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!
©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.