Half a Millennium of Water in Sheffield: A Guided Tour

Posted: 30.11.2016

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On 23rd August 16, Dr Leona Skelton, TWENTY65’s environmental historian of water infrastructure and regulation (1500-present), provided a walking tour around several important sites within Sheffield’s evolving water infrastructure. The city’s water supply and disposal infrastructure came under considerable pressure for expansion and centralisation as the city’s population expanded dramatically from 2,200 in 1600 to over 400,000 by 1900. Starting off at the Sheffield Water Works Company on Division Street (now a Wetherspoons), we explored the company’s rationale in 1830 to improve the efficiency of water supply to a rapidly growing city. Sheffield Corporation took over the Waterworks Company in 1887 and it became known thereafter as Sheffield Corporation Waterworks (a title which must have taken quite some time to develop!). Subsequently, the Sheffield Corporation Waterworks moved into the Castle Market building, where it stayed even after 1973, when Yorkshire Water took over its operations.

We then moved on to the site of Barker’s Pool, Balm Green, which was constructed in 1572 at one of the highest points in the town centre by the Sheffield Church Burgesses (who governed the town much like a town council on behalf of the Lord of the Manor, the Duke of Norfolk whose seat was at Arundel Castle). While Sheffield Burgery did not employ any specific street-cleaners or even an official scavenger until 1683, Barker’s Pool (fed by two streams and rainwater) was maintained complete with sluice gates leading to Fargate, High Street, Market Street, Water Lane and then down into the River Don, to aid inhabitants’ street cleaning during dry periods. The next stop was Alsopp Fields, Norfolk Street, which was designed by the 10th Duke of Norfolk, Charles Howard, between 1771 and 1778 in an innovative grid-iron street layout to house the city’s coming silver plate and cutlery industries, which drew significant volumes of water from the River Sheaf.

Ponds Forge and the Hall in the Ponds, (now the excellent Old Queen’s Head Pub), on Pond Hill, is Sheffield’s oldest building, built originally as a manor house and hunting lodge in the Duke of Norfolk’s Great Park using wood from trees felled between 1503 and 1510. The last forge here, Ponds Forge (1872-1988) operated in a densely populated and heavily industrial city, but the Manor House originally stood outside of the urban area in a very rural landscape featuring a few ponds which drew water from the River Sheaf to power corn mills from the sixteenth century and eventually an iron forge in the seventeenth century. The Confluence of the Rivers Sheaf and Don, at the junction of Castlegate and Blonk Street, enabled us to imagine the rivers when they were very heavily polluted, in the mid-twentieth century, like many other industrial cities’ rivers whose water had become severely deoxygenated and toxic after receiving centuries of domestic and industrial waste. The River Sheaf is culverted for most of its journey through the city centre, but you can see the confluence clearly at this point.


The final stop took us uphill to a spectacular view across the city from the Cholera Monument, on Norfolk Road, which enabled us to appreciate the adverse effects of centralising a water supply system. Cholera entered the country through the Port of Sunderland in 1832 and ravaged several large cities as it spread through their recently centralised water supply systems. Sheffield’s Cholera Monument is a memorial to the city’s 1832 epidemic and the 402 victims of the disease who died between July and December 1832, who were buried in the grounds between Park Hill and Norfolk Park adjoining the ancient Clay Wood. It is a neo-Gothic pinnacle, whose tip was replaced following a lightening strike in 1990.


A final stop back down the hill at the spectacular pub at the railway station, ‘The Sheffield Tap’, is highly recommended. Here we appreciated its majestic interior which has been sensitively restored by the Railway Heritage Trust and private investors to how it would have looked when it was originally constructed as an Edwardian refreshment and dining room.


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