Some significant historic buildings hide in plain sight, unnoticed and at risk of disappearing without much warning.
It’s a recurring theme in my Demolished Sheffield book that a great many attractive and noteworthy structures are off the radar of listing and conservation planning policies, and need the vigilance of local people to ensure they survive.
I’m grateful, therefore, to Robin Hughes for alerting me to the former Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House on London Road, which is subject to a planning application for its demolition and replacement by an incongruous five-storey structure that intrudes on the surrounding streetscape.
I must have driven past the building thousands of times without even noticing it. It’s attractive, dignified but reticent, and its historical significance is invisible.
It was built in 1877 to the designs of one of Sheffield’s foremost architectural practices, M E Hadfield & Son, for one of its most generous philanthropists, Frederick Thorpe Mappin (1821-1910), to provide workmen with a safe, comfortable environment to eat, drink and relax before and after their work.
The cocoa houses were in essence pubs with no alcohol, based on the upper-class gentlemen’s clubs that had grown from the coffee houses of the eighteenth century.
The Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House provided food starting with hot breakfasts from 5.00am, non-intoxicating drinks including a pint mug of coffee for one old penny, “the best tobacco and cigars…at the cheapest rate”, and offered billiards, draughts, dominoes, chess and skittles. Alcohol and gambling were alike strictly prohibited.
The ground floor was occupied by a coffee room, a reading room, a bar and a kitchen. Above, accessible by a “spacious staircase”, was a second reading room “well supplied with papers”, linking by folding doors to the billiard room with three tables.
The Highfield Cocoa House was the first such establishment in Sheffield when it opened on Monday April 9th 1877 in the presence of almost all the major leaders of Sheffield’s public life, including both Sheffield MPs, John Arthur Roebuck (1802-1879) and A J Mundella (1825-1897), and the MP for Scarborough, Sir Harcourt Johnstone (1829-1916), the Mayor of Sheffield, George Bassett (1818-1886), the Master Cutler, Edward Tozer (c1820-1890), and a whole posse of aldermen, clergy and other gentlemen.
Mr Roebuck in his speech remarked that “you will not put down intemperance by being intemperate in trying to force upon the people teetotalism”.
Frederick Thorpe Mappin, before he declared the building open, explained how he and the vicar of St Mary’s Parish Church, Bramall Lane, Rev C E Lamb, had investigated the flourishing cocoa-house movement in Liverpool, Oldham and London to determine the most appropriate model for their scheme.
Within two years the Sheffield Cocoa and Coffee House Company had opened six more cocoa houses with a seventh under construction.
The initial popularity of the Highfield house waned, and it closed on Saturday June 27th 1908. An illustrated cutting, apparently from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, remarked,–
“At the outset the place was a very popular centre – cafés in those days were in the nature of a rarity – but for a long time past the place has worn a somewhat melancholy appearance…“
The building was taken over by a confectioner and a shopfitter and remained in use until at least 2008. The Tramway pub next door was demolished in 2015.
Update, April 4th 2023: Vigilant steps by conservation-minded councillors have secured a six-month reprieve for the coffee house: Mappin Coffee House Sheffield: Historic building ‘saved’ from demolition for six months after notice served | The Star. This will safeguard the building – barring accidents – while alternatives to demolition are debated.
However, accidents can happen: Bringing the house down | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.