Category Archives: Fun Palaces: the history and architecture of the entertainment industry

This brave o’erhanging firmament

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: auditorium ceiling (2013)

The legal stalemate over the leaking roof of the Abbeydale Picture House threatens to bring down the ornate plaster ceiling of the auditorium.

A recent press-release from the lessee of the cinema, CADS [Creative Arts Development Space], stated that the building must be made weatherproof without delay, and the financial loss from the closure of the auditorium is becoming unsustainable:  The uncertain future of a century-old Sheffield landmark ( [scroll to ‘The Big Story’].

Subsequently, the Theatres Trust has added the Abbeydale to its register of theatres at risk:  Theatre at Risk Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield (

An alarming incident at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End in 2013 [‘Apollo theatre collapse injures more than 80 people in London’s West End | London | The Guardian] injured over eighty theatregoers and raised concerns about health-and-safety issues with plaster ceilings in historic theatres across Britain.  The Society of London Theatres quickly established that at the time of the incident all the West End theatres were up to date with their safety inspection routines.  Further precautions led to a tightened, systematic routine of inspections:  No prosecutions over theatre roof collapse | Theatre | The Guardian.

A detailed examination of the damage showed that the Apollo ceiling was weakened by the deterioration of hessian ties, called ‘wads’, that anchored the plasterwork to the roof structure:  Apollo theatre ceiling collapse blamed on failure of old cloth ties | London | The Guardian.  Water ingress was apparently the basic problem, weakening the hessian and adding to the weight of the plasterwork.  There’s a partly redacted technical report on the Apollo collapse at Apollo-Theatre..pdf (

There’s been no public statement to indicate exactly what is wrong with the Abbeydale Picture House roof, but it’s clear that if the ceiling collapsed its reinstatement would be costly and would delay plans for a full restoration.

In a recent blog-article I highlighted the successful restoration of Wingfield Station in Derbyshire after years of neglect.  This came about because of a combination of forces.  Local residents and the Amber Valley District Council worked with English Heritage and the not-for-profit Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust to put the station back in excellent order which will enable it to earn its keep in future.

Sheffield City Council has already played that card by channelling Levelling Up funds from central government to make the Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe suitable for a lessee’s occupation, but the Abbeydale Picture House is a different proposition.

Firstly, it’s much bigger than Wingfield Station and though it’s structurally complete its integrity is seriously threatened by the ceiling vulnerability.

Secondly, it’s not the only landmark building in the city that presents a major conservation challenge.  The Old Town Hall is older, more central, more complex, in far worse physical condition and extremely difficult to adapt to a practical future use.

Sheffield City Council is desperately short of money after years of budget cuts, and to finance non-essential services it’s forced to scavenge for ringfenced grants that can’t be spent on other priorities.

I spoke to someone who knows about such matters, and he said that the only solution was money – more money than ordinary individuals might raise in a hurry.

But the support of ordinary members of the public will help CADS, a not-for-profit organisation with a strong track record in repurposing redundant buildings for use in a variety of art forms.

And reminding local politicians that people care about landmark buildings like the Abbeydale wouldn’t go amiss.  The Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler, is at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

Update: Within days of this article going online, on February 22nd 2024 CADS announced the immediate closure of the Abbeydale Picture House for lack of resources to make the auditorium safe, though they retain the tenancy agreement and hope to restore the building in the future:

No fire without smoke

Blackpool Tower: access stair to the Crow’s Nest

A false hue-and-cry created post-Christmas entertainment in the centre of Blackpool on Thursday December 28th 2023 when passers-by thought they could see flames shooting from the top of the Tower.

Phone footage does indeed look convincingly like a fire – – but it was an illusion caused by orange netting flapping in the wind.

Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service deployed six fire-engines, a helicopter and a “rope rescue” team to inspect the upper levels of the structure leading to the “Crow’s Nest”.

The excitement was over before teatime.

It wasn’t the first alarm about a fire at the top of the Tower.

There was a real fire above the 380ft landing, where the passenger lifts terminate, late in the evening of Thursday July 22nd 1897, three years after the Tower was opened.

It was a time when there was no possible way to put it out.  The wooden decking was simply left to burn itself out while crowds watched from the Promenade.

All the fire brigade could do was to protect surrounding buildings from catching fire from falling debris.  The Liverpool Mercury (July 24th 1897) reported –

Showers of sparks flew around in all directions, and large pieces of blazing wood dropped away from the burning mass, and sped through the air like rockets.  As the flames got better hold of the woodwork, the heat became more and more intense, and long before midnight the iron framework on the east side of the platform was white heat.

The most dramatic moment came when the wire rope attached to one of the lift cars burnt through, and the eleven-ton counterweight dropped the full height of the Tower, burrowing into the foundations within a private box in the Circus auditorium, where it still remains. 

The noise of its fall was heard all over Blackpool and brought people out into the streets.

The fire burnt itself out shortly after midnight, and at daybreak it was apparent that below the seat of the fire the paintwork was barely scorched.

The following day Blackpool’s entertainments carried on, profiting from additional visitors drawn in by the news reports.

It’s an ill wind…

The Liverpool Mercury news article can be found at

Whitelock’s, or the Turk’s Head

Whitelock’s, Briggate, Leeds

My friend Simon has worked for three separate employers in Leeds and had never visited Whitelock’s, the celebrated Victorian pub up an alley off Briggate, so we took a train to Leeds, had coffee in the Tiled Hall Café at Leeds Art Gallery, presented ourselves at Whitelock’s for a substantial, totally traditional pub lunch in Victorian surroundings, and whiled away the afternoon over coffee at the Queens Hotel, which has been impressively refurbished.

There has been a licensed ale house, the Turk’s Head, on the Whitelock’s site since 1715, serving merchants and traders from the market in Briggate on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Tucked up one of the narrow medieval burgage plots that characterise the centre of Leeds, its opulent interior dates from 1886, a feast of tiles, mirrors, stained glass and brasswork, and has been improved by successive owners. 

John Lupton Whitelock (1834-1896) held the licence from 1867 and purchased the freehold in the 1880s.  His son William Henry Whitelock (1856-1909) employed the Leeds architects Waite & Sons to extend the facilities and install electric lighting and an electric clock.  He renamed it Whitelock’s First City Luncheon Bar.

The brothers Lupton (1878-1941) and Percy Whitelock (1889-1958) took over in the early years of the twentieth century.  Lupton Whitelock was an accomplished flautist, playing with the Leeds Symphony and Hallé orchestras, and he encouraged his musician friends such as Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent to visit.

Over the years it has entertained entertainers as varied as Peter O’Toole, Margot Fonteyn and Dame Anna Neagle.  It was a favourite haunt of writers from the Yorkshire Evening Post such as Keith Waterhouse.

In time its connections brought celebrities who valued its intimacy and formality:  for years dinner jackets were obligatory and only gentlemen were served at the bar.  Women customers were served by waiters. 

HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, held a private party at Whitelock’s, perhaps while staying with his sister the Princess Royal at Harewood House.

The family ownership ended in 1944, when the pub was sold to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries but its character has survived several changes of ownership.  Sir John Betjeman called it “the very heart of Leeds”;  it was listed Grade II in 1963 and upgraded to Grade II* in 2022.  Its Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque, the hundredth to be awarded, was unveiled by Lupton Whitelock’s granddaughter, Sarah Whitelock, in 2008.

The current owners, Mason & Taylor, made a huge effort to restore Whitelock’s to the very heart of Leeds after a marked decline:  Mason & Taylor: A White Knight For Whitelocks? | the CULTURE VULTURE

The mission was duly accomplished:  Whitelock’s Ale House Is at the Heart of Leeds and Its Story | Craft Beer & Brewing (

The new Adelphi

Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield: balcony plasterwork (1982)
Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe: balcony (2023) [© Dan Bultin]

Sheffield has only two listed cinema buildings, both coincidentally opened in 1920 – the Abbeydale Picture House, designed as a multi-purpose entertainment venue with a full theatre stage, a ballroom, a billiard saloon and a café, and the Adelphi, Attercliffe, a straightforward silent-movie house which at the time of listing in 1996 was largely intact inside and out.

At present the Abbeydale is in a state of limbo.  Problems with the auditorium ceiling have led to a legal stand-off between the landlord and the lessee which needs to be resolved to safeguard the integrity of the building and enable a full restoration to take place.

There has been a flurry of media attention about the Adelphi, which was purchased by Sheffield City Council in March 2023 for refurbishment as a mixed-use cultural space, much needed for the revival and transformation of the local community. The Adelphi is on the market, with a promise of Levelling Up funding to make it once again “occupiable”:  Levelling Up: Adelphi Cinema in Attercliffe out to market (

A very attractive CGI image shows what the interior might look like after refurbishment, yet nowhere in the media coverage is there any indication that the original 1920 decoration has completely disappeared.

The auditorium in its current state is a bleak contrast to how it looked at the time it was surveyed for listing, with “pilasters, segment-arched panelled ceiling and [a] moulded proscenium arch with [a] central crest flanked by torches [and a] U-shaped gallery with [a] latticework plaster front”.  The original scheme was delicate and light:  Searching Picture SheffieldSearching Picture Sheffield.

The listing inspector observed that “cinemas dating from this period, between 1918 and the introduction of sound in the early 1930s, are comparatively rare”.

What happened? 

I e-mailed a city councillor who will be in a position to know (or find out) but I’ve so far received no response.

I photographed the interior in 1982 when it was a bingo club and again in 1990 when it was unoccupied.  At the time the entire auditorium was bristling with classical plaster decoration designed by the architect William Carter Fenton (1861-1950;  Lord Mayor 1922).

A cluster of urban-explorer reports in 2011 suggests that conversion to a night-club was largely respectful of the building’s listed status, despite the need for structural alterations.

The building was sold for storage use in 2013 and at some point the plasterwork was stripped out.

Recent images show a bleak space that looks nothing like a 1920s cinema.  The CGI image represents an admirable exercise in making the best of a bad job, apart from the puny chandeliers.

Maybe there was a legitimate reason to take down the plasterwork:  perhaps it was unstable and might have injured someone.  Maybe the owner at the time discussed the matter with the Council planning authority, but I’ve never heard any public mention of alterations in the years after the listing.

Though the Adelphi deserves to retain its Grade II listing because its fine exterior survives intact, it now bears no comparison with the Abbeydale, and there are other Sheffield cinemas with surviving interior features which haven’t been considered for protection:

And if the stripping of the auditorium plasterwork was unauthorised, should there not be consequences for a flagrant disregard of the laws about listed buildings?

Liverpool Olympia

Olympia Theatre, West Derby Road, Liverpool

The circus industry has traditionally been peripatetic – we associate going to the circus with a “big top” tent in a field – but there was a moment, early in the twentieth century, when it seemed sensible to build auditoria big enough to house a circus ring.

That moment was brief.  The prolific theatre-architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) converted the Brighton Hippodrome from an ice rink in 1901, but it was rebuilt as a variety theatre the following year.  Frank Matcham’s London Hippodrome on the corner of Leicester Square, built in 1900, was adapted as a variety theatre in 1909.

There are two places in Britain where you can still experience circus in a purpose-built hippodrome – Blackpool Tower Circus (1894;  interior by Frank Matcham 1900) and the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome (1903), but there’s a third survivor which is one of the largest and grandest of Frank Matcham’s auditoria.

The Olympia Theatre, West Derby Road, Liverpool (1905) was a proscenium theatre with a circus ring and water tank for the briefly fashionable spectacular performances known as naumachiae

To accommodate the standard 42ft-diameter circus ring projecting into the stalls area, the proscenium is 48 feet wide, and the stage measured 100 feet wide by 41ft deep.  The fly-grid is 68 feet above the stage floor. 

The base of the ten-foot-deep 80,000-gallon under-stage tank survives without its hydraulic machinery:  the basement storey also contained stabling for elephants and horses, and cages for lions.

The original seating-capacity was 3,750.

The Olympia was built by Moss Empires only a couple of hundred yards from their rival Thomas Barrasford’s 3,500-seat Royal Hippodrome (1902;  demolished 1984), which stood opposite Low Hill Cemetery (now Grant Gardens). 

Ken Roe, in his visit-notes for a Cinema Theatre Association tour in 2000, commented –

The Olympia was provided with 36 separate exits, but the problem turned out to be how to get the people into the place, not out…

Harold Akroyd, The Dream Palaces of Liverpool (Amber Valley 1987), remarked that –

…an asylum once occupied the site of the Olympia, which prompted the comment that Moss & Stoll must have been mad to open a music hall so close to the city…

This story is too good to check, however:  The Stage, April 27th 1905, indicates that the site was formerly occupied by the Licensed Victuallers Association almshouses.

Three balconies spread the audience across a wider space than a conventional proscenium theatre.  Beneath the Dress Circle were ten boxes facing the stage.  The additional proscenium boxes facing the audience were clearly intended only for circus shows.  Their onion domes are complemented by the plaster elephant-heads that embellish the side walls.  A sliding roof provided ventilation between houses.

Associated British Cinemas Ltd took on the lease in 1929.   On February 11th in that year the Olympia became Liverpool’s first sound-cinema when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer opened.  For perhaps the only time in the Olympia’s history, queues stretched out of sight down West Derby Road.

As competition from large-capacity modern super-cinemas grew in the 1930s even the Royal Hippodrome went over to films, and ABC, which operated both buildings, closed the Olympia as a cinema on March 25th 1939.

After wartime use as a Royal Navy Depot, the Olympia was sold to Mecca Ltd and reopened as the Locarno Ballroom in 1949. 

This conversion did practically irreversible damage to Frank Matcham’s auditorium.  Raising the stalls floor to stage level involved inserting concrete pillars into the basement area; the rear-stalls projection-box was dismantled and stairways were constructed from the stalls to the Grand Circle.

In August 1964 Mecca closed the ballroom and adapted the building as one of their chain of bingo clubs. 

Clearance of the surrounding housing led to closure in 1982, after which it remained on Mecca’s hands, listed Grade II, empty and for sale.  Its listing was raised to Grade II* in 1985. 

It remained dark until Silver Leisure Ltd, owners of the adjacent Grafton Ballroom, bought it in April 1990.  Ten years later Silver Leisure reopened the building, impressively refurbished, with a programme of boxing, wrestling and concerts. 

It has continued in the same family ownership, renamed Eventim Olympia with standing space in the stalls and seating in the lower and upper balconies. From the outset it was a huge risk to build the Olympia in inner-city Liverpool, but against huge odds, this enormous building has survived and earns its keep in the twenty-first century.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

Reclaiming a wasting asset

Queen’s Pier, Ramsey, Isle of Man (2023)

Photo: © John Binns

When I wrote a blog-article about Queen’s Pier, Ramsey in the Isle of Man in 2011 there was little to suggest that it wouldn’t continue to decay, as it had done for twenty years, yet despite many delays and the tribulations of the pandemic, effective plans are at last in place to restore the Isle of Man’s largest surviving engineering structure.

The island is rich in industrial and transport archaeology because the Manx habitually leave redundant structures standing unless there’s a need or an economic reason to destroy them.

That’s why the island still retains steam and electric railways, a horse tramway, the Great Laxey Wheel and much else in situ and in use.

The flip-side of this conservatism is that the wheels grind slowly when decay becomes dangerous and restoration is urgent.

The last Steam Packet ship departed from Ramsey in 1970;  the disused landing stage became unsafe and was closed in 1979;  the little pier tramway closed in 1981.

In 1991, after the café at the pier head was burnt down, rebuilt and twice vandalised, the Manx Department of Highways, Ports & Properties closed the entire structure permanently and commissioned a survey which concluded that demolition would cost over £1 million and a full restoration £2.5 million.

The Manx government, Tynwald, continued to provide £40,000 a year for minimal safety maintenance, and a Friends of Ramsey Queen’s Pier group was formed in 1994, initially with the comedian Norman Wisdom, a Manx resident, as president.  The following year the pier was added to the Manx list of protected buildings to safeguard its future.

Discussions about restoration proceeded at a glacial pace, until in 2011 Tynwald allocated £1.8 million to stabilise the structure.

This led to a fresh report which planned a sequenced restoration in seven phases, each of them costing £1.2-1.7 million, overseen by the Queen’s Pier Restoration Trust (QPRT), which in 2016 began work on the fifty metres nearest the promenade.

The first three bays (of a total of sixty) were reopened to the public in 2021, with the return of the tramway’s locomotive and carriage from the Jurby Transport Museum.

The current phase involves restoration of Bays 4-8, of which the first three bays are close to completion.

This steady, methodical process of fundraising and practical work is an admirable exercise in co-operation between volunteers and the Government, which will clearly take a decade or two before the public can, in the words of the historian Richard Crowhurst, “stroll along these decks once again taking in the sea air, and partake of a cup of tea and a sandwich at the end”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology 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.

Heart of the Tower

Blackpool Tower Circus

Blackpool Tower is the epitome of entertainment-industry entrepreneurial genius, owing its origin to Alderman John Bickerstaffe (1848-1930), who started life as a seaman and lifeboatman before he became pub landlord, and as Mayor of Blackpool saw off the speculators who wished to build one of a series of steel towers at resorts in the north-west.  John Bickerstaffe led the locally based company that created one of the most consistently profitable of all Blackpool’s attractions.

Blackpool Tower is a half-size replica of Gustav Eiffel’s Parisian tower, but the key to its financial strength has always been the building which encases the legs.  It initially incorporated restaurants and bars, a menagerie, an aquarium, an assembly hall that quickly became a ballroom, and at its heart a circus.

The complex first opened to the public on Whit Monday 1894, a rainy day on which 70,000 visitors immediately demonstrated the Tower’s full money-making potential by pouring through the doors to keep dry.  Admission to the building cost sixpence, with a further sixpence for the tower ascent and another sixpence for the circus show.

The centre-piece of the whole structure is the Circus, built between the four legs of the tower itself, with stabling for horses and other animals beneath the auditorium-rakes.  The Circus offered a succession of animal and acrobatic acts, culminating in a water-spectacle finale in which the circus floor sank within a minute into a 35,000-gallon water-tank.  For many years, holidaymakers on the promenade were regularly entertained by the sight of the Tower Circus elephants processing down to the beach for exercise.

Only in the circus can you see – encrusted within Frank Matcham’s Moorish plasterwork – the arches that brace the four legs which sit in deep concrete foundations.  In a 70mph gale the top of the Tower deflects no more than an inch, and there’s never been any likelihood that the Tower would end up – as Lord Haw-Haw claimed in a Second World War radio broadcast – lying on the sands beside the Central Pier.

The ceiling of the Circus, 55 feet above ground level, forms the floor of the elevator-hall from which the Otis Elevator Company’s lifts ascended the tower.  The hydraulic accumulators and jiggers which originally powered the passenger lifts, several small goods lifts and the circus water-spectacle were located within the tower-legs. 

In July 1897 an electrical short-circuit set fire to the wooden decking at the top.  The resulting spectacular blaze, which luckily began about 11pm after the lift had closed down, proved completely inaccessible and eventually burnt itself out.  The only permanent damage arose when a lift counterweight plunged down the north-west leg into one of the boxes in the circus auditorium, where it remains to this day, hidden behind mirrors.  The tower-top and the lift-service were restored in time for the 1898 season.

Animal acts at the Tower Circus ceased at the end of the season in November 1990.  Now the entertainers are clowns and acrobats, and the circus floor descends into the tank at the end of the show:  The Blackpool Tower Circus | The Most Famous UK Circus.

The only other place you can see this happen in Britain is the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  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.

Old Dorothy Cinema

Former Old Dorothy Cinema, Llangollen, Denbighshire

On visits to Llangollen, my gateway to holidays in North Wales, I’ve several times found my way into a legendary second-hand bookshop that I quickly realised had once been a cinema.

Its history is not typical of small-town picture houses.

The Horspool family had been seedsmen and nurserymen in Chirk and Llangollen since the 1870s and opened the Dorothy Café alongside their confectionery shop on Castle Street, Llangollen in 1918.  There is no explanation of where the name Dorothy originated.

By the early 1930s the shop next door to the café was Norman Horspool’s greengrocery.

The Dorothy Cinema building utilised the back land behind two shops within a longer terrace.  It opened in 1931 or 1932 (whichever source you believe) as a direct competitor to the Town Hall Cinema across the road.

The building consisted of a café and dance hall on the ground floor with an auditorium above, approached by a wide staircase that still exists.

The cinema seated four hundred:  there was no balcony as such, but the back rows were raised, stadium style, facing a sixteen-foot proscenium.

British Acoustic sound was installed at the outset.

The Town Hall cinema across the road closed at the beginning of World War II, and the Dorothy became Llangollen’s only picture house.

As such, it seemed to weather the early decline of cinema attendance in the 1950s, and in 1955 the proscenium was extended to accommodate a wide screen twenty feet by eleven feet.

By the early 1960s, however, the game was up and the last film, Sammy Going South, was shown on October 16th 1963.

An experiment with bingo failed, and while the café and dance hall downstairs continued, the former cinema became a market and then an inimitable second-hand bookshop, Maxine’s Cafe & Books, now trading as Books Llangollen.

The place is piled high with 100,000+ volumes on every subject imaginable, stacked on the steps of the back rows, and clustered round the decorative proscenium frame.

On July 15th 2015 films returned to the Town Hall under a brand-name that pays tribute to the former competitor – the New Dot Cinema.

The dance hall and café is now S&G Bistro.

Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House

Former Highfield Cocoa & Coffee House, London Road, Sheffield

Some significant historic buildings hide in plain sight, unnoticed and at risk of disappearing without much warning.

It’s a recurring theme in my Demolished Sheffield book that a great many attractive and noteworthy structures are off the radar of listing and conservation planning policies, and need the vigilance of local people to ensure they survive.

I’m grateful, therefore, to Robin Hughes for alerting me to the former Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House on London Road, which is subject to a planning application for its demolition and replacement by an incongruous five-storey structure that intrudes on the surrounding streetscape.

I must have driven past the building thousands of times without even noticing it.  It’s attractive, dignified but reticent, and its historical significance is invisible.

It was built in 1877 to the designs of one of Sheffield’s foremost architectural practices, M E Hadfield & Son, for one of its most generous philanthropists, Frederick Thorpe Mappin (1821-1910), to provide workmen with a safe, comfortable environment to eat, drink and relax before and after their work.

The cocoa houses were in essence pubs with no alcohol, based on the upper-class gentlemen’s clubs that had grown from the coffee houses of the eighteenth century.

The Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House provided food starting with hot breakfasts from 5.00am, non-intoxicating drinks including a pint mug of coffee for one old penny, “the best tobacco and cigars…at the cheapest rate”, and offered billiards, draughts, dominoes, chess and skittles.  Alcohol and gambling were alike strictly prohibited.

The ground floor was occupied by a coffee room, a reading room, a bar and a kitchen.  Above, accessible by a “spacious staircase”, was a second reading room “well supplied with papers”, linking by folding doors to the billiard room with three tables.

The Highfield Cocoa House was the first such establishment in Sheffield when it opened on Monday April 9th 1877 in the presence of almost all the major leaders of Sheffield’s public life, including both Sheffield MPs, John Arthur Roebuck (1802-1879) and A J Mundella (1825-1897), and the MP for Scarborough, Sir Harcourt Johnstone (1829-1916), the Mayor of Sheffield, George Bassett (1818-1886), the Master Cutler, Edward Tozer (c1820-1890), and a whole posse of aldermen, clergy and other gentlemen. 

Mr Roebuck in his speech remarked that “you will not put down intemperance by being intemperate in trying to force upon the people teetotalism”. 

Frederick Thorpe Mappin, before he declared the building open, explained how he and the vicar of St Mary’s Parish Church, Bramall Lane, Rev C E Lamb, had investigated the flourishing cocoa-house movement in Liverpool, Oldham and London to determine the most appropriate model for their scheme.

Within two years the Sheffield Cocoa and Coffee House Company had opened six more cocoa houses with a seventh under construction.

The initial popularity of the Highfield house waned, and it closed on Saturday June 27th 1908.  An illustrated cutting, apparently from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, remarked,–

At the outset the place was a very popular centre – cafés in those days were in the nature of a rarity – but for a long time past the place has worn a somewhat melancholy appearance…

The building was taken over by a confectioner and a shopfitter and remained in use until at least 2008.  The Tramway pub next door was demolished in 2015.

The Hallamshire Historic Buildings’ detailed, informative comment on the 2022-23 planning application to demolish the Cocoa House is here. Nick Roscoe’s illustrated article is here.

Update, April 4th 2023: Vigilant steps by conservation-minded councillors have secured a six-month reprieve for the coffee house: Mappin Coffee House Sheffield: Historic building ‘saved’ from demolition for six months after notice served | The Star. This will safeguard the building – barring accidents – while alternatives to demolition are debated.

However, accidents can happen: Bringing the house down | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.


Blackpool Tramway, Rigby Road Depot

The Blackpool Tramway is a monument to the entire history of railed street transport in Britain.

Blackpool had the very first electric street tramway in Britain, opened in 1885, and it now runs a modern light rapid-transit (LRT) service, alongside a varied collection of heritage trams for tourists and enthusiasts.

Until after the First World War three tram operators between Fleetwood and Lytham St Annes each ran two fleets – entirely conventional trams for local traffic alongside a range of designs to cater for crowds of holidaymakers who wanted to ride around enjoying themselves, preferably in the open air when the weather was favourable.

In the 1930s when a new transport manager, Walter Luff, was appointed he quickly realised that it would be impossible to handle the Promenade crowds with buses, particularly in the autumn Illuminations period.

He commissioned a suite of four ultra-modern tram designs primarily to work the Promenade service – luxurious, streamlined single- and double-deckers, some of them open to the fresh air for summer services.

After the Second World War, while every other tram operator in the country went over to electric trolleybuses or diesel motor buses Blackpool still needed the segregated Promenade tracks, stretching from Starr Gate in the south to the outskirts of Fleetwood in the north, to shift the crowds up and down the Promenade efficiently with the best possible view of the Illuminations.

New trams were far more expensive than new buses, however, so the 1930s fleet soldiered on, patched, repaired and many of them rebuilt in new guises. 

The only completely new trams to be added to the fleet after the 1950s were eight Centenary cars, built around the time of the tramway’s hundredth anniversary in 1985, when Government subsidies became available for new trams as well as buses.

Eventually the game was up, and the Victorian tramway was upgraded to modern LRT standards, with a fleet of sixteen sleek articulated trams which took over the basic service in 2012.

Nowadays, the Blackpool Tramway has three fleets:  the LRT cars are the “A” fleet, nine modified 1934-35 double-deck Balloon cars are the “B” fleet with widened doorways so they can stop at the raised LRT platforms, and the “C” fleet is a huge and varied collection of rolling stock dating back to, and before, the 1930s modernisation. Some of these trams are operational; others await repair or restoration.

The “C” fleet’s traditional home, Rigby Road depot, had an uncertain future in the period when the LRT fleet was planned and installed.  The new fleet eventually went to a purpose-built depot at Starr Gate, and Rigby Road was designated the base for the heritage fleet, despite a long-standing backlog of building maintenance.

It’s now intended to double as a working tram depot and a museum, branded as Tramtown.  The building needs attention to make it weatherproof, and some at least of the relics on wheels that have fetched up there need to move elsewhere to increase display space.

At present Rigby Road is a uniquely fascinating treasure-house of transport history, open to the public on bookable tours led by enthusiastic volunteers.

If you enjoy rail transport, it’s not to be missed.