Monthly Archives: August 2022

Liverpool’s cultural learning zone

Liverpool Central Library: atrium

Photo: © Christopher Brook

When Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was completed in 1854 it brought dignity to the untidy area known as Shaw’s Brow around St John’s Church and St John’s Market (both now demolished), and the building contractor Samuel Holme proposed that its setting should become a kind of forum “round which should be clustered our handsomest edifices, and within the area of which our public monuments ought to be placed”.

The steep gradient which falls away from the site of the Hall precluded any kind of enclosed space, so the donor of the Free Library and Museum, the merchant, banker and politician William Brown (1784-1864), gave the strip of land on which was laid the street that now bears his name.

Initially, the Free Library and Museum (1857-60) sat alone towards the bottom of the hill.  Its imposing Corinthian portico complements St George’s Hall opposite. The grand entrance steps came later, c1902.

The Library was extended by adding the Picton Reading Room (Cornelius Sherlock 1875-79), an impressive galleried rotunda, modelled on the British Museum reading room in Bloomsbury.  It’s an inspiring place to read or study, and it has an entertaining echo that transmits conversations from the opposite side of the great space.  Its column-free basement, originally a lecture theatre, is now a versatile and attractive children’s library.  The semi-circular external façade pivots a bend in the street-line and responds to the apsidal end of St George’s Hall. 

Later still, behind the William Brown Street buildings, the Hornby Library (1906) was built to a dignified design by the City Architect, Thomas Shelmerdine. It now exhibits the Library’s rare books collection.  It’s noted for displaying the only copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-38) that is regularly turned from page to page.

These two extensions are named respectively after the pioneer of the city’s public libraries, Sir James Picton (1805-1889) and the merchant and bibliophile Hugh Frederick Hornby (1826 -1899) who bequeathed his book-collection and £10,000 for a building to house it.

The Library and Museum were badly damaged in the May 1941 Blitz though most of their collections had been removed, and reinstatement took until the end of the 1960s with a further extension in 1978.

The rebuilt facilities did not wear well, and the increasing demand for digital resources eventually required a radical refurbishment, safeguarding the Grade II*-listed Victorian structures.

The resulting design by the Austin-Smith:Lord practice is open plan, transforming the usefulness of the building with a dramatic atrium topped by a glass dome and above all a roof terrace.  It reopened to the public in 2013.

The potential uses of the Central Library complex are virtually limitless, from school homework to academic research, to online business support and keep-fit for over-sixties.

I called on the Archives service to provide the last visit on the last day of the last Interesting Times tour, Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022).

The Archivist, Jan Grace, and her colleague Carl gave a tour of the Victorian spaces and showed us the comprehensive collections in the third-floor Local Studies area, all of which are freely available on open shelves.

Because we’d spent the week touring odd corners of Liverpool’s history, I’d asked Jan to provide a display in the Search Room of archives relating directly to the buildings we’d visited, from the Atlantic Tower Hotel where we’d stayed to such places as the Florence Institute, the Park Palace Ponies, the Lister Drive Old Swimming Baths and more Gothic churches than you could shake a stick at.

I was particularly grateful to have this exceptional opportunity as a grand finale to my tour programme, which has always aimed for the “Heineken effect”, visiting places that other tours can’t reach.

Liverpool Central Library: Archives Search Room – Unexpected Liverpool tour, June 10th 2022

Photo: © Jan Grace

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

Still making steel

Special Quality Alloys Ltd, Continental Works, Attercliffe, Sheffield [© Jon Dennis, S6 Photography Ltd]

The Continental Works of Sheffield’s Jonas & Colver high-speed steel company in Attercliffe is still dedicated to highly skilled metal-bashing.

In its heyday before the First World War, Jonas & Colver made their mark in the grimy East End by embellishing their forge building with elaborate cartouches of their trademarks and the date ‘1911’.

When the company left the Bessemer Road site by the 1970s the site was turned over to a training centre for out-of-work steel workers needing to learn new trades.

In 2014 Continental Works once again returned to steel manufacture and there’s a curious connection between Jonas & Colver and the current occupiers.

Special Quality Alloys Ltd, which is part of the Special Steel Group, was founded by Bennett Beardshaw, who began his career in the steel industry as a junior accounts clerk at Jonas & Colver in 1906.  He would have known, at least by sight, both Sir Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) and Mr Robert Colver (1842-1916).

In 1925 Bennett Beardshaw suggested that Jonas & Colver should start a heat-treatment business.  The management was unconvinced and Beardshaw was invited to leave.  He set up the Special Steel Co Ltd, half a mile away at Bacon Lane on the Sheffield Canal, a site that still remains the base of the parent company.

Four generations of the Beardshaw family have led the company for almost a century, and the current managing director, great-grandson of the founder, is also called Bennett Beardshaw. 

Earlier this year I was privileged, thanks to Shane Higgins, the company’s Sales Engineer, to watch a team of four men using a fork-lift truck to place red-hot steel Polo mints, up to three feet in diameter, under the sort of drop hammers that lulled me to sleep in my Attercliffe childhood, bashing the glowing metal to the shape and thickness required.  Even when you’re outside the building, the earth moves.

This is noisy, dangerous, highly-skilled work that goes on behind the high brick walls.  A new recruit to one of these teams simply watches for the first six months before they’re trusted to take part.  Almost all of their communication is non-verbal, because they’re masked up to the eyeballs and wear ear-protectors against the deafening noise. 

Most people think that the steel industry has largely deserted Sheffield, and certainly the thousands of gaberdine-clad men with flat caps and mufflers no longer trail daily into the huge black sheds that filled the valley floor until the 1980s.

But the city’s proud tradition remains of know-how and skill that produces steel of world-class quality to meet modern demands.  Continental Works produces high-specification critical parts for oil and gas, defence, space and the emerging renewable sectors.

This promotional video gives a vivid idea of the combination of precision technology and traditional metal-bashing that is too hazardous to invite the public to see: Special Quality Alloys – A look behind the scenes at our facility here in Sheffield, UK (

It’s not easy to see how it’s done, but you have only to walk down Bessemer Road to hear it and feel it whenever the forge is working.

Jonas & Colver

Jonas & Colver, Continental & Novo Steel Works, Bessemer Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1985)

Joseph Jonas was born in Bingen-am-Rhein, Germany in 1845.  In his youth he worked for a couple of German iron-and-steel companies until he emigrated to England in 1867 to avoid military service.

He arrived in Sheffield, a total stranger, and initially worked as a commercial traveller.  He began his own manufacturing business in 1870 and two years later went into partnership with Robert Colver making high-quality crucible cast steel and, later, “Novo” high-speed steel for high-temperature cutting edges in hand tools and machine tools.

The partnership, which became a limited-liability company in 1892, was based at Continental Works and Novo Steel Works in Attercliffe, the heart of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry, and developed a reputation as one of the largest and most reliable suppliers of specialist steels in the industry.

Joseph Jonas made an outstanding contribution to public life in Sheffield.  He joined the town council in 1890, became a magistrate and an alderman and served as Lord Mayor in 1904-05. As an Attercliffe councillor he took a lead in acquiring High Hazels Park, Darnall, for public use.  He also acted as German Consul for Sheffield.

He gave financial support to the University’s Applied Sciences, French and German programmes, and was knighted in 1905 when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the city to open the Sheffield University building on Western Bank.  In 1916 he contributed £5,000 to a bequest from the late Edgar Allen to found the Allen & Jonas Laboratory for metal-testing.

The company took the name Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd in 1907.  Robert Colver kept a lower public profile than his partner, except that he served as Master Cutler in 1890.  He died in 1916, aged seventy-four, leaving Sir Joseph to continue the business.

Continental Works was heavily involved in supplying steel for armaments in the First World War, but in 1918 Sir Joseph was accused of contravening the Official Secrets Act by obtaining and communicating “certain information prejudicial to the interest of the State and information useful to the enemy”.

This prosecution harked back to an answer to an enquiry from a German customer in 1913 about a new rifle to be marketed by the Vickers company.  There was considerable pre-war trade between Sheffield steel firms and such companies as the Krupp corporation:  orders, materials, equipment and information were regularly exchanged until the declaration of war abruptly broke contact.

Sir Joseph and his co-defendant were found not guilty of a felony but convicted of a misdemeanour on a legal technicality.  They were fined £2,000 and £1,000 respectively, plus costs.

Then Sir Joseph’s troubles began. 

He immediately retired and gave up his position as chairman of Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd, which shortly afterwards was renamed simply Jonas & Colver.

Three weeks later he was deprived of his knighthood by King George V, and the following month he was removed from the magistrates’ bench.

What in 1913 had been an entirely normal exchange of trade information between companies in two countries that were not at war became in 1918 a pretext for anti-German prejudice against a naturalised British subject, as an article on Chris Hobbs’ website shows in detail:  Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) – Was a former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, a traitor? (

Sheffield people would have none of it.  His workers continued to call him “Sir Joseph”, and after his death aged seventy-six on August 22nd 1921 his funeral at Ecclesall Church was attended by the Lord Mayor and the Master Cutler, the Pro-Chancellor and the head of the Applied Science Department of Sheffield University, the chairman of the Sheffield Education Committee and, according to The Times, “representatives of every side of the city’s activities”.

Sir Joseph was not alone. 

At the very beginning of the Great War the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Siegfried Bettmann, was, so to speak, sent to Coventry:  World War One: Coventry mayor vilified over German roots – BBC News.   

Similarly, Sir Edgar Spayer (1862-1932), chairman of the London Underground Electric Railways group, was ostracised after the War: On the margin | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

It was not a time to reveal any connection, by name, birth or association, let alone activity, with Germany.

This was, after all, the period in history when German Shepherd dogs became Alsatians.

A dream for an architect

St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: sanctuary
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: Celebration Window

I first met the architect Vincente Stienlet in Sheffield in 2015 when the Hand Of team who promoted the Abbeydale Picture House Revival invited him to watch a silent film in the cinema his grandfather, Pascal J Stienlet, had designed in 1920.

Together we watched The Call of the Road, the very first film shown in the building, accompanied by a live pianist, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Recently Vincente invited me to accompany the Northern Architectural History Society when they visited St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby, which he designed and which was dedicated in 1986.

The chance to explore a building with the person who designed it is unmissable, and I was doubly blessed because when I arrived early I met the parish priest, the Very Rev Canon John Nunan, who took me on a liturgical tour of Vincente’s distinctive church.

When the NAHS coach arrived I then experienced a parallel tour with Vincente explaining to the group the structure as well as the symbolism.  The two commentaries fitted hand in glove.

At the beginning of the 1980s the parish had reached the point where their modest Gothic 1882 church, designed by Edward Simpson of Bradford, could no longer serve the growing congregation:  it seated 150, and every Sunday four Masses in succession were celebrated for up to six hundred worshippers.

The old St Joseph’s stands on a cramped and oddly shaped patch of land, alongside a former Methodist manse which had become the presbytery in 1939.  The only available space for expansion was the modest gap between the two buildings and behind that the unused presbytery garden.

Vincente’s response was to design a polygonal tent that connects the two buildings and occupies very nearly every square foot of land the parish possessed.

The gap between the old building, which became the parish hall, and the presbytery is filled by an imposing narthex, leading beneath the gallery to the worship space that embraces the visitor and draws the eye to the Baptistery, the place of admission to the faith.

On the wall behind the baptistery hang the Stations of the Cross – bold, chunky, enigmatic elm, carved with a chainsaw, designed by the artist Fenwick Lawson as an uncompromising reminder of the sacrifice of the Crucifixion.

The Stations of the Cross lead the eye rightwards to Fenwick Lawson’s Risen Christ, mounted on a beam above the High Altar.  Representing the triumph of the Resurrection it’s not a crucifix as such:  the crossbeam has been removed from the outstretched arms and the figure looks left extending an open hand towards the light gained by two south-facing gables, and beyond to the Celebration Window, by Fenwick Lawson’s son Gerard, gold and green, portraying a sunburst over the blue ribbon of the River Wharfe and the red of the roads crossing at Wetherby combining to make the PX symbol that the early church used for Christ’s name.

Canon Nunan described Vincente’s building to me as “a theological statement”.  It stands for the faith it belongs to, and it works as a practical structure.

You need an architect to tell you that the Gerard Lawson’s window is double-glazed, separated by a metre-wide space from the external glazing to suppress traffic noise, and that the beautiful polished teak that furnishes the Sanctuary was recycled from the handrails of the Byker Bridge near to his office in Newcastle.

There is more, much more to this superb church which, like a finely tuned instrument, calms the spirit and inspires reflection.

I was privileged to understand it – at least a little – with Canon Nunan, who this year celebrates his Golden Jubilee and is about to begin his well-earned retirement, and with Vincente Stienlet who describes it, in his book A Life in Architecture (Pascal Stienlet & Son Architects 2020), as “a dream for an architect”.