Categories
Streets

Holy Green – the small road between The Moor and Charter Row with a big history

Holy Green, Sheffield. Image: DJP/2022

This article first appeared in The Star in April 2022, and is included here for the first time.

I suspect most Sheffield people will struggle to say where Holy Green is. It could be a village green in a rural idyll, but it is in the city centre, an uninspiring little road that stretches from The Moor to Charter Row between Atkinsons and Sainsburys.

Most of it remains hidden underneath the huge concrete ramp that allows drivers to enter the multi-storey carpark above Atkinsons.

This was once an extension of Eldon Street but hidden underneath the sprawling mass of Atkinsons department store is an extraordinary history that gives Holy Green its name.

A reminder of its past. Holy Green, Sheffield. Image: DJP/2022

We must go back to the 1700s when Sheffield was a town surrounded by fields and countryside. It gradually expanded until its southern edges skirted a gorse-clad swampy common called Sheffield Moor.

A footpath of single stone was eventually cut through the heath leading to the tiny hamlet of Little Sheffield.

It was a gentleman called Thomas Holy (1752-1830) who built a house at the edge of Sheffield Moor. Holy Green House had a straight avenue of large leaved poplars leading to its substantial doorway, with a kitchen garden at the back, and a grass field called ‘The Croft.

He was a cutlery manufacturers’ merchant and a member of an old Sheffield family of button-makers and soon afterwards added the small works of Holy, Suckley and Co. at the back of the house towards Button Lane (taking its name from the factory, and broadly following the line of present-day Charter Row). He built-up the business until it became an international concern, later diversifying into mining and other mineral activities.

Holy Green House, The Moor, between Eldon Street and Prince Street. Home of Thomas Holy, who entertained John Wesley here. Mr. Abraham, principal of Milk St. Academy, resided here, and also used it for boarders and evening classes. Image: Picture Sheffield

Thomas also became a prominent landowner, buy tracts of land from the Duke of Norfolk, and later leasing it to developers in what became the residential suburbs between Glossop Road, Broomhill and Fulwood.

He was also an early member of the Sheffield Wesleyan Methodist Society and was actively involved in the building of Carver Street Chapel (now Walkabout) in 1805.

John Wesley was a guest of Thomas on several occasions.

In 1786, “after preaching service (at Norfolk Street Chapel) crowds followed Wesley to Mr Holy’s house on the Moor, the streets were lined, and the windows filled with people anxious to have a glimpse of him. During the walk Wesley emptied his pockets scattering gifts to the poor. A vast crowd assembled in front of Mr Holy’s house. Wesley walked into their midst, knelt, and asked God to bless them, the crowd weeping at the thought of losing him.”

Thomas Holy died at Highfield House in 1830, but by this time Holy Green House was occupied by John Hessay Abraham, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and Principal of the Milk Street Academy, a classical, commercial, philosophical, and mathematical seminary for boys, some of whom boarded at his house.

On his retirement in 1835, his daughters, Mary, and Eliza, opened a girls’ school at Holy Green House.

“There were balsam poplars edging the walk, the scent of which was delicious after a shower in the spring, and a clematis arbour in the back garden abutting onto Button Lane.”

J.H. Abraham had been presented with a service of silver plate when he retired, and the girls drank their supper milk and water from silver beakers served by a man servant in white cotton gloves.

The music master was a handsome young Hungarian called Welhi, who encouraged his girls to give concerts for the important people of Sheffield.

However, the most fascinating person was the French teacher, an old lady, who was strong-minded, eccentric, and wore a horsehair wig kept in place by a velvet ‘brain band’ and covered by a white cap.

She was fond of descending into the schoolroom at night, opening the shutters and reciting poetry in the moonlight. But she was also prone to outbursts with the girls.

“I, who am the daughter of one of Napoleon’s generals and the wife of another, oh why have I to teach the daughter of a tailor?’ she asked bitterly one day.

The school closed in 1855 and Holy Green House was taken over as lodgings for the Sisters of Notre Dame, from Namur, in Belgium, who had opened a Roman Catholic school on Surrey Street.

They also started a school here in what was destined to become the great Notre Dame School that has served generations of Sheffield Catholics ever since.

The Sisters of Notre Dame relocated to Convent Walk in 1860 and Holy Green House appears to have been empty for several years before becoming home and workplace to Samuel Smith Middleton, a wholesale beer merchant, and agent for breweries across the country.

This part of expanding Sheffield was still relatively undeveloped and by 1870 there was still open space at Holy Green House between Button Lane to Sheffield Moor, the original path now known as South Street with several one-storey shops.

It was in one of these shops that John Atkinson, a draper,  arrived in 1872, subsequently absorbing neighbouring properties built on the green lawns of Holy Green House. A passage led between the shops to the house, now hidden from South Street, and occupied by Ecclesall Working Men’s Club after 1871.

On the further extension of Atkinson’s premises, the low shops were demolished, as was Holy Green House, and the last of its picturesque grounds disappeared forever.

Holy Green, Sheffield. It is now used as a ramp into the multi-storey car-park. Image: DJP/2022

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Places

Castlegate – Geoarchaeological work begins on Sheffield Castle site

The next major phase in Sheffield City Council’s plans to regenerate the historic area of Castlegate is underway as essential geoarchaeological work begins.

Geoarchaeological investigations will be carried out by archaeology and heritage specialists, Wessex Archaeology, as they conduct 33 borehole surveys across the site of Sheffield Castle to examine the characteristics and conditions of the site’s underlying groundworks. The findings will then be analysed to give insights into what is underground and in turn inform the council’s redevelopment proposals for the area.

It marks a significant step in propelling the council’s plans to revitalise Castlegate after securing £20m from the government’s Levelling Up Fund last year.

Plans include the de-culverting of the River Sheaf, interpretation of the castle remains and the creation of attractive green public spaces; the creation of a cultural destination providing S1 Artspace and Sheffield Music Academy and Sheffield Music Hub with new state-of-the-art facilities; the preparation of land for future uses and investment; better connectivity and improved infrastructure for active travel.

In consultation with South Yorkshire Archaeology and Historic England, each borehole’s location has been carefully planned based on a need to further investigate the site, in order to add the information to the previously conducted archaeological evaluations, including the one carried out by Wessex Archaeology in 2018, after the Castle Markets were demolished.

This phase will supplement the information gathered from earlier assessments to produce a report, a detailed deposit model and archaeological sensitivity map to feed into a constraints plan for the area. The drilling is expected to last 6 weeks.

Castle Market Site. Illustration of the proposed mixed use development and open space from Sheffield City Council.

Categories
Buildings

Sheffield City Council targets developers for two new Heart of the City sites

Sheffield City Council has gone to market with two new development plots within its transformational £470m Heart of the City masterplan.

The Council and its appointed marketing agent, CBRE, are seeking buyers for two development sites located on the former car park between Rockingham Street, Wellington Street and Carver Street.

The new developments would further contribute to the rapidly growing mixed-use district that is being created through Heart of the City – this includes the already completed Grosvenor House, plus several under-construction office, leisure, and residential developments.

The two new plots are located at opposite corners of the evolving Pound’s Park, having been originally outlined during the Council’s public consultation for this landmark public space last year.

Construction of Pound’s Park is already well underway and is set to complete towards the end of this year. By prioritising the physical and mental wellbeing of its visitors – through a focus on pedestrians, cycling, active play, and relaxation – the new green space is seen as a big draw for potential developers.

The sites are expected to provide active ground floor uses such as cafes and restaurants onto this high-quality public realm with office, hotel and residential uses on the upper floors considered appropriate. Whilst both sites could be developed by a single purchaser, the Council will consider separate or combined offers for the sites.

The largest of the two new sites (Site B) sits on the southeastern side of the park on the corner of Carver Street and Wellington Street.

One of the requirements for this site is that it must incorporate and display the locally cherished William Mitchell Frieze artwork, which was carefully removed from Barker’s Pool House to make way for a new Radisson Blu hotel last year.

The second site (Site A) sits to the northeast of the park on the corner of Rockingham Street and Division Lane.

Categories
Streets

The question we ask ourselves. Where was Newhall Street?

In 1900, the Improvements Committee of Sheffield Corporation paid £10,500 for 2,546 yards of land in Newhall Street. There were certain freehold premises here, including the Hollis Hospital.

The question we ask ourselves 122 years later, where was Newhall Street?

Sheffield Corporation wanted to carry out a road diversion with a straight way from Westbar to Bridge Street.

Newhall Street was at the bottom of Snig Hill and disappeared, the line of Westbar continued across land occupied by the Pack Horse Hotel (demolished), until it joined Bridge Street.

This illustration from 1902 shows the original road layout, with dotted lines indicating the new street pattern and building lines. It also shows the widening of Snig Hill.

The scheme was completed in 1903 providing a more direct route from Westbar to the Victoria Station, and in due course tram lines ran from Westbar into the Wicker. It allowed tramcars to run from Hillsborough to the Wicker and then back to Hillsborough by the Owlerton Route – another step in the completion of the city’s circular tramway system.

The loss of Newhall Street was significant because this had been the boundary between Saint Peter’s Ward and Saint Philip’s Ward, dating to 1843 when Queen Victoria granted The Charter to the Borough of Sheffield.

Fast forward to the present day and things are remarkably quieter, and more beautiful, thanks to Sheffield City Council’s ‘Grey-to-Green project.

The ‘Grey to Green ’ project is a development from Sheffield City Council to transform redundant carriageway in the city centre into a network of sustainable drainage and rain gardens. The greening of West Bar has already been completed. Photograph: Nigel Dunnett.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Streets

“One side of the city centre to the other, and less than a mile. By car, I travelled 2.5 miles.”

The best map of Sheffield’s Inner Ring Road, but spoilt by spelling mistakes.

An unusual post, in so much that we are looking at a road. In fact, a series of roads that form one big one – Sheffield Inner Ring Road.

We might live in Sheffield, but sometimes it’s difficult to see wood for the trees, and this is the case with the inner ring road, because you probably don’t realise its purpose and where it is.

Let’s start in the 1930s when a route around the city centre was first proposed. Truth be known, World War Two stalled plans until the sixties, and in 1969 Sheffield Corporation published an impressive handbook called ‘Sheffield – Emerging City,’ in which plans for a detailed road system were revealed for the first time.

The council intended to pour £65m into the scheme which included bus lanes, pedestrian areas, as well as an urban motorway and motorway links with the M1.

Robert Waterhouse, writing in The Guardian in 1972, said that “Sheffield was as proud of its new roads as of its housing, its clean air, and its flourishing arts. They were all symbols of rebirth after years of stagnation among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution.”

The Guardian article, long forgotten, provides an interesting snapshot into the arguments that raged at the time.

It pointed out that after 1969, things had started to go wrong. In May 1971, a joint report by the city engineer, the city planning officer and architect, and the general manager of the transport department, had taken a gloomy view.

‘Although a large highway construction programme has been embarked upon,’ it said, ‘the growth of vehicular traffic is much greater than the growth of road capacity. The disparity has been obvious for many years and there seems negligible hope of it being ended in the foreseeable future.”

The report estimated that the proposed highway system, capable of carrying about 50 per cent of commuters to work by car, would cost ratepayers another 20p in the pound, which was probably acceptable, but that a system by which nearly everyone went by car could cost £300m, or another pound on the rates, clearly unacceptable. If the ‘compromise,’ £65m system was going to get clogged up anyway, was it worth building at all?

Arundel Gate in 1973 looking towards the Hole in the Road – new barriers erected in attempt to make pedestrians use the subways. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield

Waterhouse identified growing opposition within the council.

Sir Ron Ironmonger, Labour’s council leader, admitted that a growing number of councillors were against the scheme, and there had been public exchanges between the planning department and engineers.

The planners, headed by R. Adamson, felt that the engineers were going about the job the wrong way: instead of giving priority to the inner ring road, which everybody thought essential, construction had been advanced near the city centre. This meant that the civic circle – the inner ring road ultimately intended to carry only local shoppers and delivery vans – was being used as a throughway.

But the engineers, under K.D. Wiilliams,  replied that highways the size of the inner ring road – a six-lane urban motorway – didn’t happen overnight.

It seemed that Sheffield residents didn’t know what they were in for but would soon find out. The new interchange between the inner ring road and the Parkway was near completion at the bottom of Commercial Street. Sheffield Parkway was also being built and would be the main route into the city centre from the M1.

Construction of Sheffield Parkway in 1974 looking towards Park Square. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield
Sheaf Street/Commercial Street (latterly known as Park Square) roundabout under construction in 1973. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield

But the argument in 1971 was that traffic coming into the city centre was being diverted onto newly-constructed roads, because there was no proper inner ring road. And it was causing problems.

On Commercial Street itself, a bridge was being widened to take four lanes of traffic. It joined the civic circle at Castle Square, where traffic and pedestrians were already separated – cars at ground level, pedestrians underground. But before the road got there, it had to pass Fitzalan square, one of the principal routes for shoppers on foot. Everybody agreed this was a problem, but work on widening Commercial Street continued anyway, despite open criticism from Labour councillors.

Widened Commercial Street in 1970s, looking towards the Gas Company Offices on right, Electricity Supply Offices and Barclay’s Bank on left. Shude Hill behind car park on right. Image: Picture Sheffield

There were others also opposed to the scheme. Dr Leonard Taitz, a young South African doctor, working in Sheffield, was convener of the Conservation Society’s national transportation working party. He had started a campaign to bring the road building programme to a halt while a new policy on integrated transportation was formulated.

New roads were being built within the city centre but there were design flaws.

He cited the case of Furnival Gate, also a four-lane highway which, he suggested, was bound to be used by commuter traffic, but which divided The Moor and Pinstone Street, two proposed precinct streets. A subway to take people under the road had already been built, while Charter Row, another radial, had a barrier down its middle which cut a whole segment of the city from the centre.

Furnival Gate at the junction with The Moor showing (middle left) junction with Union Street in the 1960s. Image: Picture Sheffield

He argued that these roads were primarily being used by commuters cutting across town. But Mr K.D. Williams, head of technical design at the engineers, said this wasn’t the case, and that they were a necessary part of an integral system, that will one day be blocked off to prevent through traffic, and channel motorists to off-street car parks.

Whatever the interpretation, the roads were ‘not a pretty site.’ Certainly not ‘Sheffield’s Champs Elysees,’ as a councillor had called Arundel Gate.

Robert Waterhouse asked the important question? Would the new roads ever carry the massive traffic that Sheffield had come to expect? Would the inner ring road be built as a motorway, and would Sheffield get its two, or even three, motorway links with the M1?

Sir Ron Ironmonger pointed out that after 1974, highways would become the responsibility of the new South Yorkshire metropolitan authority and had no wish to make any drastic moves at such a late stage, and cited Nottingham which had done away with  a major part of its road programme. (Sir Ron later became leader of South Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council).

What did happen?

The 1970s proposal for the Inner Ring Road was abandoned because it would have destroyed important heritage assets like Kelham Island and the canal basin, and cash, as ever, was the stumbling block. But we did eventually get an Inner Ring Road, but it took a long time for it to be completed in its entirety. 

We can thank Duncan Froggatt, a Chartered Engineer, in his excellent book, ‘Sheffield – A Civilised Place’ (2018), for providing the timeline.

“The inner relief road had started in the 1960s starting with the dualling of Netherthorpe Road. But the later stages came much later with St Mary’s Gate and Hanover Way widened to dual carriageways in the 1980s.

“Sheaf Street was improved in the early 2000s leading to the improvement of Sheaf Square and subsequently links to St Mary’s Road up to 2009.

“The northern section from Sheffield Parkway to Penistone Road was built in two phases in the 1990s. The phase from the Parkway to The Wicker was completed in 2000, originally called Cutlers’ Gate, but later renamed Derek Dooley Way. The next stage, between the Wicker and Shalesmoor was finished in 2008.

“Once completed, it provided a continuous loop of dual carriageway, clockwise from Granville square in the southeast to Sheffield Parkway in the east, linking all main arterial routes in the city.”

Netherthorpe Road with Netherthorpe Street Flats under construction in 1965, looking towards Netherthorpe High Rise Flats. Image: SCC/Picture Sheffield

All done and dusted, but these days it is what is  happening within the Inner Ring Road that creates the interest.

Mr Williams’ plan for streets to be blocked off to traffic within the city centre did and continues to happen. Fargate and The Moor were the first to be pedestrianised, Pinstone Street is in transition, and Arundel Gate will be downgraded.

But what nobody in the 1970s envisaged was something that had been around for centuries… and that was the bicycle. Cycle routes, and the eagerness to cut car emissions, while greening our urban spaces, means that Sheffield city centre will eventually change beyond recognition.

I leave you with a story. Last week, I had to travel by car from one side of the city centre to the other. By foot it was less than a mile. By car, I travelled 2.5 miles.

Derek Dooley Way. Image: Sheffield Star

“Driving into Sheffield, I was looking forward to my friend’s hen-do. We had booked a city centre apartment, a spa day and a restaurant. What could go wrong? Yet, an hour-and-a-half later, I was bellowing tearfully into my mobile at my boyfriend: “You came to university here. Where AM I?” What had caused this emotional meltdown? Certainly not a fall-out with my friends – I hadn’t even seen them yet. Instead, my fun-filled city break had been spent navigating a series of roundabouts on the city’s ring road which kept spitting me out with increasing ferocity. Sheffield’s inner ring road has been tormenting drivers since 1961. Like many of the nation’s worst ring roads, it twists you round its little finger only to catapult you into bus-only zones or roads that lead you off in the opposite direction to the one you need.” – Jenny Scott – BBC News – 2014

NOTE
Robert Waterhouse is a journalist. Starting on the Guardian in Manchester and London, he turned freelance and was launch editor of the daily North West Times. He is a co-editor of the review Mediterraneans. His books include The Other Fleet Street, a history of national newspaper publishing in Manchester.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Late Night Tales Streets

Charter Row – while you were sleeping last night

Charter Row, Sheffield. Image: DJP/2022

Charter Row, 3am. This is a relatively modern road, created in the 1960s when Sheffield, like other cities, tried to separate cars from pedestrians.

According to Harman and Minnis in Pevsner’s Architectural Guide, the inner ring road (a revival of the Civic Circle from 1945) was only partly completed, comprising Arundel Gate, Eyre Street, and Charter Row, while St. Mary’s Road and Hanover Street were upgraded to form an outer ring.

Charter Row runs roughly along the course of Button Lane that ran between Moorhead and the junction of Moore Street and Fitzwilliam Street. It was heavily bombed during the Blitz of 1940 and remaining slum housing and workshops demolished.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Streets

Snig Hill – the mystery in its name

Snig Hill, looking down towards Bridge Street. Snig Hill Police Station can be seen on the right. Image: DJP/2022

Mention Snig Hill and most people will attach the name to the police station that has stood here since 1970. But Snig Hill refers to the sloping road between the bottom of Angel Street and West Bar. This was once a bustling thoroughfare but has been slowly downgraded because of traffic flow changes.

It is not an unpleasant place. The ‘grey-to-green’ project has seen the introduction of trees and wildflowers to re-connect the Castlegate area with the rest of the city centre and re-use redundant highway. And it soaks up rainwater that would have flowed into the nearby River Don, therefore reducing the risk of flooding.

The mystery about Snig Hill is how it got its name. It has mystified Sheffielders for centuries and various suggestions have been put forward.

Snig Hill, street sign. Image: DJP/2022

Once upon a time, there was a corn mill at Millsands, next to the River Don, and to access this, people used a packhorse track running between high banks behind gardens of old houses that stood on what is now the right hand side of Snig Hill going down the hill.

According to J.W. Farnsworth in 1939, this became so waterlogged in wet weather with rain and the sewage that drained from the Beast Market, that it earned itself the name of Water Lane (think, Hen & Chickens, now Castle Green).

When Snig Hill was made and cobbled, the ancient lane fell into disuse, and several townsmen built houses. On the opposite side, at what became the Black Swan Hotel, was Costnough Hall which stood just below the Irish Cross at the junction of Angel Street.

The hall disappeared, and Snig Hill became a narrow street, and the projecting upper stories of the houses gave an appearance of still greater narrowness.

J.W. Farnsworth’s sketch of old Snig Hill. Costnough Hall is seen on the left. Image: British Newspaper Archive

And so, to the name. In dialect English, of the word ‘snig’ there were five meanings: (1) To cut or chop; (2) to sneak off; (3) to drag over the ground; (4) close and private; (5) a small eel.

One suggestion was that ‘Snig Hill’ derived its name from the fact that it was the incline up which the ‘trees’ were ‘snigged’ from the lower area (the area down to the banks of the river, say) which no doubt was very well wooded at one time.

A ‘snig chain’ was also the chain used for hauling timber or attaching an extra horse to a wagon. At our Snig Hill, it was said that a horse was once kept to ‘snig’ up the hill any wagon that paid a small fee.

But Sidney Oldall Addy in ‘A Glossary of Words used in Sheffield,’ published in 1888, thought differently.

“To snig a load of anything up a hill is to take up the load in two or more instalments. For instance, a load of timber might be left at the bottom of the hill. Each portion brought up would be called a snig. The incline of the hill is not great, and the hill is small. Snig Hill thus appears to mean Little Hill. I think this is really the meaning, there being no proof that the timber was ever dragged up the hill in instalments.”

But he contradicted himself in ‘The Hall of Waltheof,’ published in 1893.

“The word snug, meaning lying close and warm is identical with the word snig used in this street name. It is not the hill in this case, which is snug, but the narrow old street, and had it been Snicket Hill, the meaning would have been clear.”

Others thought that it took its name from the practice of putting a ‘snig’ or length of wood through the back wheels of carts going down the hill to act as a brake.

Snig Hill, looking towards Angel Street. Image: DJP/2022

Willis Crookes, of Normandale, Loxley, said in 1930 that at the Bridge Street end  of Snig Hill, there was a depression in the road, where a pool once existed, and which was really a backwash of the River Don. He told of his boyhood (the 1870s), when he often talked to old men who told him that in their young days it swarmed with eels.

When anybody wanted a fish dinner they took a long stick with a cleft in it, pushed it into the mud of the pool, and dragged out an eel. This useful form of diversion was called ‘snigging.’

A far more likely explanation came about the same time from somebody who said that an old relative had been a stagecoach driver between Leeds and Sheffield. Among stories passed down in his family was one to the effect that the flour ground at Millsands was put into barrels and were ‘snigged up t’hill.’ He suggested that ‘to snig’ was to roll the barrel up the slope and put a under it.

However, it seems that the true meaning of ‘Snig Hill’ may never be known.

South Yorkshire Police at Snig Hill. It was originally built by B. Warren, Sheffield’s Planning Officer and Architect, as force headquarters for Sheffield and Rotherham Constabulary in 1970. It is now the police station covering Sheffield city centre. Image: DJP/2022

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Buildings

Kelham Island – new planning application for apartments

Architects plan for 180 Shalesmoor, Sheffield. Image: CODA Architecture

The appeal of Kelham Island shows no signs of abating. Next up is a planning application for 122 apartments and a commercial unit in a six storey block at the corner of Corporation Street and Alma Street.

The planning application, called 180 Shalesmoor, has been submitted by CODA Architecture on behalf of R.S. Sabkha Construction and Developments Ltd.

The site is currently occupied by a few car repair workshops, a collection of one and two storey buildings in various states of disrepair.

Back in the 1700s this was an area of orchards and fields related to Coulston Croft, but the area was divided up along the Don into parcels of land which would later be filled by industrial development.

The area known as Kelham Island was one of the largest and most significant industrial zones in Sheffield. Its position along the River Don was very advantageous in the early days of industry for transportation and power. The surrounding areas such as St. Vincent’s and Bridgehouses were densely packed residential areas, many traditional back-to-back style houses were home to the many industrial workers for Kelham.

Existing site. Image: CODA Architecture

The site itself has housed some form of industrial property since it was first built on. It was originally called Mill Works, and maps dating back to 1850 show a steel and iron wire factory on site called Pilot Works which occupied much of the site, part of which became Corporation Street when it was introduced in the 1860-70s. Sections were added and removed from the works over the early 20th century.

Most recently it was occupied by City Centre Clutch, Yello Car & Van Hire, and VMC Bodyshop fronting along Corporation Street. It was on the market for £1.4m and was bought in December.

180 Shalesmoor, Sheffield. Images: CODA Architecture
Categories
Streets

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds

Backfields looking towards Division Street in 1937. Image: Picture Sheffield

Backfields, a cess-pit of filth, was how it was described in the 1870s. These days, we know it as an unassuming narrow lane running between Division Street and Wellington Street. Once it was rural idyll, the fields behind Coal Pit Lane (Cambridge Street) but by the mid-1800s contained slum housing and workshops.

There were a few unsavoury public houses to satisfy the thirst of the poor and were joined in the 1850s by another one.

It was an ambitious attempt by John Banks to capitalise on the success of ‘The Book of the Age,’ and he called his small hostelry Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, in full, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly,’ was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in serialised form in the United States in 1851-52 and in book form from 1852 onwards. An abolitionist novel, it achieved popularity, particularly among white readers in America’s north, by vividly dramatising the experience of slavery.

The first London edition appeared in 1852 and sold 200,000 copies. “Anything in such universal demand has never been known in the history of literature. Many booksellers aver that they are selling nothing else, the trade for the time being seemingly centred in this one book, which, unlike almost all others, presents equal attractions to both old and young,” reported the Sheffield Independent.

It was a brave move by John Banks, and one that probably raised a few eyebrows.

Very little is known about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by the 1860s had been let out to another tenant before disappearing.

However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had another claim to fame.

In 1857, a new lodge in connection with the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds – Ashton Unity, was formed at the house of John Banks, under the sign of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This strange society had been formed on Christmas Day 1826, when several groups came together to create a mutually beneficial society. It came into existence in consequence of the refusal of the officers of the Manchester Unity to permit the opening of an additional lodge in Ashton-Under-Lyne.

The aim of the Order of Ancient Shepherds was “To relieve the sick, bury the dead, and assist each other in all cases of unavoidable distress, so far as in our power lies, and for the promotion of peace and goodwill towards the human race.”

They drew their mythology from biblical sources, emphasising pastoral aspects of mutuality that could be exercised for and by members of the lodge.

The pioneers attached importance to regalia and symbolism. When completing lodge business all members had to wear aprons made of lambskins with the wool on. The Chief Shepherd was to wear a mantle. Guardians were decorated with sheep shears, and to wear broad brimmed hats, and the Minstrel was to carry a harp, an imitation of the Biblical shepherd David.

In 1829 it was designated the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds. Loyal referring to the Crown, and Shepherds referring to the nativity of Jesus.

Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds. A photograph of typical regalia. Sadly, not in Sheffield, but taken at Springhills, Shotts, about 1896. Image: North Lanarkshire Council

Shepherdry was introduced into Sheffield with the Shepherd’s Care Lodge in 1852. It was followed by the opening of the Sir Colin Campbell Lodge in 1853 and afterwards several other lodges, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, opened.

It held its national AGM at the Cutlers’ Hall in 1867 and at the Church Institute in 1886. It survived in Sheffield until 1930 when all the Sheffield District lodges transferred to the City of Leeds District.

Interestingly, the society still exists, and became Shepherds Friendly in the 1990s, now offering Isas, investments, life insurance and income protection.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

Categories
Streets

Backfields – while you were sleeping last night

Backfields, looking from Division Street. Image: DJP/2022

While you were sleeping last night. Backfields, 3am. A forgotten thoroughfare amid 21st century redevelopment. A street with an undesirable history. Our ancestors imperilled this narrow street to crime – stabbings, muggings, and death, and I doubt that Sheffield has another street which suffered so many devastating fires.

In 1872, a Dr Hime expressed his opinion that it was not surprising that there should be so much sickness in the town while there were such places as Backfields and the neighbourhood.

Backfields led from Division Street to Wellington Street, off which were alleys and passageways with access to Coal Pit Lane, and Carver Street. It was an area of dirty, dense, back-to-back housing, and small workshops.

It was a cess-pit of filth, but it hadn’t always been like this.

Once upon a time, Backfields was exactly that. The fields beyond Coal Pit Lane (now Cambridge Street), once the distant boundary of town, was where cows grazed, sheep gambolled, and children played in the meadows.

Cometh the Industrial Revolution, no trace of its rural past existed.

In the same year that Dr Hime pontificated about Backfields, the Sheffield Independent provided a unique account: –

“On the eastern side of a yard there is a privy that must do duty for a considerable number of houses, and it is scarcely equal to the duty. The ashpit is more than full – it is overflowing. It has made an encroachment almost into the middle of the yard, in front of the doors of some of the houses and extends about twenty feet until its further extension laterally is stopped by the water branch.

“It is the same in every yard. Near St. Matthew’s Church there is an ashpit adjoining the street, piled up high beyond the retaining walls, and the rubbish falls onto the footpath leading to the houses. The passages are worthy of exploration. A visit to them will show that the ashpit question, though a grave one, is not the only point affecting the sanitary position in Sheffield. Air, light, ventilation, and crowding have much to do with it, and many of these places ought to be improved off the face of the earth.

“There is a passage, the old entrance to which has been removed by the erection of a privy, and the actual passage left would scarcely admit the entrance to a turtle-fed alderman. But there are other privies, not only as bad, but worse. One could not be seen because the doors were closed. The other could not be seen because the doors could not be closed. But here, as in the other case, a solution has been found. Human necessity is strong in resources; and the depositions that should be made in the privies are made in or thrown into the passage. These premises are stuck over with notifications from the Health Committee enjoining cleanliness on the inhabitants, in circumstances and under conditions where it is impossible to be clean!

“Yet again, in these jennels and passages, there are active business proceedings carried on. In one of them, there is a bakery, where spicy-looking buns were being made for the delectation of young Sheffield, which may be very excellent in their way, though fastidious people would prefer that the materials of their food should not be exposed and manipulated in such unsavoury localities. In another passage, a large tray of pork pies was met ready for the oven. These ‘Melton Mowbrays’ may be all that could be desired; and the givers of picnics will perhaps feel obliged for hints as to the possible sources of their pies and buns, or other delectable confections manufactured over conditions of sweetness that may impart a flavour and improve the appetite.”

It took years for things to improve. A hundred years later, the houses had finally gone while recession claimed industry and commerce. St. Matthews is perhaps the only reminder of our inglorious past.

Sheffield did little to redevelop Backfields and it is only now, with the Heart of the City project, that the area has been embraced. Tower blocks are not long from completion, and people, maybe descendants of those who ate spicy-buns and pork pies, are returning.

But, as somebody recently pointed out to me, are we simply building the slums of the future?    

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.