Sheffield’s Old Town Hall and Courthouse, controversially put up for sale by its London-based owners only two weeks ago as a ’residential development opportunity’, has been taken off the market. The move comes only days after the agents told Radio Sheffield that ‘several enquiries’ had been received. But by yesterday evening (10 September) all trace of the sale brochure had been taken down from the internet by the agents, Michael Berman of Whetstone, north London.
‘It’s a very interesting move’ said Valerie Bayliss, chair of the campaigning group the Friends of the Old Town Hall. ‘Exactly the same thing happened a year ago, when a sale brochure appeared on a different agent’s website for a couple of weeks and then vanished. Clearly no sale took place then and it seems unlikely there’s been a sale now. We wonder what the owners are playing at. As far back as 2008 they advertised the building as for sale by auction, but it never got as far as the auction room. That happened after the Victorian Society included the Old Town Hall in its annual list of the country’s most endangered buildings. There’s a pattern here, and it isn’t one that helps the city’.
The Old Town Hall has been owned since 2004 by London-based G1 London Properties Ltd. Since then, as the Friends have pointed out, the building has been allowed to suffer serious decay. ‘This is a Grade 2 listed building’, said Brian Holmshaw of the Friends. ‘It is a disgrace that the owners appear to have done nothing to stop the rot. Meanwhile they advertised it, this year and last, at a price – £2m or more – that looks way over the top given the cost of repairing the damage’.
Meanwhile the Friends are working actively to find out what the building could be used for, and have commissioned a professional appraisal of potential options for its future use. ‘We expect the results of the study by the end of the year’, says Brian, ‘and that it will open up the building to many more opportunities than simply residential conversion – just look around the country. There are many town hall and courthouse conversions, as restaurants, offices and museums as well as housing. Places like Guildford, Oldham and Coventry have found imaginative new uses for them, often a mix of uses. In fact, while housing may be a possibility the layout of the Old Town Hall, with its two huge, top-lit Victorian courtrooms, makes it a challenge’.
The Friends hope that their study will encourage a wide range of potential users to take an active interest in restoring the Old Town Hall and make it once again an asset to Sheffield.
The first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre, opened in 1777. A self-selected group of Sheffielders (mostly men, but some women) financed the construction of the building, and there were originally 34 subscribers. Located virtually the same spatial position as the present-day Crucible.
Georgian Theatre was a mix of Theatres and both professional performances in pubs and amateur clubs such as the Spouting clubs. The spouters clubs started around 1780 but started to dwindle around the 1830s, all classes enjoyed amateur theatricals in the Spouters Clubs which were generally held in taverns. As well as crossing social boundaries, the phenomenon crossed and tested boundaries between professional and not-for-profit performers.
A famous play in 1786 called the Apprentice by Arthur Murphy ridiculed the Spouters clubs.
Gargle Would you believe it, Mr. Wingate, I have found your son went three times a week to a Spouting club.
Wingate A spouting club, friend Gargle! what’s a spouting club?
Gargle A meeting of prentices, and clerks, and giddy young men, all intoxicated with plays! and so they meet in public houses and there they repeat speeches. and alarm the neighbourhood with their noise, and think of nothing but of becoming actors.
Wingate You don’t tell me so! a spouting club! zookers! They are all mad!
Reverend Thomas Best, as soon as he arrived in 1817 began an almost one man campaign against “theatrical amusements” He continued to preach an annual sermon for the rest of his life. 47 sermons in all.
“If the amusements of the Theatre dishonour God, or tend to lower our reference for his authority, and lessen our
regard to his will;-and lessen our regard to his will;-if they are directly calculated to confirm and increase man’s natural unconcern respecting the salvation of his soul;-and if they weaken and counteract the influence of the Bible, and encourage opposite principles and a contrary practice; if all this be the direct tendency and actual effect of Theatrical Amusements, then we must come to the conclusion-that they are an “evil,” which we are not to approach, or appear to sanction; it will follow by necessary consequence, that no Christian, acting upon his processed principles, can, and that no professed Christian who desires to act upon his principles, will attend them.”
In 1818 around sixty people got together and formed the Shakespeare Club and met either in the Tontine Inn across from the Old Town Hall or round the corner at the Angel Inn. Both long gone. It is said this was an
act of rebellion against the Reverend Best. Possibly, but the principal organisers of the club were not people who usually were associated as rebels. Many worked in the courts of the Old Town halls as lawyers and magistrates. Others were Surgeons, Merchants, Iron masters and at least a couple of Master Cutlers. Many were not Anglican, but non-conformist from the Upper Chapel, and perhaps that is why they were openly rebellious despite their social position. Although Best was more concerned with the poorer classes his sermons patronised all. The Shakespeare club was not only an act of rebellion but also an attempt of ensuring quality in the theatre. Theatre performances were often “spoiled” by mixing lowbrow popular melodramatic plays with the classic plays. In later years Harvey Teasdale better known for his more bizarre theatrical achievements tried in vain to introduce more of the classical theatre into his programmes but instead ended up playing a man from Manchester who could not speak in a melodrama and a monkey.
“For those who are not sensibly alive to the merits and beauties of Shakespeare, I feel pity . For those who can appreciate him, and yet endeavour to vilify him and destroy him , I feel contempt.”
Mansel (Theatre proprietor) at Shakespeare club 1819.
There is also other attractions to the Shakespeare club than rebellion against the clergyman, which is obvious from the venues they picked, both the Angel and the Tontine were renowned for their good food and their hospitality. And reading the account of their annual meetings there would seem to be a lot of toasting going on. It’s easy to see why the club ran for over 10 years with its mixture of rebelliousness, chance to read Shakespeare, and have a great party each year. The only mystery is to why it stopped. There is no sign in the 1829 newspaper article of enthusiasm dying down.
On Wednesday the members of the Sheffield Shakespeare Club celebrated their eleventh anniversary at the Tontine Inn, under the presidentship of Luke Palfreyman, Esq., supported by G. Reedal and E Barker, Esq., as vice presidents. The Club consists of upwards of 90 members, and about 70 gentlemen , including visitors sat down to dinner.
Sermons on the amusements of the stage. Preached at St. James Church, Sheffield. -by the Rev T Best, A. M 1731 (can be found in Google library , many of Best’s sermons also to be found in Sheffield’s archives)
“A defence of the acted drama in a letter addressed to the Revd Thomas Best MA, of Sheffield” by F B Calvert (now of the Theatres Royal, York and Hull). Hull. 1822.
Proceedings of the Sheffield Shakespeare Club from its commencement in 1819 to January 1829 by a member of the club. printed for the editor , by H. and G. Crookes, Cliff’s court, High Street 1829. (can be found in Google Library)
In the early hours of Thursday morning on the 27th January 1859 Peter Ross was on his way home passing the General Post Office in the Haymarket, when he heard moaning and went to a man’s assistance. The injured man requested him to help him and Ross accordingly helped him up. He found he was covered with blood. Mr. J Marshall , another passer by assisted Ross to carry him into the post office archway. Wilson was taken to the Town Hall and a surgeon called to attend found the man lying in the Town Hall in a very exhausted condition and on examination found that the intestines were protruding from a punctured wound on the right side of the abdomen. just over the region of the liver. Wilson’s clothes were completely saturated with the blood. After the necessary surgical treatment the man was removed to a room in the building where he could be more comfortable but he died during the course of the day.
The newspaper report said that the victim a William Wilson, brass founder, had told police he had been set upon by four men. The police were dubious and felt that it was more likely that someone had taken Wilson’s drunken behaviour for a threat. It was not explained why they drew that conclusion. Perhaps Wilson was known to them as a drunken nuisance.
It was found that about the time a man of gentlemanly appearance was seen near the Post Office with a stick and a
dagger. Further investigations over the weekend by Inspector Sills of the detective force found the man to be George Plant, a traveller for the Soho brewery, who lived at 85 Tom Cross Lane in Brightside. Sills asked Plant to come with him to the Town Hall.
At the Town Hall Sills asked him if he had not, on the previous Wednesday night worn a hat with a round crown. He said he had, and further admitted he had a top coat, and carried a dagger in his hand. Sills then took him before the chief constable Mr. Jackson who asked where the dagger was. Sills went and found the dagger, the hat and the coat, and then told Plant he was charged with stabbing William Wilson who had died from his injuries . His reply was, ” Indeed! then I must see my solicitor” Plant was detained in custody till the next day till the coroners court convened.
George Plant having been duly cautioned made the following statement
Late last Wednesday night I was going home and when I had got down High Street , against Richards Drapers . I met a
man named Wilson rushing out of a passage. He took hold of me and without saying a word knocked me down. I kept him off while I was down with a small stick which I had in my hand. When I got up I said What have you done that for? If you don’t be quiet I will give you something. he replied, I’ll let you see what I have done it for.” During that conversation the two gentleman who have given evidence came up. I said this man has attacked me. While I was saying so he ran round me again and tried again to get hold of me In doing so he made a rush at me and fell upon the knife which I held before me. He screamed out ” Police” and I replied “I will stay until the police come. I stood up in my own defence; it was your own fault .” I then said to the two witnesses . I have only stood in my own defence as you see; I will stop until the police come and go with him. ” They walked away , and I , thinking it was no use staying by myself went direct home. I communicated to my wife what had happened. I had next morning to go to Manchester on Business, and did not hear anything of the occurrence till I saw an account of it on Friday Morning in the Manchester Guardian. I returned from the journey at half-past eight o’clock on Saturday evening. My wife told me that the man was dead. I had been in Mr. Bradley’s service a fortnight. I bought the dagger the day before I entered his service, and carried it with me for protection, having been once stopped on the Barnsley Road. On Monday morning I went to work as usual. I bought the dagger as protection, as I have to travel in country places with money .”
Sills found several witnesses including two who were present when he stabbed William Wilson. George Norton and Joseph Hawksworth. Neither witness saw any evidence of Plant having been knocked to the ground, or heard Wilson threaten Plant, other than try to take the stick and knife off him. Wilson said he had initially mistaken Plant for a friend who was a Cab driver. Norton knew Wilson from when he had worked in the same street, and felt Wilson was sober. Plant told Norton and Hawksworth that he had been stopped. but didn’t suggest he was being robbed . Wilson on being struck appeared stunned and then screamed reeling like a drunken man and then sat down on the causeway. Norton and Hawksworth were not sure whether Wilson had been stabbed or whether it was some sort of hoax designed to draw them in and then demand drink from them. Hawksworth said he had had been stopped in the street several times on all kinds of pretences by people seeking Liquor. Plus it was raining hard and Plant seemed like a gentleman, so they started off home leaving Plant to wait for the police. However soon after Plant overtook them on his way home. Wilson was left lying on the ground bleeding heavily till Ross found him.
PC George Smelter had seen Plant in Hanover-Street earlier on the Wednesday evening on the opposite side of the road with a naked dagger in his hand. He seemed excited to the PC but he wasn’t sure whether he was drunk. Plant had also drawn out his knife earlier to show a Mrs Emma Marples outside Fitzwilliam Inn at the corner of Broomhall Street and Fitzwilliam Street. She was able to pick him out in a line up at the Town Hall.
The Coroner in summing up, referred to the deadly nature of the weapon, but said as the injuries were inflicted during a squabble, the jury could scarcely be justified in returning a verdict of wilful murder. The Jury after deliberating for nearly four hours, found George Plant guilty of the wilful murder of William Wilson.
Plant’s case was transferred to the York assizes where the verdict was guilty of manslaughter. The judge felt that the nature of the weapon meant that Plant should be dealt with severely and sentenced him to transportation to Australia for life. Plant was transported on the 8th March 1860 to Western Australia. He was given a conditional pardon in 1872 and died in Australia in 1884 leaving an Australian wife and 2 children.
‘Disgusting’, ‘outrageous’, ‘contempt for the city of Sheffield’ – these were some of the comments from people who attended the first open meeting in Sheffield of the Friends of The Old Town Hall.
The campaigning group has been set up to press for the restoration and regeneration of Sheffield’s historic Town Hall and Courthouse, in Waingate. The building has been empty since 1996 and the London-based private company which has owned it for over a decade have given no indication of their intentions for the building’s future. Meanwhile the Grade 2 listed gem is suffering from increased neglect, and campaigners are fearful for its future.
‘We know the inside has suffered a lot of water damage’, said Brian Holmshaw, joint secretary of the Friends’ group. ‘You can’t leave a building empty for so long without getting deterioration, but the damage now is going beyond that’. Meanwhile, the owners have failed to respond to repeated requests by the Friends for a meeting to discuss the Old Town Hall’s future. Strong views were expressed at the meeting as supporters questioned the attitude of the owners and whether there is any way they could be forced to act to repair the damage.
Supporters were able to view displays of project work by students from Sheffield University’s Architecture Department, who have been using the Old Town Hall as the focus for imaginative design work as part of their degrees.
The Friends, who have had constructive discussions with the City Council, will now move ahead with exploring ways the building could be used in the future and sources of funding to support its re-use. ‘We can’t leave it to moulder’, said Friends’ chair Valerie Bayliss. ‘It is an eyesore at the moment but has potential as the backdrop to the new Castlegate Park that will showcase the remains of the castle after the archaeological work slated to follow the demolition of the markets. Right now, it’s a drag on development’.
Constitution of Friends of the Old Town Hall, Sheffield
The Friends of the Old Town Hall
The aim of the Group shall be to
*promote and investigate potential new uses for the OTH
*encourage appropriate restoration, maintenance and use of the OTH
*research sources of funding that would support suitable restoration and re-use of the building and the heritage buildings around it
*research potential organisational options for managing the restoration and re-use of the building
*publicise the OTH to spread awareness of its condition and attract support for its restoration and re-use.
In order to achieve its aim the Group may:
a) Raise money
b) Open bank accounts
c) Take out insurance
d) Acquire and run buildings
e) Employ staff
f) Organise courses and events
g) Work with similar Groups and exchange information and advice with them
h) Do anything that is lawful which will help it to fulfil its aim.
a) Membership of the Group shall be open to any individual over eighteen without regards to disability, political or religious affiliation, race, sex or sexual orientation who is:*interested in helping the Group to achieve its aim *willing to abide by the rules of the Group and *willing to pay any subscription agreed by the Management Committee.
b) Each member shall have one vote at meetings of the Group.
c) The membership of any member may be terminated for good reason by the Management Committee: provided that the member concerned shall have the right to be heard by the Management Committee, accompanied by a friend, before a final decision is made.
a) The Group shall be administered by a Management Committee of not less than three and not more than 8 individuals elected at the Group`s Annual General Meeting (AGM).
b) The Officers of the Management Committee shall be: the Chairperson, the Treasurer and the Secretary/ies.
c) The Management Committee may co-opt onto the Committee up to three individuals, in an advisory and non-voting capacity that it feels will help to fulfil the aim of the Group.
d) The Management Committee shall meet at least 3 times a year.
e) At least three Management Committee members must be present for a Management Committee meeting to take place.
f) Voting at Management Committee meetings shall be by a show of hands. If there is a tied vote then the Chairperson shall have a second vote.
g) The Management Committee shall have the power to remove any member of the Committee for good and proper reason.
h) The Management Committee may appoint any other member of the Group as a Committee member to fill a vacancy, provided that the maximum prescribed is not exceeded.
6) The Duties of the Officers
a) The duties of the Chairperson shall be to:
Chair meetings of the Committee and the Group
represent the Group at functions/meetings that the Group has been invited to and
act as the spokesperson of the Group when necessary.
b) The duties of the Secretary/ies shall be to:
keep a membership list
prepare in consultation with the Chairperson the agenda for meetings of the Committee and the Group
take and keep minutes of all meetings and
collect and circulate any relevant information within the Group.
c) The duties of the Treasurer shall be to:
supervise the financial affairs of the Group and
keep proper accounts that show all monies received and paid out by the Group.
a) All monies received by or on behalf of the Group shall be applied to further the aim of the Group and for no other purpose.
b) Any bank accounts opened for the Group shall be in the name of the Group.
c) Any cheques issued shall be signed by the Treasurer and one other nominated member of the Management Committee.
d) The Group shall ensure that its accounts are audited or independently examined every year.
e) The Group may pay reasonable out of pocket expenses including travel, childcare and meal costs to members or Management Committee members.
8) Annual General Meeting.
a) The Group shall hold an Annual General Meeting (AGM) in the month of March
b) All members shall be given at least fourteen days notice of the AGM and shall be entitled to attend and vote.
c) The business of the AGM shall include:
* receiving a report from the Chairperson on the Group`s activities over the year
* receiving a report from the Treasurer on the finances of the Group
* electing a new Management Committee and
* considering any other matter as may be decided.
d) At least 10 members must be present for the Annual General Meeting and any other General Meeting to take place.
9) General Meetings.
There shall be 2 General Meetings (excluding the AGM) each year.
All members shall be entitled to attend and vote.
10) Special General Meeting.
A Special General Meeting may be called by the Management Committee or 10 members to discuss an urgent matter. The Secretary shall give all members fourteen days notice of any Special General Meeting together with notice of the business to be discussed.
11)Alterations to the Constitution.
Any changes to this Constitution must be agreed by at least two-thirds of those members present and voting at an Annual General or a Special General Meeting.
The Group may be wound up at any time if agreed by two-thirds of those members present and voting at an Annual General or a Special General Meeting. In the event of winding up any assets remaining after all debts have been paid shall be given to another Group with a similar charitable aim.