Monthly Archives: January 2020

Organ transplant

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: fly-tower (2017)

Before Christmas I was the live act at the launch of photographer Darren O’Brien’s new book about the Sharrow Vale area of Sheffield:  https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/people/new-book-uncovers-hidden-charms-sheffields-sharrow-vale-community-1325708.

The launch took place in the fly tower of the Abbeydale Picture House, and Darren asked me to explain to his guests the history of this unique piece of cinema heritage.

The Grade II listed Abbeydale Picture House was always a gem among Sheffield’s suburban cinemas, and thanks to a succession of sympathetic owners it’s survived to entertain new generations of patrons nearly a hundred years after its opening.

One of six Sheffield cinemas to open in 1920, its original proprietors were local businessmen, led by a professional cinema exhibitor, seeking to capitalise on the demand for entertainment after the First World War.

They hedged their bets by instructing the architect, Pascal J Steinlet, to build a full-scale theatre fly tower, enabling the cinema screen to be flown out of the way of stage performances, and to use the sloping site to include a ballroom and billiard hall beneath the auditorium and stage, with a café to serve cinema patrons.

The directors considered that moving pictures alone might not generate enough trade, and when post-war inflation ate into their original budget of £50,000 they changed plans and installed an organ by the Sheffield firm Brindley & Co.

Because Pascal Steinlet had not been briefed to include an organ chamber, the instrument stood immediately behind the screen, centre stage, making it impossible to use the stage and dressing rooms for performances.

Anxious to generate income, they opened the cinema as soon as they could, on December 20th 1920.  The Lord Mayor, Alderman Wardley, attended the first film-performance, a costume romance, The Call of the Road, starring Victor McLaglen.

Their fear that film alone would not support the company proved correct.  In June 1921 the original board was replaced by the directors of the Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road, who quickly took out debentures to complete the café, ballroom and billiard hall before the end of the year.

In 1928, probably as a response to the imminent arrival of talking pictures, the organ was moved to the back of the stage, where it was barely audible, to make way for cine-variety performances, which continued until the first sound film, Janet Gaynor in Sunny Side Up, played on March 10th 1930.

The organ continued in use until 1940, and the last organist, Douglas Scott, complained that “the volume was poor, due to the fact that the organ chambers were placed as far back as possible on the stage and…at least 20% of the sound went through the stage roof.  The screen and tabs took their toll of sound and when the safety curtain was lowered nothing could be heard in the theatre.”

There’s evidence for this on the back wall of the fly tower, where two rows of holes for the joists of the stage floor are visible, the higher row showing a clear gap where after 1928 the organ would have stood on the original stage floor.  The position of the organ meant that only the downstage half of the stage was usable, so presumably the rake was increased to maintain the sight-lines Pascal Steinlet had intended.

I hope that when the building is comprehensively restored the stage floor will be reinstated so that it can be used for performances.

But I’d think twice about reinstating an organ.

Darren O’Brien’s book Sharrow Vale and the Antiques Quarter (History Press 2019) is available from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/sharrow-vale-and-the-antiques-quarter/9780750989329.

Three ships

Former Hull & East Riding Co-operative store, Three Fishes mosaic, Hull (2016)

The Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society, having lost its flagship store in the severe blitz of 1941, was determined to rebuild in the city-centre as soon as it could.

A temporary “pre-fab” store opened in 1947, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s in-house architect, E P Andrews, prepared ambitious plans for a prestige building at King Edward Square, the intersection of Jamieson Street and King Edward Street.

It took from 1955 to 1964 to complete – five retail floors and on the roof the Skyline Ballroom and restaurant, where Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd played beneath the dome.

The store’s signature feature, filling the corner façade, was a ‘Three Ships’ mural by Alan Boyson (1930-2018), 66 feet × 64 feet, consisting of over a million glass tesserae, completed in 1963.

It depicts three trawlers to commemorate the city’s fishing industry, their masts spelling the name “HULL”, over the motto “Res Per Industriam Prosperae” – “Success through Industry”.

There are heavy ironies here, because the fishing industry collapsed in the 1970s [https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/business/fish-being-landed-hull-first-2016086] and the Co-op has lost its way in the face of a succession of revolutions in retail.

The Jamieson Street store was closed in 1969 and the front part sold to British Home Stores – a brand that itself came to a sticky end in 2016.

When BHS folded Hull City Council bought the building for redevelopment, with the expressed intention of retaining the ‘Three Ships’ mural if possible, along with two rediscovered interior murals by Alan Boyson, ‘Fish’ and ‘Sponge-Print’.

Though the building had been added to the Council’s non-statutory local list in 2007, and was placed on the Twentieth Century Society’s Buildings at Risk list in 2017, Heritage England declined to list it Grade II in 2016 because it “falls short of the high bar for listing post-war public art”.

In April 2019, Hull City Council firmly committed to retain the three Boyson murals, but six months later, reversed their decision to keep ‘Three Fishes’ because its concrete sub-structure contained asbestos and would “pose a risk to public safety” if dismantled for restoration.

Apparently, the Health & Safety Executive would require the entire building to be wrapped for demolition and the rubble taken away as contaminated waste.

Then, in a sudden turnaround at the end of November 2019, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport awarded the mural Grade II listing. 

Hull City Council was not pleased, having resolved to recreate the image photographically on the replacement structure.

Hull Heritage Action Group, which had campaigned in support of the Boyson murals since 2016, hoped that the Council “will do the right thing”.

Such U-turns often show long-term benefits.  Chesterfield would have lost its fine market place if the Peacock Inn hadn’t turned out to be a fifteenth-century structure rather than a grubby Victorian pub.

And politicians who “do the right thing” can expect to gain satisfying amounts of political capital.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 ‘Humber Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 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.

Market Place

Peacock Inn, Chesterfield, Derbyshire (1982)

Chesterfield, by its name, clearly dates back to Roman times, and a short-lived fort is thought to have existed somewhere near the site of the medieval parish church of St Mary, the famous “Crooked Spire”.

The town had a regular market by the year 1156 and gained a charter in 1204.  A street grid developed around a huge market place, the eastern part of which was later infilled by alleyways known as the Shambles.

Its mercantile past is marked by street-names that commemorate ancient trades – Packer’s Row, Knifesmithgate, Saltergate and Glumangate (from “gleeman”, a minstrel, indicating the Tin Pan Alley of medieval Chesterfield).

The open market place, with its stately iron pump, was bordered by fine Georgian inns and shops and, in 1857, embellished with a Market Hall that included an assembly room, a post office, a corn exchange and a tall clock tower.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed this pompous pile as “the crudest show of high Victorian prosperity” and by the 1950s it indeed looked past its best – grubby and shorn of the ogee top to the tower.

In 1964 the Borough Council commissioned the Hammerson Group to redevelop the entire area, and they proposed a covered precinct that would have obliterated the market place, the Market Hall and the Low Pavement shops to the south.

After the Council approved this proposal in 1972, uproar followed. 

A petition against it attracted 34,000 signatures, and a letter to the Derbyshire Times by a twelve-year-old schoolboy, David Ellis, led to the formation of the Chesterfield Heritage Society which served a High Court writ on the Council, asserting that the Hammerson scheme “would not be in the financial interests of the town’s ratepayers.

Low Pavement already included a number of listed buildings when an arson attack on the derelict, unassuming Peacock Inn revealed that the building was in fact a three-bay timber-framed structure dating from c1500 with an impressive tie-beam roof with curved wind braces, which was hurriedly listed Grade II. 

In the face of the crescendo of opposition Hammerson Group chose not to sign the development agreement.

The Council then executed a widely praised policy U-turn and commissioned the distinguished practice Feilden & Mawson to survey the area covered by the Hammerton scheme, while the Department of the Environment listed nearly sixty structures.

This led, with strong public approval, to The Pavements development, which retained the facades of Low Pavement while stripping away the burgage plots behind, building a brick-faced multi-storey car park, turning the Peacock Inn into an information centre and renovating the Market Hall and reinstating its 30ft dome.

The lead architect, Bernard Feilden, commented the Market Hall might be called ugly “but it has been saved because it is so essentially a part of Chesterfield”. 

A more hard-headed argument in its favour was that renovation cost an estimated £250,000 less than demolishing it and building a new replacement.

Meanwhile, the Shambles area, itself threatened by a comprehensive redevelopment by Lloyds Bank Property Ltd but championed by the Chesterfield & District Civic Society, was given conservation-area status which protected the sixteenth-century Grade II*-listed Royal Oak pub.

The largely completed scheme was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in November 1981.

Within a period of little more than five years Chesterfield was transformed.  Instead of gaining a covered shopping precinct that destroyed the historic core, the town retained its scale and its open spaces, conserved and improved for the future.

And the borough’s politicians, having abandoned what must have looked like a good deal in the 1960s, could pat themselves on the back for being in the forefront of the sensitive environmental thinking that Prince Charles has championed in the years that followed.

Steel workers’ resting place 3

City Road Cemetery, Sheffield: Catholic Chapel of St Michael (2014)

When the very last Sheffield tram came off the streets in October 1960 an assiduous member of its load of enthusiasts made sure that, as the gates of Tinsley Tram Sheds closed behind it, its destination indicator showed ‘CEMETERY GATES’.

The cemetery gates at which Intake trams sometimes turned back was City Road, established by the newly-formed Sheffield Burial Board on a site east of the town-centre purchased from the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1881. 

The original buildings – Church of England and Nonconformist chapels, a gateway and lodge on Manor Lane and a gatehouse and offices on City Road, all in late Perpendicular style – were designed by the Sheffield architects Matthew Ellison Hadfield & Son.

The initial apportionment of land was between the Church of England (slightly over 20 acres), the Nonconformists (13 acres) and the Roman Catholics (7 acres), leaving 9 acres to allocated as required in future.

There was no Roman Catholic chapel at the cemetery until 1898, when the Duke of Norfolk commissioned a design with a hexagonal sanctuary and a central lantern above the altar, 60 feet long, by Matthew Ellison Hadfield’s son Charles.  Dedicated to St Michael, the foundation stone was laid on July 22nd 1899, and it was consecrated on October 11th 1900.

A subsequent resolution by the Burial Board allowed the space in front of the chapel to be used for burials of Catholic clergy, and it became known as the Priest Vaults.

In 1901 Sheffield Corporation, having taken over the functions of the Burial Board the previous year, gained legal powers to construct one of the first municipal crematoria in Britain, and commissioned Charles Hadfield and his son Charles Matthew Ellison Hadfield to design an octagonal structure alongside the Nonconformist chapel, based on the Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury so that the steel exhaust from the cremator could pass through the Gothic lantern which provided light and ventilation to the space below. 

Charles M E Hadfield’s bronze catafalque was constructed by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts and installed in the chapel, and a columbarium was installed in the south side of the City Road entrance range.

The crematorium opened on April 5th 1905.  The first cremation was of Eliza Hawley of Upperthorpe, on April 24th 1905, in the presence of her family, the architect and the Town Clerk.  A further six cremations took place in the following six months to November 1905.

The Church of England chapel was demolished in 1982, having been made redundant by the construction of a modern chapel to the north of the crematorium.  All the other original buildings on the site remain, though the Catholic Chapel has been derelict for years.

City Road Cemetery is included in the itinerary of the Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For further details of the tour please click here.