Category Archives: Victorian Architecture

Bijou opera house

Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, West Yorkshire

Ken Dodd used to say that you could immediately tell a Frank Matcham theatre simply by walking on to the stage and speaking quietly.  You’d be audible at the back of the gallery without difficulty.

Frank Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre is the Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, for many years known as the Opera House and now as the Theatre Royal.

It stands on the site of an earlier Theatre Royal, which had been built in 1776 for the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803). 

Under his management John Kemble performed in Wakefield in 1778 and 1788 and Sarah Siddons in 1786; in the following generation Charles Kemble acted at the Theatre Royal in 1807 and Edmund Kean in 1819.

The old theatre went into gradual decline through the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1871 became a beer house and music hall, licensed by John Brooke, the landlord of the Black Horse pub. 

In 1883 it was revived as the Royal Opera House by Benjamin Sherwood, but was denied a licence nine years later because of the condition of the building.

The replacement theatre was built in 1894 in nine months flat at a cost of £13,000 to Matcham’s designs and opened on October 15th that year. 

After the failure of Benjamin Sherwood’s marriage in 1900 his wife Fanny and their children took over the theatre as Sherwood & Co. 

In the early 1950s their family sold it for £20,000 to Solomon Sheckman, owner of the Essoldo chain of cinemas.  He installed a wide screen for Cinemascope in 1954 and operated it solely as a cinema until he leased it as a bingo hall in 1966. 

It passed to Ladbrokes and was listed Grade II in 1979.  

When Ladbrokes announced its closure in 1980 the Wakefield Theatre Trust, led by Rodney (latterly Sir Rodney) Walker, began a campaign to bring live theatre back to the town.

The restoration involved –

  • renewing the stage house
  • strengthening the grid and installing a new counterweight system for flying
  • re-raking the stalls and lower circle floors
  • reinstating the front-of-house canopy
  • removing the projection box

The building is Grade II* listed, largely on the strength of the quality of the auditorium decoration by De Jong of London – bombé balcony fronts, foliage, fruit and flowers on the lower balcony and paired dolphins in waves on the upper circle.  The original colour-scheme was gold and blue.  The proscenium is intact, and the ceiling has eight decorative medallions of the Muses, reinstated by Kate Lyons, who placed the ninth muse in the central panel of the dress circle front. 

It reopened with a gala show on March 16th 1986.  Arthur Starkie, who co-ordinated the theatre’s centenary celebrations, founded the Frank Matcham Society at the Theatre Royal in 1994.

The Trust acquired the adjacent street-corner site to create a new entrance and bar.  Further grants in 1995, 2002 and 2012 enabled improvements to the auditorium.

The theatre has gained prestige from the appointment as creative director of the playwright John Godber in 2011.  He was born locally, at Upton, and taught drama at the nearby Bretton Hall College.  His breakthrough play, Bouncers (1977) has become a perennial favourite, and his John Godber Company is resident at the Theatre Royal.

I first saw Bouncers at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.  The play is performed by four male actors in black tie, who play the bouncers, the stroppy youths who have to be chucked out and the girls dancing round their handbags.  John Godber portrays the bitter-sweet lives of the men who spend their Saturday nights dealing with the clients who create so much noise, aggression and vomit.

At the end of the night, walking out of the theatre on to Westgate was like stepping into the play.

Down with Hartford Mill

Hartford Mill, Werneth, Lancashire (2019)

My knee-jerk reaction when faced with an attractive or historic derelict building is to hope that someone will find a use that will pay for its upkeep.

Travelling on the Manchester Metrolink line to Rochdale, I was appalled at the state of Hartford Mill, near Werneth, and bemused by its great size.

It was built as a cotton-spinning mill in 1907, twice extended in the 1920s, and closed in 1959.  It was used as a mail-order warehouse by Littlewoods until 1992, after which no-one could think what to do with it, though it was listed Grade II in 1993.

It’s a shame that this huge, magnificent building was simply left to rot.

It became a notorious focus for anti-social behaviour, including several severe arson attacks, culminating in the death of an eighteen-year-old youth in a fall in 2015.

In the end there was no alternative but to demolish the mill – no mean task. The Mill is a five-storey building 25 bays long and 12 bays wide with a corner tower.

The demolition process has been slowed by the effects of the pandemic, and for a short while longer the mill is still a blot on the landscape: ‘Death trap’ 113-year-old mill is being demolished – Manchester Evening News.

The leader of Oldham Borough Council, Sean Fielding, told the Manchester Evening News (August 30th 2018),–

“When people travel through Oldham on the Metrolink line they don’t want a deteriorating old mill to be what they see – and it’s certainly not what residents should have to look at every day.

“Everyone deserves to live in decent areas where families and communities can prosper and feel proud.

“Oldham is an aspirational place to live, work and invest and to continue that improvement we must make full use of sites like Hartford Mill.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Father Michael Fisher (1943-2021)

Father Michael Fisher, St John’s Parish Church, Alton, Staffordshire (September 19th 2019)

I was sad to learn that Father Michael Fisher, teacher, priest and scholar, has died.

He was a leader in studying the work of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin who was sponsored by John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, building Catholic churches in the Gothic Revival style across the North Midlands and particularly around the Earl’s seat at Alton Towers, near Cheadle in Staffordshire.

Michael was educated at Leek High School and the universities of Leicester and Keele and, after serving as Head of History at King Edward VI Grammar School, Stafford, was ordained in the Church of England in 1979. 

He had visited Alton Towers from boyhood, and remembered the dismemberment of the house in 1951.

In the late 1990s the Tussauds Group, then owners of the ruins and the gardens as part of their theme park, commissioned Michael to investigate the history of the site and make recommendations about how they should be conserved.

This work led to his detailed study Alton Towers:  a Gothic wonderland (Michael Fisher 1999), which was followed by a succession of books on Pugin’s work in and around Staffordshire.

His knowledge of Alton Towers enabled him to guide and encourage the present owners to respect the history of the place.

He contributed to the understanding and conservation of St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Birmingham – an Anglican priest on a Catholic committee, bringing what was described at his funeral as a “warm, ecumenical heart” to the enhancement of one of Pugin’s major buildings.

On the day of his funeral, at the church where he ministered, St Chad’s, Stafford, requiem mass was sung in his honour and remembrance at St Chad’s Cathedral.

I met him only once, when I was planning my Pugin and the Gothic Revival tour which took place in September 2019.

One of my regular tour-guests happened to be Michael’s school contemporary, who gave me the privilege of enlisting him to show the group St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church in Cheadle and the tiny parish church of St John, Alton.

I couldn’t possibly have asked for a finer introduction to the area and the architect than Michael’s elegant, insightful guiding.  We were very, very lucky to have him show us round.

The Heineken effect

Chapel of St Peter, Alton Towers, Staffordshire

I like my tours to include the “Heineken effect”, reaching the parts that other tours don’t reach.

I was particularly pleased when a professional architect guest on my ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour in September 2019 remarked that he’d been on a previous Pugin tour but I’d taken him to two places he’d never visited before.

One was Alton Castle, normally inaccessible to the public because its use as a retreat for Catholic school pupils involves strict safeguarding rules. We were allowed an hour between school groups departing and arriving to see Pugin’s interiors.

The other was the spectacular Chapel in the ruins of the house at Alton Towers.

I’d never seen this space, and thanks to the theme park’s Corporate Events team we were able to visit another rarely accessible Pugin interior.

The chapel was designed in 1832-33 by Thomas Fradgley, Joseph Ireland and Joseph Potter of Lichfield for the devout Catholic 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.  The nave is 90 feet long, 30 feet wide and 60 feet high.  It has a slender tower with ogee windows and pinnacles that were reduced in height in the 1950s.

Augustus Welby Pugin brightened the Chapel in 1839-40 with carved and painted panels, some of medieval date from Magdalen College, Oxford – and a new reredos and altar. 

Later, in 1850, he decorated the previously plain ceiling in blue, red and gold and added a frieze with Latin texts painted on canvas. 

The angels on the roof corbels are plaster (which Pugin would be unlikely to have countenanced) but after he had designed the reredos and altar screen in 1839-40 he is known to have been “fixing figures in the chapel gallery” in 1840 and supervised the decoration of the ceiling between 1849 and 1851.

The sixteenth Earl inherited a personal estate of £400,000 from his uncle.  At one point he was spending £20,000 a year on building and restoring churches across his many estates.

When he died in 1852 the title passed to his invalid nephew, Bertram, who himself died without an heir four years later.  At his death the estate amounted to some 50,000 acres, the income from which was in excess of £50,000.

There followed a legal dispute about the succession of the titles and estates, in the course of which the contents of Alton Towers were auctioned over a period of a twenty-nine days in 1857. 

The property eventually passed to a distant Protestant member of the family, Henry, Earl Talbot of Ingestre, who became the 18th Earl of Shrewsbury.

The altar and reredos were removed in 1860 from the Chapel to St Peter’s Catholic Church, Bromsgrove where they remain;  most of the other Pugin work was stripped out in 1951 and only fragments remain.

The eighteenth Earl was the first to open the gardens to the public in 1860.  By the 1890s the annual August grand fêtes were attracting crowds of up to 30,000, mainly brought by train to Alton station.

His grandson, the twentieth Earl, died in 1921, and three years later the Alton Towers estate was sold to a business consortium, Alton Towers Ltd, which ran the estate as a tourist attraction and place of entertainment until the War. 

The house was requisitioned as an Officer Cadet Training Unit, and when the owners regained possession in 1951 the dilapidations were such that they chose to strip almost the entire interior of lead roofs and internal timber. 

The grounds were reopened to the public in 1952. 

From 1958 to 1993 the Chapel interior was obscured by a tented ceiling, beneath which spread a gigantic model railway.

In the late 1970s installing concrete floors and wooden stairs within the Towers ruins enabled visitors to appreciate the scale of the house from a variety of levels up to the roof. 

The collapse of a beam on to the Chapel floor in 1993 prompted a full structural and decorative restoration of the ceiling in 1994.

Since the late 1990s further conservation programmes have restored some parts of this exceptional building, but the owners’ priority is inevitably to encourage visitors looking for thrills and spills on amusement-park attractions.

I was particularly grateful to the Alton Towers management for allowing my tour-group to see parts of the ruins that other groups can’t reach.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Cragg’s own church

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, Aigburth, Liverpool

John Cragg (1767-1854) was not a pleasant man.

I know of only one observation by any of his contemporaries, which simply states that he was “a remarkable man to whom I cannot find a single gracious allusion on anybody’s part”.

His claim to posterity’s attention is that, as the proprietor of the Mersey Iron Foundry, he collaborated with the architect Thomas Rickman (1776-1841) in designing and producing iron components with which to construct prefabricated Gothick churches and other buildings.

Their first project was the parish church of St George, Everton (1812-14).

Even before the completion of St George’s, John Cragg had resolved to make further use of his architectural mouldings to Rickman’s designs, apparently without consulting the architect. 

Cragg purchased land in Aigburth not far from the River Mersey in February 1813, and by June 1815 had completed the church of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet.

The essential difference between these two churches is the more adventurous use of materials. 

At Aigburth, the framework of the whole structure is iron, filled with a slate base and brick walls, a device patented by John Cragg in 1813. 

All the embellishments of the brick walls are of iron – window and door frames, tracery, pinnacles, dripstones and copings.  Originally the exterior ironwork was painted to resemble stone, and the brickwork stuccoed to match. 

The roof and interior ceilings and panelling are of slate set in iron frames.  The moulding of the clerestory windows is also used for a fireplace at the foot of the staircase to the original organ gallery at the west end.

The total outlay using the moulds from St George’s came to £7,865. 

Cragg went on to use some of his mouldings yet again in a group of five houses he built, one as his residence and the others as a speculation, around the church to form St Michael’s Hamlet.

St Michael’s was restored by the Liverpool architect brothers William James Audsley (1833-1907) and George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) in 1875. 

When increasing population demanded an extension to the church in 1900 the north aisle was doubled in width, making sympathetic use of the original decorative features. 

The clock was added in 1920 as a war memorial, along with a dedicatory window and wall-tablets.

In the chancel lies a memorial slab commemorating the Herculaneum Pottery Benefit Society, dated 1824:

Here peaceful rest the POTTERS turn’d to Clay

Tir’d with their lab’ring life’s long tedious day

Surviving friends their Clay to earth consign

To be re-moulded by a Hand Divine!

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet was extensively restored in the 1980s, and is now a Grade I listed building.

John Cragg’s third iron church, St Philip’s, Hardman Street, Liverpool (1815-16, closed 1882-84), is described, illustrated and lamented in this article:  https://liverpool1207blog.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/st-philips-church-hardman-st-liverpool-1816-2017.

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church is a destination in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022) tour.  For further details please click here.

Ironville

King William Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)
Victoria Street, Ironville, Derbyshire (1973)

The catalogue of British industrial model villages, constructed by employers enlightened or desperate enough to provide better-quality habitations to attract workers, usually includes, give or take one or another, such names as –

  • Cromford, Derbyshire (1771)
  • New Lanark, Lanarkshire (1783)
  • Styal, Cheshire (1784)
  • Swindon, Wiltshire (1842)
  • Copley, West Yorkshire (1849)
  • Saltaire, West Yorkshire (1854)
  • Akroyden, West Yorkshire (1859)
  • Bournville, Birmingham (1879)
  • Port Sunlight, Wirral (1888)
  • New Earswick, York (1901)

Such lists rarely include Ironville, Derbyshire, begun by the Butterley Company in 1834, largely because the historic village is no longer recognisable for what it was.

The Butterley ironworks was founded in 1790 by the engineers of the Cromford Canal, William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), in partnership with the canal-company solicitor, Francis Beresford, and the Nottingham banker John Wright.

The enterprise was founded literally on the discovery of rich coal and ironstone deposits during the building of the Butterley canal tunnel.

The ironworks traded on demand generated by the wars with France from 1792 onwards, but produced only pig iron and cast iron.  Land was purchased in 1796 at Codnor Park, a couple of miles down the canal, for a forge and rolling mill to manufacture wrought iron.

Within ten years four limekilns and a row of eleven cottages called Limekiln Row had been built at Codnor Park, soon followed by the forge and another thirteen cottages, Forge Row.

Further land on the site that was to become Ironville was used to construct two rows each of sixteen cottages, Furnace Row and Foundry Row, completed in 1813.

King William Street was laid out in 1834, with its forty-eight two-up-two-down terraced houses, alongside and similar to Furnace and Foundry Rows, and its public house, the King William IV.

In the following years, street after street appeared – Victoria Street (1837), then Albert Street, Tank Street and Meadow Street, followed by the distinctive three-storey “Big Six”, the biggest houses in Ironville.

The final development in the 1850s and 1860s was the Market Place and Queen Street, larger houses built on the cinder bank that served to fill in a former clay pit.

The new settlement offered a high standard of amenity.  By the late 1840s King William Street boasted a chemist, a draper, a baker and a stationer who published the Ironville Telegraph newspaper.   By 1886 there were twenty-four shops, including the sole branch of the Codnor Park & Ironville Equitable & Industrial Co-operative Society, though to be the smallest retail co-operative society in Britain.

The National School was opened in 1841 and enlarged in 1850.  The Mechanics’ Institute, designed by the Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens, opened in 1846 and was later used as the Butterley Company Colliery offices.  Christ Church, also by H I Stevens, built at a cost of £6,000 and paid for by Francis Wright, was consecrated in 1851 and the vicarage, also by Stevens, dates from c1852. 

The 1854 Jessop Monument commemorates William Jessop II (1784-1852), son of the canal engineer.  It consists of a spacious memorial hall alongside a 70-foot-high Tuscan column with a viewing platform, reached by a spiral staircase of 150 steps.  The column was severely damaged by a lightning strike in 1861, though it continued to be used despite its precarious condition for years afterwards.  Both the column and the hall were restored in 2007, but are not accessible to the public.

Though Codnor Park and Ironville are geographically separated by the canal they always formed a unit, depending on the shops and social facilities around King William Street.  Whit Monday fêtes at the Codnor Park Memorial Hall were the highlight of the year.  Another long-standing custom, arising from an influx of Scottish ironworkers in the 1870s, was traditional Burns Night celebrations that were perpetuated into the 1960s.

Though Codnor Park Forge closed in 1965, followed by the adjacent wagon works ten years later, the Ironville community and its buildings remained largely intact until the Butterley Company was taken over by Lord Hanson’s Wiles Group in 1968.  The site of Codnor Park works was cleared by 1972. 

Though the derelict canal-side Butterley Company settlement at Golden Valley, a mile up the canal towards Butterley, was well restored by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust in 1979-81, the streets of Ironville, which had remained largely intact, were either demolished or modernised beyond recognition, pebble-dashed and shorn of chimney stacks by Alfreton Urban District Council in 1973.

Though the resulting conversions are no doubt comfortable, they could have been comfortable and attractive if Ironville had been sympathetically restored.

Ironville was a milestone on the road to comfortable dwellings for ordinary people.  Now it’s simply a housing development, incomplete, unrecognisable, its street plan defaced, its traditions disregarded.

To see the best of nineteenth-century workers’ housing, people don’t come to Ironville; they go to Cromford, New Lanark, Swindon, Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight – places that were valued and cared for.  Ironville isn’t on the list.

Elsecar

Reform Row, Elsecar, South Yorkshire

The coal mining industry created many industrial settlements across Britain, simply because coal was often found in places where there were few inhabitants.

Few of them are as elegant as Elsecar, the mining village of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, which stands in an area where the Barnsley seam could be anything up to nine feet thick and below it the Silkstone seam, up to six feet thick. 

The “black diamonds” were mined on behalf of the Marquis of Rockingham from before 1750.

When the Dearne & Dove Canal was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1793 two branches, each leading to feeder reservoirs, were provided to Worsborough and Elsecar. 

Lord Rockingham’s successor, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, opened the Elsecar New Colliery in 1795, and the branch canal reached the colliery site shortly after 1799. 

The village was subsequently laid out as a model of good practice and enlightened self-interest by a dynasty of aristocratic coal-owners who, while very much of their time in their attitudes to – for instance – trade unionism, seem to have taken a sincere, paternalistic interest in their employees. 

The sturdy stone rows of cottages, Old Row (1798), Station Row (1800), Meadow Row (c1803), Reform Row (1837) and Cobcar Terrace (1860), are solidly constructed, functional and visually attractive.  Like many buildings of the period on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate the first two terraces in Elsecar were designed by John Carr of York. 

Vegetable gardens and pig-sties were standard, and at Cobcar Terrace separate wash-houses were provided.  Rents were slightly higher than in other nearby settlements, but there seems to have been little difficulty in attracting workers to this relatively isolated spot. 

In 1850 the fifth Earl opened the distinctive and attractive Model Boarding House to attract young single miners from neighbouring coalfields:  this building housed Elsecar’s first fitted bath and hot-water geyser.

Apart from coal-mining, Elsecar has had other industrial enterprises, none of them so consistently successful.  There were two ironworks, the Elsecar Ironworks (opened in 1795 with the New Colliery) and Milton Ironworks (1803), and a short-lived tar-manufactory which gave its name to Distillery Row

The Elsecar Workshops (1859) provided the ironworks and collieries with everything “…new as regards iron and woodwork and the greater proportion of the repairs required for coal and iron mines, and all machinery, iron and heavy woodwork on the whole Estate particularly steam engines…”.

The Fitzwilliam estate provided all the substantial public buildings in the village – the Church Day School (1836;  closed 1852 but still forming part of Distillery Side Cottages), the Elsecar Steam Flour Mill (1841-2), Holy Trinity Parish Church (1843), the Gas Works (1857, behind Old Row, now demolished except for the Manager’s House), and the Market Hall (1870, renamed Milton Hall after alterations, 1922).

The South Yorkshire Railway reached Elsecar in 1850, vastly widening the available markets. 

Amidst the rows of coal-wagons and the bustle of shunting, one strange feature underlined the intimate relationship between the colliery and its owners – Earl Fitzwilliam’s private railway-station (1870), which still stands in the middle of the village virtually next to the mine, from which would set forth the Earl, his family and guests in their special railway carriage, having travelled by horse-drawn coach from the Palladian splendours of Wentworth Woodhouse.

In the years since the mining industry went into decline, Elsecar has reinvented itself as a tourist site, based around the Elsecar Heritage Centre, which incorporates Earl Fitzwilliam’s private station, the Elsecar Heritage Railway and the only surviving in situ Newcomen pumping engine in the world.

The People’s Priest

St Matthew’s Church, Carver Street, Sheffield

It’s difficult to visualise the hatred and vituperation that poisoned the nineteenth-century Church of England as clergy and their congregations attacked each other’s beliefs about worship.

High-Church Anglo-Catholics, who sought to move closer to Roman Catholicism, fought holy wars with strongly Protestant Low-Church Evangelicals over matters of ritual.

In Sheffield, the focus of Anglo-Catholicism was St Matthew’s Church, Carver Street, from the arrival of the third vicar, Rev George Campbell Ommanney (1850-1936), in 1882 until his death, both for his pastoral strengths as the “People’s Priest”, resident among parishioners in a congested slum area, and for promoting Anglo-Catholic worship in the town. 

Fr Ommanney came into immediate conflict with his predecessor’s churchwarden, Walter Wynn, and their disputes led to brawls in the vestry, court-cases and representations to the Archbishop, William Thompson, until eventually a commission of Sheffield clergy backed Ommanney’s right to minister as he thought fit.

St Matthew’s did not receive episcopal visits until the 1930s because of alleged illegal practices such as the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.  Yet, the second Bishop of Sheffield, Leslie Stannard Hunter, appointed in 1939, described Fr Ommanney as “that great man of God”.

As well as upsetting the sensibilities of the predominant Evangelical Anglicans in Sheffield, and caring devotedly for the inhabitants of the surrounding streets, Father Ommanney found the means and the artists to embellish his church.

The chancel was extended by the Arts & Crafts architect and designer John Dando Sedding (1838-1891) in 1886:  the reredos, to Sedding’s design, was carved by the Sheffield sculptor Frank Tory (1848-1939), with a painting of the Adoration by Nathaniel Westlake (1833-1921). 

J D Sedding also designed the altar, crucifix, candlesticks and the processional cross which was made in 1889 by Henry Longden & Co and bears a figure of Christ by Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) and figures of the Virgin Mary and St John by Richard Arthur Ledward (1857-1890). 

The choir stalls were designed by Sedding’s partner Henry Wilson (1864-1934).  The font and the pulpit (both 1903) were designed by H I Potter and carved by Frank Tory with Art Nouveau copperwork by Henry Longden.

The east window was apparently designed by Fr Ommanney.  Westlake’s partnership, Lavers, Barraud & Westlake, designed the west window, installed in 1902.

St Matthew’s escaped the Blitz but was damaged by fire shortly after the completion of a restoration programme, in August 1956.  The diocesan architect, George Gaze Pace (1915-1975), undertook a further restoration and over a period of ten years the congregation raised a total sum of £15,000 to put the building in order. 

The revival of the parish was threatened by a 1970s road-widening scheme.  The City Council promised a replacement building on a fresh site, but the plan was shelved and the 1854 church remains, having been listed Grade II in 1973. 

The area was redeveloped as the Devonshire Quarter, a lively mixture of retail, pubs and restaurants and apartments. 

Although the parish entirely lost its residential community in the post-war period it has retained a congregation attracted by the continuing Anglo-Catholic character of its worship: http://www.stmatthewscarverstreet.co.uk.

St Matthew’s installed an outstanding organ by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn in 1992 and the building underwent a further major restoration, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in 2000. 

The adjacent Grade-II listed clergy house attracted a European Community grant in 2012 and has been redesigned as The Art House, opened in 2016, to provide work- and exhibition-space for local artists and community groups.

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 ‘Sheffield’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Sam’s Space

Firth Park Methodist Church, Sheffield

I’ve remarked more than once that the northern suburbs of Sheffield are short of landmark buildings.

I deplored the demolition of St Hilda’s Parish Church, Shiregreen and the Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, and I’ve written blog articles about the uncertain futures of St Cecilia’s Parish Church, Parson Cross, the Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top and the Timbertop pub, Shirecliffe.

I was delighted to read, in the Methodist Church periodical The Connexion (Summer 2020), that Firth Park Methodist Church has put its attractive and expensive building to good use to ensure its long-term survival.

The Grade-II listed building is an essay in Perpendicular Gothic style by the Sheffield architects Frank W Chapman (1869-1933) and John Mansell Jenkinson (1883-1965), built of red brick with ashlar dressings and a slate roof.  Its entrance front has a wide Perpendicular window, with twin turrets and a porch with twin entrance doors.  The sides of the nave are buttressed and its roof carries an octagonal flèche. 

It cost £4,000, of which £1,000 was bequeathed by John Cole, one of the three Cole Brothers who founded the city-centre department store.

The interior plan of the worship space was originally cruciform, with transepts and a chancel.

The foundation stone was laid on Saturday May 28th 1910, and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of that date mentioned that the building would accommodate a congregation of three hundred and the ancillary facilities included a church parlour, minister’s vestry, choir vestry and kitchen.

The church opened on May 11th 1911.  It was affiliated to the United Methodist Church until the 1932 amalgamation which created the modern Methodist Church.

I’ve been told that in the early 1960s a property developer offered the congregation a deal whereby in exchange for the corner site on Stubbin Lane and Sicey Avenue, a brand-new chapel would be incorporated into a proposed supermarket.

The Methodists turned down this offer and instead the unlovely Paragon Cinema (1934), fifty yards up Sicey Avenue, was replaced by a supermarket and bowling alley.

Maintaining the building became increasingly difficult in the decades that followed, and a suspended ceiling was installed circa 1980 to make the place easier to heat.

As the Anglican congregation at St Hilda’s declined, there was talk of amalgamating in order to use one building instead of two, but when eventually St Hilda’s closed in 2007 the remaining members transferred to the Anglican parish church of St James & St Christopher, Shiregreen.

The Methodist congregation continued to flourish, however, and nowadays includes people of Caribbean heritage and from a number of African nations, especially Ghana, and former refugee families from Thailand.  The former vestry now serves as a café and is used for Café Church.

To support its thriving programme of activities – youth groups, English as a Second Language groups, an entertainment group – the congregation visualises creating two separate spaces in the nave, and in February 2020 opened ‘Sam’s Space’, containing a substantial indoor soft play structure.  In the five weeks before the pandemic lockdown forced it to close, an encouraging number of visitors crossed the threshold.

Sam’s Space isn’t only for kids.  Rev Mark Goodhand’s article in The Connexion comments,–

It’s a meeting place for young children, parents, grandparents and carers.  It’s a space that outside of soft play sessions will be used for wider conversations – fellowship groups, local councillors’ surgeries and school curriculum work.  As the project has unfolded new opportunities for service have emerged.  We hope to be involved with mental health work by using an open area attached to our building to provide raised beds for gardening.  It’s a place where new expressions of worship will begin to be shaped by the community.  This is exciting!

Every church is, of course, essentially the people who meet.  The building is only bricks and mortar.

But it’s satisfying that – thanks to the vision of the Firth Park Methodists – the humdrum shopping centre of Firth Park will retain its only distinguished building.

The Pumping Station

Former Cropston Pumping Station, Leicestershire

For most of the nineteenth century, demand for water supply in the borough of Leicester and its surrounding area left the waterworks company – and its successor Leicester Corporation – constantly chasing demand by increasing capacity.

The Leicester Waterworks Company was founded in 1846 and the following year secured an Act of Parliament to build a reservoir and treatment works at Thornton, to the west of the town.

The company struggled to attract capital until the Corporation promised to invest £17,000 of the required £80,000 in return for guarantees of a dividend of 4% per annum until 1883 and all the company’s net profits over 4½% for ever.

Thornton Reservoir began supplying up to 1.6 million gallons in 1853, but within ten years Leicester suffered two serious water shortages, in 1863 and 1864, and Leicester Corporation took shares in the company to finance the reservoir and pumping station at Cropston which opened in 1871.

When the Waterworks Company proposed to increase its capital further in 1874, the Corporation decided to purchase the company outright by means of an enabling Act in 1877.

The water level of Cropston Reservoir was raised to increase capacity in 1887, and in 1890 parliamentary powers were sought to establish another reservoir at Swithland. 

A further severe water shortage in 1893 was relieved only by taking an emergency supply from Ellistown Colliery which customarily supplied Coalville, and construction of the new dam began the following year.

Swithland Reservoir was built at almost the same time as the Great Central Railway line to London, which crosses it on two viaducts.  This stretch of railway now forms part of the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) heritage line.

In preparation for the opening of Swithland Reservoir in 1896, the Cropston pumping station was extended to pump water between the three reservoirs.

No sooner was this system in place than Leicester Corporation went to Parliament for powers to extract water from the Derbyshire River Derwent.  Other authorities had similar ideas and were obliged to collaborate by forming the Derwent Valley Water Board and building the reservoirs at Howden (1912), Derwent (1916) and Ladybower (1945).

The Leicester legacy of this race to build reservoirs includes three reservoirs and two former pumping stations.

Cropston Pumping Station, built for the Leicester Waterworks Company in 1870 and extended by Leicester Corporation Waterworks in 1894, was stripped of its engines and boilers in the 1950s and has been sensitively converted, retaining what was left of the internal installation, to a restaurant, wedding and conference venue by the current owners, Simon and Liz Thompson in 2015: https://www.thepumpingstation.co.uk.

The bar and restaurant space is in the former boiler house and the adjacent 1894 engine house retains the overhead winch which serviced the machinery below.  The 1870 engine house is now a private residence which includes the spiral staircase up the truncated chimney to an observation deck.

Visitors park their cars among the ornamental filter beds, below which is an underground brick reservoir which, in time to come, could become an exciting visitor attraction.

Water supply engineering has the happy advantage of enhancing local amenities.  People are resistant to having their land flooded, but the end-result is attractive, from Derbyshire’s spectacular lakeland to the quieter landscape of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.

The Pumping Station, Cropston is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Swithland Pumping Station is not accessible to the public.