Monthly Archives: June 2021

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.

Down-to-earth bell-ringing

St Mary’s Church, East Bergholt, Suffolk: bell cage
St Mary’s Church, East Bergholt, Suffolk: bell cage

In East Anglia you can hardly move for beautiful medieval churches, built from the proceeds of the wool trade, but St Mary’s, East Bergholt, Suffolk has a unique claim to fame.

Dated 1350-1550, it’s a fine late-Perpendicular rebuilding in flintwork of an earlier church, containing – among much else – a priest’s room above the south porch, an Easter sepulchre in the chancel, a carved oak screen and a parish chest, c1400, hollowed out of a tree-trunk.  The church is 120 feet long and 56 feet wide.  The interior was sketched by East Bergholt’s most celebrated son, the painter John Constable (1776-1837), whose parents are buried here. 

At the west end, the beginnings of an elaborate tower stand unfinished since the Reformation.  There is a story that the funds to complete it, donated by Ipswich-born Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), were purloined by Henry VIII.  It’s more likely that at the Reformation from the 1530s onwards, work paused, as it did at Bath Abbey and what became Bristol Cathedral, but never restarted.

As a result, the five bells intended for the tower were housed in a timber bell-cage where they remain.

For the best part of five hundred years, the bells have been rung at ground level, swung by hand, the heaviest ring of five in England – 4¼ tons in total, of which the tenor weighs 1ton 6cwt 0qr 8lb, comparable to the weight of a small car.

Change-ringing with a ring of five is practical, though repetitive.  The bells rest in an upward position, and are set in motion by a ringer grasping the headstock.  There are no wheels or ropes.

The ringers of the lightest four bells stand outside and lean into the frame to ring.  The tenor is rung from an uncomfortable, noisy position in the middle of the cage.

There’s detailed information about the bell cage, with audio and video recordings, at https://eastbergholt-bells.org.uk, which includes details of ringing times.

This 2017 Daily Mail article provides further background and images:  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4872200/Dangerous-four-tonne-church-bells-rung-HAND.html.

Organ for sale

Port Erin Methodist Church, Isle of Man

Photo: Matthew Binns

Anyone want to buy a pipe-organ?  There’s one at the southern tip of the Isle of Man that needs a good home.

The Port Erin Methodist Church in the Isle of Man is about to move into smaller premises.  The congregation no longer wishes to support the maintenance costs of the dignified stone-built 1903 building and is moving into the smaller 1960s Sunday School building next door.

This decision is a matter of refocusing rather than retrenchment. 

Not for the first time, the church members want to direct their resources towards helping the local community rather than paying to keep up an old building that is ill-suited to present-day needs.  It’s the fourth time in their long history that they’ve abandoned one building for another.

This is the oldest Christian congregation in Port Erin, dating back to 1823.

A chapel was built on Dandy Hill in 1832 and replaced in the late 1850s by a 200-seat chapel that survived as a Sunday School until 1963 and was demolished three years later.

The present 1903 chapel on Station Road was designed by the Halifax architect William Clement Williams (1847-1913), who was resident in Port Erin at the time of his death.

The organ, one of the last to be built by the Douglas organ-builder Moses Morgan, dates from 1911, and originally belonged to the Port Erin Wesleyan Methodist Church that is now the Erin Arts Centre.  When the former Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist congregations amalgamated in 1970 the Wesleyans brought their organ with them to Station Road.

It’s described as “an excellent example of a straightforward chapel organ of modest size” with very few modifications to its authentic specification.

Apart from a few judicious improvements to the pipework little has changed, though the gas lights were replaced with electric lights as recently as 2008.

Organ aficionados on the island hope it will remain intact and find a new home.  The Methodists pray that it will continue to be used for worship.

In this video the Manx organist Gareth Moore introduces the chapel and demonstrates the organ’s capabilities:  Port Erin Pipe Organ – YouTube.

Particulars of the building sale are at Port Erin Methodist Chapel – Black Grace Cowley.