Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

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 who 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 (gladstoneslibrary.org).

What’s not to like?

Palace fit for a lemur

Eltham Palace, London

Stephen Courtauld (1883-1967) had plenty of money, as a member of the family that introduced the world to rayon and, with no need to work, he spent his life as an art connoisseur and philanthropist, financing expeditions with the Royal Geographical Society, and co-founding Ealing Studios.

He met his wife Virginia (née Peirano) while mountaineering in Italy after war service with the Artists’ Rifles.  They married in 1923.

During the 1930s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the derelict royal palace at Eltham in east London, and commissioned the architects John Seely (1899-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985) to restore the surviving medieval Great Hall and construct a discreet but modern fourteen-bedroom residence alongside.

Seeley and Paget resolved the sharp contrast in scale of the huge royal hall and the practical 1930s residence by setting the new house at a sharp angle, linked by a low entrance front which makes a point of revealing three original Tudor timbered gables behind.  The house is French Renaissance in style, punctuated by three copper-capped towers defining the hinge of the angle between the old and the new buildings.  The tapering copper roofs are an echo of the lost Tudor buildings of the Palace.

Virginia Courtauld had very definite ideas about interior design:  though Seely & Paget did most of the bedrooms and bathrooms, the fashionable designer Piero Malacrida (1889-1983) created her bathroom (green onyx with gold-plated taps) and boudoir, and collaborated with the firm White, Allom to devise the dining-room (maple, black marble floor and fireplace, and silver ceiling) and the contrasting Italian-style drawing room.  The principal feature of Mrs Courtauld’s dressing-room was a wall-map of the Eltham district in appliqué leather.  The triangular entrance-hall, top-lit by a dome, was decorated by the Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) in blackbean veneer in the style of Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall (1923).

The Courtaulds were devoted to their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, purchased from Harrods in 1923.  Mah-Jongg had his own architect-designed, centrally heated quarters and was allowed access, by means of a bamboo ladder, to all areas of Eltham Palace until his death in 1938.

Mr Courtauld suggested adapting the basement billiard-room as “habitations” in the event of enemy attack, and in this underground sanctum the Courtaulds lived through the Second World War, often joined by Stephen Courtauld’s niece, Sydney, and her husband, R A Butler, who drafted parts of the parliamentary bill that became the 1944 Education Act at Eltham.

The house was hardly used as a residence in the way it was designed, for towards the end of the war the Courtaulds went to live in Scotland and eventually moved out to Southern Rhodesia, where their estate, La Rochelle, is now a property of the National Trust of Zimbabwe.  Stephen Courtauld died there in 1967;  his widow moved to Jersey in 1970 and died there two years later.

When Eltham Palace was taken over by the Institute of Army Education in 1944-5, the only fittings left in situ were the wood panelling, the two principal bathrooms and the lacquer dining room doors by Narini. 

The Institute moved out in 1992, and two years later English Heritage began an ambitious programme of restitution, recreating the décor and furnishings of the Courtauld period from the 1937 Country Life photographs and a 1939 inventory taken as a precaution against air-raid damage.

The house opened to the public in 1999 – one of the most modern houses open to the public, but actually more modern than it looks: Eltham Palace and Gardens | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk).

Eltham Palace is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’.  For further details, please click here.

Derby Silk Mill Museum

Derby Silk Mill Museum

After five years of work, Derby’s industrial museum, rich in exhibits that commemorate the huge and varied heritage of the city, is now open to the public, with free entry, as the Museum of Making.

It occupies the much-altered Silk Mill building, on the site of an early mill dating from 1704.  What survived of Thomas Lombe’s 1722 building was destroyed in a fire in 1910, and the rebuilding carefully replicated the five-storey original as a three-storey building attached to the surviving distinctive tower.

Using the best of modern display techniques in a variety of ways, the Museum draws together the varied contributions Derby has brought to the world.

Visitors walk into a new atrium beneath a suspended exploded Toyota Corolla Hybrid car, manufactured south of Derby at Burnaston, and look towards a seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 aero engine, also suspended above the staircase.

There are close-up views of the Trent 1000 upstairs, with an opportunity to compare it with the earliest Rolls-Royce Eagle engine that began production in 1915, one of the type which powered Allcock and Brown’s pioneering non-stop Atlantic crossing in 1919.

There’s a bewildering array of objects and images relating to Derby’s involvement in iron-founding, railways, engineering and textiles, and its association with such diverse figures as the physician-inventor Erasmus Darwin, the painter Joseph Wright and the clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst.

The pinnacle of this cornucopia of Derby memorabilia is the ‘Railways Revealed’ exhibit, which includes the latest version of the Midland Railway model layout, the grandchild of an original which has delighted Derby children and enthusiasts since 1951.

The Museum is an appropriate gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site which stretches northwards as far as Cromford, which ties together an astonishing variety of historic monuments of the early Industrial Revolution.

In view of the quality and significance of the Museum’s collection, it’s odd that it’s been given the vapid branding ‘Museum of Making’.

It could be anywhere.

I choose to call it the Derby Silk Mill Museum, so that people know where it is.

Update: Charlotte Higgins’ article in The Guardian (July 1st 2022) articulates exactly why the name ‘Museum of Making’ was chosen: Go to Derby: see how a museum can help shape a better future | Charlotte Higgins | The Guardian.

Derby Silk Mill

Silk Mill, Derby

Though Sir Richard Arkwright is rightly credited with establishing the first successful water-powered cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1771, his was not the first industrial innovation in the Derbyshire Derwent Valley.

On an island on the Derwent in the centre of Derby, Thomas Cotchett had commissioned the engineer George Sorocold (c 1668-c1738)  to build a three-story water-powered silk-mill, using inefficient Dutch machinery, in 1704.

Cotchett’s business failed, and the site was taken over by Thomas Lombe (1685-1739), a Norwich-born London silk-merchant who had had the foresight to send his half-brother John (1693?-1722) to work for Cotchett as an apprentice. 

Thomas then travelled in Italy, where he is said to have worked incognito in a throwing-mill and covertly sketched the machinery.

Lombe took out a British patent for the Italian-designed silk-throwing machinery in 1718, and Sorocold built the Italian Works, on twenty-six arches oversailing the waters of the Derwent, to accommodate the machinery.

The main building contained the twelve circular throwing-machines, eight 12ft 7in-diameter Torcitoii and twelve 12ft 11in-diameter Filatoii, both types 19ft 8in high, on the lower two storeys and 26 winding-machines on its upper three floors.

George Sorocold’s previous experience of water-supply machinery can scarcely have prepared him for the mechanical complexity of the 4,793 star-wheels, 10,000 spindles, 25,000 spinning-reel bobbins, 9,050 twist bobbins and 45,363 winding bobbins of Lombe’s patent-design.

The Mill was completed in 1722, and immediately became an object of exceptional interest to visitors, including Daniel Defoe, James Boswell and John Byng, 5th Viscount Torrington.

After the patent expired in 1732, other silk mills were built in Macclesfield, Stockport and Congleton, and though the trade experienced periodic periods of depression, by 1830 Macclesfield had seventy silk-factories employing 10,000 people.  There were seventeen silk-factories of one kind or another in Derby in 1840.   

Though the silk-trade continued to flourish into the nineteenth century to the north-west, in Derbyshire it declined in the face of the profitable growth of cotton-spinning and the difficulty of importing raw materials during the French wars, and tended to diversify into the specialised manufacture of ribbon and tape.

The Derby Silk Mill operated,  with one short break at the end of  the  eighteenth century, until 1890, when it suffered a partial collapse, then in 1910 the whole of the Italian Works was destroyed by fire and shortly afterwards the adjacent Doublers’ Shop was demolished. 

The present Silk Mill building was rebuilt on the original stone river-arches to a different design, but with a similar belfry, as a chemical manufactory. 

A coal-fired electricity power-station, notorious for its filth, was built on the landward side of the site and the mill building was occupied by the borough electricity department. 

When the power-station was replaced by a more discreet sub-station for the National Grid the Silk Mill building became the Derby Museum of Industry and Technology, opened in 1974, and Robert Bakewell’s Silk Mill gates were returned from the Museum & Art Gallery at the Wardwick, to stand near to their original site.

The Industrial Museum closed in 2016 for a major refurbishment, and reopened, in spite of the pandemic, in May 2021 as the Museum of Making.

Reichstag dome

Reichstag Dome, Berlin, Germany

I learnt the hard way that if you want a ticket to the Reichstag Dome you need to be up with the lark.  I don’t go on holiday to stand in a queue in the midday sun, but I was able to walk straight into the ticket office at breakfast-time.

The Reichstag building can legitimately be called an icon. 

Opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire, which itself had been established in 1871, it remained the seat of government through the post-World War I Weimar Republic until it was infamously and mysteriously burnt out in 1933.

This was the act that enabled the Nazi Party to extinguish, very quickly, all semblance of democracy in Germany.  They had no use for a symbol of representative government, and arranged occasional perfunctory meetings of the Diet in the Kroll Opera House nearby:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kroll_Opera_House#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0703-507,_Berlin,_Reichstagssitzung,_Rede_Adolf_Hitler.jpg.

In the race to occupy Berlin in May 1945, the Red Army made the Reichstag ruins their goal, memorialised by the famous photograph ‘Raising a Flag over the Reichstag’:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_Flag_over_the_Reichstag#/media/File:Reichstag_flag_original.jpg.

Though the Reichstag ruins stood in the British zone of West Berlin, the boundary with the Soviet sector was a few feet from the rear.  The shell was reconstructed, shorn of its cupola and stripped of decorative features that recalled German Imperial bombast, between 1961 and 1964, and used as an office block until after the reunification of East and West Germany, which was confirmed in a ceremony at the Reichstag in 1990.

A year later, the decision was taken to relocate the former West German government from Bonn to Berlin and to restore the Reichstag as the base for the Bundestag, the present-day Diet.

The British architect Norman Foster won the competition to convert the building in 1992.  He restored much of the vanished exterior decoration, and added an elegant glass dome in place of the cupola.  The structure within the external walls is almost entirely new, and the dome is a superlative tourist experience, the second most popular visitor attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral.

After an inevitable passport check and baggage inspection, visitors are whisked in a lift to the roof.  They don’t get a look at Norman Foster’s modern interior inside the surviving nineteenth-century shell of the building.  They are presented with audio-guides that automatically start the moment they enter the dome.

The tour involves walking up a spiral ramp to the very top of the dome and then returning down a second ramp.  The arrangement affords spectacular views outwards and inwards, but is not particularly friendly to vertigo sufferers.

The English commentary is consummately professional – not a word out of place, with pauses at appropriate points and breaks in continuity that allow a sense of not being rushed.

Nearby, between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, are two profoundly moving sites, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, a black pool symbolising the evil deeds it commemorates, with a triangular stone in the centre, representing the badges that the Nazis’ victims were required to wear. 

In the northern pavilion of the Brandenburg Gate itself I found the Raum der Stille [Silent Room], suggested by Dag Hammarskjöld’s earlier room in the United Nations Headquarters in New York City – a simple and effective opportunity to withdraw from the hubbub of the city for a while:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.raum-der-stille-im-brandenburger-tor.de/&prev=search.  

Attercliffe remembered

Attercliffe Common, Sheffield (1977)

When I recently showed my ‘A Look Round Attercliffe‘ presentation to the Woodsetts Local History Society near Worksop, a lady stood up at the end and gave a vote of thanks in verse.

Enid Bailey had put this piece together while I was lecturing, and she followed precisely the structure of my presentation:

Thank you Mike, for taking us back to 

Our world of yesterday

Where bricks turned black, each chimney stack 

Coughed out clouds of grey 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To mum’s favourite shop – Banners 

We thought it a splendid place to spend 

Our threepenny bits and tanners 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To swap shops, pubs galore 

Where thirsty steel men often went

Eagerly through the door 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To cinemas so grand 

No wonder they called them palaces 

The finest in the land 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To times so grim and hard 

But the children were sent to school 

And played in the old school yard 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To when people had high aims 

To better themselves and earn success 

In education, sport and games 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

I could go on for ever

Shall we forget our Attercliffe?

It lives in our hearts – so Never!

No vote of thanks has warmed my heart more in forty years of giving history lectures.

I felt like giving a vote of thanks for the vote of thanks.

For details of the Bus Ride Round Attercliffe on Sunday afternoon, September 25th 2022, please click here.

Halls and meadows

523/525 Attercliffe Road, Sheffield (1976)

The name of the huge Meadowhall shopping centre, beside the M1 Tinsley Viaduct between Sheffield and Rotherham, is historically significant.  It commemorates a farm, Meadow Hall, which stood where the northbound entry slip-road of Junction 34 climbs to the carriageway.

The valley of the River Don downstream from Sheffield itself remained rural till surprisingly late.

Even after the Attercliffe Common was enclosed in 1811 and the Sheffield Canal opened in 1819, the flat valley plain was thinly populated apart from the three small villages of Attercliffe, Carbrook and Darnall.

When the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway arrived in 1839, followed by the big steel works founded by such names as Firth, Brown, Vickers, Cammell and Jessop, the workers’ housing first went up on the north side of the valley in Brightside and Grimesthorpe.

The terraced housing in Attercliffe itself dated from the 1860s onwards, which is why there were few back-to-backs.  (Sheffield took against back-to-backs because of the lack of ventilation;  Leeds and Bradford people liked them because they were cosy.)

In the valley the earlier villas and houses are now commemorated solely in street names – Attercliffe Old Hall, Attercliffe New Hall, Chippingham House, Shirland House, Woodbourn Hall.

Only two buildings remain from the time when the valley was beautiful – Carbrook Hall (c1620) and the Hill Top Chapel (1629-30), but a couple of other very attractive relics of pre-industrial days survived until the 1960s.

One was Carlton House on Kimberley Street fronting on to Attercliffe Road, built to replace an older manor house that burnt down in 1761.  A polite Georgian house of five bays and three storeys, it appears on a map dated 1777 and in 1819, when the tenant was Thomas Howard, it was surrounded by extensive pleasure grounds and a pond 1½ acres in area.

In the 1830s it was the home of Samuel Jackson, co-founder of the sawmakers Spear & Jackson and in 1839 it was apparently sold to the Duke of Newcastle.  (That title hardly ever figures in Sheffield’s history, and may have crept in as a typo for the ubiquitous Duke of Norfolk.)

For many years it was a doctor’s surgery, and by the Second World War was the premises of Alfred A  Markham & Son, undertakers, joiners and shopfitters.

There is a photograph in the Picture Sheffield collection showing it intact in 1968 but it was later demolished.

Nearby, at the top of Heppenstall Lane, stood 523/525 Attercliffe Road, a semi-detached pair of houses of very much the same style and period as Carlton House, with a rainwater head carrying the date 1779.  I photographed them in 1976 but within a few years they were gone.

Swathes of history can easily disappear, unless they happened to be captured in chance photographs or archive references.

For details of the Bus Ride Round Attercliffe on Sunday afternoon, September 25th 2022, please click here.

Ashburton: railway station

Former Ashburton railway station, Devon (2017)

The “Birmingham Railway Mafia” has left its fingerprints all over the early history of the rail-preservation movement in Britain.

From the early 1950s such individuals as the writer Tom Rolt (1910-1974), the photographer Ivo Peters (1915-1989) and the businessman Patrick Whitehouse (1922-1993), among others, were involved in saving the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog railways in North Wales and establishing the Tyseley Railway Centre in Birmingham.

Patrick Whitehouse persuaded British Railways to sell him a former Great Western Railway locomotive for £750, and with a Talylynn colleague, Pat Garland, sought a suitable branch railway on which to run it.

They secured the Totnes-Ashburton branch line in Devon, which still had track in place, and opened what was then the Dart Valley Railway – now operating as the South Devon Railway – in 1969.

There was, however, a catch in the deal.

For two years, the rail service ran the full length of the line and locomotives were stabled at the Ashburton terminus.

In 1971, however, the Ministry of Transport exercised its right to take over the trackbed north of Buckfastleigh and use it to improve the A38 trunk road.

The heritage line was permanently cut back to Buckfastleigh station, yet the historically significant Ashburton station with its overall roof, dating back to 1872, still remains intact, fifty years after the last train left.

It’s now a garage and is well-maintained, but the surrounding land has commercial development potential that could destroy its historic significance.

The adjacent Grade-II listed goods warehouse has been converted to offices by the architects Van Ellyn & Sheryn [Ashburton Listed Conversion – van Ellen + Sheryn | RIBA Chartered Architect – Devon], but none of the other surviving railway structures are listed.

The Friends of Ashburton Station launched a detailed and ambitious scheme to convert the passenger station as a prelude to a long-term plan to reconnect with the operational railway at Buckfastleigh, but the latest news on its website is dated September 2015:  Friends of Ashburton Station.

Their Facebook page shows encouraging signs of life.  The latest post there is July 2020, in the midst of the pandemic:  Friends of Ashburton Station – Posts | Facebook.

It’s hard to tell how the railway could co-exist with the further planned improvements to the A38, but restoring a significant historic structure in the middle of Ashburton would be a benefit, and the detail of the 2015 scheme inspires confidence that the project has been carefully thought-out.

Ashburton: St Lawrence Chapel

St Lawrence Chapel, Ashburton, Devon

St Lawrence Chapel in the centre of Ashburton in Devon isn’t any kind of Nonconformist chapel.  It’s much older than Nonconformity.

It’s a medieval chantry chapel, established so that a priest, financed by a guild, could say masses for the soul of the founder – in this case Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter from 1308 and co-founder of Exeter College, Oxford.

He suffered a violent end, along with his older brother Sir Richard Stapledon, in a riot in London in 1326.  His body was defiled and buried on the bank of the Thames until Queen Isabella, the consort of King Edward II, ordered his remains to be taken to Exeter Cathedral, “there to be honoured with most magnificent exequies”.  He lies beneath an exquisite tomb in the cathedral.

The chantry building in Ashburton looks at first glance like a church, not least because of its sixteenth-century tower and spire.  The east end contained an altar for the celebration of mass, and the pupils were taught in the nave.

Chantries were, in the beliefs of the time, spiritual insurance policies, intended to shorten the ordeal of the soul in purgatory by employing priests to say masses in perpetuity.  They also operated, in this life, as accumulations of capital until they were appropriated by King Henry VIII in 1545 and 1547.

Successive chantry priests at Ashburton had run a grammar school, and to preserve this amenity a group of townsmen purchased the chantry assets and supervised the school from the mid-sixteenth century until 1938.

The nave was refurbished in the eighteenth-century and the classroom accommodation was extended in the late-nineteenth century and in 1911.

The Grammar School moved to more modern premises in 1938, and the chantry building continued as a local school until the 1980s.

In 1984 the ancient Guild of St Lawrence was recreated to preserve the building and manage it as a heritage, cultural and community centre:  St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – About.

This remarkable building has seen centuries of children through their elementary education, among them the Dean of Westminster, John Ireland (1761-1842), his friend the satirist William Gifford (1756-1826) and the Australian explorer William John Wills (1834-c1861).

It’s open to the public in the summer months:  St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – Find Us.