Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Muscular Gothic

Bestwood Lodge, Nottinghamshire

On my 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, we took a lunch stop, between the parish church of St Mary, Derby and St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham, at the astonishing Bestwood Lodge, now a Best Western hotel:  https://www.bestwoodlodgehotel.co.uk.

Dropping Bestwood Lodge into a tour themed around the work of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was, as Londoners would say, “’avin’ a larf”.

The architect for this extravaganza was Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873), who after twenty years of steady work within the mainstream of the Gothic Revival was beginning to take the theoretical principles of Pugin and Scott to extremes.  He appears to have decided that the time and the market had arrived for him to throw stylistic caution to the wind and build aggressively.  Some modern writers have labelled this style “muscular Gothic”.

Teulon’s client was William Beauclerk, 10th Duke of St Albans (1840-1898), who had the vestiges of a medieval hunting lodge removed to make way for a completely new and quite startling country retreat, in Nottingham pressed brick with Mansfield stone dressings vigorously carved by the Nottingham-born sculptor Thomas Earp (1828-1893).

The house stands high on a defined level terrace;  its gables, dormers, chimneys and spires give it a lively skyline and its elevations bristle with a succession of varied bays, turrets and buttresses.

The main porch is a weird collection of Gothic ingredients – vaulting supporting an oriel, flying buttresses at right angles to each other and quirky pinnacles set diagonally.  Carvings of Robin Hood and his merry men peer down from this bizarre composition. 

The wing to the left of the entrance looks for all the world like a chapel but was designed originally – to the expressed disapproval of the ultra-orthodox Ecclesiologist – as the servants’ hall.  Later on it did in fact become a chapel.

The most impressive interior space is the central hall, top-lit by an octagonal lantern, its Gothic arcading almost certainly modified by a later owner.  The heavy stepped fireplace shows how far Teulon was prepared to squash, stretch and distort orthodox Gothic forms.  It seems not to have harmed his commercial prospects;  Pevsner relates that it was on the recommendation of his work at Bestwood that he was invited to work at Sandringham.

The tenth Duke’s friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, brought numerous royal visits, sometimes incognito:  the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed at Bestwood for the opening of the Castle Museum in 1878, and Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, visited when he opened University College in 1881.

After the death of the tenth Duke in 1898 the house was leased for long periods while his son, Charles, 11th Duke (1870-1934) was confined to an asylum.  It was finally vacated when the estate was sold to pay the eleventh Duke’s death duties in 1938. 

The purchaser was Sir Harold Bowden, 2nd Bt (1880-1960), chairman of the Raleigh Bicycle Company.  The house was first requisitioned and later purchased by the Army for headquarters, and became a hotel in the 1970s.

Pugin would have loathed it.

Soi-disant castle

Willersley Castle, Derbyshire

Maureen, one of my regular Interesting Times tour-guests, has alerted me to the sale of Willersley Castle, which we visited for lunch on our ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour:  https://christianguild.co.uk/willersley.

It operated as a Christian Guild holiday hotel until the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure.  The owners have now decided not to reopen:  https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/stunning-castle-hotel-derbyshire-go-4309370.

Its main claim to fame is that it was to be the residence of the great cotton-spinning inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), whose pioneering mills lie out of sight within fifteen minutes’ walk of the front door.

Mr Arkwright, as he was until he was knighted in 1786, chose Cromford as the site for his first water-powered factory, which he opened in 1771.  He resided at Rock House, tucked on a hill even nearer to the mills but on the other side south of the River Derwent.  He sought to balance the practical necessity of keeping an eye on the works and workers with the amenities he considered suited to his increasing wealth.

To call Willersley a castle is stretching the definition.  Designed initially by the little-known William Thomas [https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-thomas-216451], it’s an essentially classical house with battlements and turrets.  John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, famously described it as “an effort of inconvenient ill taste”.

When he visited in 1789 Byng was scathing about the location, screened from sight of the Mill by a high cliff, overlooking a bend in the River Derwent:

…really he has made a happy choice of ground, for by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery.  It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman…But light come, light go, Sir Richard has honourably made his great fortune and so let him still live in a great cotton mill!

The following year Torrington revisited Cromford and inspected the partly-completed interior of Arkwright’s mansion:

…built so high as to overlook every beauty, and to catch every wind;  the approach is dangerous;  the ceilings are of gew-gaw fret work;  the small circular staircase…is so dark and narrow, that people cannot pass each other;  I ask’d a workman if there was a library?– Yes, answer’d he, at the foot of the stairs.  Its dimensions are 15 feet square;  (a small counting house;) and having the perpendicular lime stone rock within 4 yards, it is too dark to read or write in without a candle!  There is likewise a music room;  this is upstairs, is 18 feet square, and will have a large organ in it:  what a scheme!  What confinement!  At Clapham they can produce nothing equal to this, where ground is sold by the yard…

The Castle was damaged by fire in 1791, shortly before Sir Richard Arkwright’s death, and his son, the banker Richard Arkwright II, commissioned Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter to rebuild and improve the house.

The finest feature of the interior is the oval hall, which borrows light from the roof to enhance what William Thomas intended to be the main staircase.  Other elegant rooms with fireplaces remain.

The Arkwright family lived at Willersley until 1922, long after they’d abandoned the mills.

The Methodist Guild opened it as a Christian hotel in 1928, and it has remained a holiday retreat ever since, except during the Second World War when the Salvation Army operated it as a maternity home.

Now its future is uncertain, threatened by the economic impact of the pandemic. 

Exploring Sydney – Parramatta

Anglican Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia
St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia

One of my resolutions on my 2017 visit to Sydney was to make the most of the network of ferries across the harbour, and I decided to take one of the two longest trips, to Parramatta.

I had no great hopes of Parramatta – a settlement founded in the same year as Sydney itself, 1788, in the hope of establishing a farm away from the unproductive soil of the coastal area.  I enjoyed the ferry, and on the strength of a free street-map of Parramatta I walked up river to find St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral which was a great surprise.

From the outside it looks an entirely conventional Gothic revival church of parochial size dated 1854, distinguished only by its tower and spire which is later, 1880.  The entrance is located at the east end, and within is a breathtakingly modern chapel with brilliant white walls, built within the original shell and the nave arcade.  The old cathedral was burnt down in 1996, and the shell now serves as a prelude for the new cathedral, designed by Romaldo Giurgola of MGT Architects, built at right angles to the liturgical north, an open-plan space with much modern sculpture and glass, and a Norman & Beard organ brought from St Saviour’s, Knightsbridge and rebuilt here in 2005.  Outside is a monument to Pope John Paul II, a sculptural group featuring the Pope with four young people by Linda Klarfeld.

I walked to the opposite end of Church Street, where stands the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, built in 1852-5 in Romanesque style – unusual in Australia – and distinguished by earlier twin towers with spires of c1820 based on the ruined church of St Mary at Reculver in Kent, which was reputedly the last English church the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, saw as she set off for Australia.  Almost all the woodwork in this dark, warm building is in the Romanesque style, except the font, which is a gift from the Māori people of New Zealand, carved by the Māori craftsman Charles Tuaru in 1966-9.

I returned to Sydney by train from Parramatta station, on a suburban double-deck train which gives good views of the passing suburbs.  When the train drew into Lidburne station I remembered it was where on a previous visit I’d got off to explore Rookwood Cemetery, the destination of trains from the Mortuary Station next to Central.  And sure enough, as we drew out of the station I spotted a siding that turns away from the main line and points across the road to the gap in the graves where the trains used to run.

Darnall Works

Darnall Works, Sheffield

The biggest, most significant industrial archaeology site in Sheffield is hardly known to the public, though it contains two of the three Grade II* listed buildings in the Lower Don Valley, the city’s former industrial heartland.

A visitor with time to spare can track the development of Sheffield’s steel industry through its museums and monuments.  The early manufacture of blister steel can be understood at the Doncaster Street Cementation Furnace.  Benjamin Huntsman’s pivotal development of crucible steel – and the process of using it to manufacture edge tools – is displayed at the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel

The later growth of the heavy steel trades is shown at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum, and at the former Templeborough works of Steel, Peech & Tozer in the Borough of Rotherham the Magna Centre provides a convincing simulation of the operating of an electric-arc furnace in “The Big Melt”.

Very few people have ever seen Darnall Works on Worksop Road, near to the Sheffield Canal, dating back at least to 1793, when the Darnall Glass Works stood on the site.  The Sanderson Brothers, cutlery and steel manufacturers, took it over in 1835. 

They concentrated their operations on the Darnall site by building several new structures, now the oldest above-ground survivals on the site, in 1871-74, and continued to use it through much of the twentieth century. 

In 1934 Sandersons combined their operations with their neighbours Kayser Ellison & Company, which had used electric-arc furnaces from 1912, and the two companies merged in 1960 as Sanderson Kayser. 

A major modernisation took place in 1967, but towards the end of the century Sanderson Kayser concentrated their business at Newhall Road, and left Darnall Road vacant.

The remains of over two hundred years of activity on the site are a rich archaeological resource waiting to be discovered and preserved. 

These begin with the below-ground remains of the glass cone.  Above them are the foundations of the cementation furnaces that Sandersons used in the early nineteenth century and many of the crucible furnaces, including some powered by a Siemens gas furnace. 

The standing buildings from the 1870s onwards, many of them dilapidated, are capable of rescue.  

Though much has been demolished during successive alterations, the ground levels have generally not been lowered, so there is huge scope to interpret the complex history of the site and to display it.

In particular, the sheer extent of the remaining crucible workshops makes the Works a unique survival. 

There were well over a hundred crucible furnaces at Darnall Works in the 1870s, with the capacity to produce high-quality large castings by continuous teeming at the time when the industry was moving to Bessemer converters which produced coarser steel very rapidly. 

The existing buildings include an intact range of workshops, each with six melting holes, ranged up the slope of Wilfrid Road, and – most spectacular of all – a large casting floor containing forty-eight crucible holes with a central crane.  This space, last used during the Second World War, is a unique and precious survival.

Ruth Harman and John Minnis, in the Penguin Architectural Guide, Sheffield (2004), described Darnall Works as “one of the most important steelmaking sites in the country”.  There is no question that it’s a historic monument of national, if not international significance.  For the time being the most historic parts of the site are safeguarded, but finding a practical, economical way of investigating the archaeology and interpreting its story for public access remains problematic.

I envisage that within the next two decades, Darnall Works will become Sheffield’s premier museum of the steel industry, to which Magna and Kelham Island, Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel will be the jewels in the crown.

Ancient chapel

Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, Dingle, Liverpool

At the bottom of Park Road, Dingle, in south Liverpool, the main road makes a sudden, unexpected S-bend which can only represent a very ancient land-boundary. 

It’s no accident that the inside of the bend is occupied by an ancient burial ground.

And the chapel within has been known as the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth for almost two hundred years.

At the start of the seventeenth century, Dingle was an isolated settlement two miles away from the town of Liverpool, then still huddled around its neglected medieval castle.

The early history of British Nonconformity goes back to a time barely a generation after the turmoil of the Tudor Reformation, when people acted in ways that are now difficult to recognise, and one of the oddities of the religious conflicts of the time was that Sir Richard Molyneux, 1st Baronet (1560-1662), as a member of a Catholic family sympathetic to victims of religious persecution, allowed Puritan families to occupy land that he had purchased within the medieval Toxteth Park.

In 1611 a group of farmers built a school and Anglican chapel for Puritan worship there and enlisted a fifteen-year-old youth from Winwick, near Warrington, Richard Mather (1596-1669), as master.  He came to Toxteth soon after his sixteenth birthday, spent a few months studying at Brasenose College, Oxford, before starting work as preacher and teacher in November 1612 and taking holy orders a few months later.

The Archbishop of York’s inspectors suspended him early in 1634 because he had never worn a surplice in the past fifteen years.  Their report declared that “it had been better for him that he had begotten seven bastards”.

He emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1635, became a noted preacher in New England, where four of his five sons graduated at Harvard University and took orders.  His son and grandson were respectively presidents of Harvard and Yale Universities.  Among his later descendants, eighty became clergymen.

The early congregation included the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641), who is credited with demonstrating that the Moon moved in an elliptical orbit round the Earth, and was one of the first to observe the Transit of Venus in 1639, which enabled him to estimate the size of the planet Venus and the distance between the Earth and the Sun.  He has a memorial in the Chapel, though it’s uncertain whether he was buried there.

By 1662, after the Restoration of King Charles II, Toxteth Chapel was served by two Presbyterian ministers, Thomas Crompton and Michael Briscoe, who were formally licensed under the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, making the Chapel a Presbyterian place of worship.

Through the following century the Chapel was alternately enlarged and neglected, until it was partly rebuilt in 1774 by those of its congregation who chose to become Unitarian.

The colonnaded “Colybarium” contains monuments dating from 1795 onwards to the Holt, Rathbone, Melly and Holland families, and the porch was added in 1841.

The interior, with its pulpit and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century galleries, was archaic by that time, and was spared Victorian embellishment. 

It is listed Grade I because, according to the list description, “As a chapel which was Nonconformist before 1660, and preserves an excellent set of furnishings which were complete by a century later, this chapel is of the highest importance”.

The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth is included in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tourFor further details please click here.

Lodekka bus

Lincolnshire Road Car Co Bristol Lodekka 2378 (OVL 473)

It’s a sign of age when you see in a museum exhibits that you’ve used in real life.

At a South Yorkshire Transport Trust open day I came across a vision of the past in the form of the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society’s beautifully restored Bristol FS5G ‘Lodekka’ 2376 (OVL 473) of 1960 – exactly the kind of vehicle that I and my school contemporaries, fresh out of sixth-form and off to university, conducted at Skegness depot in the late 1960s.

The Bristol Lodekka was the effective solution to the long-standing problem of building double-deck bus bodies that could negotiate bridges tighter than 14 feet 6 inches.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles, the chassis manufacturer, in combination with Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, body builders, designed a drop rear axle, which meant that there was no need for a step up into the lower deck and – more importantly – the overall height of the vehicle could be as low as 13 feet 5 or 6 inches.

The first prototype, a famously odd-looking vehicle, was launched in 1949, and by the end of the 1960s over five thousand Lodekkas had been built.

However, a legal anomaly in the arrangement of the part-nationalised British bus industry meant that this revolutionary design was unavailable to many UK operators.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a subsidiary of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company, which had built its own vehicles from 1908 and increasingly sold them to other operators.  By the late 1930s Bristol customarily worked in tandem with the body manufacturers Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, itself an offshoot of the United Automobile Company which had originated in East Anglia but concentrated on bus services in the north-east.

Bristol, with its manufacturing subsidiary, came into the ownership of the huge Thomas Tilling transport combine in 1931.  The Tilling Group was nationalised in 1948, as was Eastern Coach Works, and the two manufacturers were tied to provide vehicles for the third of the British bus industry that was in government ownership.

So during the 1950s Tilling Group companies standardised on the Lodekka, including the Lincolnshire Road Car Company which operated no: 2376.

By a quirk of policy, however, Bristol and ECW were expressly forbidden to sell their products to the rest of the industry,– that is, the other great combine, British Electric Traction, and the many municipalities and independents that ran their own bus services.

Eventually, these operators were able to buy low-floor buses built on licence from Dennis of Guildford.

By an enjoyable irony, the one operator who gained the most practical advantage from the drop-centre axle was Barton of Chilwell.  They ordered a one-off Dennis Loline II with a Northern Counties lowbridge body to prove to the Traffic Commissioners that they could squeeze a double-decker under the railway bridge at what is now Long Eaton station. They made their practical point but the Commissioners refused to license the route for a double-decker and this unique vehicle – the seldom-spotted 861 (861 HAL) – spent its days as a star turn on the X42 Nottingham-Derby express service.

Lowbridge bus

Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)
Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)

Ipswich Transport Museum [https://www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk] has a rich and relevant collection of vehicles and other transport material illustrating public transport and the emergency services from a local perspective.

There is a horse tram from Cambridge (1880), an Ipswich electric tram (1904), Ipswich trolleybuses from 1923 onwards and Eastern Counties motorbuses from 1927, together with emergency-services vehicles and a particularly fine Daimler hearse,– all housed in a well-lit former trolleybus depot at Priory Heath.

The collection covers local tram, trolleybus, motorbus and coach operators and the versatile Ipswich manufacturer Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries,– and features the Ipswich Corporation fleet, distinctive for long, narrow destination indicators and unpainted aluminium body panels. 

One vehicle resonated for me though I’d never before visited Ipswich.  Eastern Counties LK374 (KNG 374), a 1949 Bristol K double-decker, carries a lowbridge body, a feature I had as little to do with as possible in my 1960s travels in the East Midlands.

Double-deck buses up to the 1950s sat much higher on their chassis than later vehicles, because the lower-deck floor had to clear the rear axle and transmission shaft. 

The only practical way of reducing headroom to run a double-decker under bridges of restricted height was to align the upper-deck gangway with the offside windows and sink it into the lower-deck ceiling. 

This meant that the seats upstairs had to be four across, with obvious inconvenience and increased dwell-time when someone by the nearside window needed to alight.  It also meant that anyone seated downstairs against the offside window risked bumping their head when rising from their seat.

My Derbyshire schoolmates who were obliged to ride on these things called them “coffin buses”.

We hated them.

There was, eventually, a solution, but it was a long time coming to many bus operators…

St John’s Beacon

St John’s Beacon, Liverpool

The story of how a chimney gained the incongruous name St John’s Beacon is a saga of unwise planning decisions.

In the days when the town of Liverpool clustered around its seven medieval streets, close to the bank of the Mersey, the rising ground to the east was used for windmills, lime-kilns and the public drying of laundry, until in 1767 an area was enclosed to provide a burial ground with a small mortuary chapel, which was quickly replaced between 1775 and 1784 by St John’s Parish Church, designed in a loosely applied Gothic style by Timothy Lightoller, with a capacity of 1,500 sittings.

Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was begun on the plateau immediately east of St John’s Church in 1841, and its west façade was left plain because it stood uncomfortably close to Lightoller’s undistinguished church.

When the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool was established in 1880 its Pro-Cathedral was the cramped parish church of St Peter, Church Street, which had been consecrated in 1704.   In 1885 the diocese obtained its Liverpool Cathedral Act, authorising construction on the site of St John’s Parish Church, but it became obvious that any of the submitted designs would have come uncomfortably close to St George’s Hall, and the Cathedral Committee, in admission of their misjudgement, quietly abandoned the whole scheme the following year.

St John’s Church was closed in 1898 and immediately demolished, and the churchyard was landscaped as a memorial garden which, with one exception, commemorated recently deceased public figures associated with the city.  St John’s Gardens opened in 1904.

Among the crowded streets south-west of St John’s Church, John Foster Jnr had built the indoor St John’s Market, opened in 1822, for meat, fruit and vegetables, with wholesale and retail fish markets adjacent.  One of the earliest examples of a covered market, it covered nearly two acres – “183 yards long and 45 yards broad” with “136 stone-trimmed classical arched window bays, supported by 116 interior cast-iron pillars” – “the largest of its kind in the kingdom…erected by the corporation at an expense of £35,296”, and lit at night by 144 gas burners.  The American painter John James Audobon described it as “an object worth the attention of all traveller strangers, it is thus far the finest building I have ever seen”.

By the mid-twentieth century, Foster’s market had become grubby and archaic, and without much debate it was replaced by a six-acre development comprising a replacement covered market, two levels of shop units, a hotel and a multi-storey car park, designed by the Birmingham architect, James A Roberts (1922-2019), whose work in his home city includes the Rotunda (1965). 

The new St John’s Market obliterated a complex pattern of small streets, leaving the much-altered former Star Theatre, now Liverpool Playhouse (Edward Davies, 1866;  Harry Percival, 1898;  Stanley D Adshead, 1911;  extended by Hall, O’Donohue & Wilson 1968), on Williamson Square, and the Royal Court Theatre (1881;  James Bushell Hutchins 1938) as outliers. 

Joseph Sharples, in the Pevsner Architectural Guide Liverpool (Yale University Press 2004) is scathing about the entire precinct – “…a bleak and brutal affair, monolithic, inward looking and awkwardly related to the different levels of the adjoining streets”.  He dismisses the early 1990s refurbishment by Bradshaw, Rowse & Harker as “prettification”. 

The one redeeming feature, rivalling Jim Roberts’ Birmingham Rotunda as a civic icon, is the St John’s Beacon, 450 feet high, the chimney to the centre’s heating system, distinguished by a revolving restaurant, closed in the 1970s and converted into a radio station c1999. The observation platform of St John’s Beacon offers one of the three best views of Merseyside, the other two being the Vestey Tower of the Anglican Cathedral and the tower of Birkenhead Priory, looking back to Liverpool from across the Mersey:  https://www.visitliverpool.com/things-to-do/st-johns-beacon-radio-city-tower-viewing-gallery-experience-p7513.

The planned programme of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tour includes a visit to St John’s BeaconFor further details please click here.

Steps to learning

Central Library, Sheffield

Architects and designers between the wars paid less attention to health and safety than we nowadays expect, as I discovered when I missed a step at the entrance to Sheffield’s Central Library and ruptured a tendon.

I’ve examined the architecture of this splendid building from the cold pavement while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Descriptions of its style vary – beaux-arts, Art Deco, neo-Georgian:  from the ground it’s clearly eclectic, with fine crisp Classical and Egyptian details in Portland stone.

The Central Library, which includes the separately funded Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, was designed in 1929 by the City Architect, W G Davies, in collaboration with the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb.  It’s obvious that an extension was intended:  the glazed brick east wall would have formed an internal light-well but for the construction of the 1960s Arundel Gate dual carriageway.

The Library was intended as a keynote building in a civic square as part of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1924 development plan for the city centre.  In fact, it was the only part of this scheme to be completed, like Birmingham’s incomplete Civic Centre on Broad Street, where the Hall of Memory (1923-24) and the hurriedly completed Baskerville House (1938-39) have been absorbed into later planning schemes.

There was doubt that Sheffield City Council could scrape together the funds to replace the previous lamentable library building on the same site, until the mail-order pioneer and civic benefactor John George Graves (1866-1945) offered £30,000 to lay out the top floor as an art gallery, to which he donated part of his personal art collection.

The exterior is embellished with carvings by the ubiquitous Sheffield firm Frank Tory & Sons – in this case Frank’s identical twin sons, Alfred (1881-1971) and William (1881-1968).

Within, despite years of neglect, much of the marble flooring, coffered ceilings, wood panelling and door furniture and the magnificent marble staircase rising through the building remain intact, waiting for sympathetic restoration:  https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/library.html.

The completed building was opened in July 1934 by HRH the Duchess of York, later HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Her husband, then known as Prince Albert, was ill at the time, and the Duchess took his place.

The Central Library came into its own during the Blitz.  It was relatively unscathed in comparison with buildings in the surrounding streets, and was quickly deployed as a refuge providing information and support for the tens of thousands of Sheffield citizens who were rendered homeless by the bombing. 

After the War Sheffield City Libraries gained a high reputation for innovation and for the breadth of the collections and the generosity of provision.

In recent decades services, staffing and opening times have been repeatedly cut, yet the Library still offers users facilities that are simply unavailable online.

It’s sad to see Mr Davies’ splendid rooms defaced by peeling plaster and faded paintwork, and I for one would approve of a recent scheme to turn the Central Library into a five-star hotel. 

The admirably-timed Library of Birmingham (2013), opened in a more favourable financial climate and so far surviving subsequent cuts, is an example of the physical information resource that a modern city needs.

And when Sheffield removes its library from the 1934 building, I hope they’ll provide safer entrance steps in the new location.

Central Library, Sheffield: entrance

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.