into apartments known as Wisteria Gardens. In the 1920s, Randall Street ran from Bramall Lane to London Road but only exists today between Bramall Lane and Hill Street.
In 1885, a large and commodious house situated at the bottom of Sharrow Lane was threatened with demolition. The Sheffield Independent printed an article, ‘Doomed Houses at Highfield’, highlighting the plight of Brightfield House, along with an adjacent property fronting London Road, once a family residence, and in its declining years used as the Highfield Club.
“Brightfield House is one of the few remaining examples of comfortable homes of well-to-do manufacturers at Highfield, in the time when it was quite a journey to go ‘over Sheffield Moor’ to that region ‘then a bit of country.’ Where now are long rows of brick houses stood the mansions of the Brights, the Woodheads, the Henfreys, the Lees, and others.
“A long, square house, standing in its own grounds, reminds one of the olden times. It is a pleasant break in the landscape; but appearances point to its early demolition, the builder approaching perilously near with his army of mortar men ‘to make the old order give way to the new.’”
Astonishingly, it wasn’t demolished, the Highfield Club was, and Brightfield House still stands, a monument to Sheffield’s forgotten past. Today, it goes by the name of Wisteria Gardens, divided into apartments, but to many it is known as the former Charnwood Hotel.
As will be explained, Brightfield House lost its name in the 1870s, renamed Highfield House, until losing its identity altogether.
It was erected about 1788 for John Henfrey, a prominent scissor-smith, whose family had been involved in the scissor trade for generations. He became a Freeman in 1753 and was the fourth generation to be apprenticed by The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire. He went on to train his brother and his sons in the Brightside area, and was listed in the 1787 trade directory as having premises in Norfolk Street.
“He built for himself a country mansion at Highfield and being asked by his friends if he was not afraid of going over Sheffield Moor after dark, he replied that he took good care always to get home by daylight.”
At that time Sheffield Moor was ‘a shocking road for coaches’. There was quite a steep slope from the Moor head to the Horse Dyke (at the bottom of what eventually became Ecclesall Road), Sharrow Lane being the only road for wheels. Coaches coming from the south were often met by two extra horses at Heeley, to pull them up Goose Green to Highfield, and then up Sheffield Moor. It was a crooked road, with houses few and far between – there were practically none past Little Sheffield, and the surrounding area was rural.
It was no coincidence that John Henfrey built his house opposite Mount Pleasant, built for Francis Hurt Sitwell a few years earlier. This was on the Buxton Road which ran via Sheffield Moor, to Highfields, up Sharrow Lane, along Psalter Lane and up Ringinglow Road.
Brightfield House was named after the field it was built in, the suggestion being that Henfrey wanted to call it Highfield House, but a house of that name belonging to the Wilsons of Sharrow already existed at the top of the hill looking towards what became Sheaf House (yes, the pub on Bramall lane) with a large lawn bordered with fine sycamores and horse chestnut trees.
John Henfrey’s family was involved in a scandal when in 1791-92, one of his daughters eloped to Gretna Green with Thomas Leader, ‘one of those dashing young men of the time,’ a young Colonel in the Sheffield Volunteers.
After Henfrey’s death, Brightfield House became home to William Wilson, a member of the same family at Highfield House.
Following Wilson’s death, the mansion was offered at auction but failed to sell for several years, the empty house left in the care of a servant, and subjected to burglaries.
“Comprising drawing room, dining room, and breakfast room, lofty and well-lighted. Seven bedrooms, with closets and dressing rooms. Principal and secondary staircases, capital kitchens, dry cellars, bathroom, water-closet, and brewhouse.
“The views from the house, notwithstanding its proximity to the Town, are extensive and diversified, comprising, in front, the Park, studded with mansions and villas, and the line of the hill stretching towards Norton, and behind, ranging over Sharrowhead, the Botanical Gardens, Broomhill, Crookes, etc.”
It appears that Brightfield House was still in the possession of the Wilson family until the 1870s until bought by John Parkinson Mawhood, of Farm Bank, in 1874. He was head of Stevenson, Mawhood and Company, tool manufacturers, of Pond Street and later the Palm Tree Works at Attercliffe.
His tenure was short-lived and following the failure of the company in 1879 it was bought by Dr Charles Nelson Gwynne, an Irishman, who came to Sheffield in 1875 when he purchased the practice of Dr Webb at Highfield, and built up connections in Sharrow, Highfield, and Heeley.
Gwynne became Honorary Medical Officer at the Children’s Hospital in 1879, after completing a special study of diseases in children.
In 1879, the nearby Highfield House estate was available for development, suggesting the mansion had been demolished, allowing Gwynne to rename Brightfield as Highfield House.
Gwynne died in 1906, and Highfield House became home to Dr George Scott Davidson, who ran a practice here with his son, Dr John Davidson, of Repton Lodge, in Sharrow.
Later this week we’ll look at a remarkable event that took place at Highfield House during Dr Davidson’s tenure.
Davidson practised for over thirty years, his son later moving into Highfield and taking over the practice, the house remaining a surgery until the 1970s.
It became the 22-bed Charnwood Hotel in 1985, opened by Chris and Valerie King, and operated almost 20 years as a wedding venue, along with two top restaurants, Brasserie Leo and the smaller more upmarket Henfrey’s.
The Charnwood Hotel closed in December 2004 after being unsuccessfully marketed for £1.3 million. It was turned into apartments in 2005 and renamed Wisteria Gardens.
The house and adjoining former coach house are Grade II listed by Historic England.
This influential character is relatively unknown in Sheffield’s history. A modest person, he was responsible for one of the city’s iconic landmarks.
Walter Gerard Buck (1863-1934) was born in Beccles, Suffolk, the youngest son of Edward Buck. He was educated at the Albert Memorial College in Framlingham, and acquired an interest in architecture, joining the practice of Arthur Pells, a reputable Suffolk architect and surveyor, where he learned the techniques to design and build.
Walter, aged 21, realised there were limitations to this rural outpost and would need to improve his talent elsewhere. This opportunity arose in Manchester, the seat of the industrial revolution, where demand for new commercial buildings was great. It was here where he gained several years’ experience in large civil engineering and architectural works, including the building of the Exchange Station, Manchester, as well as the Exchange Station and Hotel in Liverpool.
In 1890, his reputation growing, Walter made the move over the Pennines and into the practice of Mr Thomas Henry Jenkinson at 4 East Parade.
Jenkinson had been an architect in Sheffield for over forty years. He had been responsible for several buildings built in the city centre, taking advantage that Sheffield had been one of the last among the big towns to take in hand the improvement of its streets and their architecture.
Buck’s move to Sheffield proved advantageous. Jenkinson had become a partner at Frith Brothers and Jenkinson in 1862, which he continued until 1898, when he retired. He made Walter his chief assistant and allowed him to reorganise the business and control affairs for several years. During this period Walter carried out work on many commercial buildings and factories in Sheffield.
Initially, Walter boarded in lodgings at 307 Shoreham Street, close to the city centre. He married Louisa Moore Kittle in 1892 and, once his reputation had been established, was able to purchase his own house at 4 Ventnor Place in Nether Edge.
Perhaps Walter Buck’s greatest work also proved to be his most short-lived.
In May 1897, Queen Victoria made her last visit to Sheffield for the official opening of the Town Hall. It also coincided with the 60th year of her reign – Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Year.
The visit caused considerable excitement in Sheffield and preparations lasted for weeks. Shops and offices advertised rooms that commanded the best positions to see the Queen. Not surprisingly, these views were quickly occupied, but the closest view was promised in the Imperial Grandstand, specially designed for the occasion by Walter Gerard Buck.
This spectacle was built next to the newly-erected Town Hall, opposite Mappin and Webb, on Norfolk Street (in modern terms this would be where the Peace Gardens start at the bottom-end of Cheney Walk across towards Browns brasserie and bar). It was advertised as ‘absolutely the best and most convenient in the city’, with a frontage of nearly 200 feet and ‘beautifully roofed in’. The stand, decorated in an artistic manner by Piggott Brothers and Co, provided hundreds of seats, the first three rows being carpeted with back rests attached to the back. In addition, the stand provided a lavatory, refreshment stalls and even a left luggage office. It was from here that the people of Sheffield saw Queen Victoria as the Royal procession passed within a few feet of the stand along Norfolk Street to Charles Street.
The next day the Imperial Grandstand was dismantled.
The professional relationship between Walter Buck and Thomas Jenkinson matured into a close friendship.
When Jenkinson died in 1900, he left the business to Walter and made him one of his executors. His son, Edward Gerard Buck, eventually joined the business which became known as Buck, Lusby and Buck, moving to larger premises at 34 Campo Lane.
In 1906, Walter was elected to the Council of the Sheffield, South Yorkshire and District Society of Architects and Surveyors and was elected President in 1930. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a member of the council of that body.
Walter also became a member of the council of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Court of Governors of Sheffield University, a member and director of the Sheffield Athenaeum Club, a member of the Nether Edge Proprietary Bowling Club and vice-president of the Sheffield Rifle Club. It was this last role that he enjoyed best. Walter was a keen swimmer but his passion for rifle shooting kept him busy outside of work.
Apart from architectural work Walter held directorships with the Hepworth Iron Company and the Sheffield Brick Company. These astute positions allowed him to negotiate the best prices for the building materials needed to complete his projects.
However, as the new century dawned, it was a role outside of architecture that occupied Walter’s time.
In 1892 the French Lumière brothers had devised an early motion-picture camera and projector called the Cinématographe. Their first show came to London in 1896 but the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park in 1889 by William Friese Greene. The ‘new’ technology of silent movies exploded over the next few years and by 1906 the first ‘electric theatres’ had started to open. In London, there were six new cinemas, increasing to 133 by 1909.
Not surprisingly, this new sensation rippled across Britain and Sheffield was no exception. This had been pioneered by the Sheffield Photo Company, run by the Mottershaw family, who displayed films in local halls. They also pioneered the popular ‘chase’ genre in 1903 which proved significant for the British film industry. The Central Hall, in Norfolk Street, was effectively Sheffield’s first cinema opening in 1905, but the films were always supported with ‘tried and tested’ music hall acts. Several theatres started experimenting with silent movies, but it was the opening of the Sheffield Picture Palace in 1910, on Union Street, that caused the most excitement. This was the first purpose built cinema and others were looking on with interest.
Walter Buck was one such person and saw the opportunity to increase business by designing these new purpose-built cinemas. One of his first commissions was for Lansdowne Pictures Ltd who had secured land on the corner of London Road and Boston Street. The Lansdowne Picture Palace opened in December 1914, built of brick with a marble terracotta façade in white and green, with a Chinese pagoda style entrance. It was a vast building seating 1,250 people. In the same year he designed the Western Picture Palace at Upperthorpe for the Western Picture Palace Ltd.
With the knowledge required to build cinemas it was unsurprising that Walter Buck was asked to join several companies as a director. One of these was Sheffield and District Cinematograph Theatres Ltd which was formed in 1910 for ‘the purpose of erecting and equipping in the busiest and most thickly populated parts of the City of Sheffield and district picture theatres on up-to-date lines’. Its first cinema was the Electra Palace Theatre in Fitzalan Square with a seating capacity upwards of 700 with daily continuous shows. Their second cinema was the Cinema House built adjoining the Grand Hotel and adjacent to Beethoven House (belonging to A Wilson & Peck and Co) on Fargate, this part later becoming Barker’s Pool. This was a much grander cinema with a seating capacity of 1,000 together with luxuriously furnished lounge and refreshment, writing and club rooms.
Ironically, Walter Buck did not design either of these picture houses. Instead, they were conceived by John Harry Hickton and Harry E. Farmer from Birmingham and Walsall, but the bricks were supplied by the Sheffield Brick Company, that lucrative business where Walter was a director. It should not go unnoticed that this highly profitable company probably made Walter a wealthy man. It had already supplied bricks for the Grand Hotel, Sheffield University and the Town Hall.
The cinema undertaking was not without risk and Cinema House, which opened six months before the start of World War One, always struggled to break even.
In 1920, far from building new cinemas right across the city, the company bought the Globe Picture House at Attercliffe. The following year they reported losses of £7,000 with Cinema House blamed for the poor performance.
At this stage, it is unclear as to what involvement Walter Buck had with Sheffield and District Cinematograph Theatres. He was also a director of Sunbeam Pictures Ltd, designing the Sunbeam Picture House at Fir Vale in 1922, and the Don Picture Palace at West Bar. He was most certainly a director of the Sheffield and District Cinematograph Company by the late 1920s, and eventually became its chairman. In 1930, absurdly on hindsight, he was faced with a public backlash as the company made the transfer over to ‘talkie’ pictures.
“It was true that some people preferred the silent pictures, but the difficulty was that the Americans were producing very few silent films, or the directors might probably have kept some of the houses on silent films to see if they could hold their own with the talkie halls.”
Walter Buck never retired but died at his home at 19, Montgomery Road, Nether Edge, aged 70, in September 1934. He left a widow, his second wife, Fanny Buck, and three sons – Edward Gerard Buck, William Gerard Buck, a poultry farmer, and Charles Gerard Buck, chartered accountant. Walter Gerard Buck was buried at Ecclesall Church.
It seems the only epitaph to Walter Buck is the Chinese pagoda style entrance of the Lansdowne Picture Palace. The auditorium was demolished to make way for student accommodation, but the frontage was retained for use as a Sainsbury’s ‘Local’ supermarket. Very little information exists about his other work in the city and further research is needed to determine which buildings he designed, and which remain. Any information would be most welcome.