Monthly Archives: May 2022

Streets in the sky 2

Hyde Park Flats, Sheffield: demolition (1992)

Sheffield’s Park Hill development, completed in 1961, has remained popular, though the flats and maisonettes overlooking the city centre are by no means everyone’s idea of an ideal dwelling.

The bigger Hyde Park complex, prominent on a steep bluff above the Don Valley, was inevitably vertiginous and became generally unpopular.  I wonder what the Queen Mother made of the place when she opened it in 1966.

The sanguine hopes that Corbusian decks would provide an adequate replacement for the dirty, rundown streets and backyards of the industrial East End soon faded.  Working Sheffield families were glad at last to have indoor sanitation, space, light and central heating, but not at the price of high winds, isolation and loneliness. 

High-rise housing was a nightmare for families with young children, and as the children grew Hyde Park and Kelvin became bywords for vandalism and crime.   At Hyde Park in particular, furniture and – on occasions – desperate inhabitants came over the balconies:  on one occasion a falling television killed a seven-year-old girl.  At ground-level, hatched areas of tarmac indicated where falling objects were a likelihood, and entry-points to the blocks were eventually given awnings.  Police as a matter of course parked their marked vehicles away from the buildings.

Lionel Esher, in A Broken Wave: the rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (Pelican 1981), describes the context of Womersley’s work:  he concludes, “[In] Hyde Park….Womersley had overreached himself….”  

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s condescending assumptions, in The Buildings of England, about what used to be called “slums” eventually gained a bitter irony. 

After years of social problems and misery, the inhabitants of Hyde Park were rehoused in 1990-91 when the World Student Games adventure provided the funding and motivation for a sumptuous upgrading of two of the Hyde Park blocks. 

When the students departed, the two blocks once again housed local people, one block still administered as City Council housing, the other by a housing association. 

The biggest unit, B Block, having been cosmetically redecorated for the Games, was condemned, and its distinctive crusader-castle outline disappeared from its bleak hilltop site in 1992-3, to be replaced by unobtrusive low-density housing. 

A surprising number of Sheffielders expressed regret at its passing.

It’s a pity that Hyde Park, itself such a magnificent piece of townscape, turned out to be unusable.

The story of Park Hill and Hyde Park Flats is featured in Demolished Sheffield, a 112-page full colour A4 publication by Mike Higginbottom. For details please click here.

Streets in the sky 1

Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (1982)

Few decisions about listing buildings have caused so much controversy as the Grade II* award to Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats in 1998.  Opinion remains divided about whether the late-1950s “streets in the sky” are emblematic of post-war optimism, or an abomination that should have been torn down long ago.

J L Womersley was appointed City Architect for Sheffield in 1953 with the responsibility for redeveloping the bomb-damaged city centre and coping with a massive housing problem. 

Neighbouring authorities, particularly Derbyshire, opposed Sheffield’s threats to invade their territory with boundary extensions, yet overspill populations from densely-packed inner-city areas couldn’t be decanted away into the city’s Green Belt. 

After the mid-1950s development of the attractive low-density Gleadless Valley and Low Edges estates there was nowhere else to build.

As well as the tower-block developments common to many British cities, Lewis Womersley experimented with two deck-access developments, Park Hill (1958-60) and Hyde Park (1962-6), followed after his departure to Manchester by Kelvin (W L Clunie, 1966-9), each a development of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation street-deck concept. 

In execution Park Hill was easily the most successful, partly because of its relative proximity to the city-centre, but mostly because the steeply-sloping site permitted ground-level access at one end to each floor except the topmost. 

The development offered a range of accommodation – one- and two-bedroom flats, interspersed with two- and three-bedroom maisonettes.  Among the up-to-the-minute conveniences, the Garchey waste-disposal system, flushing kitchen waste to ground level, reduced the need for dustbins.

Pubs, shops and a newly-built primary school provided local amenities, and the site is a short bus-ride from the city centre.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in the second edition of The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding (revised by Enid Radcliffe, Penguin 1967), made a complacent but prescient comment about Park Hill, that they would be slums within half a century, and he hoped, with breathtaking arrogance, that they would at least prove to be a cosy slum “which people will feel to be their home”.

When Park Hill was listed Grade II* in 1998, the Head of Listing at English Heritage, Dr Martin Cherry, described it as “likened to a medieval fortress, a glittering cliff-face of windows….a magnificent structure of which many of its residents and Sheffield Council are rightly proud”. 

A comprehensive refurbishment by the developer Urban Splash, started in 2009 but stalled in the face of adverse economic downturn, is still not concluded.

When it’s finished, Park Hill will be cosy, and it certainly won’t be a slum.

Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire

It’s not everyone’s choice of holiday, but a couple of times a year I like to book myself into comfortable accommodation some distance from home, take my laptop and a couple of paperbacks and spend the better part of a week writing.

It’s my opportunity to write up Sheffield local-history material that will never justify the expense of publishing, but can rest in the Archives as a legacy for future researchers.

Before the pandemic I spent an enjoyable, crisp winter week at the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar in North Yorkshire, followed the same summer by a heatwave on the North Norfolk coast at Sea Marge Hotel in Overstrand where I found a cool, shady corner of the north-facing patio.  At both locations I hardly left the premises all week.

The pandemic prevented me taking up my booking at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, until March 2022, and it was worth waiting for.

The library was founded in 1894 by the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) to “bring together books which had no readers with readers who had no books”.

He endowed it with £40,000 start-up capital and twenty thousand of his own books, which he transported in a wheelbarrow from his home, Hawarden Castle, to a temporary building, assisted only by his valet and one of his daughters.

After his death £9,000 was raised to build the present building, designed by the distinguished Chester architect John Douglas (1830-1911), and the Gladstone family provided a residential wing which opened in 1906.

No other British prime minister has a memorial library, though the USA has a tradition of presidential libraries back to George Washington.

John Douglas provided a galleried library which, apart from its visual appeal and vast collection of books, has two welcome attributes – a strict silence rule and the facility to reserve a work-place throughout the day and keep it overnight.

The residential rooms are small but comfortable, and during the pandemic all have been fitted with en-suite bathrooms.

The restaurant, Food for Thought, provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and refreshments throughout the day, 8.00am-8.00pm.

In four days, I produced seventeen thousand words about the parish of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, Sheffield and its remarkable first vicar, Richard Roseveare.

I wouldn’t have accomplished that at home, having to cook my own meals and load my own dishwasher.

Booking details and other information can be found at Gladstone’s Library | the UK’s finest residential library (

What’s not to like?