I first became acquainted with my grandfather’s birth place through the back of a butter knife. “Made in Sheffield”, it proclaimed, and for many years when I thought of this town, I thought only of cutlery manufacture.
From what I can gather, my father never visited Sheffield either during his four year period of residency in England during the 1930’s, or on subsequent family holidays. For a man who was otherwise endlessly curious about life and family matters, this always seemed rather odd to me.
I had no inclination to go there until my husband (M) and I made a trip to England in September, 2003, by which time I had uncovered a few details of Harris’ existence in Sheffield, in particular an address for his place of birth: 37 Shepherd Street.
We had arrived in the country at the tail end of an unusally hot summer both in Britain and in Europe. Fortunately, we had missed the worst of it – almost 15,000 people had died in France from heat related causes – but evidence of its effects lingered, particularly in landscapes burnt brown by the sun.
As we headed north out of London in our hire car, windows wound down to bring relief from the heat, I pondered two things: what my grandfather’s living circumstances might have been at the time of his birth and why was it that all British cars weren’t automatically fitted with air-conditioning.
We arrived in the centre of Sheffield around midday. Requiring some sustenance for the task ahead, we cast our eyes about for something suitable to eat. A nearby Italian restaurant beckoned, its decor and menu full of promise. Sadly, the focaccia didn’t deliver, its taste suspiciously suggestive of bully beef, a foodstuff we thought had long since been consigned to the annals of history.
After having picked up a map and a few brochures at the Tourist Information Centre, we set off on a sightseeing tour. Shortly after leaving the city centre, we were into the suburbs near Sheffield University. Judging from the style and quality of the fine Edwardian houses, I gathered that this must be one of the better parts of town.
Our route traversed some of the many hills of Sheffield, eventually taking us to Walkley Cemetery with its overgrown but very charming atmosphere. After spending some time browsing the gravestones in the lower Anglican section, we decided to try to find the Jewish cemetery which I knew from earlier research to be in the vicinity. This was no larger than a suburban garden, filled with graves dating from the late nineteenth century. I scanned these in the full knowledge that I was unlikely to recognise any of the names inscribed on the tombstones. Indeed, none was familiar.
The route to Shepherd Street gradually gave way to blocks of high-rise housing, not unlike that built in the Sydney suburbs of Waterloo and Redfern during the 1970’s. On a street corner stood a couple of women dressed in skirts just a little too short and necklines that plunged just a little too low. A few other street corners were similarly adorned. Had my grandfather’s neighbourhood become a red light district?
I tried to imagine what we might find when we arrived at number 37. I had no illusions about the kind of housing my forebears might have occupied. I knew not to expect a quaint row of Victorian terraces since gentrified to accommodate upwardly mobile inner city dwellers. My great grandparents were low-skilled migrants with limited prospects, and their economic circumstances would have forced them into a very modest form of accommodation, at best.
No amount of logic could have prepared me for what I was about to see.
I estimated that this ugly brick factory building and others in the vicinity were at least fifty or more years old, having long since replaced any nineteenth century housing, and giving Shepherd Street and its surrounding area over to industrial use.
The urban planner in me also judged that these buildings had seen the best years of their life and might not be around for much longer.