An end….and a new beginning

After my great-grandfather’s death in November 1876, it seems that there was little reason for his widow and infant son to remain in Sheffield.  Within two years, they had left town and, to my knowledge, they would never return.

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Shepherd St, Google Maps, 2012

I’d always wondered what had happened to Shepherd Street and its surrounding area in the 10 years since I’d first visited.  And thanks to the wonders of Google Maps and Street View, I did not have to make a trip to Sheffield to find out.

From my desktop several thousand kilometres away, it seems that the area has deteriorated further and some businesses have closed their doors.  If it had all looked rather dreary in 2003, then it is even more so now.

However, there is a ray of sunshine on the horizon.

My earlier hunch about the area being ripe for urban renewal has proved correct.  Plans are afoot to redevelop it for a range of mixed uses: see here.

Like all such projects, time frames are long and change will be achieved incrementally, the final outcome probably taking longer to materialise than would have been originally anticipated.  But when complete, I’m sure that it will look great and be home to a vibrant community.

Perhaps as it may have been over a hundred years ago.

But that story is for someone else to narrate.

Painting a picture

After leaving Russia[1], my great-grandparents’ path of travel would have likely taken them through Austria-Hungary or Germany to the nearest railway station whence they would have crossed Europe to a North Sea port in Germany, Holland or Belgium.  There they would have boarded a ship for England, probably travelling third class where conditions were hardly luxurious, but adequate for the two-day crossing.

Many such migrants passed through Sheffield on their way from Hull to Manchester, Liverpool and ultimately America.  Some decided to stay and set up as watchmakers, jewellers or tailors. [2]  My great-grandparents were among them.

Typical of migrants in a strange land, new arrivals often went directly to members of their own family who had already settled in England, or else to people from their village back home. [3]  The Jewish community, which grew from a base of about 60 in the 1840’s to 800 by the turn of the century, established itself in the Scotland Street and West Bar area of Sheffield, which included Shepherd Street.

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Google Maps

The map below shows part of this area as it was in 1873.  Someone has fortuitously applied a red pen to a section of the map which includes 37 Shepherd Street, Harris’ first home.  This is in the building at the intersection of Shepherd and Doncaster Streets just inside the area marked in red.  Judging by the depth of the housing footprint, number 37 may have been part of a “back to back” development and/or could equally have looked out onto a communal court.

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source: Sheffield City Council

A number of photos of the area were taken by the City Engineers Department of Sheffield Council in 1937.  Other than the addition of modern touches such as the motor car, the buildings and streetscapes look much like they would have in Harris’ first year of life.

A local shopping strip:

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Allen Street, No. 65-67 John Truswell Ltd, wholesale provision merchants (Sheffield City Council).

What some of the housing looked like from the rear:

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Elevation of wall at rear of 15-19 Doncaster Street and 43-47 Shepherd Street (Sheffield City Council)

A Victorian streetscape…with pub at the junction of the two streets:

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Nos. 43-63 Shepherd Street and (former Corner Pin P.H.) 80 -70 Allen Street (Sheffield City Council)

Did my great-grandfather enjoy a drink at the Blue Boy?  Or was the family teetotal?

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Court No. 9 Shepherd Street, wall and property between yard at the rear of the Blue Boy P.H., 41 Shepherd Street (Sheffield City Council)

The foundation stone for the former synagogue in Church Street – see below – was laid in January 1872.  Did my great-grandparents get married there?  Was Harris circumcised here?  Was the family active members of the local congregation?  Did they celebrate the high holy days and keep to Jewish customs?

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North Church Street, Nos 2-6, Talbot Chambers, St. Peter’s Close and former Jewish Synagogue, 2003 (Jean Moulson)

Is this the building in which Harris spent his first year of life?

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Shepherd Street at junction of Doncaster Street, Netherthorpe. Court No. 6, Shepherd Street at rear of properties, left. Court No. 4, under archway, right (Sheffield City Council)

I can only speculate about these things.


[1] Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century

[2]  Sheffield City Council Sheffield’s Jewish Community 2011

A tale of two cities

What kind of place would have greeted new migrants to Sheffield in the late 1800’s?

By the latter half of the century, steel had eclipsed cutlery manufacture as Sheffield’s predominant industry, fed by a global demand for railway stock and armaments, both of which helped to position the city as the world’s most famous steel manufacturing centre.  Cutlery making continued as an important industry through the nineteenth century, and was joined by tool making and other industries.

The steel boom was accompanied by soaring population growth.  In 1851, the borough had a population of 135,000; fifty years later, this number had almost trebled.  Much of the population increase was due to people marrying earlier – and therefore having larger families – but also to in-migration from neighbouring counties and countries such as Ireland. [1]

The huge expansion in industry occurred in tandem with major urbanization.  The centre of town was remodelled into a commercial district and new housing was developed for both the working and middle classes.

Industrialisation also brought unprecedented pollution.  Rivers were subject to both the removal of water and discharge of industrial effluent. Many were used as open sewers.  Not surprisingly, aquatic life in the Don almost disappeared and the river became a “stinking, barren channel”.

Where the more prosperous of Sheffield’s residents were able to move to wooded estates away from the workshops and factories, worker housing could be found cheek by jowl with industry, and often sharing the same yards.[2]

Standards of health and housing increasingly became the focus of commentators’ attention.

Penned in 1848, this report on sanitary conditions in Sheffield observed that “…the particles of soot floating about in the atmosphere (are) so numerous that people (are) prevented from having recourse to the most common method of ventilation by opening windows and doors; in many places the evil is so extensive that the inhabitants find the greatest difficulty in maintaining personal or domestic cleanliness…”[3]

Another report written in 1861 noted that “…a thick pulverous haze is spread over the city, which the sun even in the dog days is unable to penetrate, save by a lurid gaze, and which has the effect of imparting to the green hills and golden corn fields in the distance the ghostly appearance of being whitened by snow…”[4].

As the middle classes shifted west and north-west to the less polluted parts of town in the mid-nineteenth century, inner city areas – and the tenements in particular – attracted working class families.

Tenements – which saved space and building costs – were reproduced, with minor variations, in almost all working class quarters.  A standard “apartment” was one room deep, and built “back to back” with another, one facing into the street and another into the yard.  Behind each set of rooms was the staircase, and behind it the partition wall to the other house.  In such terrace housing, three walls of each apartment were common with adjoining apartments, and one wall, facing either into the street or into the yard, was freestanding and broken by windows and the door.  The terraces were built around courts to which the entrance was commonly gained by a narrow passage built under the first floor rooms to the depth of two apartments.

About half the houses opened inwards into confined yards which were generally unpaved and contained the toilets.  These had to serve the entire complex of buildings with each toilet possibly being shared between two and a dozen households.  Many houses were not connected to potable drinking water and had to rely on communal standpipe in the yard.  Residents living in houses facing outwards thus had to go out into the street, through a passage into the yard to fetch water or visit the toilets.  By 1864, Sheffield had 38,000 of these “back to back” houses. [5]

In the same year, a by-law was proclaimed prohibiting any further construction of this type of housing on health grounds[6], although much of it survived into the twentieth century.

At the close of the nineteenth century, little had changed.  This extract from JS Fletcher’s A pictorial history of Yorkshire sums up the author’s impression of Sheffield thus:

“Under smoke and rain, Sheffield is suggestive of nothing so much as of the popular conception of the infernal regions.  From the chimneys, great volumes of smoke pour their listless way towards a forbidding sky; out of the furnaces shoot great tongues of flame which relieve the sombreness of the scene and illuminate it at the same time; in the streets there is a substratum of dust and mud; in the atmosphere, a choking something that appears to take a firm grip of one’s throat.  The aspect of the northern fringe of Sheffield on such a day is terrifying, the black heaps of refuse, the rows of cheerless-looking houses, the thousand and one signs of grinding industrial life, the inky waters of river and canal, the general darkness an dirt of the whole scene serves but to create feelings of repugnance and even horror.”[7]

It was into this world that my grandfather was born.


[1] Hey, David A history of Sheffield 2010, pages 185-187

[2]  Pollard, S A history of Labour in Sheffield 1850-1939 (1959)

[3]  Quoted in Hey, page 134

[4]  Ibid page 235

[5] Pollard, op cit.

[6]  Hey, page 241

[7]  (1899) quoted in Hey, pages 237-39

A beginning

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.

s26746I 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.