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Pepper Alley was superseded by the grander title of Norfolk Row, created nearby in 1780.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


Brown Bear

The Brown Bear is referred to as one of the oldest pubs in Sheffield, believed to have been built about 1745, although whether it was originally a pub is open to debate.

The square-set Georgian pub is one of the earliest surviving brick buildings in the area, once referred to as being the last house in Norfolk Street.

The Sign of the Brown Bear, the Brown Bear Inn, or the Old Brown Bear, as it was once known, probably refers to bear-baiting, popular in Europe until the 19th century. Any claims that it was named after the bear pit at the Botanical Gardens are unlikely as this wasn’t created until 1836, and was home to Bruin, a black bear.

We can trace its origins as a pub to at least 1790, home to John Crookes, regularly frequented by townsfolk, and where beer was brewed at the back of the house.

As well as an ale house it was also home to several groups, including the Fitzalan Sick Society and the Old Brown Bear Sick and Funeral Society.
In 1896, The Brown Bear was taken by John Smith’s Tadcaster Brewery on a 21-year lease which maintained ties up until the beginning of this century.

In the 1920s, it was used to play the game of Bumble Puppy, a version of True Madame, a game still played in Belgium and France. It was played on a raised board, balls rolled down a sloping top towards nine numbered arches.

It was bought by Sheffield Corporation in the 1930s, and in 1981, when the lease was up for renewal, a stipulation was included that the character of the pub could not be altered. The winning bidder turned out to be John Smiths, which held it until 2005 when it was taken over by Samuel Smiths.


The Victoria Hall

Within the Victoria Hall, on Norfolk Street, is a time capsule that was buried within one of fifteen foundation stones in September 1906.

The ceremony was attended by 3,000 people, celebrating the construction of the new building for the Sheffield Wesleyan Mission, designed as a place of worship, as well as for institutional and religious work.

The Victoria Hall stood on the site of the old Norfolk Street Wesleyan Chapel, the site extended to include land gifted by Thomas Skelton Cole, a devout Methodist, and the chairman of Cole Brothers.

Inside the foundation stone laid by Mrs Thomas Cole was placed a casket, hermetically sealed. It contained an old bottle which was taken out of the stone at the entrance of the old Norfolk Street Chapel, and placed there no doubt when the foundation stone of that building was laid in 1780.

The bottle contained a circuit plan of that day and the day’s programme. Also placed in the casket was the circuit plan for September 1906, a list of the trustees of the new Victoria Hall, the last annual report of the Mission, copies of the Sheffield daily newspapers, a civic directory of the city, and some coins of the realm.

Two years in the building, the Victoria Hall was opened on September 24, 1908, by three ladies, representative of the oldest and most esteemed Wesleyan families in Sheffield – Mrs Samuel Osborn, Mrs Samuel Meggitt Johnson and Mrs Cole. Called to the front, William John Hale, the architect, presented to each of the ladies a gold key with which were opened the three large main doors.

Over a hundred years later, the Victoria Hall is now used by voluntary organisations, including meals for the homeless, and as a popular music and events venue. However, church services are still held every Sunday evening.


The Victoria Hall

When it opened in 1908, the Victoria Hall was a bit of an eye-opener for Methodist church-goers. At the start of a new century, the Wesleyans wanted to attract a new crowd, so the words ‘church’ and ‘chapel’ were omitted from its name.

This was a replacement for the Norfolk Street Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1780 and demolished in 1906, and didn’t want to draw its strength from existing churches. Instead, it wanted to catch those people who spent their spare time in the streets.

The Sheffield Wesleyan Mission had considered calling it the Central Mission Hall, but realised that there was already a Central Hall on Norfolk Street, one that was devoted to public entertainment.

This meant that the Victoria Hall, as it was christened, looked nothing like conventional Methodist buildings, the design chosen in a competition, won by  Waddington, Son and Dunkerley of Manchester.

However, when the architect, William Angelo Waddington, died in 1907, a year after the foundation stones had been laid, it was left to Sheffield-based William John Hale (1862-1929), second in the competition, to finish the design.

The extent of Hale’s alterations to the original plans is unclear, but the tower and its uppermost elevations were considerably changed.

The result was a mix of Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles, red brick and stone, with a massive neo-Baroque top to the tower, and carved decorations by Alfred and William Tory. The total cost was £41,000, of which £25,000 had already been paid or promised.

As usual for this time period, construction was by the inexhaustible Sheffield builders, George Longden and Son.

The Main Hall, with its tip-up seats and wooden flooring, was designed for 2,000 people, while the Lecture Hall accommodated up to 400. The rest of the Victoria Hall was made up of smaller suites, halls, class and club rooms, as well as an innovative cinematographic box.

The total number of rooms amounted to seventy, suitable for institutional and religious work.

Said one commentator at the time:

“One finds a pleasure to traverse the cement-stepped stairs, with their bright walls, and beautifully designed stained glass windows, and at every turn, vistas of long corridors, where monotony of vision is eased by the insertion of arches on the ceiling.”

Pleasant to the eye also was the artistic brightness, without a suggestion of garishness, of the white and pale green walls and the well-lighted roof.

A ventilation system of powerful exhaust fans drove impure air through a series of tubes and emitted it by way of the tower.

In World War One, the Victoria Hall opened its doors to the Armed Forces and was visited, in 1919, by King George V and Queen Mary, who presented medals to returning soldiers. It also served free breakfasts during the Great Depression to needy children, as well as distributing food parcels to the unemployed.

Prior to the opening of the City Hall in 1932, this was also Sheffield’s leading concert venue, a role it still fulfils as a popular classical music venue.

During World War Two, the Victoria Hall was partly converted into an Armed Forces rest hostel with 20 beds, increased to 35 at the height of hostilities.

The building underwent an extensive restoration in 1930, and has subsequently been remodelled to create an events venue, although church services still take place every Sunday evening.

If ever you get chance to call in, take a good look at the splendid glass roof in the Main Hall.