Abacus House

At first glance, this plain looking building, on the corner of Norfolk Street and Norfolk Row, looked to be a bit of a lightweight in terms of its history.

Oh, my goodness, what a challenge it has turned out to be instead.

According to Historic England, Grade II-listed Abacus House, home to the Coventry Building Society, was built about 1791 as three houses. And here lies the mystery. No manner of archive digging can reveal the builder and for whom it was built for.

We do know that Norfolk Row was built about 1780, running alongside the gardens of the Lord’s House in Fargate, to Norfolk Street. The Lord’s House was built in 1707 for Henry Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, and at the back of the house was a chapel where a Catholic congregation worshipped.

This was dismantled and sold in 1814, replaced with a new chapel two years later, itself demolished to make way for a new church in 1850, better known today as St. Marie’s Cathedral.

I have a suspicion that Abacus House may have been built by the Duke of Norfolk as the presbytery to the original chapel, and a day in the archives will have to resolve this mystery.

It was certainly used as the presbytery at one time but in the early 1800s it was being occupied by Sir Arnold Knight, a Catholic physician, appointed to the Royal Infirmary in 1852, founder of the Sheffield Medical Institution in 1829, and later establishing the public dispensary on West Street (later the Royal Hospital). Next door was Thomas Raynor, one of Sheffield’s first Chief Constables.

In the mid-19th century the houses were altered with additions, quite possibly around the time that a new presbytery was built on the opposite corner. It paved the way for a long line of occupants, some with quite fascinating stories, and its future use as office accommodation.

It was here that John Hyde – proprietor of private estate sales rooms, estate and commission agent, accountant, auditor and collector of rents and debts – had his business during the 1840s. He was charged with embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretences in 1851, subsequently absconding and arrested in Glasgow.

There was also Dr Alonzo Durant, a man of dubious character, who established the Medical and Surgical Philanthropic Institution in 1851. He was described as “a trifle extravagant, and not free from eccentricity,” and worthy of a separate post.

George Nichols was a military tailor, who established a business here during the 1850s and 1860s, later becoming insolvent and emigrating to Ontario, Canada, where he became Captain Nichols of the Alexandrian Company (No.3) of the 59th Regiment.

We should also mention Henri LeClere, a Parisian, who arrived in Sheffield in 1861 to set up a silver engraving company on High Street before taking rooms here. His son built up the LeClere family business and successive generations were in demand with aristocratic families and embassies across Europe. The company later moved to their most famous premises on Howard Street.

Add to the mix – J.F. Anderson, Chiropodist Surgeon, Madame Malbet, Stanfield and Hirst, law and general stationers, A. Thornley Walker, architect, and William Edwards, freight, passage and emigration officer, to name but a few.

At the start of the twentieth century the building had been renamed Rectory Chambers, now solely used as offices, and attracted a new generation of tenants.

Robert F. Drury was the first patent agent in Sheffield, his company surviving until the 1930s, Walter Harry Best was a stocks and shares broker, Frank Bibbings represented the Free Trade Union and this was also the office for The Expert Advertising Company, whose advertising appeared on theatre screens across the country.

And we mustn’t forget Madame Lille, whose maid recruiting agency was the “oldest and best known in the Midlands, and the only one in Sheffield to be on the ‘recommended’ list.”

There also appears to be Eliza F. Jones, tobacconist, who occupied part of the ground floor until the 1920s.

The Leeds Permanent Building Society moved in during 1931, a foretaste of a later occupant, the Coventry Economic Building Society, taking most of the building, and operating still as the Coventry Building Society.

And so, this brick building, with rendered and colour-washed walls, does have a lot of stories to tell after all. But can anyone explain the meaning behind Abacus House?


The strange tale of Dr Alonzo Durant

The strange tale of Dr Alonzo Durant, one of Sheffield’s forgotten eccentrics.

Abacus House, at the corner of Norfolk Street and Norfolk Row, is now home to the Coventry Building Society. According to Historic England it was built about 1791, originally as three houses, later converted into offices.

During the 1850s, one of the properties was tenanted by Mr May Osmond Alonzo Durant, operating as the Medical and Surgical Philanthropic Institution.

Amidst dozens of people who lived or worked here, the story of Alonzo Durant is one of the most unusual and tragic.

He was born in 1816, the eighth son of Colonel George Durant of Tong Castle, between Wolverhampton and Telford, in Shropshire. At the age of 21, he married Catherine Galley much to the disapproval of her father, in Prestwich, Lancashire.

Durant qualified as a surgeon, and by 1839 was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Somewhere along the line Durant settled at Burbage, Leicestershire, living at Tong Lodge, honouring his pedigree, and appears to have lived beyond his means, declaring bankruptcy in 1847.

By 1851, Durant was practising in Ashton, Manchester, before turning up in Sheffield, opening a practice at Bank Street.

As well as offering his services as a surgeon, he claimed to be writing a refutation of a book called The Vestiges of Creation and preparing a book on heraldry “illustrated by engravings of baronial remains in Shropshire, where my ancestors flourished.”

Relocating to the corner house on Norfolk Street, he regularly appeared in newspapers, being described as “a trifle extravagant and not free from eccentricity.”

It appears that Dr Durant travelled the streets of Sheffield in a gig with two ponies tandem and a smart boy in buttons at his side. The boy “Joe” carried a horn with which he gave people warning of their approach but had to wait for his master to cry out, “Blow, Joe, Blow.”

Such was the spectacle that a Sheffield theatre mimicked the ritual in a Christmas pantomime, prompting Dr Durant and Joe to take along their horn and join in with proceedings.

Eccentric as this may seem, it didn’t stop Durant preferring charges against William Smith, of Crookes, a musician, for having “used a certain noisy instrument in South Street (now The Moor), for the purpose of announcing a certain entertainment.”

It appears that as Durant and Joe had approached a band playing on top of a large omnibus, by which a large crowd had gathered, the boy had blown his horn to prevent them from being run over, but the louder he blew the louder the band blew their own instruments.

It caused Dr Durant’s horses to bolt, eventually turning into Fitzwilliam Street, throwing the two of them into the air.

Notwithstanding, the band continued playing, and the horses flew up Fitzwilliam Street with the empty gig behind them, running over a man at the corner of Milton Street, and eventually smashing it into pieces against a post.

As one correspondent writes, Durant’s best form of defence was to attack, often pressing charges against individuals, representing himself in court, and causing great confusion with long incoherent speeches.

In 1857, Dr Durant relocated to Crimea House, opposite the Crimean Monument, before inexplicably closing his practice the following year. He sold all his possessions at auction, including “a white Orinoco cockatoo which danced the polka and said anything.”

Dr Durant next turns up at Ramsgate in Kent where, once again, he is recorded as driving through the crowded streets of the town at 17mph, his horn blowing loudly, and even driving on pavements to the danger of pedestrians and perils of shop windows.

By now, he was calling himself Captain Durant, referring to exploits in the East India Service, a fanciful claim, because although he applied for a post in Bengal he never joined.

Whilst in Kent, Dr Durant still took pleasure in appearing in court as plaintiff. On one occasion, after winning a case against a carter accused of damaging his 11 shilling hat, the magistrate remarked:

“Captain Durant [sic] . . . allow me to say a few words about the rapid speed at which you drive through the town. . . It is but a short time since that I myself saw two ladies nearly knocked down by your servant, who was riding, and who apparently had not got his horse under control.”

The ‘Captain’ retorted: “I have driven through the most crowded places and never yet knocked anyone down.”

In 1859, Dr Durant appeared at Ramsgate County Court where Judge Charles Harwood heard that the defendant, “a gentleman of great notoriety, recognised as the ‘Jehu’ constantly driving his tandem through the labyrinths of the place, and keeping the quiet inhabitants in perpetual fear and jeopardy by the peculiar speed of his eccentric performances.”

However, the charge wasn’t about his driving exploits but the mistreatment of a boy, George Ashby, from Ramsgate, whom he took from his father in 1855, promising to pay the boy £5 per annum in wages, but failing to pay up.

George Ashby was the boy “Joe”, forced to blow the trumpet in the streets of Sheffield. Dr Durant never paid him any wages, apart from the odd sixpence now and then for pocket money.

The jury returned with a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded Ashby £15 in damages.

Durant died in strange circumstances in 1861, overtaken by mental illness and probably drinking to excess.

He was seen wearing full military livery on Ramsgate Sands, worse the wear for liquor, walking up to his knees in water with his boots on. He later turned up at the Roman Catholic Chapel where his conduct forced him to be ejected. Durant claimed to be Jesus Christ and the Count de Chambord, and that he expected the King of France to dine with him shortly.

Durant hired a boy and pony chaise to take him for a drive, later abandoning him and jumping over a dyke to chase bullocks. He was next seen setting off for a ramble in the dikes around the River Stour where he was later found drowned.

The boy who had taken him for a drive said he had been with Captain Durant for a year and that he had been locked up in France on account of his madness, that it took several men to take him to prison, and that he had been much worse since he came out.

So ends the strange story of Dr Alonzo Durant, a true Sheffield eccentric, whose exploits could fill a book.


Pepper Alley

I bet most of you have never heard of the delightfully named Pepper Alley. This was once a thoroughfare passing from Fargate to Norfolk Street, quite close to the surviving Upper Chapel.

Its existence is shown on this map, taken from “A Correct Plan of the Town of Sheffield, in the County of York, drawn by William Fairbanks, 1771.”

You’ll notice that Norfolk Row, pictured, doesn’t appear on the map at all, only coming into existence about nine years later. However, Chapel Walk is shown.

A little bit of Pepper Alley (Pepper is a local surname) can still be seen today, leading into Upper Chapel Yard, behind the shops which form part of the former YMCA property, now named Carmel House, at the corner with Fargate.

If you study the map you’ll see that the Town Hall stood by the Church Gates (now the Cathedral), at the junction of High Street and Church Lane (now Church Street).

Other names to look for are Bullstake (now Haymarket), Pudding Lane (King Street), Castle Green Head (Castle Street), Irish Cross (Queen Street), and Pinstone Croft Lane (Pinstone Street)


The brick houses of Sheffield

When was the first brick house built in Sheffield?

In the book, “Reminiscences of Sheffield,” it states that the first brick house was built at the end of Pepper Alley about the year 1696.

Pepper Alley was superseded by the grander title of Norfolk Row, created nearby in 1780.

This long-lost house was leased at an annual rent of 24 peppercorns, quite high for the time because a rent of “one peppercorn if demanded” was a common nominal rent. But why should rents in Pepper Alley have been nominal? After all, one would have thought that land was rather valuable in this neighbourhood.

The statement that the house in Pepper Alley (was it so called after the peppercorn rents?) was the first brick house in Sheffield rests upon the authority of the Rev. Edward Goodwin, a clergyman of antiquarian tastes, who lived in the town at the end of the eighteenth century.

However, we can perhaps refute his claim, and will probably never know.

About the fourteenth century the houses in Sheffield were of wood, or partly of wood and stone, and in some of these houses brick must have been used in combination with wood.

Brick was little used in northern towns, where stone was plentiful, but it is likely that some old builder or architect used brick instead of stone, merely by way of change.

Sheffield was a stone-built town for the most part, but when the Duke of Norfolk began to lay out new streets between Pond Lane and Norfolk Street, and in the neighbourhood of Scotland Street and West Bar, a great deal of brick was used.

When street improvements were made, a few old brick houses were pulled down, and, plain as their exteriors probably were, some of them contained beautifully carved chimney-pieces and panelled walls, showing that these houses had once been occupied by people of wealth and consequence.

It’s very improbable to say the least, that no brick house was built in Sheffield before 1696. After all, the great tower at Sheffield Manor was of brick in Cardinal Wolsey’s time, and we know how old it was even then.


Secret tunnels of Sheffield (3)

Our final instalment about hidden tunnels underneath Sheffield takes us to 1936, when Frank H. Brindley investigated a tunnel found by workmen underneath the offices of the Telegraph and Star newspaper at Hartshead.

Brindley explored the opening using two skilled masons. The floor was described as well-worn as from long usage, and bone dry, without any trace of rubbish.

“The tunnel was cut from solid rock, about six foot in height and five to six feet wide. Its first direction was east, taking a line towards Castle Hill.
“It turned slightly south and then resumed its eastern direction, and when 50 foot from the entrance hall, we found the first trace of others having found this mystery tunnel before.

“On one of the rock walls were the following letters ‘I.W. 1830’ then just below ‘B.R.’, a dash and then ‘T.W.W.B.'”

Exploring further, they passed beyond High Street and after rounding several bends found the tunnel ended abruptly at a brick wall, probably the foundations of a building in King Street.

If the wall hadn’t been built, they would have been able to walk underneath the buildings of King Street and entered what was once Sheffield Castle at a point where the markets were then situated.

Pictures and an interview were published in the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1936, providing clear proof of their existence.

Brindley concluded that this was the missing tunnel from Sheffield Castle to the Parish Church (now Sheffield Cathedral), and was undoubtedly the one that had been uncovered in 1896, when Cockayne’s were excavating for a new store on Angel Street, which had then been dismissed as a sewer.

Mr Brindley was in the headlines again at the start of World War Two, when he placed details of underground passageways at the disposal of Sheffield’s Air Raid Precautions (ARP) authorities.

He explained that over the years, tunnels had repeatedly been found cut in the sandstone. Some appeared to have been old colliery workings, but many couldn’t be explained, while many appeared to radiate from the site of Sheffield Castle and were probably connected to mansions in the neighbourhood.

Brindley also shed further light on the 80ft shaft he’d found at Hartshead, that headed towards High Street.

The shaft had led to another tunnel running under Fargate, towards Norfolk Row. Unfortunately, explorations had come to an end when one of the investigating party was overcome by fumes only 50ft from the bottom of the shaft.

This time, Mr Brindley elaborated that the tunnel was part of a network that also connected Sheffield Castle with Manor Lodge.

It’s hard to believe now, but the hillside in Pond Street was said to be honeycombed with coal workings, but Brindley claimed that there were two other “mystery” tunnels found.

One section running from a cellar at the Old Queen’s Head Hotel, he said, was found when Pond Street Bus Station was being built during the 1930s, and the other was found near the top of Seymour Street (wherever that might have been). Beginning in an old cellar it ran beneath the site of the Royal Theatre, towards the Town Hall, where it was lost.

As far as I am aware, this was the last occasion that these tunnels were explored, probably sealed up but still hidden underneath the city centre.

We’ll end these posts as we began by saying that – “One day soon, Sheffield Castle might give up some of its secrets.”