Walking with my son beside Porter Brook, we get to the Shepherd’s Wheel, an old water-powered grinding shop. The closeness to the Pennines and the rural surroundings on the western fringes of the city really give a feel for the early days of industry just as the rust belt along the Don towards Rotherham illustrates decline, the smart money having moved on. With Kelham Island and Abbeydale industrial hamlet, industrial heritage is well catered for in Sheffield.
I found it more difficult to find accounts of the drastic decline of industry in the 1980s and what Sheffield must have gone through then, although my visit to the local history centre was perhaps too brief. The demographic changes alone must have been dramatic; whole areas such as Ecclesall are now inhabited largely by students. What happened to all the steelworkers?
Similar problems when searching for information about the massive housing development Park Hill, impossible to miss when arriving by train. Built from 1957 onwards to replace slums in what was still very much a traditional industrial city, the building seemed successful to start with and received much praise with its streets in the sky (wide decks to try to preserve the communal life of the slums) and careful contouring to fit the sloping landscape.
But then things went familiarly wrong, inadequate maintenance, crime, a bad reputation, presumably high tenant turnover. Finally, the whole huge building, all 1,000+ housing units was emptied and handed over to Urban Splash, a Manchester-based firm specialising in property regeneration. However, economic crisis halted further development and to date only one of the four buildings has been refurbished into attractive apartments for the better resourced, while three remain empty, derelict and desolate, with a sharp break where the well resourced stop (phase two is now hopefully beginning).
I would like to find out more. What happened to the old tenants – where did they go? Were they reluctant to leave or more or less compelled? Did any come back? This would seem important for the collective memory of the city and the future of housing.
I disliked the building when I first saw it but having looked at it closely from all sides, I’m not so sure. It would be interesting to read the details of how it failed.
Another building on my list for closer study is the Halifax Building Society’s former headquarters in Halifax. I thought it was monstrous, completely out of scale with the rest of the town’s fine collection of Victorian buildings, a city crasher intruding on the urban landscape.
And then I read more about it on Historic England’s website, about its RIBA award, its iconic status, now a Grade II listed building “a highly efficient commercial building”, “a highly intelligent design” and I understood very little about how this could be until I got to the giveaway description “a visually striking building; its distinctiveness confidently reflecting the Society’s economic supremacy in the town”. In other words,its proponents didn’t care about the building’s “in your face” presence like Victorian Pentonville Prison or a Norman castle towering over the community – they wanted it that way and thought it was good.
The irony is that the Halifax was demutualised a few years later, eventually becoming a division of the Bank of Scotland (Lloyds) and it then no longer needed such a massive headquarters building with fine meeting rooms for the directors and all the rest of it.
But I should like to go back to try to see the building through the eyes of its advocates and understand it better.
But if you dodged the icon, the rest of Halifax was fine with its Victorian covered market, its eighteenth-century cloth market with its Italianate feel and its free location envelopped by the Pennines.