The Old Town Hall remains in predicament after failing to sell at auction. It was to be sold by Allsop auctioneers but attracted no bids – despite a sale figure of £750K, a big drop on the original asking price of £1.35m.
The Grade II listed building was put up for sale by receivers appointed after the collapse of Aestrom OTH Ltd, the company set up to restore the building.
The Old Town Hall was commissioned to replace the original one next to the Parish Church and designed by Charles Watson in 1807-1808. As well as housing the Town Trustees it also accommodated Petty and Quarter Sessions.
The building was extended in 1833 and again in 1866 to designs by William Flockton and his partner George Abbott, linking the courtrooms to the neighbouring Sheffield police offices by underground tunnels. When the current Town Hall was built in 1891-1897 it was extended by Flockton, Gibbs & Flockton to become Sheffield Crown and High Courts. New court buildings were built during the 1990s and the Old Town Hall has stood empty ever since.
The Old Town Hall is significant to Sheffield’s history and its demise has been shocking. The fabric of the building has rapidly worsened and water damage has caused considerable damage to its interiors. Restoration costs are likely to cost millions of pounds.
Its location next to the Castlegate development, recently awarded Government funding, might have made it an attractive acquisition, but developers are at a loss as to what function it might be used for. Until the Castlegate project gets underway the Old Town Hall will stand shrouded in misery.
There are now calls from heritage groups for Sheffield City Council to step in and make good the building, as well as seeking out partners to develop a practical and feasible solution.
There has perhaps only been one authority on law in Sheffield, and that was Judge David Ronald Bentley Q.C. (1942-2012) who wrote ‘Courts & Court Houses in Sheffield’. The Sheffield-born judge pieced together the city’s judicial history from its days as a manorial court at Sheffield Castle to the opening of the Sheffield Combined Court Centre at West Bar in 1996.
“Sheffield grew up around the castle erected early in the 12th century by William de Lovetot. It was a manor and had its own manorial court. In the 13th century this sat in the castle itself. Unlike the manorial courts of nearby Ecclesall, it was a court leet, possessing both criminal and civil jurisdiction. Minor civil disputes arising within the manor were tried there as was petty crime. Later its place of sitting was moved to Sembly Green (now the Wicker), earning it the nickname of the Court of Sembly Quest.
“By the 17th century criminal jurisdiction had passed to the Justices of the Peace for the West Riding. They sat in the town to try petty offences and to hold preliminary examinations in cases of felony.
“In 1700 a Town Hall was erected at the south-east corner of the Parish (now the Cathedral) Churchyard. This building, which had cells for the detention of prisoners, was for much of the 18th century used by the Justices as a court-house. By 1800, however, they had taken to using a room on the ground floor of the Cutlers’ Hall in Church Street (known locally as Bang Beggars Hall).
“On court days the prisoners waiting to be dealt with would be stood in gangs in the churchyard and then taken across when their cases were called on. Those sentenced to imprisonment or sent for a trial in custody at the West Riding Quarter Sessions were despatched to the Wakefield House of Correction (a journey they made chained together and on foot). Those sent for trial at the Assizes were taken to the county gaol at York. Although having at the beginning of the 19th century a population of 45,000, Sheffield had neither Quarter Sessions nor an Assizes Court.
“The civil jurisdiction of the local manorial courts continued into the 19th century. In 1756, a local Act of Parliament had constituted the Sheffield and Ecclesall courts (Courts of Requests), with jurisdiction to try claims for sums of less than 40/ (later increased to £5). Each had its own debtor’s prison. The Sheffield prison was originally in Pudding Lane (now King Street) but in 1818 was moved to Scotland Street. That for Ecclesall (known as Little Sheffield Jail) stood at the corner of Bishop Street and Tudor Street Moor (later Thomas Street), near Moorfoot. Each court had jurisdiction over claims arising within the area of each other (a provision designed to prevent debtors escaping arrest by moving from one manor to the other).
“In 1808, the Town Trustees demolished the existing Town Hall and built a new one at the corner of Castle Street. From its opening in 1810 this building served as court-house for both the West Riding Magistrates and the Courts of Requests.
“In 1841 a committee of prominent townsmen was formed to petition the Crown for Sheffield (population now 110,000) to be granted a charter incorporating it as a Borough. In 1848 the Borough was granted its own Commission of the Peace. Thenceforth two Magistrates courts sat at Castle Street – a Borough Magistrates’ court trying cases arising within the town and a West Riding court trying cases from the outlying district.
“The incorporation of the town meant that Sheffield acquired its own Borough Coroner. Inquests at this date were commonly held in public houses (in 1876 the inquest into the Banner Cross murder for which Charlie Peace was hanged was held at the Stag Inn, Sharrow Head), and this unsatisfactory practice only ended with the building of a public mortuary and coroner’s court in Plum Street in 1884 (replaced in 1914 by a new building in Nursery Street and in 1977 by the present Medico-Legal Centre). In the meantime, the Small Debts Court Act, 1846 had been passed providing for the establishment of county courts throughout England and Wales. Sheffield got its own court in 1847. At first it sat in Castle Street but in 1854 a County Court Hall was erected in Bank Street. The coming of the County Court meant the end of the Courts of Requests.
“In 1864 both Manchester and Leeds were made Assize towns (belatedly following Liverpool in 1835). The Borough Council promoted a Bill to make Sheffield an Assize town in 1867, planning to erect a new court-house in Castle Street on the site of the existing court-house and the adjacent Black Rock public house. The West Riding was scandalised, particularly Doncaster Borough Council, not wishing to fund a new public building in Sheffield, and the Government made it clear that it would not grant its status.
“In 1880 Sheffield sought and was granted its own Quarter Sessions. Its first Recorder was Alfred Wills Q.C., who fifteen years later, would try and jail Oscar Wilde. Its court-house was the Castle Street building. In 1888 Sheffield became a County Borough and was created a city in 1893, and by the early 20th century, was the most populous city on the North-eastern Circuit with no Assize.
“In the 1930s the Council took up the question asking the Royal Commission on the Despatch of Business at Common Law. In its Third Report (1936) the Commission urged that the city’s claims be given ‘the most sympathetic consideration’, and later the same year the Circuit Towns Committee recommended that Sheffield become an Assize town. The City Council busied itself with plans for a new court-house. Initially the site of the old Albert Hall (Cole Brothers) in Barker’s Pool was considered.
“Eventually, the Council plumped for a site in Eyre Street close to the Central Library. A compulsory purchase order was obtained but WW2 brought the scheme to a halt.
“In 1953, Lord Chief Justice Goddard declared that Castle Street court-house would serve as a temporary home for the Assizes. Alterations to the place were made, and Whirlow Court, which had been acquired as judges’ lodgings, converted to its new purpose (pre-war the Council had contemplated acquiring nearby Parkhead House).
“In 1955 an Order in Council was made creating Sheffield a new Assize Division, and on June 23 the first Assize was held. In 1962 the Sheffield Assize Division was by Act of Parliament made a separate judicial county (Hallamshire) with its own High Sheriff.
“Sheffield’s Assize so long in gestation had only a short life. On January 1, 1972, it was, together with the City Quarter Sessions, swept away and replaced by the Crown Court.
“The Castle Street court-house served as the home for the new court. In 1978 the City Magistrates moved out to a new court-house a few hundred yards away, releasing more court rooms for use by the Crown Court. But even this proved insufficient. In 1984-85 the County Hall Court was provided with cells and courtrooms capable of taking criminal cases as an overflow building for the Crown Court.“
It wasn’t until 1996 that all these were closed and moved to the new Combined Court Centre at West Bar. The Castle Street court-house (more commonly referred to as the Old Town Hall) has remained empty, but never out of the news, ever since.
The name suggests that this is one of Sheffield’s ancient roads, perhaps named after Sheffield Castle, this stronghold destroyed by Parliamentarians during the 1600s. Castlegate is the road that runs alongside the River Don between Blonk Street and the junction of Waingate and Bridge Street.
However, you might be surprised to know that Castlegate is a relatively modern road and celebrates its centenary in 2030.
The road is found on the site of the lost castle and was first suggested by Edward Mitchel Gibbs, the Sheffield architect, as part of his ambitious plans for a Viaduct Scheme connecting Great Central Station (Victoria Station) with Haymarket.
The River Don Road was the only portion of the proposal adopted by Sheffield Corporation and built to ease congestion around Blonk Street, The Wicker and Lady’s Bridge. Its construction was made easier by the council’s Castle Hill Market development built on the embankment of the castle.
Castlegate (or Castle Gate), 60 feet wide and 200 yards long, was built at a cost of £13,000 in 1930, using over 9,000 tons of material, with a one-foot layer of strong concrete laid below the asphalt.
It was divided from the River Don by an old stone wall which had to be reinforced by 14 concrete buttresses each weighing 50 tons. Over the buttresses was a solid mass of concrete stretching from the wall halfway under the road and taking the weight of the traffic.
The next time you are able walk into McDonalds or HMV, on High Street, be aware that you are walking into history. Before you go inside, take a moment and look above, and you will find that these popular ground floor premises are part of an elaborate building.
This is the Foster’s Building, built in French domestic Gothic style by Sheffield architects Flockton and Gibbs in 1896.
The origin of the Foster’s Building goes back to the Anglo-French Wars of the sixteenth century, and the entrepreneurship of William Foster, draper, tailor and outfitter, who opened a shop on High Street in 1769.
At the time that William Foster opened his business, High Street was a narrow thoroughfare, described by some as resembling a village street.
When peace was concluded with France, the British Government advertised for sale a vast stock of old uniforms and equipment, which had been given up by troops on disbandment.
William Foster took a coach to London and bought up large quantities of soldiers’ jackets and belts. These were brought to Sheffield and stacked in large crates and baskets outside his shop.
It was said that there was hardly a grinder or cabman in Sheffield who did not buy one of the jackets, not particularly concerned about appearance, but appreciating something cheap.
Being extremely durable they were suited to both trades, and a credible record suggests that the old workshops looked as though a regiment of soldiers was at work, for every grinding wheel had a red-jacketed attendant.
The army belts were of excellent leather, so the record runs, and were largely used by craftsmen for buffing and similar purposes.
Foster was afflicted with an obscure disease, the chief symptom of which was that he frequently fell asleep.
“Mr Foster fell asleep while seated on the hampers of soldiers’ clothes. These used to stand on the edge of the pavement, and there Mr Foster sold the contents, so long as he could keep awake,” said an old humourist.
According to George Leighton in Reminiscences of Old Sheffield (1876) there were other amusing consequences of Foster’s illness.
“I went once to him, as a boy, to be measured for a jacket. Standing behind him, he made me hold my arm horizontally, with the elbow bent, and I thought he seemed a very long time in measuring it. A person on the other side of the street, at York Street corner, was watching the operation, and, seeing him laughing, I looked round, and found that the old man had fallen fast asleep.”
William Foster made a huge sum of money from the transaction and left his family very wealthy.
He was succeeded by his son, also William, who subsequently went into partnership with his own son, George Harvey Foster, in 1860, and renamed the business William Foster and Son, operating at 12-14 High Street.
It soon became necessary to enlarge the premises, and for this purpose, they acquired an adjoining public house, the Spread Eagle, and incorporated it into the original building.
And so, we come to the building that we see today.
When Sheffield grew in prosperity during the late 1800s, the council considered various schemes to improve the condition of its streets. The High Street improvement scheme finally concluded in 1895, resulting in one of the city’s biggest redevelopment projects, and doubling the width of the street.
However, to allow the road widening it meant the demolition of the old properties on the south side of High Street, including buildings owned by William Foster and Son.
George Harvey Foster sold 400 yards of freehold land in High Street for £34,000 in 1893. He took £24,000 in cash for the site of the tailor’s shop, and £10,000 for adjoining land that he owned, and needed by Sheffield Corporation.
Foster died in 1894, his will confirming that he had sold the frontage of the High Street property to Sheffield Corporation for road widening, and empowering his trustees to rebuild and rearrange replacement premises.
In 1895, the first plans for the new building were issued by the architects, Flockton and Gibbs, and convinced the public that this was an “ornament to the widened street.”
The chief architect for the building was Edward Mitchel Gibbs with construction work starting in 1895, undertaken by George Longden and Son, with ironwork supplied by Carter Brothers (surprisingly based in Rochdale).
The building stood on a new street line, set back about forty feet, that allowed existing shops to continue trading during construction, and be demolished afterwards.
When the Foster’s Building was completed in late 1896, it accommodated previous tenants from the old site , Foster and Son being the principal tenant, with other shops for J. Harrison, hosier, C. Tinker, boot and shoe manufacturer, E. Brown, goldsmith and Mr W. Lewis, tobacconist.
Foster and Son had two entrances, with four large windows. Their frontage was 86 feet long and 100 feet in depth and came with a large back yard, and within, contained all three of their departments – ready-made clothes, children’s and bespoke tailoring.
A balcony extended across the top of the building, while Gibbs set back the main wall of the frontage about two feet, so that the supports would not interfere with ground floor window space, and was described as being a “huge showcase”.
The Foster’s Building, on a slightly sloping site, was built in a curved line, leading towards the bottom of Fargate.
The front of the showrooms, above the shops, was ornamented with light wooden tracery, and the upper parts of the building (four floors) was of Huddersfield sandstone, richly moulded, and with a steep-pitched slate roof. It was relieved by oriel windows, ornamental gables and turrets, and dormer windows.
The whole of the upper floors was utilised as rented offices, varying in size, approached by a staircase, ten feet wide, leading from High Street, and by a passenger elevator (see note at end). Each office was fitted with “electric wiring, gas tubing and all modern conveniences.”
The corridors on each floor were eight feet wide, with mosaic-tiled floors and tiled walls up to the height of the door heads, These were well lit by windows placed at the end of each corridor, and also borrowed light from the offices.
The office entrance was marked by a lofty arch, with oriel windows over it, surmounted by a gable, with turrets, and crowned with an ornamental tower, which was to have been the water tank for the elevator, had not “technology” quickly intervened.
Foster and Son remained in the High Street until 1931, by which time they had been here for over 160 years. It was the oldest tailoring firm in the city, with other premises at Waingate and Castle Hill, and had been run by the widow of William Joseph Foster, great-grandson of its founder, since 1905.
Foster and Son consolidated trade at its other shops, and while war had been instrumental in its initial success, it effectively led to its demise after the Waingate branch was destroyed during the Sheffield Blitz.
The Foster’s Building eventually succumbed to other retailers at street level and, for a time, was known as Norwich Union Buildings. It was refurbished during the late twentieth century, presumably with much period detail lost, and before it was Grade II-listed by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1989.
NOTE: – The Foster’s Building had the first American Elevator in Sheffield, built by the Otis Elevator Company, founded in Yonkers, New York in 1853 by Elisha Otis.
In 1890, Otis had entered the British market under the name of the American Elevator Company. Between 1870 and 1900, there had been a transition between hydraulic lifts to electric-powered elevators.
The Otis company advertised its new generation of elevators with the consideration that such an installation was no longer a complicated matter, and well-suited to places which could not have had one before.
The Foster’s Building had intended to have a hydraulic lift and Gibbs’ design included a small water tower on the roof for its elevator. After it was decided to install an electric-powered lift the tower remained, but instead used as a motor room for the American Elevator.
In 1897, a newspaper advertisement for potential occupiers of its offices described the lift as being able to “accomplish the journey from ground floor to fourth floor in THREE seconds.” Unlikely, even today.
For hundreds of years there have been rumours of secret tunnels that existed between Sheffield Castle, going towards the Parish Church (now Sheffield Cathedral), and heading out to Manor Lodge and the Old Queen’s Head at Pond Hill.
After an underground tunnel was found underneath Angel Street in the 1890s, dismissed as an old sewer, interest in the stories waned.
However, excitement resurfaced in 1920, when discoveries were made at Skye Edge as a result of a coal strike.
In order to keep engines running in a nearby brickworks, several men were digging coal from an outcrop on Sky Edge quarry, when they unearthed what appeared to be a subterranean passage cut out of the solid ironstone.
Sky Edge was amid many historical associations – the old Manor Lodge to which Mary Queen of Scots was held captive – was less than a mile away.
It was possible to penetrate for about 100 yards with a naked light, but further on the tunnel appeared to show signs of caving in, and the presence of foul gases made it unwise for the men to carry on.
The main passage had an arched roof, 6ft high, and the floor was on a seam of coal, 3ft thick.
In the light of similar discoveries made at the time, in River Lane, near Pond Street, and at High Street, the discovery raised the possibility that the tunnel at Sky Edge was part of a subterranean passageway which at one time connected Sheffield Castle at Waingate (where the unfortunate Queen was also imprisoned).
Four years later, Sheffield Corporation workmen laying sewers near Manor Lodge unearthed another tunnel, at a depth of nearly 10ft deep, although it ended in a heap of dirt and stones.
The tunnel ran across the road towards Manor Woods. Explorations revealed that in the direction of the Castle the passage was only about ten yards long, apparently demolished at an earlier stage. But in the opposite direction it was possible to walk about 50 yards.
At the time, it was thought that it had some connection with a tunnel found at Handsworth two years previous.
In some places the roof of the tunnel had shifted slightly, thought to have been caused by ploughing operations above, where coping stones had previously been unearthed.
A reporter from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph was invited into the tunnel.
“All sounds from the outside world are cut off, and the thought that people long since dead had trodden the same path was decidedly eerie. The floor, walls, and roof are all made of stone, some of the blocks on the floor being of quite considerable size and thickness.”
An old man at the time, told the same newspaper that he knew of the passage, as it had been opened for the Duke of Norfolk about fifty years previous.
“The tunnel was opened out in the field, and one day, I, in the company of other lads, went on a tour of exploration. We took our lamps with us and were able to walk for quite a considerable distance in the direction of the castle. At last, however, our progress was arrested by a heap of stones and earth and we were compelled to return. I remember the incident well enough because we all got a “belting” when we returned.”
Another claimed that he knew where the tunnel came out of Manor Lodge.
“One had to go down a number of steps into a cellar and from there it was possible to walk some distance along a corridor until a heap of rubbish was encountered. The cellar was within a few yards of the road, being near the large ruined tower,”
The secret tunnel to Sheffield Castle is said to have been through a small opening which was situated in a wall dividing the Lodge from the grounds of the Turret House. This had been boarded up at the time, but rusty staples suggested the fact that years before a strong door was fitted to the passage.
The secret way possibly served two ends. It could either have been used as a means of escape when the Lodge was surrounded, or to assist in the hunting of deer which once abounded in the vicinity.
The legend that Manor Lodge was connected by a subterranean passage to the Castle, the two homes of the Shrewsbury’s, was an old one. But one that suggested that Manor Lodge was connected to the Old Queen’s Head Hotel in Pond Hill had only surfaced later.
There was evidence from a few years before in Thomas Winder’s British Association Handbook and Guide to Sheffield (1910):
“We know that there was a chapel in the Manor House, from the account of the funeral of the 5th Earl, but its position is unknown. The corpse was secretly brought from the said Manor to the Castle.”
Some years before, an underground passage had been discovered, about 4ft high, during drainage excavations under Castle Hill, a passage that was never explored further.
According to that writer, the secret passage from the Manor might have ended near Castle Hill, and not the Old Queen’s Head. Furthermore, the height of the Castle Hill passage corresponded with that of the Manor – about 4ft – whilst the supposed entrance at the Old Queen’s Head was said to be half as high again.
Drainage excavations, which led to the discovery of traces of a passage were referred to in “Rambles Round Sheffield (1915). The writer mentions the Lodge-end of the supposed passage.
“The old lady (custodian at Manor Lodge) will point to the entrance to the subterranean passage which is said to have connected the Lodge with the Castle. During drainage excavations at the castle years ago, traces of a passage were found, but the workmen smashed them in before attention was directed to them. Perhaps some day efforts will be made to trace the passage.”
It was possible that there were two passages, one going from the Castle to the Manor, and the other from the Castle to the gabled structure in Pond Hill (now the Old Queen’s Head), but supposed to have been the laundry of the Castle.
With regards the Old Queen’s Head, a reporter from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph visited in March 1925 and spoke with the landlord, Mr Ellis.
“Yes, there is an old tunnel here,” he said, “which is supposed to go to the Manor Castle, but it is all stoned up, although the entrance can plainly be seen.”
Proceeding into one of the cellars, the reporter was shown the entrance which faced in the direction of Midland Railway Station and was about six feet high. It was impossible to go in, as within two feet of the wall a strong stone barricade had been erected.
“I feel quite sure that this goes to the Manor,” said Mr Ellis, “as since the work commenced up there (Manor Lodge), we have been ‘swarmed’ with rats, and, possibly, they have been driven down here.”
And finally, there was the story of a worker at Steer and Webster, cutlery manufacturers, on Castle Hill, who told his fellows in the late 1800s about the works yard where a shaft or dry well was being used to deposit rubbish, and at some distance down the shaft, on the Manor side, there was an opening, apparently a doorway, which he declared was the entrance to the secret passage to the Manor.