Monday, May 21, 2018


White heat

Sheffield, of course, is known above all as a steel town. Even in the commercial city centre, away from the larger forges and factories, we’re often reminded of this. The White Building on Fitzalan Square is an office block of 1908 clad in faience and is one of the many substantial such buildings that reflect the prosperity of this place in the 19th and early-20th centuries – prosperity that was largely down to the steel industry.

The faience cladding was unusual here in 1908 – the dominant hues in this city are red brick, orangey terracotta, and stone. There are more later white buildings (together with the late-20th century’s contributions of concrete in a range of greys) so when this one was erected, it was known as The White Building, as if there was just the one. It certainly stands out, with its flattened arches and unusually shaped pediments above the upper windows, not to mention the surprising, almost rococo swags below the cornice. Gibbs & Flockon,* the architects, did a more than decent job.

But what I most like about it is the way the building acknowledges Sheffield’s industrial activity with a series of ten reliefs of Sheffield trades, by Alfred and William Tory. These are in low relief and beautifully delineate various metalworking jobs, from casting to engraving and planishing. The figures are well modelled, and look as if drawn from life, with both sculptors adept at rendering the surfaces of flesh and garments. If the white surfaces, recalling classical marble, give the reliefs a sense of calm and cool that’s a world away from the heat and noise of a real factory, they still have an authentic feel to them: this looks like real work, combining strength and skill. Above all, the workers, variously employed, are united in their intent concentration on the job in hand.

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* A longstanding Sheffield firm, which changed name as family members and other partners came and went.

Friday, May 18, 2018


Eye-Witness to industry

One of the things that impressed me about Sheffield was that there are still remains of its industrial past right in the centre of the city. Most visitors must be aware of this – a walk down the central Arundel Street reveals a number of former factories; some of them have been beautifully restored; all the buildings are at least in use. My walks around the city took me west of these buildings, until I came to Milton Street and found Eye-Witness Works, which, my Pevsner City Guide to Sheffield tells me, is the only traditional integrated cutlery works still in operation in the city. Except that it isn’t any more: I arrived to find notices on the doors with details of the firm’s new address. Eye-Witness works, meanwhile, bears a ‘for sale’ sign.

What one can see from the street is a long, three-storey brick building that fronts three courtyards. Looking at the brickwork, and the style and position of the windows, it’s clear that the building is actually the result of several different construction phases. The part in the foreground, with the round-topped windows at first-floor level, is from about 1852, the other parts came later, with the long range at the far end added in about 1875, when the older sections were also heightened (see the change in the colour of the brickwork). The early part of the building, at least, is not totally utilitarian – the corner has some stone dressing and there’s a Venetian window above the first cart entrance, to add a visual highlight. Mostly though, this factory is plain and businesslike and must have served its users well for decades.

The lettering however, as can be seen in my lower photograph, is barely hanging on. The paintwork has deteriorated and some of the letters have fallen off, while others are coming to pieces. They look to be wooden letters, and naturally have not proved as durable as the carved stone signs on some of the other former factories in the city. It would be wonderful if the purchasers restored this lettering, so that we are never in any doubt that this was ‘Eye-Witness Works, Cutlery and Plate Manufacturers’, the message as clear as it was at the time the sign was first erected, perhaps in the late-19th century, when it must have been as shiny as Sheffield plate.
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* I have a feeling there may be one or two more Sheffield posts coming up.

Monday, May 14, 2018


Marks of quality

To Sheffield, where I gave a talk and spent a day or so admiring the architecture. Having little time, I restricted myself to the city centre and marvelled at the variety –  of stone and brick, industrial and commercial, old and new, filigree and brutalist. One of the highlights for me were a number of architectural sculptures by the Tory family, who were active in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. First there was Frank Tory, who got his training at Lambeth College of Art before coming to Sheffield to produce carvings for the corn exchange (no longer standing). As well as doing a range of architectural carving he taught at the Sheffield College of Art and among his pupils were his twin sons Alfred Herbert and William Frank.

Here’s a bit of Frank’s work, on Parade Chambers, an 1883 building for Pawson and Brailsford, a company of printers and stationers. The architects, M E Hadfield and Sons, gave his client an impressive Tudor style building in brick with stone dressings, with offices on the upper floors, shops below. It’s a memorable building, with ornate gables, turrets, oriels, and tall chimneys, but what sets it apart for me is the carving on the stonework. The panel in my photograph is in a window above the doorway and features heads of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton within wreaths of leaves.

With this panel Pawson and Brailsford put themselves firmly in the tradition of great English printers – Caxton was thought to have introduced printing to England and his first known book was an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This was not an unusual line for printers to take – I’ve noticed a printer doing a similar thing in Bristol. However, Edward Everard, the Bristolian printer, also linked himself with a great modern master, William Morris, and chose the latest Art Nouveau style for the decoration of his building. This Sheffield firm by contrast emphasised tradition in both architecture and decorative subject matter and their use of first-class architectural sculptors also says something about their commitment to quality.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ledbury. Herefordshire

Well worth the trouble

The shops of F W Woolworth were a feature of British high streets until they closed, during the financial crisis, in 2008. Quite a few Woolworth’s shop fronts remain, albeit adapted with new signs and often new colour schemes. Once you get your eye in, you start to spot signs that a building used to be a Woolworth’s – floor mosaics by the door with the Woolworth’s ‘W in a diamond’ symbol, lion masks, sometimes the lovely early-20th century doors with polished finger-plates and kick-plates. Some of their fronts were Art Deco designs from the 1920s or 1930s, but the company also built neo-Georgian facades in some towns – perhaps mindful of the need to fit into streets where there was plenty of historic architecture.

That’s the case in Ledbury, where historic buildings abound and Woolworth’s built this brick frontage in 1937. Although I could see no floor mosaics or lions, the shop window, with its broad lobby, narrow mullions, and stall riser clad in polished granite are very much the kind of thing the Woolworth’s went in for. The glazing bars must have been repainted bright red – many Woolworth’s window frames were done in a bronze finish.

The neo-Georgian part above the shop window is neat and polite, in the sense that it doesn’t impinge on the character of the street, which includes a mix of Tudor timber-framed, Georgian, Victorian, and later buildings. A very Woolworth touch is that the sash windows have opaque glass, as usual for an upstairs floor in one of their stores, because the stockroom was generally on this floor. The company that took the shop over have knowingly capitalised on Woolworth’s heritage by adopting a similar name. They have been here a while now: no doubt their former Woolworth’s premises have proved a good home.

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For more on the history of Woolworth’s, see Kathryn Morrison’s excellent book Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street, which I reviewed here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pershore, Worcestershire

Stamp of approval

I suppose quite a few people must have looked at the front Pershore’s Town Hall on the town’s High Street and thought that its neo-Georgian style was not inappropriate for a place with quite a few Georgian brick buildings. It’s well proportioned, substantial without being overwhelming, and seems to have a air of authority about it. But this building hasn’t always been the Town Hall. It was built in 1932 as the Post Office – and the qualities seem just as fitting to its original purpose. When you’re there you can guess the building’s former use from the royal monograms and crowns on the keystones above the doorway.

In the interwar period, and again for a few years after World War II, this kind of neo-Georgian was used widely for town Post Offices. If they hoped to convey such virtues as reliability and authority by using neo-Georgian, the style also went well with Royal Mail’s the signage – now gone, of course, from this particular building – with its Classically inspired lettering.* Now, when many of the GPO’s originally services have been hived off, many Post Offices in major towns are mere counters in branches of the Co-op or W H Smith. In such a context, Post Offices like Pershore’s seem to come from another world.

It’s good that this example has found another role. It would be a shame to loose that neat Flemish bond brickwork, all those glazing bars (especially the ones on the ground floor, with the central window subtly different from those flanking it), the segmentally headed dormers, the elaborate tops to the doorways with their carved keystones. I’m sure most Pershore residents give the building their stamp of approval.

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* There is an example of the lettering in a previous piece I wrote about Post Offices, here.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Withington, Gloucestershire

One pump or two?

Pump Cottage: what image does it conjure up in the mind’s eye? A small house next to the village pump, perhaps, to which the locals used to come for their water supply – as my mother did in rural Lincolnshire in the mid-1950s, when I was just old enough to toddle along to the pump with her. In Withington, Gloucestershire, it’s a rather different story. The pump next to Pump Cottage here is a petrol pump, now rusted, but hanging on just enough to be recognisable. As regular readers will know, when I see an old petrol pump, I can rarely resist stopping and looking and taking a photograph of it. Sometimes I’m attracted by a beautiful piece of design; sometimes I’m just interested in how times have changed, and how the roadside pump ironically became a rarity as the roads got busier.§

At Withington, what stopped me in my tracks was simply admiration of a bit of what John Piper called ‘pleasing decay’. I’m pleased that Jonathan Meades is also attracted by this sort of thing, by the sight, as he put it once, of an old petrol pump, ‘pitted and crisp as an overcooked biscuit’. Each time I passed, I meant to stop, but – it’s so often the way – because the village is on a regular route of mine I put off pulling in and getting the camera out. The other day, realising that the thing was rusting away and soon might not be there at all, I stopped at last, in spite of the Resident Wise Woman’s doubts about the contrasty light.*

And that was almost that. Except that I wondered about the history of this pump and did a little research. Apparently Mr E J Cripps, the proprietor of Withington’s garage, had to close his business 60 years ago because of ‘a rate reassessment’.† There’s a photograph of him at the Getty Images site, standing proudly by not one but two pumps. Both pumps were still there about 12 years ago, when another photograph, to be found on Geograph, shows one still with its ‘BP’ logo.¶ So today I post my picture of the single survivor, crisp and well cooked now, as a reminder of the time the garage closed – at around about the same time as your infant author was toddling to the water pump with his mother.

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§ Many small rural garages closed, from the 1950s onwards, often as a result of competition from larger businesses in towns and on main roads.

* But I like contrasty lighting.

† For my non-British readers, this means an increase in local taxation.

¶ Those who want to see the pump handle mechanism more clearly should look at this Geograph image, which was taken in different lighting conditions. The ‘BP’ shield is just about visible beneath the rust in my own picture, but only at high resolution.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Stroud, Gloucestershire

R & R

The Cross in Stroud is a road junction at the top end of the High Street that many people must miss. A paved area at the uppermost point of the High Street cuts it off visually, whereas in years gone by traffic must have come up the now pedestrianised street and made its way on and up to Bisley one way or Chalford the other. Now the main landmark here is the old Coop building of 1931, a neat Art Deco design by William Leah with rather pleasantly angular lines, a central clock and a cross-motif in the balustrade that’s repeated in the glazing pattern of the upper parts of the shop windows. With its raised central portion it makes an attractive corner building.

It must have been a sizeable store, but the Coop is long gone and the building now houses several shops: a launderette, a café, a Chinese take-away…and a secondhand bookshop, R & R Books, which I usually visit when I’m in Stroud. I have posted before about the joys of bookshops, specifically Old Hall Books in Brackley and Richard Booth’s in Hay. R & R is another favourite, this time a shop stocking exclusively secondhand books, and one from which I always seem to come away with at least one purchase.

I have spent many enjoyable hours in secondhand bookshops. There are fewer of them around than there used to be, because so many secondhand booksellers now trade online, leaving the high streets to charity bookshops run by the likes of Oxfam. Online buying makes a lot of sense in some ways – you can search for what you want, and find it without leaving your house – and the internet gives you access to millions of books offered by a world of booksellers. In spite of this choice, I think the demise of high street secondhand bookshops is a shame, because there is a great deal to be said for browsing and buying real used books in a real shop.

There are various reasons for this. For book collectors, it helps to be able to see the exact condition of the copy on sale – there are many things you can see that even a thorough bookseller’s description (or even a photograph) can reveal. There is also the pleasure of dealing face to face with the bookseller: you can ask them questions, learn things, talk with people who often have the same interests as you. But more than all this, there is the benefit of serendipity, of accidental discoveries. In bricks and mortar bookshops I have discovered titles I didn’t know existed, shedding new light on subjects I’m interested in, or opening up entire subjects, such as psychogeography or the design of petrol pumps, or the history of plotland developments. I’d call such discoveries educational and life-enhancing.

R & R Books in Stroud is not a large bookshop, but it has an interesting stock that turns over, and a helpful owner. In it I’ve found over the years books I’d not come across before on such subjects as Art Nouveau, graphic design, and the architecture of Liverpool. I’ve also found quite a few old guidebooks (always interesting to me) and books I wouldn’t have bought without looking closely at them first, such as an early edition of J M Richards’s An Introduction to Modern Architecture, of which I already had a more recent copy – comparing the two editions and discovering how the author revised his text and added new buildings over the course of time was fascinating, to me anyway. R & R also sell various kinds of printed ephemera, and I’ve been unable to resist such delights as old London bus maps and a 1966 Sunday Times Magazine with a special feature on English contemporary poets.
Stroud had another excellent secondhand bookshop, Inprint, but it has recently closed. There’s still an Oxfam with a few books, plus books to buy at the café in the top picture, plus a new bookshop on the High Street. On Saturdays, Stroud’s celebrated printmaking anarcho-cyclist poet Dennis Gould sells a small selection of mostly used books and his own letterpress prints on an outside stall in the Shambles market off the High Street, and R & R have an indoor stall there too. Stroud is an excellent town for the book lover, and for me R & R Books is the place to start – and finish.