Categories
People

J.G. Graves

John George Graves (1866-1945) packed a lot into his 79 years. He was a hard-working businessman, councillor, and cared a lot about his adopted city. A much-travelled man, he knew Europe intimately, and visited America, Egypt, South Africa, India, and Palestine, and spoke fluent French, German and Italian.

Seventy-five years after his death, his name still echoes across Sheffield, and yet, we are guilty of under-estimating the influence he had on the city.

J.G. Graves was born in Lincolnshire, grew up in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, and was educated at Batley Grammar School. When he was 15, he moved to Sheffield to take up apprenticeship with a German watchmaker in Gibraltar Street, and at the age of 20, he started his own watch-making business in town.

He moved to larger premises in Surrey Street where he expanded his business to include jewellery, cutlery and silverware. His decision to sell goods by mail order was pivotal and, through advertising on the back pages of the national press, became incredibly successful.

Graves was one of the first to embrace the idea of selling goods, notably watches, on ‘monthly’ terms, and by 1903 employed 3,000 people with products sold through extensive catalogues.

Graves was first elected to the city council in 1896 as a Liberal member for the old Nether Hallam Ward and retained his seat for six years. In 1905, he was returned to the Council as a member for the Walkley Ward but did not seek re-election in 1908. His third entry to the Council, again for Walkley, was as an Independent councillor in 1916.

Graves went on to serve as Lord Mayor in 1926 and was granted Freedom of the City in 1929.

“Alderman Graves brings to his work unusual gifts of business acumen and a kindly spirit towards the general welfare of the people,” reported the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1930. “A fluent, dignified speaker, with originality of thought, he can marshal facts well and present a case strikingly. He always impresses his hearers by his transparent earnestness and sincerity in whatever cause he is pleading. Truly, he is one of the big men of the Council – big in stature and big in vision.”

However, J.G. Graves should be remembered for being Sheffield’s “Fairy Godfather”, probably the city’s most generous benefactor in its history.

When he died at his home, Riverdale House, at Ranmoor, in 1945, newspapers calculated that he had gifted more than £1 million to the city, that amounts to more than £44 million at today’s value.

His first gift to Sheffield, probably Pearl Street playground in 1903, was the start of small projects for children, but these grew in significance with gifts that included Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Barker’s Pool Garden, Concord Park, Graves Art Gallery, Graves Park, Graves Trust Homes, Blacka Moor, and playing fields. He was a generous benefactor to Sheffield University and the Children’s Hospital, gave much of the land forming the green belt around Sheffield, made gifts of land to the National Trust, and at the outbreak of World War Two, made an unconditional gift of £250,000 to the nation.

Graves Art Gallery cost him £20,000 as well as a further £10,000 towards the cost of the Central Library. He had started collecting art in 1899 and throughout his life collected over 3,000 pictures, 700 of which he gave to Sheffield to be displayed in the Graves Gallery.

“It has seemed to me the most natural thing that I should engage in effort and outlay which has for its object the betterment of the city in which my own lot has been cast, and which I love and understand so well.”

Graves had loved the countryside and was a keen cyclist, with one of his ambitions being to provide Sheffield with beautiful open spaces. As well as Concord Park and Graves Park, he provided £10,000 towards the acquisition of Ecclesall Wood and gave much of the land forming the Green Belt around Sheffield.

One such place was Blacka Moor that had been owned by Norton Rural District Council since 1929. The small council was poor and unable to fight off advances from developers and so, in 1933, had approached J.G. Graves as a last resort. He bought the land and duly presented it to the city.

Ethel Haythornthwaite, a prominent environmental campaigner, recalled a conversation she had with Graves at the official opening in 1933.

“Now, after we’ve done all this for you (by ‘we’ he meant the Graves Trust) will you promise to never trouble us again?” I took a deep breath, thought I had better be truthful and said, “Whenever the countryside around Sheffield is in danger, I shall appeal to you.” He looked at me, severely but not unkindly. “Well,” he said, “Now we know.”

After his death, the mail order company was absorbed into Great Universal Stores, but his legacy lives on through The J.G. Graves Charitable Trust, a grant-making body established in 1930 derived from £400,000 of shares of his company.

Today, the Trust is managed by nine trustees, including Adrian Graves, the fourth generation of the family to serve on it, and continues to support projects that relate to the charitable interests of its founder.

These include parks, open spaces, recreation grounds, art galleries and libraries for public use, promotion of education and community projects, and medical, recreational and sporting facilities.

Periodically, the Trust is in a position to make significant contributions including the J.G. Graves of Sheffield Lifeboat (1958), the redesign of Tudor Square (1990), the J.G. Graves Tennis Centre (1991), the J.G. Graves Woodland Discovery Centre (2007) and the purchase of ‘Comfort Blanket’ by Grayson Perry for the City’s art collection in 2016.

Categories
Buildings

Crucible Theatre

Photograph by Sportsmatik

It is hard to believe that next year, the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield’s architectural upstart, will be fifty-years-old. It has been a long journey, with plenty of ups and downs, but survives with its reputation intact.

The Crucible Theatre was built as a replacement for the Sheffield Playhouse on Townhead Street, home to the Sheffield Repertory Company, whose origins went back to 1919.

Photograph of Sheffield Playhouse by Flying Pig

Colin George was appointed Artistic Director of Sheffield Playhouse in 1965, and did not grasp that its hand-to-mouth existence was going to be turned upside down.

“One sunny spring day in 1966, I was one of a deputation from the Playhouse Theatre who went to the Town Hall to ask the Council for a subsidy to run the theatre. We were ushered into the main Council Chamber, empty but for a formidable northern lady seated at one end, on her Lord Mayor’s throne – Alderman Grace Tebbutt. We sat in front of her, naughty schoolchildren in front of the headmistress. She looked at us for a minute and then dropped her thunderbolt. ‘Nah then. Where do you want your new theatre?’ To those of us working at the Playhouse it was quite unexpected. ‘You probably want an island site,’ she continued forcefully, and with a wave of her hand effortlessly destroyed Norfolk Street.”

A new Sheffield Theatre Trust and Building Committee was created, an architect was appointed, and plans were made to create a new conventional theatre with its proscenium arch and using a large forestage.

Had these plans progressed, the history of Sheffield theatre would have been quite different. The cat-amongst-the-pigeons was Sir  William Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971), an English director instrumental in founding the Stratford Festival theatre in Ontario and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In October 1967, Guthrie arrived in Sheffield to talk about theatre. Hearing of plans, he spoke to the Trust and excited them enough to send Colin George and David Brayshaw, a local solicitor appointed as administrative director, to visit America to see and report on thrust or promontory stages.

They spent ten days in Minneapolis, Stratford, Ontario, and New York, and reported back that Sheffield should have a thrust stage. The Trust agreed, and the cries of derision began.

Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (top) and Stratford Festival, Ontario (below)

Denounced by theatrical knight Bernard Miles (“The theatre is a freak. It will be blacklisted by all reputable dramatists”), by councillors at public meetings (“I’m not going to pay to see Hamlet’s backside”), and in the media, the modernists won the day.

There was also the problem of  giving the new theatre a name. The Star ran a competition and ‘The Adelphi’ won, named after the famous hotel and public house that had stood on the site, but in the end, Hilary Young, who worked at the Playhouse, suggested the Crucible, a nod to Sheffield’s industrial past.

Photograph of Colin George by The Guardian

The Crucible was designed by Renton Howard Wood Associates, the project architects being Nicholas Thompson and Robin Beynon.

However, we must not forget the part played by Tanya Moiseiwitsch (1914-2003), regarded as one of the foremost British designers in twentieth century theatre, an innovative designer of costumes, sets and stages, and responsible for the look of over two hundred productions in Britain, Canada and the United States.

Moiseiwitsch had worked closely with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and was the principal designer at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis from 1963–1966, and again designed a thrust stage like that she had designed (and in 1962 modified) in Stratford, Ontario.

Returning to England in the 1970s, she designed plays both for the National Theatre and the West End, but her last legacy was designing the stage for the Crucible Theatre. The whole of the stage (18ft wide-28ft deep) was mounted on steel stanchions and beams provided flexibility to adapt it for different productions.

Photograph by Sheffield Theatres
Photograph by Sheffield Star
Photograph by Sheffield Theatres

Construction started in October 1969, the work undertaken by Gleesons, and was completed in November 1971. It cost almost £1 million to build, £650,000 contributed by Sheffield City Council and the Arts Council, and £260,000 raised by the New Sheffield Theatre Trust as the public contribution to the theatre.

In Spring 1971, it was decided that Colin George would direct Peer Gynt to open the Crucible, followed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s Aeschylus Trilogy, The House of Atreus. However, in July news came through that Guthrie had died, and the opening schedule was hastily rearranged.

Photograph by Building Design
Photograph by Picture Sheffield

The Crucible Theatre, principally made of reinforced concrete, opened on November 9, 1971, with Fanfare, a production devised in three parts. The first was ‘Children’s Theatre’ in which 34 children were involved. The centre piece was Ian McKellen playing the Old Actor in Chekhov’s Swan Song and the last part was rumbustious Music Hall.

And so, the futuristic theatre with its twinkly ceiling lights, orange auditorium seats (provided by Race Furniture of London), and gaudy foyer carpets, started its journey.

Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive

Once deemed a ‘white elephant’ due to low audiences, it steadily gained a reputation, along with the Lyceum Theatre, as the best production theatre outside London. With far more full houses than not, the long list of success is remarkable – The Stirrings in Sheffield on a Saturday Night, Chicago (the European premiere, no less), The Wiz (British premiere), Funny Girl, Brassed Off, Fiddler on the Roof, Hamlet, Othello, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie… the list goes on, and it was once called the ‘National Theatre of the North’. And, of course, there is the snooker.

The Crucible Theatre was Grade II listed in 2007, considered of national importance in the history of theatre design, ahead of a £15 million refurbishment that included a new roof and the Adelphi Room extension to the front. Ironically, during the construction of the extension the cellars to the old Adelphi Hotel were discovered and some of its foundations used to support the new build.

Colin George left the Crucible Theatre in 1974, but returned to appear in a production of Othello with Dominic West and Clarke Peters in 2011. His ambition to write the history of the theatre was never fulfilled, but as one newspaper reported on his death in 2016, his legacy stands in Tudor Square.

Photograph by Hire Space
The Adelphi Hotel. Photograph by Picture Sheffield
Photograph by FDA Design
Photograph by Our Favourite Places
Categories
Buildings

Central Library

It’s 85 years since Sheffield Central Library opened, and it is showing its age.

The building was described as an ‘up-to-date wonder’ when it opened its doors in 1934. Its origins went back to 1853 when the city opened its first public library, the same year that the Libraries Act was adopted. The original library started in two small rooms in the Mechanics Institute, from which it grew until the whole of the building was required. There was a further development in 1910, when the Old Music Hall was purchased to start a lending library and reading room.

The site was a fitting one for a library because for 150 years it had been used by cultural, musical and educational bodies, scientific institutions and local trades. The land was formerly in the ownership of Henry Tudor, who built a house and silver plating works surrounded by an extensive garden about the middle of the 18th century. On his death, the estate was split up, part of it to the shareholders of the Music Hall. part of the land used to build a school and the house taken over by the Mechanics Institute.

After demolition, work on the new Central Library began in 1929, to a design by W.G. Davies, built with Portland stone around a steel frame, in Art Deco style, and opened in 1934 by the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother).

The idea was conceived as part of a plan by Patrick Abercrombie to create a civic square. It never materialised, although Tudor Square (named after Henry Tudor) was created alongside in 1991.

The Libraries, Art Galleries and Museums Committee had to spend their entire annual budget of £2,650 on stocking the new library. The total cost of the project was £95,000, including £10,000 from local mail order entrepreneur and philanthropist, J.G. Graves, who also contributed £20,000 for the Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, as well as his art collection.

In the Second World War, a bomb fell on Fitzalan Square nearby and the aftershock caused the library foyer’s marble floor to crack. The crack is still visible today and runs almost the full length of the foyer.

Do we still appreciate the 85-year-old lady?

Probably not. In 2017, Sheffield City Council, horrified at the cost of extensive repairs, announced plans to sell the building to a Chinese developer, which proposed converting the library into a hotel. Thankfully the deal never got off the ground.