It might be out of the question now, but if you get chance to visit Spain’s capital city there is a Sheffield connection.
The answer lies in a tablet over the south door of St George’s Anglican Church, on the corner of Calle Núñez de Balboa and Calle Hermosilla in the barrio Salamancadistrict of Madrid.
“To the memory of William Edgar Allen. Born March 30th, 1837. Died January 28th, 1915. By whose generosity, this church was completed A.D. 1925.”
William Edgar Allen is a familiar name in Sheffield history. In 1868, he founded the firm of Edgar Allen and Co, Imperial Steel Works, at Tinsley. Taking advantage of his knowledge of continental firms, he soon obtained extensive orders for foreign arsenals, dockyards, and railway companies.
Besides other donations, Allen gave, in 1909, the Edgar Allen Library to the University of Sheffield, contributed £10,000 to Sheffield hospitals, and founded, in 1911, the Edgar Allen Institute (in Gell Street) for Medico-Mechanical treatment, the first institution of its kind in this country. It proved especially beneficial during the First World War; a great number of soldiers having recovered the use of their limbs through the effectiveness of the treatment.
In 1913, Edgar Allen, staying in Madrid, asked Edward Mitchel Gibbs, the famous Sheffield architect at Gibbs, Flockton and Teather, to visit the Spanish city and draw up plans for a Protestant Church.
The church, in Early English-style was to have seated 150 people, funded entirely by Edgar Allen. Unfortunately, the estimates for the building amounted to £10,300, a larger amount than Edgar Allen had anticipated, and the plan was abandoned.
However, at the suggestion of the architect, Edgar Allen, who was in failing health, bequeathed a legacy of £6,000 for a new church to be built.
Edgar Allen died at Whirlow House two years later, and his bequest was put towards the building of St George’s Church, the church of the British embassy, completed in 1925.
Spain was a Roman Catholic country, and rules as to the building of churches other than those of the Roman Catholic communion, were strict. Because St George’s was built on the premises of the British Legation, such restrictions did not apply.
“The workmanship and material of the church throughout were the best, and everything was in excellent taste.”
St George’s was designed by the Spanish architect Teodoro de Anasagasti, who blended elements of the Spanish Romanesque style (cruciform plan, semi-circular apse, bell tower, tiled roof) and the characteristic brick-and-stone construction of the uniquely Spanish “Mudéjar” tradition with specifically Anglican forms.
The chaplain of the church was the Rev. Francis Symes-Thompson, who received a grant of £250 per annum from the Foreign Office.
“If you want to see a monument to this man, look around you.”
Here is a man once described as “one of the makers of Sheffield,” for he was responsible for many of its principal buildings and played a leading part in changing the shape of the city.
His long list of work can be seen around Sheffield today.
In his earlier years, Edward Mitchel Gibbs was architect for the branch libraries at Upperthorpe and Highfield, and later designed the Mappin Art Gallery, St. John’s Church at Ranmoor, the University of Sheffield, the Sheffield Telegraph Building, Lodge Moor Hospital, Channing Hall, Glossop Road Baths, Foster’s Building in High Street, and the White Building at Fitzalan Square. He was also responsible for some of the finest shops of the time in High Street and Fargate.
E.M. Gibbs (1847-1935) was born in Sheffield, educated at the Milk Street School, and articled to architects Flockton & Abbott between 1862 to 1868, remaining as principal assistant. He attended classes at Sheffield School of Art and subsequently spent time in London, studying at the Royal Academy Schools and assisting in the offices of Alfred Waterhouse.
Gibbs worked as Superintendent of Works to Archibald Neill of Leeds from 1868 until 1872, when he was taken into partnership by Flockton & Abbott.
He continued in partnership with Thomas James Flockton after the retirement of George Lewslie Abbott in 1875, and the partnership was joined by Flockton’s son, Charles Burrows Flockton, in 1895.
Gibbs became senior partner in 1902 (as Gibbs & Flockton), and the partnership was joined by John Charles Amory Teather in 1908, and Gibbs’ son, Henry Beckett Swift Gibbs, in 1921.
Like all good men, it was only after his death that people appreciated his contribution to the city.
His funeral in December 1935 was held at the Unitarian Upper Chapel on Norfolk Street (in which Gibbs had designed much of its interior) where the Rev. Alfred Hall paid tribute:
“Gibbs’ aim was to make Sheffield beautiful. All his artistic insight and architectural skill were devoted to that end, and, though tastes and fashion had changed, all men would acknowledge that the buildings he conceived and erected were dignified and noble.”
The funeral achieved national attention because Rev. Hall read out a document left by Gibbs:
“Born of Unitarian parents, I was a staunch supporter of the Unitarian precepts for many years, but under the teaching of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer became an agnostic. I hope the Minister, if he accepts the responsibility of conducting my funeral, will do so in the simplest manner possible, remembering that I die an agnostic.”
The clergyman admired his “sterling honesty” after which Gibbs’ remains were taken to City Road for cremation.
During his lifetime Gibbs thought positively and deeply and was a man of definite views. He was afraid that the country might fall into the hands of extremists and had the foresight to see the danger it faced arising out of Germany’s ambitions.
But he was not just an architect.
Gibbs had knowledge of property values and was retained by Sheffield Corporation in all cases of arbitration under the Tramways and Street Widening Act of 1897.
He also published essays: ‘The Town Planning of Sheffield’ and ‘The Finance of Housing and Reform of Rating’. In 1895, he presented a scheme for a central railway station in the vicinity of Haymarket. The plans were dismissed, as was his big scheme for housing.
Gibbs’ grand expansion plan was based on garden city principles with radiating main roads linked by a ring road with suburban settlements at its junctions.
As well as being a city magistrate, he was a trustee of Woofindin Homes, a director of the Gladstone Buildings Company and a governor of the University of Sheffield, where he was awarded a Master of Arts, and was instrumental in establishing the Department of Architecture.
He was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1892 and was also president of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Society of Architects and Surveyors. Gibbs also succeeded Thomas James Flockton as Consulting Surveyor to the Town Trustees, for which he designed the Fulwood Park estate.
Gibbs was married to Lucy, daughter of a manager at the Sheffield and Hallamshire Bank, who died a year before him, and lived at Woodcroft, 7 Riverdale Road. On his death he left gross estate of £52,939 (about £3.8 million today).
It’s been a while since we had a look at some of those people with Sheffield connections. Today, the lady once considered to be Britain’s premier comedienne and the clown queen of TV comedy.
Like America’s Lucille Ball and Phyllis Diller, she paved the way for women working in light entertainment, whether it was the tough world of northern clubs or hosting her own television specials.
Born in 1945 at Sheffield, Lynne Denise Shepherd worked as a model, petrol pump attendant and a croupier. She’s better known to us as Marti Caine, her first professional performance aged 18 at a working men’s club in Rotherham, which led to more than 12 years playing the northern cabaret circuit.
Professionally she wasn’t Marti Caine then, or even Lynne Stringer. She was Sunny Smith for all of three weeks, followed by a spell as Zoe Bond. Unhappy with both, she scoured a gardening book for inspiration. Her husband Malcolm Stringer tinkered with tomato cane and came up with Marta Cane. The club she was playing misheard and billed her as Marti Caine.
She became an overnight star at the age of 30 on the TV talent show New Faces. Viewers took to her gawky, but highly glamorous looks and quickfire timing and she soon became a household name on television and starred on her own show, Marti Caine, on BBC2 from the early 1980s.
Marti starred in Funny Girl, in 1989, playing the lead as Fanny Brice, at the Crucible Theatre.
During the last ten years of her life she combined an outstanding career in light entertainment with that of one on the stage and undertook tours including a notable performance in Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings. In 1986 she presented her own one woman show, An Evening with Marti, at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
For three years from 1986 Caine hosted ITV’s New Faces, where she was noted for her friendliness and encouragement to young performers appearing on television for the first time.
In 1992 she toured Britain to record BBC’s Joker in the Pack and later completed another series, Your Best Shot, also for the BBC.
Pantomime was one of her first loves and for many years she made the character of the Red Queen a special part in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which played in Cambridge, Bath, Bournemouth and in London’s West End at the Strand Theatre.
She talked about her TV image as if she were an acquaintance, someone she didn’t particularly like, but had grown to accept.
“She drives too fast, smokes too much, her language is a bit choice and she is very ambitious. I am an emotional coward. I don’t like being the centre of attention. When Marti Caine is out under the spotlight, I’m in the wings throwing up with nervousness.”
In 1988, it was made publicly known that she was suffering from cancer of the lymphoid cells which prompted her to ask her doctor “Does this mean I am a lymphomaniac?”
She was given two years to live but refused to stop working and fought against the disease for seven years.
Marti died aged 50 at her home in Oxfordshire in November 1995, her second husband, Kenneth Ives, by her side. A funeral service was held at Sheffield Cathedral. It was attended by showbusiness personalities and a public address system was set up outside to relay the service to those unable to get inside.
“Remember me with a smile. I don’t want any weeping and wailing when I’ve gone. I want people to dance in the aisles.”
The 2017 film, Funny Cow, starring Maxine Peake, tells the story of a female comedian playing working- men’s clubs in the 1970s and is said to be loosely based on Caine’s story.
The one that got away. I bet only a handful of people will remember this building and it might have been one of Sheffield’s finest had it survived. But it didn’t, and you’ll be surprised to learn what stands in its place today.
This was a bank that stood at the corner of Commercial Street and Fitzalan Square, demolished in the late sixties/early seventies to allow for road widening. Nowadays, its location is buried under the road section of Commercial Street, the Supertram tracks alongside following the course of the original road.
We can trace the building back to 1879, built for the Midland Banking Company (not to be confused with the Midland Bank, that 20th century institution). Its architect was Salmon Linton Swann whose office was on George Street.
It might have been this building that caused the downfall of the Midland Banking Company.
In 1878, the bank bought The King’s Arms in Commercial Street for £20,000, a portion of the public house demolished to make way for the new building.
The bank invited architects to submit plans. Thirteen architects competed for the design from Sheffield, Rotherham, Stamford, and Nottingham.
The directors awarded the prize to Swann, and the building contract to George Chambers and Son, a Sheffield construction company.
“The building will be of an imposing and handsome appearance, and the arrangements will tend to give privacy and facilitate easy and direct communication with the manager without passing through the bank room or incumbering the principal or main entrance with all the work of the bank.”
Its erection was well underway but a tragic accident in December 1879 halted progress and had devastating consequences for the reputations of those involved.
Just before Christmas, a whole length of projecting cornice, about 50ft above ground, fell and crashed through a wooden awning below. A workman, Thomas Moclar, fell to his death with it, and several workmen were seriously injured.
There was an air of complacency from Salmon Swann, who failed to attend the initial inquest and instead sent a letter. “I consider my presence or services not required, as I expect it will be a pure accident and one easily understood.”
The Coroner disagreed and ordered him to attend a few days later.
The jury found Swann censurable for not allowing sufficient tail weight to the cornice, and Chambers blameable for not calling the architect’s attention to such deficiency. However, they found the negligence insufficient to render them criminally culpable and that Thomas Moclar’s death had been an accident.
Construction was halted for a while, and progress hampered by having to rebuild the damaged section. By 1881, the bank was nearing completion and William Derry, a manager at the Huddersfield branch, was brought in to oversee its opening.
However, Derry arrived in difficult circumstances. Shortly before it opened, the Midland Banking Company realised that it was in financial difficulty. Believing it had ‘outgrown its resources’ a rescue was needed, and it came in the form of the Birmingham, Dudley and District Banking Company which amalgamated with it.
The bank opened under its new name, and quickly established a reputation in the city.
The height of the building was 70ft, the building preceding the development of Fitzalan Square, and cost about £17,000 to build.
The architecture was adopted from ‘a free treatment of the classic order’, built with Huddersfield stone fronts and brick backs, having bold fluted columns along the front, with moulded bases and carved capitals dividing the wall spaces into panels, relieved by plate glass windows.
At the principal corner of the parapet was an ornamental stone tower with an ornamented panel bearing the Sheffield coat of arms, surmounted by the carved dome, supporting a moulded canopy and finial.
Internally, the wall spaces were divided into panels by means of moulded pilasters, in Parian cement, the panels fitted with the large windows. Those along the blank walls were fitted with silver-plated glass, which added a lustre of light.
The whole was surmounted by a moulded and enriched cornice, from which sprang a deep cove, relieved by a diaper work, supporting a moulded and panelled ceiling, from the centre of which was the dome, filled in with stained glass.
From the centre of the dome a ventilating sunflower fan was suspended to extract air from the bank, and to light the space below.
The whole of the bank floor was constructed with fireproof flooring covered with tiles.
The bank was heated with Perkins’ patent hot water apparatus, the pipes obscured by perforated iron skirting running around the walls.
The whole of the Commercial Street frontage was used as offices for the manager and waiting rooms, which were divided from the bank room with mahogany glazed screens, 10ft high, and covered with light glazed roofs, introducing Tobin’s principle of ventilating tubes for fresh air.
The remainder of the floor was divided and sub-divided by desks and counters, with the rear east wall fitted up with safes. Seats and desks were appropriated for the public under the windows.
Quite unusual for the building was an entrance to a basement (9ft high) in Commercial Street. This was used as a caretaker’s apartment, complete with sitting room, scullery, and bedrooms. There was also a dining room for clerks, two strong fireproof rooms, the hollow walls lined with white glazed bricks, to store ledgers, a bullion room, and toilets. The floor was laid with wood block flooring laid on a bed of concrete, thought more suitable to prevent damp and vermin. Below the basement was the boiler room, coal cellar, and a place to store ashes and dust.
The bank merged with the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Banking Company in 1889 to become Birmingham, District and Counties Bank, eventually becoming United Counties Bank in 1907.
In the same year, a fire almost destroyed the dome after a spark in the built-in chimney set fire to woodwork. It was threatened until firemen managed to haul hoses up to a height of 70ft to extinguish the flames.
United Counties Bank was bought by Barclays Bank in 1916, a name long-associated with the building until its sad demolition.
In a previous post we looked at the history of the General Post Office in Sheffield city centre. From humble beginnings on High Street, via Angel Street, Market Place, and Haymarket, the central post office ended up in Fitzalan Square.
However, the building now occupied by Sheffield Hallam University, was a long time coming.
In the first years of the twentieth century the Post Office acknowledged that facilities at the top of Haymarket had become too small.
By 1897, red-brick offices in Flat Street had opened and by 1900 all that remained at Haymarket was public counter work and the telegraphic department.
In fact, the Post Office had been buying up land around its Flat Street offices. By 1903, it had a triangular piece of land of one acre stretching from Fitzalan Square to Pond Hill.
The Post Office submitted plans to Sheffield Corporation for a building fronting Fitzalan Square, but the councillors were less than impressed. In 1907 it sent a delegation to see Lord Granard, who represented the Post Office in the House of Lords, to ask for a better building, including a finer elevation, than the one proposed.
Newspapers had been full of stories about a new post office and the people of Sheffield had started to think that the building might never get built.
However, the visit to London appeared to work and later that year plans were released by the Post Office for a new building in Fitzalan Square adjoining the existing Flat Street offices.
Work started in 1908, coinciding with Fitzalan Square improvement works, and an immense crane, 70ft high and with a jib 95ft long, dominated the skyline.
It was designed by Walter Pott, an architect who had started work with HM Office of Works in 1896 working in the London and Leeds offices.
The design was a modern adaptation of the Renaissance and allowed an additional storey over the wing in Flat Street.
The principal front in Fitzalan Square was three storeys high, with a central portion having columns the full height of the two lower floors, these finished with carved Ionic caps and heavily moulded cornice and balustrade, which continued around the other fronts.
The front of Flat Street was treated in a similar manner but without the columns, and the corner with Fitzalan Square was rounded to accommodate a main staircase leading to the upper floors and finished with a dome.
The two principal entrances were in the wings of this portion, giving access to the public office, inquiry office, and Postmaster’s office. The upper parts of these were finished with heavy pediments.
Post boxes were at the base of the corner, with a large bracket clock (paid for by the council) above.
The main post room, for the sale of stamps and postal orders, was 64ft long and 45ft wide, lit with windows back and front, and lined to a height of 8ft with marble, with a mosaic floor. Adjoining was a public telephone office with ‘silence boxes’ to allow messages to be sent without interference or risk of transactions being overheard.
The Postmaster, the Chief Clerk and writing staff, as well as the sectional engineer, were accommodated on the first floor immediately over the public office and front entrances, and on the floor above was the telephone switch-room and message-room. The basement was used for batteries and engineers’ equipment.
The Flat Street wing was set apart on the lower floors for retiring rooms for staff, for the messengers’ delivery room, and for storerooms. The first floor was entirely occupied by an instrument room.
The lower part of the site was in Little Pond Street, a much-needed extension to the existing sorting office, and for the provision of yards for loading and unloading mail and the storage of handcarts.
The new post office was designed throughout to meet modern sanitary requirements as regards light and ventilation, and the walls and passages occupied by staff were faced with glazed bricks. Four boilers, 146 radiators, and 1½ miles of heating pipe was installed by the Brightside Foundry and Engineering Co.
The building had been built on a hillside, and the result was that the greater portion was down below street level, and what people saw from Fitzalan Square was only the top.
Although history books give a date of 1910 for the building, it came into use without fuss during the summer of 1909. “The staff simply left their posts in one building and walked over to the incomparably better equipped accommodation across the Square.”
It remained in operation until 1999 and remained empty for several years, a ‘building at risk’, until rescued by Sheffield Hallam University which opened it as the Institute of Arts in 2016.
In this post, we look at the history of the Post Office in Sheffield, but a question before we start. Do you know where the Central Post Office is in Sheffield? I suspect a few might struggle to answer this, and I was the same. Answer at the end.
There is one certainty in the architectural world – we will never build Post Offices like we used to, if at all. Technology has done away with the need to create lavish buildings.
The story of the growth of the Sheffield Post Office mirrors the development of the city.
In January 1835, a Post Office and News-Room was opened at the Commercial Buildings in High Street (opposite where the Telegraph Building stands today).
A small room was all that was needed in those days, with postage stamps handed through a little door fixed in a hole cut through the wall. The population of Sheffield at this time was 91,692 but by 1851 this had risen to 140,000.
The demands on the Post Office increased and the facility was removed to Angel Street, in a part of a building that had once been Shore’s Bank.
The next move was to the top of Market Place (Castle Square), a much grander building that coincided with the increase in postal demand.
Sheffield’s industries were rapidly growing, and the population was advancing at an enormous rate. More general use was being made of postal facilities, and the authorities were improving the service, including the postal telegraph service, rates of postage to all parts of the world being reduced and the introduction of parcel post.
While the facilities in Market Place had been a great improvement on any previous office, there was a need for bigger premises.
In 1871, the population had reached nearly 240,000 and a new Post Office opened at the corner of Haymarket and Commercial Street (still standing, more recently home to Yorkshire Bank). However, by 1900 this was also too small and offices in Flat Street were opened and all that remained in the Haymarket was public counter work and the telegraphic department.
The Post Office had bought more land in Flat Street and Pond Hill from Sheffield Corporation as well as acquiring a site occupied by Mappin Brothers. By 1903, the Post Office had about one acre of land, a triangular plot stretching from Fitzalan Square and Pond Hill. Branch sorting offices were provided at Highfield, Broomhill, Montgomery Terrace Road, and Attercliffe, and sub-post offices opened all over the city.
These relieved the work at the central office, but still the business grew, and now, when the population was creeping up to half a million, a new office was provided at the top of Baker’s Hill, on the east side of Fitzalan Square.
The new Post Office, incorporating its Flat Street offices, opened in 1909, a Baroque-style building designed by Walter Pott of HM Office of Works. It coincided with Fitzalan Square improvement works and despite its grandiose appearance did not escape criticism.
In fact, the Post Office had been built on a hillside, and the result was that the greater proportion of the building was down below street level, and what people saw from Fitzalan Square was only the top.
The Post Office closed in 1999 and remained empty for several years before becoming the home to Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Arts in 2016. More about this building in a separate post.
And finally, the answer to that question. The Sheffield City Post Office can be found on the 1st floor of Wilko in Haymarket.
If buildings could only tell a story. Bell House is probably the oldest structure in Fitzalan Square. It was built after Sheffield Corporation spent a fortune from 1869 onwards purchasing and demolishing property between Market Street and Jehu Lane to create a new municipal open space.
The five storey building was the Bell Hotel (1872), its first landlord and owner being Henry Hardcastle, a wealthy man, previously of the Blue Bell in Commercial Street, one of those properties that was a casualty of the development.
For many years he had been a member of the 1st West York Yeomanry Cavalry, attaining the rank of sergeant-major, and proving popular with his comrades.
Hardcastle was good for a quick anecdote, could sing a good song, and make an admirable speech. Seemingly the right qualities needed for a publican. He was actively connected with the birth of building societies, whose meetings he allowed to be held in his pubs. He died in 1887 at the “ripe old age of 67-years” after collapsing in Snig Hill.
The Bell Hotel was put up for sale.
“That old established, substantially built and well-appointed hotel. Its central situation, and being within easy reach of both railway stations, the tramways and omnibus termini, secures for it a good commercial and country trade, and in the hands of an enterprising person it could not fail to continue a successful and prosperous undertaking.”
The woes of Fitzalan Square have been recorded in previous posts and at least one licensee fell victim to the area’s unsavoury characters. Annie Padley was one, pleading guilty to letting the Bell Hotel be used for betting purposes in 1901.
Another landlord, Arthur Browning, believed the Bell Hotel to be a gamble, one that might have rewarded him handsomely.
In 1902 he allowed the public house to be used for the trial of the Monarch fire escape, a convoluted device of poles, knitted ropes, hooks and slings, manufactured by Waddington and Co of Bradfield Road, to allow people escape from high-rise buildings. At the time, the Bell Hotel was one of the highest buildings in the city, the top floor window being about 50 feet from the ground.
Unfortunately, Browning was declared bankrupt in 1904 owing £1,398 (about £171,000 today).
The Bell Hotel (later The Bell) was for many years associated with Thomas Rawson and Co, a brewery long-established at nearby Pond Street, later acquired by Duncan Gilmour & Co (another local brewer), and finally falling into the hands of Joshua Tetley & Son. It closed in 1974.
Since then the ground floor has been occupied by shops and the upper floors converted into flats.
Look carefully above the three first floor windows and you can still see traces of the past – two pairs of bells above each window – one on top of each other.
The next time you are able walk into McDonalds or HMV, on High Street, be aware that you are walking into history. Before you go inside, take a moment and look above, and you will find that these popular ground floor premises are part of an elaborate building.
This is the Foster’s Building, built in French domestic Gothic style by Sheffield architects Flockton and Gibbs in 1896.
The origin of the Foster’s Building goes back to the Anglo-French Wars of the sixteenth century, and the entrepreneurship of William Foster, draper, tailor and outfitter, who opened a shop on High Street in 1769.
At the time that William Foster opened his business, High Street was a narrow thoroughfare, described by some as resembling a village street.
When peace was concluded with France, the British Government advertised for sale a vast stock of old uniforms and equipment, which had been given up by troops on disbandment.
William Foster took a coach to London and bought up large quantities of soldiers’ jackets and belts. These were brought to Sheffield and stacked in large crates and baskets outside his shop.
It was said that there was hardly a grinder or cabman in Sheffield who did not buy one of the jackets, not particularly concerned about appearance, but appreciating something cheap.
Being extremely durable they were suited to both trades, and a credible record suggests that the old workshops looked as though a regiment of soldiers was at work, for every grinding wheel had a red-jacketed attendant.
The army belts were of excellent leather, so the record runs, and were largely used by craftsmen for buffing and similar purposes.
Foster was afflicted with an obscure disease, the chief symptom of which was that he frequently fell asleep.
“Mr Foster fell asleep while seated on the hampers of soldiers’ clothes. These used to stand on the edge of the pavement, and there Mr Foster sold the contents, so long as he could keep awake,” said an old humourist.
According to George Leighton in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield (1876) there were other amusing consequences of Foster’s illness.
“I went once to him, as a boy, to be measured for a jacket. Standing behind him, he made me hold my arm horizontally, with the elbow bent, and I thought he seemed a very long time in measuring it. A person on the other side of the street, at York Street corner, was watching the operation, and, seeing him laughing, I looked round, and found that the old man had fallen fast asleep.”
William Foster made a huge sum of money from the transaction and left his family very wealthy.
He was succeeded by his son, also William, who subsequently went into partnership with his own son, George Harvey Foster, in 1860, and renamed the business William Foster and Son, operating at 12-14 High Street.
It soon became necessary to enlarge the premises, and for this purpose, they acquired an adjoining public house, the Spread Eagle, and incorporated it into the original building.
And so, we come to the building that we see today.
When Sheffield grew in prosperity during the late 1800s, the council considered various schemes to improve the condition of its streets. The High Street improvement scheme finally concluded in 1895, resulting in one of the city’s biggest redevelopment projects, and doubling the width of the street.
However, to allow the road widening it meant the demolition of the old properties on the south side of High Street, including buildings owned by William Foster and Son.
George Harvey Foster sold 400 yards of freehold land in High Street for £34,000 in 1893. He took £24,000 in cash for the site of the tailor’s shop, and £10,000 for adjoining land that he owned, and needed by Sheffield Corporation.
Foster died in 1894, his will confirming that he had sold the frontage of the High Street property to Sheffield Corporation for road widening, and empowering his trustees to rebuild and rearrange replacement premises.
In 1895, the first plans for the new building were issued by the architects, Flockton and Gibbs, and convinced the public that this was an “ornament to the widened street.”
The chief architect for the building was Edward Mitchel Gibbs with construction work starting in 1895, undertaken by George Longden and Son, with ironwork supplied by Carter Brothers (surprisingly based in Rochdale).
The building stood on a new street line, set back about forty feet, that allowed existing shops to continue trading during construction, and be demolished afterwards.
When the Foster’s Building was completed in late 1896, it accommodated previous tenants from the old site , Foster and Son being the principal tenant, with other shops for J. Harrison, hosier, C. Tinker, boot and shoe manufacturer, E. Brown, goldsmith and Mr W. Lewis, tobacconist.
Foster and Son had two entrances, with four large windows. Their frontage was 86 feet long and 100 feet in depth and came with a large back yard, and within, contained all three of their departments – ready-made clothes, children’s and bespoke tailoring.
A balcony extended across the top of the building, while Gibbs set back the main wall of the frontage about two feet, so that the supports would not interfere with ground floor window space, and was described as being a “huge showcase”.
The Foster’s Building, on a slightly sloping site, was built in a curved line, leading towards the bottom of Fargate.
The front of the showrooms, above the shops, was ornamented with light wooden tracery, and the upper parts of the building (four floors) was of Huddersfield sandstone, richly moulded, and with a steep-pitched slate roof. It was relieved by oriel windows, ornamental gables and turrets, and dormer windows.
The whole of the upper floors was utilised as rented offices, varying in size, approached by a staircase, ten feet wide, leading from High Street, and by a passenger elevator (see note at end). Each office was fitted with “electric wiring, gas tubing and all modern conveniences.”
The corridors on each floor were eight feet wide, with mosaic-tiled floors and tiled walls up to the height of the door heads, These were well lit by windows placed at the end of each corridor, and also borrowed light from the offices.
The office entrance was marked by a lofty arch, with oriel windows over it, surmounted by a gable, with turrets, and crowned with an ornamental tower, which was to have been the water tank for the elevator, had not “technology” quickly intervened.
Foster and Son remained in the High Street until 1931, by which time they had been here for over 160 years. It was the oldest tailoring firm in the city, with other premises at Waingate and Castle Hill, and had been run by the widow of William Joseph Foster, great-grandson of its founder, since 1905.
Foster and Son consolidated trade at its other shops, and while war had been instrumental in its initial success, it effectively led to its demise after the Waingate branch was destroyed during the Sheffield Blitz.
The Foster’s Building eventually succumbed to other retailers at street level and, for a time, was known as Norwich Union Buildings. It was refurbished during the late twentieth century, presumably with much period detail lost, and before it was Grade II-listed by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1989.
NOTE: – The Foster’s Building had the first American Elevator in Sheffield, built by the Otis Elevator Company, founded in Yonkers, New York in 1853 by Elisha Otis.
In 1890, Otis had entered the British market under the name of the American Elevator Company. Between 1870 and 1900, there had been a transition between hydraulic lifts to electric-powered elevators.
The Otis company advertised its new generation of elevators with the consideration that such an installation was no longer a complicated matter, and well-suited to places which could not have had one before.
The Foster’s Building had intended to have a hydraulic lift and Gibbs’ design included a small water tower on the roof for its elevator. After it was decided to install an electric-powered lift the tower remained, but instead used as a motor room for the American Elevator.
In 1897, a newspaper advertisement for potential occupiers of its offices described the lift as being able to “accomplish the journey from ground floor to fourth floor in THREE seconds.” Unlikely, even today.