Monthly Archives: August 2021

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.

Sad end for the Wakefield Regal

Wakefield Regal/ABC/Cannon Cinema, West Yorkshire (June 2021)

Though Wakefield can be justifiably proud of the preservation and continued flourishing of the Theatre Royal, its best surviving cinema building has come to a sticky end.

The Regal Cinema at the junction of Kirkgate and Sun Lane was opened on December 9th 1935 by the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

It was designed by ABC’s house architect, William R Glen, in the instantly recognisable modern style that most people know as Art Deco.  To the left of the corner entrance, the walls swept in a graceful curve following the alignment of Sun Lane.

The interior had the characteristics of thirties design – bold curves, concealed lighting and a 43-foot wide proscenium framing what in those days was a standard Academy-ratio screen. 

In fact, though it only seated 1,594 at the outset – mid-range in comparison with other contemporary urban cinemas – the stage was 26 feet deep, providing space for major drama or dance productions.

Its later history was similar to many other town cinemas – rebranded as ABC in 1962, tripled by inserting two small screens in the stalls under the balcony in 1976, sold to the Cannon group in 1986.  It closed in 1997, shortly after a major Cineworld multiplex opened in the town.

A covenant requiring the building to remain in cinema use inhibited any possibility of adaptive re-use.

The building rotted while proposals to convert it into flats in 2007 or to demolish it to make way for a new apartment building in 2013 came to nothing. 

Urban explorers in 2007 found that the basement was flooded and the front stalls were under eighteen inches of water:  Report – – Wakefield ABC – Regal cinema 13/12/07 | Theatres and Cinemas | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Eventually Wakefield Borough Council bought it in 2020, in desperation that a fine building which had become an eyesore would before long become a hazard.

A rearguard action by an energetic Friends group, supported by the Cinema Theatre Association, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council there was any future for the building or its façade, but a “non-obtrusive structural survey” concluded that demolition would be safer before it began to fall down.  

In June 2021 the Council resolved to flatten it to create a temporary “green space” until a replacement structure, designed to “celebrate” Glen’s 1930s design, could be built.