Sheffield: a personal cultural geography

‘Put Yourself in His Place’, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, ‘The Beat is the Law’…

Put Yourself in His Place

The colours reflected in this sculpture outside the Midland Station hint at the complexity of ‘Steel City’.

A nineteenth century gothic novel, ‘Put Yourself in His Place’ by Charles Reade, based on dramatic events that took place in Sheffield in the 1860’s is our inspiration as we explore the Loxley and Don valleys from High Bradfield to High Wincobank.
        The journey is enhanced with brief reference to George Orwell and J. B. Priestley. They describe a Sheffield we would hardly recognise today. To see something of what they saw go to Artuk.org *, which gives easy access to paintings in public ownership. The paintings of Stanley Royle and W. J. Stevenson, in particular, are evocative of Sheffield’s industrial past.

The Sheffield Trade Union Outrages of the 1860’s involved murder, explosions, assaults and arson, and yet the man who conspired to perpetrate these outrages left Sheffield for America a hero, with a fund raising benefit held at a packed music hall. Many of these outrages, marked in yellow on the map above, were carried out within walking distance of Sheffield Cathedral. A photograph of William Broadhead, Secretary of the Saw Grinders Union, who admitted conspiring to commit these crimes, is available on Picture Sheffield *

The Pavilion Music Hall. You wait nervously in the wings in front of a packed house.  The audience is boisterous and impatient. Your heart is thumping. You could be mistaken for a scientific lecturer, a teacher of pure morals, or a preacher of religion. But, you have confessed to the assassination of James Lindley; to a string of shootings; to bombings in factories and homes. In one bombing of a private house Mrs. O’Rourke, an innocent lodger has died of her burns. You adjust your dress coat and necktie and take a deep breath. 
        You step out from the shadows, and as you walk onto the stage you are dazzled by the glare of the spot light and your ears are filled with loud and continuous cheering. The demand for tickets has caused their price to double, and you now have a large financial contribution to your emigration fund. 
        You are William Broadhead, General Secretary of the Saw Grinders Union. You leave for the United States, a hero. You wipe a tear of gratitude from your eye and you are back two short years, to your confession of murder, bombings, shootings, and beatings. You have a passion for Shakespeare and violence, you are ‘Ow’d Smeetam’. It is the 5th November 1869, and you are to become a character in a classic gothic novel. 
​        You may ask yourself, how did I get here?

The view from High Bradfield to the hills above Dale Dyke. Charles Reade’s gothic novel set in Hillsborough in the 1860’s draws on real events that took place in this valley, including the dam burst that killed 270 people, and the ‘Sheffield Outrages’.

You got here because of the ‘Sheffield Outrages’; acts of terrorism, conspired by embryonic unions, driven to desperate measures to protect the interests of men who would die with as much lead in their ‘body as would lap a hundred weight of tea’. Sheffield; where life expectancy at birth was 17 years. 

Charles Reade, in his detailed Victorian novel links two historical events: The Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, when Dale Dyke Dam burst above Bradfield, flooding the Loxley and Don valleys halfway to Doncaster, the ‘Sheffield Outrages’. Reade asks that you ‘Put yourself in his place’. A place where a grinder of saw blades had a life expectancy of 35 years, and life expectancy in Sheffield at birth was 17. 

If you put yourself in the place of George Orwell in 1936, you see what ‘could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World’ but, he admitted the town had ‘a sinister magnificence’, with its ‘fiery serpents of iron’ and the ‘whizz and bump of steam hammers and the scream of the iron under the blow’. 

1. Dale Dyke dam burst in 1860 causing a surge of water along the Loxley and Don valleys. The surge went beyond Rotherham. Charles Reade incorporated this event, along with the Sheffield Outrages in his novel. 2. Sheffield pays homage to the steel industry through many of its buildings, including Sheffield Hallam student union building. 3. Many of the Sheffield Outrages took place around the cathedral. 4. Park Hill flats recall an era described, by Owen Hatherley, as the ‘former republic of South Yorkshire.’ 5. Overlooking the Don Valley from Wincobank, the adolescent Michael Woods imagined ancient forests and battles between Celtic Britons and Roman forts.

Sheffield from Dale Dyke Dam is now smoke free, tranquil, bucolic. In September the air is fresh and the moors carry a hint of the purple heather to come. Looking down the Loxley Valley from the peace and tranquillity of High Bradfield it is difficult to imagine the forces of chaos that swept down the dale and killed over 270 people, causing devastation as far as Mexborough – halfway to Doncaster, and the bombings, killings, shootings that the Outrages perpetrated along the Loxley and Don Valleys. 

Many of the Sheffield Outrages, involving William Broached, were committed within walking distance of the Cathedral. The tram can be used to travel from the Loxley valley at Malin Bridge to the Don Valley at Meadowhall.

This is a city that constantly asks constantly asks that you put yourself in the place of those you know least, and fear most. 

Barkers Pool: the empty NUM headquarters. Moved from London in the 1980’s to the then ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ (Owen Hatherley)

Further along the Loxley at Malin Bridge the tram whisks you into the heart of a city adorned with the artwork of generations past and present, some sanctioned with legitimate display space, others feeding on building work and vacant spaces. Sheffield’s graffiti, music, art and buildings are a strange mix of nostalgia, fear and bravado. An uncertain city bravely re-imagining itself. Richard Hawley imagined romance amidst the angst of youth in his song ‘Cole’s Corner’. The song is commemorated on the corner of  Fargate and Church Street, but Cole’s department store is long gone from a city centre referencing the past in a vision of the future. Back to a future: of foundry’s, furnaces, crucibles, steel, water and light, a pleasure ground of stainless steel surrounded by building work, and vacant spaces, adorned with the artwork of generations past and present.

Richard Hawley imagined romance amidst the angst of youth in his song ‘Cole’s Corner’. The song is commemorated on the corner of  Fargate and Church Street, but Cole’s department store is long gone from a city centre referencing the past in a vision of the future. Back to a future: of foundry’s, furnaces, crucibles, steel, water and light, a pleasure ground of stainless steel surrounded by building work, and vacant spaces, adorned with the artwork of generations past and present.

Sheffield city centre has undergone substantial redevelopment. This graffiti at the bottom of The Moor comments on the pace of change.
Castle Market once stood on the site of Sheffield Castle. It was a bustling meeting place, disliked by some, missed by many others, if only for sentimental reasons.

Behind the Cathedral, down the hill, memories of Outrage are palpable as we follow the ghost of Broadhead to the Royal George Hotel which once stood at 60 Carver Street, in his footsteps along Acorn, Blonk, Gibraltar, Hereford, Rockingham, and Scotland streets, and across the river to Kelham Island, where gunpowder placed under the grinding machines at Wheatman and Smith closed the works. 

Sheffield city centre, like many others, searching for an identity…

Climbing Wincobank we are once more back on the hills. In a summer’s haze it is possible to gaze across to Treeton and speculate, as Michael Woods did as another adolescent, on the site of an ancient battle between warring British tribes, on the importance of this valley to the Romans. 

Headteacher Chris Searle asked his pupils at Earl Marshall School – pupils of Sheffield and Somali descent – to imagine another Don Valley:

There is a Yorkshire Valley where the Owler Brook ran down to the River Don
Overlooked by a rounded hill where Celtic fort withstood .
The storm of Roman soldiers, this valley’s many peoples 
And their languages have lived with each other, exchanged and merged for 2,000 years……
These are the people who live, study and grow in this valley of words. 
[(1992) from Valley of Words: an anthology of writing from Earl Marshal School, Sheffield.]

Forgemasters have been at this site in the Don valley for over 200 years, forging and casting parts for submarines, the nuclear and other industries. In 1990 the ‘Iraqi supergun’ was built here, and seized by the government at Middlesborough docks. Clouds of iron oxide used to descend on cars as they drove through what were industrial canyons on their way to and from Rotherham.
TTThe Don looks calm close to Meadowhall shopping centre, but, as we know from recent tragic events, control of the Don is as much an illusion as it was in the time of Reade’s ‘Put yourself in his place’.

At this point, the Don is hidden between the road and Meadowhall shopping centre – our final cathedral. The Don does not flow the ‘usual bright yellow with some chemical or other’ [Orwell, Wigan Pier: ch 7.], but today offers a place to dream, a respite for lunch break shop assistants and retail therapists.

The Don flows on to Atlas – populated by prefabricated retail outlets and a sports stadium doomed to premature demolition. Travelling along the Don Valley it is difficult to envisage the clouds of iron oxide that showered red dust on the bonnet of my car as I drove between the huge engineering works that once lined Attercliffe Common. But the disappearing world of heavy industry can still be glimpsed at Sheffield Forge Masters – allegedly the home of the infamous Iraqi Supergun – looming over the canyons of my youth. 

William Broadhead failed to build a new life in America and returned to become a grocer in Meadow Street. How are to we to understand his popularity amongst the saw-makers and grinders of Sheffield? The desperation of men who could expect to live until thirty-five? We may never understand what are today but whispers of history but this city of memories, architecture, music, literature and art constantly asks us to imagine ourselves in places of the past and in places we are yet to imagine.

Look across Meadowhall through the eyes of Michael Wood, Ebenezer Elliott and Mary Ann Rawson and see beyond the retail and manufacturing cathedrals. Or go to Artuk.org and search for ‘Sheffield from Wincobank Wood’ by Stanley Royle

Additional Sheffield sources on the web*: 
Paintings of Sheffield and more can be viewed on Artuk.org (Which has replaced BBC Your Paintings)
Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Read – available at Gutenberg for free.
The Beat is the Law (2011) a Film by Eve Wood places Sheffield bands like Pulp and Longpigs in their social context.
​Traditional songs local to Sheffield, including references to the Sheffield Outrages, can be viewed on an external web site developed by Allan Curren at ‘Sheffield on a Saturday Night’.
Ebenezer Elliott: The Corn Law Ranter: An interesting web site has been compiled by Keith Morris. 
* These are external web sites and are not the intellectual property of the author of this site. The editor of placesandculturaltraces.com is not responsible for the content of these external sites.