Leah’s Yard

Sheffield Retail Quarter:  Leah's Yard [foreground];  St Matthew's Church, Carver Street [background] (2006)

Sheffield Retail Quarter: Leah’s Yard [foreground]; St Matthew’s Church, Carver Street [background] (2006)

Cambridge Street typifies the heart of Sheffield’s city centre:  at the top end, one side is occupied by the 1960s former John Lewis store;  opposite is an abbreviated string of pubs and restaurants – Yates, ASK Italian, and a Wetherspoon’s called the Benjamin Huntsman.  Others have disappeared in the turmoil of redevelopment – the utterly unreconstructed Sportsman pub and another bar called the Cutler, and at the next corner Henry’s.

Scratch the surface, though, and it all becomes much more interesting:  the ironwork front to part of the Benjamin Huntsman pub is all that’s left of a coachbuilder’s works of 1878;  the  shopfront to the former John Lewis annex hides an imposing gabled Primitive Methodist chapel of 1835;  the Cutler occupied that chapel’s brick, gabled Sunday School.

Sitting right in the middle of this block, next to the Sportsman pub, is a façade which is the key to the history of the street and the area.

Leah’s Yard dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, originally known as the Cambridge Street Horn Works (presumably making handles for table cutlery) and later named after Henry Leah, who made die stamps here from 1892.  It’s an intact example of a Sheffield “Little Mesters” works, brick workshops with generous windows for light and external stairs on a long narrow site running back from the street.

Cambridge Street was originally Coalpit Lane, when Sheffield’s craftsman trades crowded into the town centre.  Yet even in its heyday this area was not uniformly industrial:  the Bethel Chapel and its Sunday school are only a few doors down;  across the road, the John Lewis site was the Albert Hall, Sheffield’s most imposing concert hall.

This place witnesses the rich, vibrant diversity of life in Victorian industrial towns.  The phrase “cheek-by-jowl” doesn’t begin to express it.  Ruth Harman & John Minnis, Pevnser Architectural Guides:  Sheffield (Yale University Press 2004), pp 98-100, contains a description of Leah’s Yard, pointing out that the eighteen workshops in Leah’s Yard were occupied by a dram-flask manufacturer, hollow-ware and silver buffers, a palette-knife hafter, a steel-fork manufacturer, a silver-ferrule maker, brass and german-silver turners, an electroplate manufacturer and a cutler.  This is how it looked at the end of the twentieth century:  Leah’s Yard Sheffield: 10 photos looking back at famous city centre site at heart of major development | The Star.

Leah’s Yard stood empty and gradually decaying for a couple of decades now.  It’s listed Grade II* and has figured on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register.  From the street it has looked not so much tired as exhausted.  Various schemes for sympathetic regeneration of this precious survival came to very little.

Planning permission to demolish the entire street, and much else, to build a new retail quarter has been replaced by a redevelopment scheme which is due for completion in the summer of 2024.

In the meantime, thanks to Sheffield’s excellent e-newspaper, The Tribune, here is a link to drone footage showing the state of progress in the summer of 2023:  The countdown is well and truly on! The frame for the new-build section of Leah’s Yard is up and all around us The Heart of The City is… | Instagram.

Update: This well-written article in the online Sheffield Tribune puts the redevelopment of Leah’s Yard in context as the surrounding improvement scheme comes to fruition: Can Heart of the City bring life back to Sheffield city centre? (sheffieldtribune.co.uk).

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