Monthly Archives: August 2022

Jonas & Colver

Jonas & Colver, Continental & Novo Steel Works, Bessemer Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1985)

Joseph Jonas was born in Bingen-am-Rhein, Germany in 1845.  In his youth he worked for a couple of German iron-and-steel companies until he emigrated to England in 1867 to avoid military service.

He arrived in Sheffield, a total stranger, and initially worked as a commercial traveller.  He began his own manufacturing business in 1870 and two years later went into partnership with Robert Colver making high-quality crucible cast steel and, later, “Novo” high-speed steel for high-temperature cutting edges in hand tools and machine tools.

The partnership, which became a limited-liability company in 1892, was based at Continental Works and Novo Steel Works in Attercliffe, the heart of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry, and developed a reputation as one of the largest and most reliable suppliers of specialist steels in the industry.

Joseph Jonas made an outstanding contribution to public life in Sheffield.  He joined the town council in 1890, became a magistrate and an alderman and served as Lord Mayor in 1904-05. As an Attercliffe councillor he took a lead in acquiring High Hazels Park, Darnall, for public use.  He also acted as German Consul for Sheffield.

He gave financial support to the University’s Applied Sciences, French and German programmes, and was knighted in 1905 when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the city to open the Sheffield University building on Western Bank.  In 1916 he contributed £5,000 to a bequest from the late Edgar Allen to found the Allen & Jonas Laboratory for metal-testing.

The company took the name Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd in 1907.  Robert Colver kept a lower public profile than his partner, except that he served as Master Cutler in 1890.  He died in 1916, aged seventy-four, leaving Sir Joseph to continue the business.

Continental Works was heavily involved in supplying steel for armaments in the First World War, but in 1918 Sir Joseph was accused of contravening the Official Secrets Act by obtaining and communicating “certain information prejudicial to the interest of the State and information useful to the enemy”.

This prosecution harked back to an answer to an enquiry from a German customer in 1913 about a new rifle to be marketed by the Vickers company.  There was considerable pre-war trade between Sheffield steel firms and such companies as the Krupp corporation:  orders, materials, equipment and information were regularly exchanged until the declaration of war abruptly broke contact.

Sir Joseph and his co-defendant were found not guilty of a felony but convicted of a misdemeanour on a legal technicality.  They were fined £2,000 and £1,000 respectively, plus costs.

Then Sir Joseph’s troubles began. 

He immediately retired and gave up his position as chairman of Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd, which shortly afterwards was renamed simply Jonas & Colver.

Three weeks later he was deprived of his knighthood by King George V, and the following month he was removed from the magistrates’ bench.

What in 1913 had been an entirely normal exchange of trade information between companies in two countries that were not at war became in 1918 a pretext for anti-German prejudice against a naturalised British subject, as an article on Chris Hobbs’ website shows in detail:  Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) – Was a former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, a traitor? (chrishobbs.com).

Sheffield people would have none of it.  His workers continued to call him “Sir Joseph”, and after his death aged seventy-six on August 22nd 1921 his funeral at Ecclesall Church was attended by the Lord Mayor and the Master Cutler, the Pro-Chancellor and the head of the Applied Science Department of Sheffield University, the chairman of the Sheffield Education Committee and, according to The Times, “representatives of every side of the city’s activities”.

Sir Joseph was not alone. 

At the very beginning of the Great War the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Siegfried Bettmann, was, so to speak, sent to Coventry:  World War One: Coventry mayor vilified over German roots – BBC News.   

Similarly, Sir Edgar Spayer (1862-1932), chairman of the London Underground Electric Railways group, was ostracised after the War: On the margin | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

It was not a time to reveal any connection, by name, birth or association, let alone activity, with Germany.

This was, after all, the period in history when German Shepherd dogs became Alsatians.

A dream for an architect

St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: sanctuary
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby: Celebration Window

I first met the architect Vincente Stienlet in Sheffield in 2015 when the Hand Of team who promoted the Abbeydale Picture House Revival invited him to watch a silent film in the cinema his grandfather, Pascal J Stienlet, had designed in 1920.

Together we watched The Call of the Road, the very first film shown in the building, accompanied by a live pianist, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Recently Vincente invited me to join the Northern Architectural History Society when they visited St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wetherby, which he designed and which was dedicated in 1986.

The chance to explore a building with the person who designed it is unmissable, and I was doubly blessed because when I arrived early I met the parish priest, the Very Rev Canon John Nunan, who took me on a liturgical tour of Vincente’s distinctive church.

When the NAHS coach arrived I then experienced a parallel tour with Vincente explaining to the group the symbolism as well as the structure.  The two commentaries fitted hand in glove.

At the beginning of the 1980s the parish had reached the point where their modest Gothic 1882 church, designed by Edward Simpson of Bradford, could no longer serve the growing congregation:  it seated 150, and every Sunday four Masses in succession were celebrated for up to six hundred worshippers.

The old St Joseph’s stands on a cramped and oddly shaped patch of land, alongside a former Methodist manse which had become the presbytery in 1939.  The only available space for expansion was the modest gap between the two buildings and behind that the unused presbytery garden.

Vincente’s response was to design a polygonal tent that connects the two buildings and occupies very nearly every square foot of land the parish possessed.

The gap between the old building, which became the parish hall, and the presbytery is filled by an imposing narthex, leading beneath the gallery to the worship space that embraces the visitor and draws the eye to the Baptistery, the place of admission to the faith.

On the wall behind the baptistery hang the Stations of the Cross – bold, chunky, enigmatic elm, carved with a chainsaw, designed by the artist Fenwick Lawson as an uncompromising reminder of the sacrifice of the Crucifixion.

The Stations of the Cross lead the eye rightwards to Fenwick Lawson’s Risen Christ, mounted on a beam above the High Altar.  Representing the triumph of the Resurrection it’s not a crucifix as such:  the crossbeam has been removed from the outstretched arms and the figure looks left extending an open hand towards the light gained by two south-facing gables, and beyond to the Celebration Window, by Fenwick Lawson’s son Gerard, gold and green, portraying a sunburst over the blue ribbon of the River Wharfe and the red of the roads crossing at Wetherby combining to make the PX symbol that the early church used for Christ’s name.

Canon Nunan described Vincente’s building to me as “a theological statement”.  It stands for the faith it belongs to, and it works as a practical structure.

You need an architect to tell you that the Gerard Lawson’s window is double-glazed, separated by a metre-wide space from the external glazing to suppress traffic noise, and that the beautiful polished teak that furnishes the Sanctuary was recycled from the handrails of the Byker Bridge near to his office in Newcastle.

There is more, much more to this superb church which, like a finely tuned instrument, calms the spirit and inspires reflection.

I was privileged to understand it – at least a little – with Canon Nunan, who this year celebrates his Golden Jubilee and is about to begin his well-earned retirement, and with Vincente Stienlet who describes it, in his book A Life in Architecture (Pascal Stienlet & Son Architects 2020), as “a dream for an architect”.