The Wicker Arch is one of Sheffield’s most famous landmarks, and yet, we take it for granted.
It is one of Sheffield’s greatest engineering projects and is a small section of a complex system of 41 arches completed in December 1848. The viaduct is 660 yards-long, and crosses the Don Valley, taking its name from The Wicker which the main arch passes over.
The Wicker Arches were built for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company, extending the railway from an old station at Clay Gardens (Bridgehouses), through the Nursery (Street), across The Wicker, over the River Don, the site of the old Blonk dam, the yard of the Sheaf Works, and the canal. The portion of the viaduct between The Wicker and Effingham Lane had increased width to accommodate the Victoria Station and was about 300 yards in length.
It was the brainchild of John Fowler, the Sheffield-born engineer-in-chief for the railway company, who later designed the Forth Bridge. The arches were made of brick, faced on each side with rows of stone quoins. The piers were massive and described at the time as being “built to withstand a bombardment rather than any pressure from above.”
John Fowler regarded the showpiece of the project as being the arch that crossed over The Wicker and employed Sheffield architects, Weightman and Hadfield, to add ceremony to the design, with construction carried out by Miller, Blackie and Shortridge
It was a wide elliptical arch, 30ft high and 72ft long, with voussoirs, flanked by single 12ft wide round-arched footways, edged by Tuscan pillars, with imposts, key-stones, and hood-moulds. Above each footway arch was a relief panel with a coat of arms. An attached building provided an entrance and staircase to the Victoria Station.
The Wicker Viaduct (as it was known until the 1850s, and later Victoria Station Viaduct) was not without its problems.
Several workmen died during construction, including three men who fell to their death when scaffolding collapsed underneath the right-hand Wicker Arch in 1848.
There were also several archway collapses, including one shortly before its completion, where one of the smaller arches collapsed with a “dull heavy thud.” It was a hazard of Victorian engineering, but nothing like the dramatic collapse of 20 arches at the Rother Viaduct, six miles away, built at the same time.
The project also cost the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway more money than envisaged, and it had to scale back construction to cut losses.
On 12th December 1848, a ceremony was held at the completion of the “great arch,” the final piece of the Wicker Viaduct. It was said that the viaduct contained a greater amount of cubic masonry than any other and was considered the largest piece of masonry ever constructed in Britain.
The Wicker Arch was decorated in banners and those present included Dr Mariano Martin de Bartolomé and Thomas Blake, both directors of the railway company, Thomas Dunn Jeffcock and William Fowler, company land agents, and John Shortridge, the contractor.
As the keystone was lowered into place, Dr Bartolomé acted as chief mason, and gave a brief but animated speech where he stated that “the eastern part of the railway should be characterised for what they had done, rather than for what they had said.”
He complimented the engineer and contractor on the solid character and appearance of the work, and afterwards there were three mighty cheers and “one cheer more” for the success of the line.
Shortly afterwards an engine and two carriages passed over the viaduct for the first time and continued to the junction of the Midland Railway at Beighton.
It is worth mentioning the heraldic carvings on the Wicker Arch, at the time considered by some in the railway company as being unnecessarily expensive and extravagant.
Those on the side of town are the coats of arms of the Duke of Norfolk and of Sheffield. On the other side are the arms of the Earl of Yarborough, chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway, and the seal of the company which were grouped in the arms of Sheffield, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Retford, and Lincoln.
Most of the other arches were later brick infilled and have served as workshops ever since, most now hidden with adjacent buildings.
The main Wicker Arch survived a German bomb that fell during World War Two, and which repairs can still be seen. And who can forget the flood waters that lapped around its piers during the floods of 2007 after the River Don burst its banks causing devastation all around?
The area has changed considerably but the Wicker Arch still imposes itself as it did when first built. Some of the arches were dismantled during electrification, and now it is mainly goods rail traffic that crosses over it.
In 1990 a partnership between Sheffield Development Corporation, Sheffield City Council, British Rail, and supported by English Heritage and the Rail Heritage Trust, restored the arches to their former appearance, although there are concerns about its present condition and preservation.
There is a photograph from January 1970 that shows a train driver, sitting in reflective mood on a bench at Sheffield’s Victoria Station. He was waiting to take out one of the last passenger trains from Sheffield Victoria to Manchester.
Once it had departed the lights went out and darkness descended on a railway station once considered the city’s ‘pride and joy’.
An eventual victim of cuts initiated by Dr Beeching, almost nothing remains today, but if you know where to look, and use a bit of imagination, you can see where once Sheffield folk hopped on a train across the Pennines and down to London’s Marylebone and King’s Cross stations.
The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway was engineered by Joseph Locke and opened in 1845, the line originally terminating at Bridgehouses Station (the site on waste land above the lower end of Derek Dooley Way).
In 1847, it merged with two other railway companies to form the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway, prompting an extension of the line and construction of a new railway station about 1km to the east.
It was developed by Sheffield-born John Fowler, engineer-in-chief, and included a 40ft-high, 750-yard long, viaduct over The Wicker (Wicker Arches) and was completed in 1847-1848. The new Victoria Station opened on September 15th, 1851.
The railway station was opened for the convenience of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire, the Great Northern, and the south traffic of the Midland Company. It occupied a space between Wicker Arches to the canal, crossing the river, the site of the old Blonk Dam, the cattle market, and fairground, and the back of Sheaf Works.
Built on arches by Miller, Blackie and Shortridge, it rose 40ft above the level of The Wicker, the station fronting south-west with prominent views of the Corn Exchange, the New Market Hall, and canal warehouses.
The approaches to the station and the platforms were the work of John and Amos Ridal, and the station buildings were erected by Robert Tomlinson Carlisle, the builder of Beighton Viaduct and the New Market Hall.
It was not the magnificent station envisaged by Fowler. The architects, Weightman, Hadfield and Goldie, were asked to reduce costs, probably the result of high expenditure engineering the approach to the station.
The front of the Victoria Station was destitute of ornament, being simple in architectural character. It was approached from Blonk Street by a straight incline, built upon the arches, 50ft wide, 220-yards long, and rose at a rate of 1 in 30. As the road approached the station it opened out into an extended area.
The station consisted of a centre and wings, the latter being extended with a high fence wall, with gateways for the exit of arriving passengers, and beyond these, on each side, covered by stands for horse-drawn cabs.
The length of the masonry front was 400ft, built of rock-faced Greenmoor stone, with chiselled beds and joints, and facings of ashlar stone from Wadsley.
A covered veranda, with glazed roof supported by iron brackets, extended the whole length of the centre building, to allow carriages to set people down under cover.
The entrance, or waiting hall, was 50ft by 30ft, and 25ft high, having an enclosed office for booking clerks. Tickets were issued at three windows. At the centre, first-class passengers of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway got their tickets, and on the right-hand side, second and third class passengers got theirs. The left-hand window was for Great Northern passengers.
In the eastern wing were refreshment and waiting rooms, public conveniences, parcels office, and on the chamber floor the station master’s house. The refreshment rooms were rented by Mr Moyes, the landlord of the Great Northern Hotel at Lincoln.
In the western wing were the telegraph and station master’s office, rooms for lamps and porters, guards etc., and the engineer’s office. Above these were the boardroom and other offices.
Having passed through the booking office and reaching the platform, the passengers were greeted with ample light and a conveniently arranged station.
The platforms were covered with a light roof of iron and glass, 83ft wide and 400ft long, regarded as one of the “first fruits of the Crystal Palace.” It was the work of Fox, Henderson and Company, a ridge and furrow roof, with Paxton gutters, designed to carry away rain and condensation underneath (used for water closets and urinals), and the centre of the roof was raised to permit a line of ventilation.
The roof was not supported by pillars, but its principals were set 25ft apart, resting on the inner wall of the station buildings on one side, and a lofty wall on the other. The glass was strong crown glass, about the thickness of ordinary pottery, and extended to an area of 34,600 sq. ft.
Through the station ran four lines of rails – two for passenger trains and two for spare carriages. Two other lines were laid outside the north-eastern wall for goods traffic.
The exits were closed by sliding gates, opened only when a train arrived and thus preventing ‘idlers’ entering the platforms, which themselves were divided by iron railings through which only passengers with tickets could pass.
With the building of Victoria Station, the Bridgehouses Station was converted into a goods, cattle and minerals station that operated until the 1960s.
The Victoria Station opened on Monday September 15th, 1851. Although not fully completed, the station was elaborately decorated with flags, some bearing loyal inscriptions, others wishing good wishes for the prosperity of the railway and docks, while others were simple decorative banners.
The first train to leave the station was an early morning service with 500 passengers bound for Hull and Grimsby. About 9am, a pleasure train with 2000 travellers set off for Worksop, and in the early afternoon a special train left for London. Combined with local services the station was a scene of bustling activity, soon tested by the presence at the same time of two through trains and two Eckington trains sharing the same platforms.
With formalities out of the way, and the Victoria Station left to its daily business, Robert Tomlinson Carlisle, the builder responsible for the station buildings, entertained 500 of his men at the New Market Hall.
His workers were treated to a substantial dinner of beef and ham provided by Mrs Outram of the Black Swan in Snig Hill.
The ceremony was attended by John Fowler, engineer-in-chief, the man responsible for the massive project.
Robert Tomlinson Carlisle gave a toast to “The Queen, Prince Albert, Albert – Prince of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family; Prosperity to the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, and the Grimsby Docks; Success to the Sheffield Markets, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Yarborough.”
Charles Anderson Worsley Anderson-Pelham, 2nd Earl of Yarborough, former MP, was the chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway. His Lincolnshire estate was adjacent to the line and had been responsible for the development of the track through the county, especially its extension to Grimsby Docks
The Victoria Station was a success and received a new roof spanning main line platforms in 1867. Three years later the Midland Railway opened the Midland Station and it received its first real competition. Victoria was enlarged by Logan and Hemingway in 1874 and received a new frontage in 1908.
The Great Central Railway came into being when the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway changed its name in 1897, anticipating the opening in 1899 of its London Extension. Interestingly, for a short time afterwards Victoria Station was renamed Great Central Station but as was often the case, old names refused to go away, and it reverted to its original name. The Great Central Railway was later grouped into the London and North Eastern Railway.
In 1948 the railways were nationalised, and it brought wholesale change to the network, as governments committed to the elimination of steam traction in favour of diesel and electric power.
After World War Two, the Victoria track was the first main line in the UK to be electrified, reaching Victoria Station by 1954.
Over time, with the growth of the road haulage sector, passengers replaced freight (especially coal transport) as the railways’ main source of income, and Victoria’s glory period was in the 1950s.
The Manchester London Road to London Marylebone service, via Victoria Station, used the Great Central Line. Other expresses ran to King’s Cross over the East Coast main line, and The Master Cutler, The Sheffield Pullman and The South Yorkshireman all served the station.
However, by the end of the decade expresses to Marylebone had either been cut or re-routed to King’s Cross and by the mid-1960s many local and express services had been transferred to the Midland Station. It left Victoria with just one hourly Manchester service and the daily Liverpool-Harwich ‘Continental’.
The Beeching Report of 1963 resulted in the closure of a third of the rail network and originally favoured closing Midland Station. However, in the ensuing years Victoria Station became the chosen casualty instead, the Hope Valley line between Sheffield Midland Station and Manchester preferred because it served more communities. There was a suggestion that the cost of upgrading Victoria’s obsolete electric line was too expensive, but there were also suggestions that politics decided its fate. After much wrangling, and a two-year enquiry, passenger services were withdrawn from Victoria Station on January 5th, 1970.
Goods traffic still ran through the station but all tracks (except one that still exists nearby) were lifted in 1983, and the station buildings demolished in 1989 to make way for extensions to the nearby Royal Victoria Hotel.
Perhaps we should mention HS2. The long-running saga of Britain’s next generation railway originally had plans for a station at Meadowhall, but Sheffield City Council wanted a city centre location.
For a brief time, it seemed that Victoria Station might have been resurrected but alas, once again, its old rival, the Midland Station (now Sheffield Station), became the preferred option instead.
And so, to the present. Much of the site of Victoria Station’s former buildings and platforms is now lost under modern hotel buildings and car-parks. However, the elegant sloping approach to the Crowne Plaza Royal Victoria hotel remains much the same as it did when the station existed.