Monthly Archives: May 2021

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.

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.

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 became a promising 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.