Category Archives: Sheffield’s Heritage

Exploring Canberra: All Saints’ Church, Ainslie 2

All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie, Canberra, Australia

My curiosity to visit All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, was prompted not only by its unusual provenance as a cemetery railway-station, but because of a local association between my native Sheffield and this antipodean suburb in Australia’s federal capital.

The sanctuary of All Saints’ is dominated by the east window by Charles Kempe & Co.  The glass comes from St Clement’s Church, Newhall, Sheffield (1914), paid for by a subscription of parishioners and dedicated in 1919 to the memory of the war dead of the parish.

St Clement’s closed in July 1961, as the congregation had dwindled and the surrounding housing was cleared.  The All Saints’ guide-book, A Station of the Cross, relates that the gift was at the instigation of Lady Jacqueline De L’Isle, wife of the Governor-General who served from 1961.  Lady De L’Isle liked to worship at All Saints’, and once brought the poet John Betjeman to a service. He advised her where in Britain she could source glass to fill the east window at All Saints’.

The glass in the east window at All Saints’ is not the entire window from St Clement’s:  photographs indicate that John Dodsley Webster’s design for Newhall was taller and the window longer:  http://www.picturesheffield.com/frontend.php?keywords=Ref_No_increment;EQUALS;y02488&pos=2&action=zoom

It’s apparent that the prophets Joel, Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi are omitted along with the original inscription “Remember ye with thanksgiving and all honour before God and man those who went forth from Newhall to the Great War 1914-19, and returned not again.”  Canon William Odom’s description of the window in its original form is quoted at http://www.sheffieldsoldierww1.co.uk/Memorial/St%20Clements.html.

Furthermore, some panels of glass at Ainslie are clearly intended to fit cusped tracery, yet the Sydney designer Phillip Handel has mounted all the glass in a single steel frame.  Some of the surplus glass was used in the entrances to the side vestries.

All Saints’ possesses further English glass by Charles Kempe from the parish church of St Margaret, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

The original bell, which at Rookwood alerted mourners to the departure of the return train to Sydney, had disappeared and was replaced by the bell of an American Shay locomotive that worked at the Wolgan Valley Railway near Lithgow, New South Wales, presented to All Saints’ by the New South Wales Steam Tram & Train Preservation Society in 1958.

Tinsley Towers

“Tinsley Towers”, Blackburn Meadows WTW, South Yorkshire (2008)

Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Works, operated by Yorkshire Water, is hidden discreetly behind the great steel curtain of the M1 Tinsley Viaduct, which opened in 1968.

Alongside the sewage works dating back to 1886, Sheffield Corporation operated an electric power-station, opened in 1921, to supply the considerable needs of the local steelworks, taking advantage of the adjacent River Don for cooling water, and excellent rail connections to supply coal.

When the station’s capacity was expanded to 72 megawatts, two hyperbolic cooling towers, each 250 feet high, were built in 1937 and 1938.

The power station became surplus to requirements, like many of the steelworks it supplied, and closed in 1980.  All the structures were quickly demolished except for the cooling towers, which stood less than twenty metres from the M1 viaduct – too close to be taken down safely.

Accordingly, the elegant, empty concrete structures became a landmark for motorway travellers and a reassuring symbol of homecoming to returning Sheffielders, who referred to them as the Tinsley Towers.

Despite the support of local MP David Blunkett and the sculptors Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, proposals to use the towers for concerts or a skate park were floated but sank.

English Heritage refused to list them, arguing that the internal cooling apparatus had been removed, leaving only the concrete shells.  This emptiness was part of their aesthetic appeal – abstract spaces that could only have been constructed for a functional purpose that they’d outlasted.

After thirty years of slow-burning controversy, the towers were blown up during a motorway closure on the night of August 24th 2008, before an appreciative audience of sightseers using the car-park of the adjacent Meadowhall Centre as a viewing platform.

Their site has been utilised for a biomass power station, burning waste wood, operated by E.ON UK and opened in 2014.

This image of the Tinsley Towers is available as a greetings card, either singly or in a pack of five, or as a notelet to order.  For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Blackburn Meadows

Blackburn Meadows Waste Water Treatment Works, South Yorkshire

Sheffield sits in a bowl of hills, drained by five rivers:  the rivers Loxley, Rivelin, Porter and Sheaf each drain into the Don, which flows north-east to Rotherham, Doncaster and the Humber estuary.

There’s only one place to put a sewage works to serve Sheffield – Blackburn Meadows, named after the Blackburn Brook that joins the River Don near to the Meadowhall shopping centre.

Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Works is nowadays discreetly shielded by the bulk of the M1 motorway Tinsley Viaduct.  Formerly, it was surrounded by steelworks and railway lines, an environment of stygian gloom that was, ironically, essential to the health of the city.

Sheffield stunk for much of the nineteenth century, until in 1886 the Sheffield Local Board of Health completed a main drainage scheme, costing £150,338, including the 23-acre Blackburn Meadows sewage works at Tinsley, which cost £44,730. 

Sewage treatment was rudimentary and didn’t work particularly well.

Sheffield Corporation, the successor-authority to the Local Board, took compulsory powers in 1890 to convert premises served by middens to water closets:  in 1893 there were still 32,362 privy middens in the town;  by 1914 this number had been reduced to 7,450 and hardly any remained by the end of the 1920s.

Through the twentieth century Blackburn Meadows was repeatedly modernised to deal with Sheffield’s industrial and domestic sewage by bio-aeration – oxygenating the liquid to encourage “good” bacteria to digest the offensive matter – and, latterly, the incineration of solid waste.  In the inter-war period visitors came from far and wide to admire and learn about the ‘Sheffield System’ of sewage disposal.

From January 1979 Sheffield’s Victorian sewerage-system was dramatically upgraded by the completion of the gigantic 5.5m-diameter Don Valley Intercepting Sewer. Sewage is pumped into the works at Blackburn Meadows from a depth of 22.5 metres by four 1050Kw and two 540Kw pumps housed in a cream-coloured, clad and glazed pumphouse designed by Hadfield Cawkwell Davison and completed in 1983. 

Blackburn Meadows remains the ultimate and inevitable destination for all Sheffield’s sewage and storm-water.  Indeed, in the 1950s when Sheffield built a housing estate on its southern boundary at Greenhill, which drains south into the Drone valley, the Derbyshire authorities told the city exactly what it could do with its ordure.  Consequently, the Greenhill effluent is pumped back over the watershed to begin its long journey to Blackburn Meadows.

It’s the proud boast of the workers at Blackburn Meadows that the liquid they return to the River Don is cleaner than the river itself.

One day’s itinerary in the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour includes a journey along the course of the Great Sheffield Flood, which killed at least 250 people in March 1864. It starts at the Dale Dike Dam which replaced the one that burst, includes relevant sites including Wardsend Cemetery, and ends with a fleeting view of Blackburn Meadows WTW from the M1 Tinsley Viaduct. For details of the programme, please click here.

Tinsley Viaduct

M1 Motorway, Tinsley Viaduct, South Yorkshire (1985)

The M1 viaduct at Tinsley was an adventurous solution to a complex engineering problem – a double-deck design, taking the motorway on the top deck and a trunk road beneath across a flat valley-floor site riddled with old mine-workings, circumventing an electricity generating station and a sewage works and crossing two railway-lines and two main roads. 

The M1 deck is 65 feet above the valley-floor;  the A631 trunk road is slung twenty-five feet below it.

Colonel Maynard Lovell, the highways engineer of the West Riding County Council, submitted an original design in concrete, built in sections to counteract subsidence and heat-expansion:  its estimated cost was £6 million. 

This proposal was overruled by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, in favour of a single-unit steel box-girder design by Freeman Fox & Partners costing £4.6 million.

The viaduct, Junction 34 of the M1, opened to traffic in 1968 – the lower deck, carrying the A631, in March and the upper motorway deck in October. 

Within the following three years three box-girder bridges collapsed, causing fatalities, while still under construction. 

In 1970 the Cleddau Bridge at Milford Haven killed five workers and the West Gate Bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia, killed thirty-five.  In 1971 the South Bridge over the River Rhine at Koblenz in West Germany also collapsed, killing thirteen.  

The Cleddau and Yarra bridges were both designed by Freeman Fox & Partners, who in the same decade designed the first Severn Bridge (1966) and the Humber Bridge (1980). 

It may have seemed appropriate to have a steel viaduct bridging the industrial heartland of the city of steel, but the original flexible concrete design would have avoided the disadvantages of the insufficiently tested box-girder construction, and a concrete viaduct doesn’t need painting. 

However a 2004 Highways Agency calculation indicated that replacing as opposed to rebuilding the viaduct would cost £200 million and involve hidden costs for delay and disruption amounting to £1.4 billion.

Initial modifications to Tinsley Viaduct began in February 1976 and continued with few interruptions for years.  The additional cost was given as £3 million at the start of the rebuilding programme. 

The ugly cross-girders and diagonal reinforcements along the lower deck have destroyed what elegance the original structure had, and their installation in a structure carrying an operational trunk motorway was a logistical nightmare.  The original maintenance gantries had to be completely redesigned, and the previously unrecognised need to inspect the inside of the box-girders required the fitting of permanent lighting and safety rails.  Furthermore, the formerly sulphurous atmosphere of the East End steelworks necessitated frequent repainting (£2 million at 1980 prices).

An £81,000,000 scheme to strengthen the structure further in order to meet EU criteria was completed in late 2005:  European legislation had restricted the motorway to four lanes;  intricate internal reinforcement of the box-girders enabled it to carry 40-tonne vehicles over six lanes and permitted a safer configuration of the Junction 34 slip roads.

It’s difficult, because of the effects of inflation, to ascertain whether the patching of the Tinsley Viaduct was in the end cheaper than knocking it down and building a new one.

Little palaces

Titterton Street, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1977) ~ Huntsman’s Gardens Schools in the distance

In the early months of the lockdown the Friends of Zion Graveyard invited me to write the text for a series of interpretation boards to provide background information and archive photographs for visitors.

When the Friends’ committee was asked to comment on the draft I was justifiably taken to task for giving the impression that the houses in Attercliffe were slums.

I used the formal phrase “slum clearance” that the City Council applied to its clearance schemes from the 1950s onwards.

Indeed, the houses themselves were not slums.  They simply lacked facilities we now take for granted.   

The insulting arrogance of some of the public servants who drove the policy of slum clearance is highlighted in Marcus Binney’s book, Our Vanishing Heritage (Arlington 1984), p 193, where he quotes the civil engineer and planner Wilfred Burns, who changed the face of Coventry and later did the same in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  

In his book New Towns for Old:  the technique of urban renewal (1963) Burns declares,–

One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effect on the social grouping built up over the years.  But, one might argue, that is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride.  The task, surely, is to break up such groupings even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their own locality.

He wouldn’t have lasted long if he’d aired those views in the Dog & Partridge on a Saturday night.

There’s no wonder that my parents’ generation couldn’t wait to get out of Attercliffe in search of better housing.  They were sick of managing with an outside lavatory, a single cold tap and heating by coal.  Their lives were shortened by the tons of atmospheric pollution that rained down on the valley where steelworks stood surrounded by terraced housing.

In earnest irony, Frank Hartley entitled his memoir of growing up in Attercliffe Where Sparrows Coughed (Sheaf 1989).

The post-war planners’ solution to the dreadful environment was single-use zoning, dividing the city into areas of unified purpose, such as industry, housing or retail. 

The nineteenth-century development of the Lower Don Valley had been dictated by the need for steelworkers to walk between home and work.

By the mid-twentieth century it was possible to relocate housing well away from the smokestack industries, and to expect the workers to commute from leafy housing estates to their work by bus.

Nowadays their children write in internet nostalgia forums with sincere regret for the community they lost.  It’s easy to sentimentalise our childhood while sitting at a keyboard in a modern dwelling that previous generations would have thought forever beyond their reach.

Remembering the good times and ignoring the bad is a lazy way of looking at the past, and it devalues the determination of the women who spent their days in never-ending labour, striving to make their homes into little palaces, and those of their menfolk who put their wage-packets on the table at the end of every week.

Everyone enjoys wallowing in nostalgia occasionally, but for me the most vivid evocation of Attercliffe in my childhood is Frank Hartley’s book, which has been out of print for far too long.

No more Coles in Sheffield

Sheffield General Cemetery: John Cole monument

One of the many business casualties of the Covid pandemic was the John Lewis store in the centre of Sheffield.

Its demise was not entirely a surprise but it caused sadness to Sheffield people who’d shopped there over the years.

Indeed, the building was only branded ‘John Lewis’ in 2002.  Previously it was Cole Brothers, and Sheffield shoppers continued to call it Coles because to them that was what it was.

The Cole brothers, born in Pickering, North Yorkshire, were John (1814-1898), Thomas (1824-1902) and Skelton (1827-1896).  The older two had served apprenticeships as drapers and founded the company in 1847, trading as “Silk Mercers, Shawl, Mantle and Carpet Warehousemen, Bonnet Makers and Sewing Machine Agents”.  Skelton joined the partnership later.

One of their assistants, John Atkinson, left in 1872 to found his own department store, which still trades on The Moor.

The business was continued by the sons respectively of Thomas and Skelton Cole – Thomas (b 1854) and Thomas Skelton Cole (b 1853), who sold the store in 1920 to Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947).  He transferred it to his Selfridge Provincial Stores group seven years later and in 1940 sold it to the John Lewis Partnership, then as now an employee-owned mutual partnership.  Throughout these changes the store continued to trade as Cole Brothers.

The shop was repeatedly extended between 1869 and 1920 along Fargate and round the corner on to Church Street, and the corner entrance became the favoured meeting place for young couples, known as “Coles’ Corner”.

In the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940 Coles was the only department store in the city-centre that was largely unscathed.

The original store was replaced in 1963 with a new building on the site of the burnt-down Albert Hall at Barker’s Pool, and the lovers’ rendezvous moved to the fish-tank in the “Hole in the Road”, otherwise Castle Square, when it opened in 1967. 

(The Hole in the Road was filled in to make way for Supertram in 1994.  The well-worn joke was that the last fish in the tank was a piranha.)

Proposals for Coles to move to the Meadowhall Centre when it opened in 1990 and later plans to move into a new flagship John Lewis store in the aborted Sevenstone development alike came to nothing.

Now the only manifestations of the Cole brothers’ place in Sheffield’s history are a plaque on the site of the original Coles Corner, the Sheffield-born musician Richard Hawley’s eponymous 2005 album and John Coles’ eye-catching obelisk in the General Cemetery.

The ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour includes a guided tour of the Sheffield General Cemetery. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Zion Graveyard 3

Zion Graveyard, Attercliffe, Sheffield (April 2021)

Until last weekend, I hadn’t set foot in the Zion Graveyard – Attercliffe’s only historic site regularly open to the general public – since September 2019, the last time I was able to run a heritage Bus Ride Round Attercliffe.

A great deal has happened in eighteen months, not least at the Graveyard where, despite the constraints of lockdown and social distancing, the Friends have restored the place so that it once again looks like a graveyard rather than a jungle.

The difference they’ve made to a long-neglected, significant historic site is impressive.

The Friends of Zion Graveyard was formed in 2017 by the group who look after Upper Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, a couple of miles away.  They wanted to locate the burial place of the Chapel’s founder, Mary Ann Rawson (1801-1887), an energetic anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer, and found it deep in the neglected burial ground of the former Zion Congregational Church, which was burnt down in 1987.

The Friends purchased the graveyard site from the Yorkshire Congregational Union in January 2018.  The events that followed are chronicled at FoZGA End of Project Photo Report final.pdf (windows.net) and come alive in Jon Harrison’s excellent video:  Zion – the Forgotten Graveyard – YouTube.

They’re a small, energetic group who’ve achieved a great deal through their enthusiasm and their ability to secure funds from such organisations as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the J G Graves Charitable Trust to supplement the donations of individuals and small businesses associated with the Lower Don Valley.

There’s been much talk about celebrating the historic heritage of Attercliffe and Carbrook.  Carbrook Hall has been restored and converted from a pub to a particularly fine Starbucks.  The Hill Top Chapel is used for worship by the Sheffield Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  And Attercliffe Library has become a promising coffee shop, wine-bar and restaurant.

There are other buildings in the Valley that deserve to be put to use.  Some, like Tinsley Tram Sheds and the Adelphi Cinema, have given conservationists cause for concern while others, such as the imposing Banner’s former department store and the former Bodmin Street Wesleyan Reform Chapel are earning their keep in new ways.

The Graveyard has remained closed to the public during the pandemic, and its gradual reopening will be publicised on their website:  Friends of Zion Graveyard – Events (btck.co.uk).  It’s a delightful and fascinating place where visitors are made very welcome.

Elegant and commodious sports bar

Former Carver Street Methodist Chapel, Sheffield – now Walkabout sports bar

Sheffield’s Carver Street Methodist Chapel, built on what was the edge of town in 1800, is now a buzzing Australian sports bar in the centre of Sheffield’s entertainment quarter.

Its founders and the successive generations of teetotal worshippers would be appalled, but Grade II listing protects the historic fabric, and the income from customers has guaranteed that the building is well maintained.

There were Methodists in Sheffield almost from the very start of John Wesley’s great crusade, and they built a succession of modest chapels from 1741 until the Carver Street building was opened in 1805 at a cost of about £4,720 to seat 1,500 people to the designs of the architect-minister Rev William Jenkin (1788-1844).

The plain but imposing building was described by the Sheffield poet and hymn-writer James Montgomery (1771-1854) as “one of the best planned, most elegant and commodious places of worship in the country”.

Services were often packed to capacity, and the congregation spilled over into the yard outside. 

Sheffield was a predominantly nonconformist town:  in 1841, when the population was 112,492, the nonconformists had 25,000 sittings, a third of them free, in comparison with the Anglicans’ 1,500.

The Methodists were strict and ascetic in their private lives and public worship.  The first Methodist Conference at Carver Street in 1805 passed a resolution prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship “except a bass viol, which was permitted when the principal singer required it”.

The Carver Street congregation was strict but not rigid.  When the chapel was refurbished in 1839, with new pews and double-glazed windows, an organ was inaugurated by the organist of Doncaster Parish Church, Jeremiah Rogers, “who on that occasion performed some of Bach’s organ music for the first time in Sheffield”. 

The congregation flourished for 150 years.  Its prestigious members included the ironfounder Henry Longden (1754-1812), who is buried in a vault at Carver Street, the steelmaker Alderman George Senior (1838-1915) of Pond’s Forge, Lord Mayor in 1901, and Sir Samuel Osborn (1864-1952), Lord Mayor in 1912.

The premises were repeatedly extended, by a schoolroom in the yard (1834), vestries at the rear of the building (1883) and a new block of schools and classrooms, at a cost of £5,000 in 1897.

The church was reseated in 1902 and a new organ by the Hull manufacturers Forster & Andrews was installed.  It cost £1,200, the gift of Samuel Meggitt Johnson (1836-1925) of Endcliffe Court, sole proprietor of the George Bassett confectionery company. 

The congregation continued to thrive between the wars:  in 1934 the adult membership was 550 and the Sunday Schools had 900 on roll.

The Institute was wrecked in the December 1940 Blitz, and the church itself suffered damage, yet the community played a significant part in the war effort, and was still flourishing at the time of its sesquicentenary in 1955.

By the 1970s, however, there was a decline in numbers, and in 1990 the congregation combined with that of the demolished Wesley Methodist Church in Broomhill and occupied a new building on that site in 1998.

The Carver Street building was sold and converted into a pub, in which the paraphernalia of a modern bar sits incongruously in the intact surroundings of the Grade II-listed galleried chapel, with the pulpit occupied by the DJ’s desk, and the organ intact but mothballed behind.  The graves outside are protected by timber cladding.  The entire pub-conversion is reversible, so that in future the space can be restored to its original elegance and the building put to another use: https://www.walkaboutbars.co.uk/sheffield.

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.

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 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.