Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Temples of Sanitation – Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester

Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester Museum of Science & Technology

While Burton Corporation was building Claymills Pumping Station to rid the town of brewery and household effluent, sending the ordure and the smell to the unsuspecting village of Egginton across the county border in Derbyshire, their colleagues in Leicester were also catching up with the effects of rapidly expanding population on their town’s limited sanitation.

Sewage-disposal had been a problem for the expanding borough from the 1850s onwards. 

The civil engineer Thomas Wicksteed (1806-1871) designed a scheme for his Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company to drain the town and purify the resulting solid matter as manure. 

Though the scheme markedly improved the condition of the River Soar, the manure failed to sell and the enterprise failed. 

Indeed, pail closets continued in the poorer districts of the town and the removal of ordure by carts, canal barges and railway wagons was a continuing nuisance.

A new scheme was devised in 1885 providing two arterial sewers linking to a sewage farm on the outskirts of the borough and the Abbey Pumping Station was constructed between November 1887 and May 1891 to pump sewage 1½ miles away at Beaumont Leys, off Anstey Lane. 

The imposing Elizabethan engine-house, begun in 1889, was designed by the Leicester architect Stockdale Harrison (1846-1914).

The four pumping engines, very like the slightly earlier ones at Claymills and by the same local firm of Gimson & Company, are now the largest surviving Woolf compound steam-engines in the United Kingdom, and Abbey Pumping Station is one of the few places where four steam pumping engines can still be seen within one engine house. 

The high-pressure cylinders are 30in × 69¼in, and the low-pressure cylinders are 48in × 96in.  Each flywheel is 21 feet in diameter, and the beams are 28 feet long.

Leicester’s population grew more than threefold between 1861 and 1901 and continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. 

At Abbey Pumping Station settlement tanks and an electric pump were installed in 1925, and capacity was reinforced by the installation of a ram pump in 1939. 

The station continued to steam until the opening of the Wanlip Sewage Treatment Works in 1964.

The site was then converted into the Leicester Museum of Science and Technology which opened in 1974.  

The original eight Gimson Lancashire boilers had been replaced in 1925:  of these replacements only one survives, and the boiler house now contains other museum exhibits.  Two of the engines are restored to working condition, though limited boiler-capacity prevents them both being steamed simultaneously for longer than a very short time. 

There are other sewage-related experiences in the Museum. 

The site railway, first installed in 1926 and operated by a small petrol locomotive, has been adapted for passengers.  Trains are hauled by a restored steam locomotive, Leonard, from the Birmingham Tame & Rea District Drainage Board’s Minworth sewage treatment works.

A display entitled ‘Flushed with Pride’ (a title borrowed from Wallace Reyburn’s inimitable 1969 biography of the water-closet manufacturer, Thomas Crapper) includes a lavatory with see-through bowl and cistern, into which visitors can drop artificial faeces and watch them journey from the U-bend to the main sewer. 

Such rare delights are not to be missed.

Details of public openings at Abbey Pumping Station are at http://www.abbeypumpingstation.org/default.asp.

Abbey Pumping Station  is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 17th-21st 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Temples of Sanitation – Claymills Pumping Station

Claymills Pumping Station, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

By coincidence two of the three pumping stations we’re visiting on the grandly but accurately titled Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness have similar steam engines – Woolf compound pumps built by Gimson & Co of Leicester.  In other respects the two sites offer very different experiences.

Claymills Pumping Station, which stands beside the Midland main line from Derby to Birmingham, was built for Burton-on-Trent Corporation in 1885.

Burton-on-Trent had begun to install effective street sewers from 1843 but did nothing to deal with the liquid waste of its principal industry.

One of the major disadvantages of the nineteenth-century brewing process was the considerable quantity of hot, foul-smelling effluent, rich in sulphate and suspended vegetable matter, that was discharged into local streams. 

A sewer constructed in 1866 to carry industrial effluent, domestic sewage and rainwater to sediment tanks at Claymills, near the village of Stretton, simply moved the problem further from the town:  the offensive material was separated and discharged into the River Trent.

The population of Burton-on-Trent – 9,450 in 1871 – was expected to produce about a million gallons a day, but when the town became a borough in 1878 the outfall was between five and six million gallons. 

The new council included a number of prominent brewers and in 1880 promoted an Act of Parliament to build a pumping station at Claymills to pump the effluent 2½ miles to a 300-acre sewage farm at Egginton – a vertical lift of seventy feet.

Though lime was added to the material, offensive smells remained a problem around the village of Egginton and as far away as Repton and Calke until the farm closed in the 1970s.

The paired engine houses each contain two mirror-image engines, designated A and B, C and D, with the boiler house between. 

The beams are each 26 feet 4 inches between their end centres, and weigh thirteen tons.  The flywheels are 24 feet in diameter and weigh twenty-four tons each. 

In normal circumstances two engines worked at a time, running at ten revolutions a minute.  In periods of high demand, a third engine would be engaged.

The five original Lancashire boilers were renewed in 1937, and the replacements incorporate Green’s economisers and Meldrum’s mechanical stokers.  Two boilers operated at a time, with a third on standby.

The steam engines were replaced by electric pumps in 1971, and when Burton Corporation’s sewerage system was transferred in 1974 to the Severn Trent Water Authority, the new owners enlisted the assistance of industrial-archaeology groups to take over Claymills Pumping Station as a preservation project. 

Once practical repairs and asbestos-removal work was completed, the Claymills Pumping Engines Trust took over the site in 1993. 

Steam was first raised in 1998 and ‘C’ engine ran in May 2000, followed a year later by ‘D’ engine.  ‘B’ engine returned to steam in 2017.

Claymills Pumping Station is magnificent in the way of such places – a grand complex of buildings, huge beam engines – but it has a special appeal to engineering enthusiasts because most of the steam-powered ancillary equipment is preserved and restored. 

Much of the auxiliary machinery was stripped out to create storage space, and has been gradually repatriated by the Trust. 

The 26-foot-long bed lathe had been scrapped, but the Trust identified and acquired a near equivalent machine from Bamford Mill, Derbyshire.

The blacksmith’s forge, which had been demolished after the station closed, was rebuilt by the Trust in 2005. 

Claymills has a welcoming atmosphere, and it’s always heartening to see young people involved in heritage industrial archaeology.

The photograph I wish I’d captured but missed was of a youth in full Victorian workers’ rig of flat cap, waistcoat and muffler, tapping into his smartphone.

Details of public openings at Claymills are at http://www.claymills.org.uk.

Clay Mills Pumping Station  is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 17th-21st 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Park Palace Ponies

Park Palace Ponies (the former Park Palace Cinema), Dingle, Liverpool

The Park Palace Theatre in Toxteth was built for James Kiernan, a Liverpool theatre proprietor and designed by J H Havelock-Sutton, a Liverpool architect.

The auditorium is a simple rectangle, with the balcony (now removed) around three sides.  There were two boxes (also now gone), decorated with tall oval bevelled mirrors and lit with brass gas brackets.  Corinthian pilasters with acanthus-leaf bases flank the proscenium and support a broken pediment.  The proscenium is thirty feet wide.  Backstage there were four dressing rooms but no fly-tower.

Some accounts mention a gallery, and the Royal Arms mounted above the proscenium following a visit by King Edward VII in 1903, but there is no present-day evidence of either.

The original audience capacity was 1,100 (600 in the pit and stalls, 500 in the balcony) and it opened on December 4th 1893 as a variety theatre.

Though it retained its music-hall licence, the building was used as a cinema from 1905.  For a time the Sheffield cinema impresario Jasper Redfern ran it, and the Weisker Brothers took it over and renamed it the Kinematodrome in 1910.  

In 1911, Peter Dunn acquired it and ran it as cine-variety for nearly twenty years.  During the 1920s there was a seven-piece orchestra.  The variety acts and the orchestra ceased abruptly with the introduction of sound movies on January 8th 1930.  By then the capacity had reduced to 961. 

After Peter Dunn’s death in 1934, the proprietor was Miss Sheila Dunn, presumably his daughter.

The final film show – Russ Tamblyn in The Young Guns and John Payne in Hold Back the Night – took place on March 11th 1959. 

After its demise as a cinema the Park Palace was successively used as a factory, a chemist’s shop and a store for motor-vehicle spares.  For a period from 1984 it became the Mill Street Chapel. 

Subsequently the building was largely left to deteriorate. 

It was briefly revived as a performance space in 2008, and was once used as a location for the Channel 4 soap-opera Hollyoaks, but from 2010 onwards it was advertised to let. 

It remained unused until 2017, when Keith Hackett and his daughter, Bridget Griffin, set up Park Palace Ponies, to provide a riding school aimed at local children under ten, bringing them the benefits of spending time with horses and the perception that horse-riding isn’t only for the affluent.  Hundreds of children from south-central Liverpool (defined as postcodes L8, L17 and L18) have since taken part in riding lessons at the Palace:  http://www.parkpalaceponies.com

The community benefits of this scheme are palpable, and not confined to the children and their families.  The horses graze at the local allotments, where their manure is much appreciated.

Park Palace Ponies is included in the itinerary of the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details of the tour, please click here.

The Florrie

The Florence Institute for Boys, Dingle, Liverpool

When Sir Bernard Hall, a Liverpool businessman and alderman, suffered the loss of his 22-year-old daughter Florence in 1887, he commemorated her by building the Florence Institute for Boys in the inner-city riverside suburb of Dingle, “in the hope that it might prove an acceptable place of recreation and instruction for the poor and working boys of this district of the city”. 

It quickly came to be known, almost universally, as “The Florrie”.

Bernard Hall’s work as a city magistrate made him aware that a lack of recreational amusements led working-class adolescents to mischief and petty crime, and he commissioned one of the earliest purpose-built boys’ clubs in Britain, providing facilities for football, boxing, baseball, gymnastics and billiards.

The Florrie was not the first boys’ club in Liverpool.  The Gordon Working Lads’ Institute in Kirkdale preceded it.  Designed by Birkenhead-born David Walker (1840-1892), it was built in 1886 at a cost of £50,000 by another Liverpool merchant, William Cliff, as a memorial to his deceased eleven-year-old son. 

In the same period, Manchester businessmen funded the Hulme Lads’ Club (1887), the Adelphi Ragged School Lads’ Evening Club (1888), the Openshaw Lads’ Club (1888), the Sharp Street Lads Club and Ragged School (c1890) and the still surviving Salford Lads’ Club (1904).

The Florrie, designed by C Sherwood and H W Keef, is a magnificent essay in Jacobethan-style terracotta, with a concert hall, a library as well as a gymnasium.  It was completed in 1889 and the club opened the following year.  

Weekend camps at Heswall on the Wirral, a short ferry-trip across the Mersey, and summer camps in the Lake District were regularly run to give Toxteth and Dingle kids a healthy break away from the streets.

The Florrie served generations of boys and young men, some of whom achieved fame.  The Florrie is where Gerry Marsden (b 1942) learnt to play guitar and performed his first skiffle gig at the age of ten, and the club can claim to have nurtured the careers of a legion of boxers, including Dick Tiger (1929-1971), Tommy Bache (b 1938), Alan Rudkin MBE (1941-2010) and Larry Paul (1952-2017).

The 1980s were sad, bad times for the communities that make up the district of Liverpool 8, and the Florrie was a casualty of those grim days.  The funding that had kept the Florrie going ceased, so the building was sold in 1987 and its management company, The Florence Institute Incorporated Company, was dissolved the following year.

By the legal device of bona vacantia [“ownerless goods”] the premises passed to the Duchy of Lancaster, the private estate of the monarch, but neglect and vandalism eventually reduced the building to a wreck which was rendered roofless and burnt-out after a fire in 1999.

A succession of saviours took on the challenge of bringing the Florrie back – pressure groups such as the Friends of the Florrie and the Dingle Community Regeneration Trust, supported by the Liverpool Echo’s ‘Stop the Rot’ campaign.  A popular, vociferous campaign prompted the formation in 2004 of the Florence Institute Trust Ltd, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones.

The trust ensured the upgrading of the ruined building from Grade II to Grade II*, and in 2010 secured a package of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£3.7 million), the Northwest European Regional Development Fund (£1.5 million) and the Northwest Regional Development Agency (£536,000).

Meanwhile HRH the Prince of Wales had visited the site in 2007, and was surprised to discover that it belonged to his mother as Duke of Lancaster.  He promised the support of his Prince’s Regeneration Trust and persuaded the Duchy to give the building to the Florence Institute Trust.  He duly returned to open the refurbished building in January 2013.

The rebuilding was problematic, for lack of original plans:  the detailed restoration was planned around existing photographs, archaeological evidence and oral testimony.  This meant that, against the wishes of the local community, much of the specialist contracting had to go outside the city.

Since its reopening the Florrie has developed as “a multi-purpose community hub”: https://www.theflorrie.org.

In human terms, this means that it serves and supports the local community, girls as well as boys, adults as well as children, earning its keep through events and conferences and providing employment, training opportunities and learning and leisure experiences.

Once again it strives to be “an acceptable place of recreation and instruction”, as Bernard Hall intended.

The Florrie is a lunch-stop in the itinerary of the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Stolpersteine

Stolpersteine [stumbling stones], Luisenstraße, Wuppertal, Germany

I was walking along a back street, Luisenstraße, in the little German town of Wuppertal on a bright spring morning when I first stumbled, as the artist intended, upon an example of a Stolperstein, which literally translates as “stumbling stone”.

The expression metaphorically refers to a “stumbling block” – one of Gunter Demnig’s many brass pavement setts installed across Europe to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, memorialised at their last freely chosen place of residence. 

Here are four together, stating simply “Hier wohnte…” [Here lived…] Emil and Henriette Hirschberg, ermordet [murdered] in Minsk, and Samuel and Sophie Zuckermann, ermordet respectively in Chelmno and Auschwitz.  There are now over seventy thousand of these poignant reminders, deliberately designed to trip up the unthinking passer-by, from Spain to Greece and from Poland to Sicily. 

There were two outside my 1950s Berlin hotel in the heavily bombed area of Friedrichshain, and I found another on a pavement in the modern development that replaces the bombed wastes of Potsdamer Platz, where the course of the Berlin Wall created a dead zone that lasted a generation after the war ended.

I spotted another, in Budapest, embedded in the pavement of what had been the Jewish Quarter but which became, at the end of 1944, the ghetto.  Here the last fragment of the ghetto wall was dismantled in 2006 but a reproduction, using some original stone, was erected as a memorial two years later.

Gunter Demnig’s work is much less likely to be obliterated, even if a few setts are discarded, and there can never be too many reminders of the mass murders of 1933-45.

It’s idle to believe that such a crime could never happen again.

I carry with me the last line of Bertholt Brecht’s 1941 play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui:  “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Slaughterhouse Gothic 2

Former Refuge Assurance Headquarters, Manchester (now Principal Hotel): porte-cochère

The magnificent former Manchester headquarters of the Refuge Assurance Company is a fitting symbol of the city’s nineteenth-century prestige and prosperity, an extravagant temple to the virtues of thrift and frugality.

The Refuge Friend in Deed Life Assurance & Sick Fund Friendly Society was founded in 1858 by James Proctor and George Robins of Dukinfield, near Stalybridge, east of Manchester. By the late nineteenth century their society based on saving for the future had expanded to the extent that it needed a prominent headquarters in Manchester city centre.

For commercial buildings the architect, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), favoured the use of moulded glazed or unglazed brick to create rich decorative effects at less expense than ashlar and carved stonework.  Some of his best public buildings in Manchester were built in stone – the Assize Courts (1859-64, demolished) and the Town Hall (1868-77) – though Strangeways Prison (1868) is brick with stone dressings.

Elsewhere, his attachment to terracotta, and its tin-glazed derivative, faience, gained prominence after he designed the Natural History Museum, South Kensington (1873-80) and became widely recognised by his work for the Prudential Assurance Company at their London headquarters at Holborn Bars (1895-1901) and at instantly recognisable branch offices across the nation.

These terracotta buildings were satirised as “slaughterhouse Gothic”, which is unfair, partly because most of them are in other styles than Gothic, but furthermore because, though the outside elevations were deep red, the interiors were invariably varied and colourful, and could be kept bright because they were practically washable.

Alfred Waterhouse’s original building for the Refuge Assurance Company in central Manchester, on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, was started in 1891 and completed in 1895. 

The architect’s son, Paul Waterhouse, continued the Oxford Street elevation, including the 217-foot clock tower, in 1910-12.  Both designs are an eclectic mix of French Renaissance style with baroque features, liberally embellished with emblems such as the bee, symbolising Manchester’s industry, and the initial ‘R’ for ‘Refuge’. 

The company owned the land further along Whitworth Street, where India House (1906), Lancaster House (1905-10) and Asia House, Princess Street (1906-9) were built, leaving room on Whitworth Street for a further extension of the Refuge headquarters, designed in harmony with the existing building by Stanley Birkett (1884-1959) in 1932.

The Refuge Assurance Company left Manchester in 1987 for a purpose-built site at Fulshaw Hall, Cheshire.  The Manchester building was considered as a replacement home for the Hallé Orchestra but instead the orchestra moved directly from the Free Trade Hall to the Bridgewater Hall in 1996.

Instead, the Refuge building was converted into a 271-room hotel which also opened in 1996.  It was named the Palace after the theatre on the opposite corner of Whitworth Street.  The hotel was reconfigured, with conference facilities separated in the 1932 Excalibur Building, and rebranded the Principal in 2016.

The main features of the Waterhouse buildings of 1891-95 and 1910-12 are the porte-cochère, originally open until the dome was inserted in 1996, the open-plan office space and the clock tower, its faces embellished with the Manchester bee.

The tower, for obvious reasons inaccessible to the general public, has a dizzy succession of staircases to the top of the cupola:  https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/refuge-assurance-building-manchester-2011.60357.  Ascending to the top is fraught with risks:  https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/man-plunged-his-death-manchester-canal-after-photo-escapade-hotels-roof-1659284.

Within, the private directors’ staircase, decorated with Cararra marble and a bronze balustrade and embellished with stained-glass coats of arms of the cities and boroughs where the company did business, leads to the director’s boardroom.

The Stanley Birkett building respects its older neighbour, but the interior colour-palette is toned down to white, and the decorative features tend towards moderne in style.

The Refuge building featured in the climax of the 1960 Hammer film, Hell is a City, written and directed by Val Guest.  An analysis of the locations used is at https://www.reelstreets.com/films/hell-is-a-city.

Tours of the Principal Hotel are provided by Jonathan Schofield, a professional tour-guide and author who knows Manchester like the back of his hand, tells good stories well, and has a voice that cuts through the city’s traffic noise like a bandsaw:  https://www.jonathanschofieldtours.com/exclusive-the-principal-hotel.html.

Keystone Crescent

Keystone Crescent, King’s Cross, London

At the King’s Cross end of the Caledonian Road stands Keystone Crescent, the London crescent with the tightest radius and the only one in which the inner and the outer terraces have identical facades.

It was built as Caledonian Terrace in 1846, at a time when the surrounding district was first developed as middle-class housing, which rapidly went down the social scale because of the industries which grew along the River Fleet and, most of all, because of the noise and smoke of the surrounding railways.

The area has been transformed by the arrival of Eurostar, and the tiny two-storey houses with a basement and an attic have increased in value tenfold since the 1990s.  They currently come on the market at over a million pounds.

The front gardens have been given over to hard standing for cars, but otherwise the crescent’s conservation-area status maintains its attractive appearance, a few steps away from the bustle of one of north London’s traffic arteries.

Keystone Crescent boasts its own basement club [http://www.keystonecrescent.com], founded by Kristie Bishop and Coralie Sleap, who also operate Drink, Shop & Do [http://drinkshopdo.co.uk], “a quirky multi-faceted cafe, bar and shop” a few yards away down the Caledonian Road.

The spectacular regeneration of the King’s Cross railway lands has generated disruption and change [https://angelacobbinah.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/all-change-at-kings-cross], but the tiny enclave of Keystone Crescent remains intact.

London’s canal museum

London Canal Museum, King’s Cross: horse ramp

The area of London we now know as King’s Cross was until the early nineteenth century called Battlebridge, commemorating the tradition that it was the site of Queen Boudicea’s defeat in AD60-61.  (A more recent and tenuous tradition asserts that the queen is buried beneath platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station.)

The original “king’s cross” was a bombastic memorial to King George IV, sited at the junction of Grays Inn Road, York Way, Euston Road and Pentonville Road.  It was built in 1836 and though it lasted only nine years because it obstructed the traffic the name King’s Cross has stuck ever since.

The name Battlebridge survives at a canal basin on the Regent’s Canal, now a desirable mooring and the home of the London Canal Museum [http://www.canalmuseum.org.uk/index.html], which occupies a former ice warehouse on New Wharf Road.

The museum has two equally important themes – waterways and ice.  It’s the only dedicated waterways museum in London, and it’s probably the only place to learn about the once-important ice industry that vanished in the face of mechanised ice manufacture after the Second World War.

It was an ingenious trade, meshed with the Norwegian timber trade.  During the winter ice was cut by the loggers who chopped timber in the warmer months, and carried to London in March in the freighters than brought the timber later in the year.

The ice was brought from Limehouse on the Regent’s Canal, loaded and unloaded by metal devices called ice dogs, and stored in cavernous ice wells, much like the icehouses on country estates but rather bigger, built in 1857 and 1862.

The filled wells were insulated by sawdust, an otherwise useless by-product of the timber trade.

The enterprise on New Wharf Road was run by Carlo Gatti (1817-1878), an Italian-speaking Swiss who is credited with introducing ice cream as a popular luxury.

His carts delivered raw ice to restaurants, butchers, fishmongers, hospitals and domestic users.

He also developed a chain of ice-cream parlours and diversified into music halls before returning to Switzerland for a wealthy retirement in the early 1870s.

His warehouse continued in use until at least 1902.

The London Canal Museum, opened in 1992, is small but rich in interest.  The ground floor shows one of the two original wells, and the space above, originally stables which the horses accessed up a steep ramp, has comprehensive displays and film clips that explain and bring to life London’s waterways.

It’s a little-known gem, within five minutes’ walk of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, and a visit will take at least an hour.

Old Town Hall at risk

Old Town Hall, Sheffield, interior (circa 2014)

Photo: Chard Remains

Sheffield’s Old Town Hall, on Waingate, has stood empty and unmaintained for over twenty years.  As far back as 2007 it figured on the Victorian Society’s annual list of endangered buildings, and it’s more recently been added to SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk register.

I wrote about it in 2011 and again in 2015, since when there has been little to report.  Successive urban-explorer reports have simply underlined the continuing decay:  https://www.proj3ctm4yh3m.com/urbex/2015/02/01/urbex-sheffield-crown-court-south-yorkshire-september-2014-revisit-4.   

Eventually, in August this year, a planning application was posted proposing a solution to the dilemma of what to do with this huge public building with its sensitive interiors.

The new owner, Mr Efekoro Omu, is already refurbishing the long-neglected Cannon public house on Castle Street.

Mr Omu’s company, Aestrom OTH, plans to clean and restore the exterior of the Old Town Hall, and intends to strip out much of the listed interior to provide twelve serviced apartments, twelve “pod” hotel rooms in the old cells and, on the basement and lower ground-floor levels, a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” of 918 square metres (equal to 3½ tennis courts).

The Friends of the Old Town Hall, an energetic group of volunteers who have been monitoring the building since 2014, applaud the arrival of someone actually prepared to take on the building but are highly critical of the proposed alterations to the interior:  http://sheffieldoldtownhall.co.uk/our-response-to-the-planning-application.

Mr Omu’s scheme threatens to obliterate the three most impressive courtroom spaces and compromise the Waiting Hall area, making the interior as a whole unreadable as a former courthouse.

There’s no doubt that any historic building has to earn its own keep.  In this case, the current scheme prioritises commercial necessity above historic integrity.

Some parts the Old Town Hall complex, especially the 1955 extension, lend themselves to radical alteration because their historic value is inconsiderable.

The earlier interiors, dating back to the nineteenth century with some later alterations, need more tactful treatment.

Sheffield can boast of a number of practical, attractive, sensitive refurbished historic buildings within a couple of minutes’ walk of the Old Town Hall, such as the Old Post Office in Fitzalan Square and the former bank that is now the Curzon Cinema on George Street.

The Planning Committee of Sheffield City Council meets on November 19th to decide whether to approve this application concerning a major public building in an area of the city that’s subject to radical redevelopment.

Let’s hope that the Committee gives Mr Omu every encouragement to think again in more depth about how to revive the Old Town Hall, which deserves a better fate than to become a historic shell.

Morgan’s Library

Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

Concern over inequality and the power of huge corporations is nothing new.  At the end of the nineteenth century the richest 1% of the American population owned 51% of the nation’s wealth.

One of the most powerful of the “robber barons” (or “captains of industry”, depending on your viewpoint) was J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1914) who amassed great wealth by consolidating already large enterprises into conglomerates – General Electric, International Harvester and the United States Steel Corporation.

In the financial emergency now known as the Panic of 1907 the United States government had, for lack of a central bank, to rely on Morgan to pull together enough support from his fellow financiers to keep the economy afloat.

When he wasn’t making money, J P Morgan took to spending it on great art, amassing a spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and objets d’art which his son, J Pierpont Morgan Jnr (known as Jack, 1867-1943), endowed as a public institution.

Ever since my first visit to New York in 1981 I’ve been familiar with the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue villa that houses the treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), but I only recently found the Morgan collection thanks to a Time Out 101-things-to-do-in-New-York feature.

The Morgan Library & Museum occupies the site of J P Morgan’s small colony of brownstone houses off Madison Avenue in Manhattan.  He had bought a townhouse at 219 Madison Avenue at 36th Street as a family home in 1882, and commissioned from the architect Charles F McKim (1847-1909) a purpose-built library extension next door, completed in 1906.  (J P Morgan also bought, in 1903 and 1904 respectively, the two adjacent brownstones, one to demolish for a garden, the other as a residence for his son Jack.)

The 1906 library building is a Palladian design in Tennessee marble, linked to the 1928 annex which Jack Morgan built on the site of his father’s townhouse and to the surviving mid-nineteenth century brownstone by the Expansion of 2006 – three glass pavilions and an atrium by Renzo Piano, the architect of London’s Shard.

The core of the museum is the McKim building – three main rooms, one a triple-decker library, linked by a rotunda.  It was here that Pierpont Morgan corralled his banking colleagues in 1907, literally locking them in until they agreed on a rescue package to safeguard the financial system.

J P Morgan’s policy of acquiring great art with a significant story attached was continued after his death by his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), a light-skinned woman of colour who was enormously influential in the New York art world.

This is why the collection embraces illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and Near Eastern cylinder seals, alongside the drafts of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.

Within a few paces I examined the manuscript of a symphony by the teenage Mozart corrected by his father, Dr Johnson’s handwriting, a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and a Gutenberg Bible.  Hard-headed business dealings paid for this fabulous treasure house of art and human talent, accessible to the public simply by walking in from the street.