Easy to see why the historians get confused by Commercial Street

Commercial Street. The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent jokingly said that the new road might be called ‘Wrangle Street.’ Image: DJP/2022

Let us go back to the early 1800s and visit a thoroughfare that was entered under an archway at the top of Haymarket. This narrow sloping lane was lined with squalid houses, little workshops, a few shops, and halfway down, on the left-hand side, was the Nag’s Head public house, that gave the lane its name. Nag’s Head Yard ended in a flight of steps that came out onto Shude Hill.

Despite its proximity to the old town, most folk avoided Nag’s Head Yard, for this was where you were likely to find many of the town’s thieves, brawlers, and drunkards.

Nag’s Head Yard is long forgotten, swept away in the late 1860s, when the construction of a new railway station for the Midland Railway on Sheaf Street necessitated road improvements to it.

Four approach roads were built to what became Sheffield Station. The first was down Howard Street, the second commenced on Sheaf Street, opposite the vegetable market, and passed along the River Sheaf into Harmer Lane. The third was a continuation of Cross Turner Street, emerging at the junction of Shrewsbury Road, Suffolk Road, and St Mary’s Road. And it might surprise you that the fourth approach was from Nag’s Head Yard, passing on arches over Shude Hill, and became known as Commercial Street.

This was one of two brand new roads built by Sheffield’s Street Improvements Committee, the other being Leopold Street.

Historians are easily confused by Commercial Street because there was already a road of the same name in proximity.

In 1834, the inhabitants of Jehu Lane wanted to change its name to something more in the spirit of the times. They asked Town Commissioners to allow street boards to be taken down and be replaced with a new name. Amazingly, the commissioners consented and told the residents to choose a new name. They chose Commercial Street, but this would be short-lived because the council started purchasing and demolishing properties on the east side of Market Street and the south side of Old Haymarket, to create Fitzalan Square, named after the Duke of Norfolk’s family.

This process of compulsory purchase didn’t go well, and Sheffield Corporation was involved in numerous court cases in which displaced residents and businesses demanded better compensation.

Nevertheless, the council pressed ahead with plans for a new 40ft street from the upper end of Old Haymarket, where Nag’s Head Yard was, over Shude Hill, near the gas works by a bridge, and into Sheaf Street.

Shude Hill passing under Commercial Street Bridge, Gas Company Offices, in background. Image: Picture Sheffield

The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent jokingly said that the new road might be called ‘Wrangle Street,’ but the surveyor of Sheffield Corporation announced in 1870 that the railway approach road would now become Commercial Street.

It confused locals and the Sheffield Independent’s ‘Spectator in Hallamshire’ asked, “What is the name of that street? I never know how to call it.”

Commercial Street allowed the construction of grand new buildings including the Post Office, at its corner with Haymarket, by James Williams in 1871, and offices and showrooms in 1875 for the Sheffield United Gas Company.

The King’s Arms Hotel and the Birmingham District Bank (later Barclays) would eventually be demolished to make Commercial Street wider.

One of the most interesting developments involved the King’s Arms Hotel whose frontage faced Jehu Lane (old Commercial Street). The new road cut immediately alongside it, and in a stroke of brilliant business acumen, the proprietors sold the building to the Midland Banking Company for £20,000.

It demolished the front portion of the hotel for a grand new banking hall, designed by Salmon Linton Swann, and redesigned the remaining part of the hotel so that it faced onto new Commercial Street. The bank would eventually become Barclays Bank.

Both the old Post Office and gas showrooms survive but have been empty for years, the latter regarded as one of Sheffield’s finest Victorian buildings, and is now called Canada House, subject of a current planning application to turn it into Harmony Works, a new home for music education in the region.

Former Gas offices on Commercial Street. Image: DJP/2022

However, Barclays Bank and the King’s Arms Hotel were both demolished in the late 1960s as part of further road improvements. It had been decided to make Commercial Street a dual carriageway, linking it to Park Square and Sheffield Parkway, and the two old buildings were swept away. The bank relocated to a newly constructed white office block (behind the site of the old King’s Arms Hotel) and subsequently became Commercial House, occupied these days by law firm Knights.

Fitzalan Square looking towards Commercial Street and Gas Company Offices, 1880-1890, Birmingham District and Counties Banking Co. Ltd, right, General Post Office, left. Image: Picture Sheffield

Ponds Forge International Leisure Centre was added to the bottom of Commercial Street by architects FaulknerBrowns for the World Student Games between 1989-1991.

But a few years later, Commercial Street underwent its biggest transformation with the building of Sheffield Supertram. The original line of the street was covered with new tram tracks, a gateway into the city centre, while the carriageway built on the site of the bank and hotel retained road traffic.

The construction of the iconic bowstring steel arch bridge allowed trams to travel over Park Square Roundabout, across Shude Hill, and onwards through the city centre.

Considering that Commercial Street is about 150 years old, building work has been limited, and there is no denying that recent times have been unkind. Empty buildings and graffiti blight the street, but with the redevelopment of Fitzalan Square, the Grey-to-Green project, proposals to develop Castlegate, and its proximity to Sheffield Hallam University, means that the future might be considerably brighter.

Commercial Street. Unrecognisable from the days when it was built. Image: DJP/2022

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


Canada House – Thank you for the music

Canada House, Commercial Street, Sheffield. Image: DJP/2022

The year is 1874, and on a road, yet to be named, there is a conspicuous addition to Sheffield’s public buildings.

“Heavy? Well, a light and airy edifice would hardly bear the weight of the abominable clouds of smoke that smother the locality, and that make one shudder to see a handsome building exposed to their defilement,” said the Sheffield Independent.

“Externally the building is almost finished, and as nearly all the scaffolding has been removed, its architectural features are now fully revealed. Whether considered from an architectural point of view or simply as a business establishment, the building is undoubtedly the finest erection in town.”

People of my generation must hang our heads in shame because we have woefully neglected this building over the past fifty years, and it is in a sorry state.

It was completed in 1875 for the Sheffield United Gas Company, and after the expansion of works at Neepsend, and new works at Grimesthorpe, there was no longer any need for its original works at Shude Hill. It coincided with the town council’s ambitious road improvements programme and the creation of Midland Railway’s new station in the 1870s.

Four new approach roads were created to what is now Sheffield Station, including one from Haymarket down to Sheaf Street, and required the construction of a bridge over Shude Hill, and allowed construction of new offices and showrooms for the gas company.

When it was built, the new road still lacked a name causing the Independent’s ‘Spectator in Hallamshire’ to say, “What is the name of that street? I never know how to call it?”

It became Commercial Street, the history of which I’m currently preparing for the Sheffield Star, and so will avoid further comment here.

Gas Company Offices, now known as Canada House, Commercial Street, Sheffield. Image: Picture Sheffield

The building (without fittings) cost £25,000.

The architects (Hadfield and Son) adapted a style of architecture affected by old Venetian merchants; the general effect was bold and massive; the details, not without their elegances, were in perfect keeping, while the granite doorways and monolithic pillars – some 14 feet in height and of splendid Mull of Ross stone – were quite imposing. The carving on the front elevation was sculpted by Thomas Earp, who worked on many Gothic churches and is perhaps best known for his 1863 reproduction of the Eleanor Cross which stands at Charing Cross in London.

The interior of the building seemed admirably adapted for its purpose.

A few steps led into what was the general office, a magnificent room capable of accommodating fifty clerks. The ceiling was handsomely coved and surrounded by a spacious dome which was filled with glass, designed by John Francis Bentley, and brilliantly painted with heraldic designs. All the desk fittings were fine Spanish mahogany. To the left of the entrance was the show room, fifty feet in length.

General office with restored glass dome, 2019. Image: Creative Heritage Consultants
Carved door case in the
General Office. Image: Creative Heritage Consultants
First floor staircase hall, and Ground floor hall looking east through entrance lobby, 2019. Image: Creative Heritage Consultants
Main entrance. Image: DJP/2022

From the vestibule or entrance hall, was a handsome corridor, with finely coffered ceiling, leading to a grand staircase, the steps of which were Hopton Wood marble.

At the top of the stairs there was another hall, which communicated with the board room, with coved ceiling by Hugh Stannus, the engineers’ drawing office, and several other rooms, all of which could be thrown together ‘en suite’ if desired.

Board Room ceiling 2019. Images: Creative Heritage Consultants

The foundations were in Shude Hill, a great depth below the level of the new street; and the two storeys down there provided storage space.

Canada House: Shude Hill elevation. Image: DJP/2022

By 1890, the company had extended its premises northwards along Shude Hill, with a contrasting red-brick warehouse, and in 1938 a white Portland stone extension to the offices was built on the west side of the Commercial Street building. In the characteristic art deco style of the time, it has carvings by Philip Lindsey Clark, and is no longer connected to the original building.

The 1948 Gas Act brought together over one thousand privately owned and municipal gas companies and created twelve area gas Boards, and these offices and showroom were used by East Midlands Gas. It lasted until 1972 when the British Gas Corporation was created and moved elsewhere.

It attracted no buyers, was listed by English Heritage (now Historic England), but despite this, was identified for demolition. It survived a 1977 inquiry and was sold to a local businessman who had plans to convert it to a hotel and conference centre, which never materialised but in the 1980s, the ground floor was converted to ‘Turn Ups’ nightclub and ‘Bloomers’

The Shude Hill warehouse wing became Tower Cash & Carry. And in 1990 the building was acquired by Canadian Business Parks of Bedfordshire with plans for restoration.

The building adopted its new name, Canada House, but notwithstanding regeneration of the city, the company hit financial difficulties and the building was never developed.

Vacancy led to dereliction through rainwater ingress caused by the stripping of lead from the roof by vandals, and the theft of period fireplaces.

The council served an urgent works notice to effect repairs to the building’s owner in 1996, and ownership was subsequently secured by English Partnerships, the government’s regeneration agency.

It was most recently used as a head office by owner Panache Lingerie, with a Chinese buffet on the ground floor. It is now occupied by just one commercial tenant, who occupy the first floor of the Shude Hill wing only.

However, the future looks the brightest it’s been for many years because plans have been lodged to convert it into a new music hub.

Section through Commercial Street block looking east, through new performance space building in the courtyard (Live Works, from early feasibility study). Image: Creative Heritage Consultants
‘What if….’ Images from the Pre-Application document showing re-use of internal spaces. Image: Creative Heritage Consultants

The proposed ‘Harmony Works’ development, from Sheffield Music Academy and Sheffield Music Hub, aims to create a home for music education in the region.

Planning permission is sought for the refurbishment, change of use and extension of the Grade II* listed building.

The proposed development would include a performance space for an audience of 300, two rehearsal rooms accommodating 80 musicians, 15 smaller ensemble rehearsal rooms, 20 individual practice rooms and a substantial instrument store.

Plans also include office space, a café, breakout spaces and ancillary accommodation.

Initial concept sketches produced as part of the feasibility works carried out in 2017/2018. Image: Sheffield School of Architecture / Live works

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.