Complaints about pot-holes always cause a stir. But you might be surprised to know that our roads have long been the subject of contention. The columns of local newspapers have been filled with grumbles going back to Victorian times.
The grievance was the type of material used to surface our streets. As Sheffield grew, the network of roads expanded, and many of the main streets were overlaid with cobbles (water-rounded stones collected from beaches and rivers), irregular flat-shaped stones, or more commonly, slag macadam.
In the 19th century, cobbles were replaced with round or hexagonal wooden setts, probably creosoted Norway pine, that provided a safer surface for horses and wagons. They gave a better grip for horse-shoes and the iron rims on wheels, and reduced the noise of traffic.
The wooden setts, although abundant in supply, proved expensive, and granite setts, squared off by hand, were brought to Sheffield from several locations, including Cornwall, the Channel Islands, and then increasingly from Aberdeen.
Once worked, granite setts were capable of much greater precision of laying and could help construct a far smoother street surface. They lasted for 30 years, hardwood for 15 years, and afterwards could be taken up and redressed.
However, the people of Sheffield objected to granite, complaining that noise generated by horse-drawn traffic was too loud. On West Street, wooden setts had been laid to make it quieter around the Royal Hospital, but ratepayers on the other side, on Division Street and Devonshire Street, protested that noise from granite was “nerve-racking,” “a distinct disgrace to the city,” and “enough to send people to the county asylum.”
There was a bigger drawback. Horses tended to slip on granite causing serious injury, sometimes death, to the animals. It was reason enough for Sir John Bingham, head of the firm of Walker and Hall, to campaign against their use in the 1890s.
Bingham had good reason to dislike granite setts. When driving a high dog cart, one of his horses had slipped and fallen, pitching him out onto his head. He started a crusade and gained support from Reuben Thompson and Joseph Tomlinson, proprietors of Sheffield’s two largest horse-drawn cab and omnibus firms.
“I, like many others, have been injured for life upon these granite setts, and I feel most strongly that where they are laid, they should be properly and regularly roughed. About a year ago, accidents happened on the same day to two of our leading steel manufacturers, Colonel Vickers, and Sir Alexander Wilson, one of them having his horse killed, the other being seriously injured, and will bear deep scars on his forehead so long as he lives, and says will never drive again in Sheffield.”
Bingham re-entered the council to enforce his views and was eventually able to stop granite setts being used on Sheffield’s main streets.
In 1895, he discovered that the stringy bark of a Tasmanian tree could be combined with granite to create a safer, quieter, and more durable road surface. He developed Bingham Patent Paving, first used on Norfolk Street, and then across many of the city’s main streets.
However, by the 1920s, the use of asphalt meant that Sheffield Corporation hadn’t bought any wood or granite setts (or Bingham’s paving) for several years. Asphalt had been created by accident in Kent after tar barrels had fallen onto a road and broken. Ultimately, it was discovered the part of the road covered with tar was found the best, and afterwards the use of tar had spread all over the country.
It resulted in most of Sheffield’s cobbled streets being covered over, a practice that continues to this day using modern techniques.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of granite setts in streets across Sheffield, and some of the wooden setts have even resurfaced in recent years, notably on Hodsgon Street, near the Moore Street roundabout, and on Sackville Road, at Crookes.
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