Thursday 29 May 1856. Thousands of people attended a May-day procession to celebrate the fall of Sevastopol, the capital of Crimea, the previous October. “The view from Moor-head along this fine street was lively in the extreme, presenting to the eye at one glance a greater number of flags and banners than perhaps any other part of the town.”
In March 1929, John Atkinson, aged 84, took to his bed at No. 86, The Moor, and remained there for a week. He had been in ill-health and died a week later.
His death meant that Sheffield had lost a veteran businessman, who not only had built up a great establishment, but was largely responsible for the development of the principal shopping thoroughfare in the city.
While John Atkinson lay on his death-bed, would he have ever contemplated that his business would still exist 150 years later?
The Atkinson family came from Low Dunsworth, near Boroughbridge, and John, one of a family of nine, was determined to try his fortune away from his home surroundings.
His first venture was at York, where he became an assistant in a leading establishment of that city. But he was stirred with ambition, and he fixed his eye on Sheffield, a growing centre of commerce.
He came in 1865 and became acquainted with the Sheffield public by working at Cole Brothers, at their premises at the corner of Church Street.
Once settled in Sheffield, he looked for an opportunity, and in 1872 secured premises in South Street, on Sheffield Moor. No. 90 was a two-windowed shop and was opened by 26-year-old John in March of that year.
In those days the Moor was not the shopping centre that we are familiar with. It was on the fringe of the country and people used to ‘go to Sheffield’ to do their shopping when they really meant going to Fargate and High Street.
It was his mission to see that his windows were sufficiently attractive to draw the attention of those on their way to ‘shop in town’ and was one of the pioneers of the ‘Shop on the Moor’ movement and had the pride of seeing the completion of his commodious emporium that became his life work.
Atkinson worked hard for seven years and established gradual growth of regular customers. His business required expansion, and in 1879, a piece of land known as Holy Green became available. It adjoined his premises and two additional shops, Nos 86 and 88 were erected, the former leased to a trader. But trade and custom grew, and in 1884, No 86 was taken over by Atkinson and became the millinery department.
Three years later, Nos. 2,4, and 6, Prince Street (a street that has disappeared) were added, and became the furniture department, and four years after that an extensive space at the back of the Prince Street premises was secured and covered for the development of the mantle and shawl trade of the day.
The business expanded, and a few years later brought another acquisition. In 1892, the shops, land, and works covering a large block of buildings as far back as Button Lane (another lost street), facing Eldon Street, were purchased, and in 1897 a new dress warehouse was built in another portion of Holy Green.
Atkinson’s love of beautiful architecture, and his ever expanding business, led him to demolish all his shops, ranging from Nos. 79 to 86, on the South Street site. The foundation stone was laid in 1901, and the new building was ready for occupation in 1902.
The store had a glass roof to let light down into the three floors which were decked with flowers and maintained by a gardener.
At the outbreak of World War One, the shop had empty warehouses, and these were utilised for war work, responsible for making hundreds of thousands of stamped parts for guns, shells, and tanks.
In 1918 two new wings were added, and in 1920 more of the Eldon Street block was brought into use.
By the time of its fifty year centenary in 1922, Atkinson was assisted by his sons, Harold Thomas Atkinson, and John Walter Atkinson.
“There is an atmosphere of completeness about the store. It is not merely a draper’s store. It is a general outfitting establishment, with its well-cuisined restaurant, and its café; with its departments for gas-fitting, and electrical outfit; its men’s clothing department and its footgear stores; it has an ironmongery branch; as well as its branches for stationary, sweetmeats, and drugs and perfumes; for china and glass, as well as for bedding and bedsteads; while its fur department, its section for robes and gowns, costumes and skirts, wools, dress goods, piece silks, velveteens, Manchester goods, and millinery, gloves, and hosiery, and its cabinet and carpet and oilcloth departments, are just part of the wide-varied whole.”
A lot changed afterwards, the business flourished, but during the Second World War the store was destroyed in the Blitz of 1940, resulting in temporary shops for all its departments across the city.
The business operated like this until 1960 when a new purpose built store opened on The Moor.
This year marks Atkinsons 150th anniversary and John Atkinson would have been shocked to find that his family-owned store is now the only department store left in Sheffield.
The Fitzwilliam Street part of Sheffield city centre was developed in the early 19th century, from agricultural fields into Victorian terracing and warehouses. Of significance, is that the area was heavily bombed during World War Two and as a result was cleared and remained largely undeveloped until the 1970s and 1980s.
The boom in student accommodation has resurrected the area in the past decade, not least with another new planning application submitted to Sheffield City Council for a thirteen-storey block of 209 student studio apartments. If all current applications are approved, the area will once again revert to residential use.
But what is the history of Fitzwilliam Street?
Back in 1874, Samuel Everard, a prominent citizen of the town, made the following observations: –
“As we pass Bright Street, Fitzwilliam Street and Rockingham Street, let us know them as illustrations of the origin of our street names. They at once indicate the ownership of the soil by the house of Wentworth (of Wentworth Woodhouse).”
The last Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, married Mary, the daughter and heir of Thomas Bright, of Badsworth, near Pontefract, in 1752, who in her own right was Lord of the Manor of Ecclesall and owner of extensive estates in the vicinity.
It was said that the Marquis, when once taunted with marrying a woman of no blood, had replied, “If she had no blood, she had plenty of suet.”
The marriage brought the land into possession of the Marquis of Rockingham and it descended to his nephew, William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam.
The names of Fitzwilliam Street and Rockingham Street are familiar to us all, but Bright Street, named after the Lord of the Manor of Ecclesall, has long disappeared.
It ran directly from the bottom end of Fitzwilliam Street towards Cumberland Street, crossed by South Street (that we now know as The Moor). It broadly spanned the same line as does Fitzwilliam Gate today.