Searching for ghosts at Furnace Park
March 1, 2013 2 Comments
This is a snippet from a longer piece I’m working on for the Furnace Park project, in which I explore a variety of ways in which this urban backwater can be read and rendered ‘known’:
Today, I find myself back at the site. I’m sitting by the Cementation Furnace (can it really be that it’s the last one left in the world?). I’ve now been to the site many times. There’s never anyone visiting this industrial monument, its plaque and brick recessed viewing point. I’m sat here looking across at the park-to-be site, my view partially obscured by a familiar line of tired cars awaiting attention in the hanger shaped garage nearby. The street beneath my feet is a patchwork of eras of paving, a mix of cobbles, tarmac, faded yellow lines and scuffed curbstones. By coincidence I’m wearing a suit today, and as I stare at my shoes I wonder whether what I wear shapes how I read this place.
Hardly anyone passes by. I look and I look and still all I see is a scrubland site. I came here to commune with the ghosts that the archive tells me I should find here in abundance. But today this is a mundane non-place: move-along, there is nothing to see here.
Yes, this is the kind of place that only makes sense as a crime scene.
I look across to the corner of Matthew Street and Doncaster Street, the site of the Doncaster Arms pub, demolished a century ago. The fat old television sits forlornly face down on the crumbing pavement, about where the pub’s threshold once was. That TV didn’t quite make it into the site. Perhaps the fly-tipper didn’t even try to launch it over the fence, and just casually flopped it out of the boot. Or maybe, with strained back, they gave up after several attempts to manhandle it over. Who knows. There is no record in the archive for this non-event, this act of disposal, this attempt to erase a thing: pre-owned becoming de-loved.
I walk along the Matthew Street edge of the site. Can I see the footpads of the then state-of-the-art playground swings and see-saws proudly unveiled at the 1931 opening ceremony by the Mayor and Alderman J.G. Graves, whose donation this start of the art playground then was? No, all I see is rubble, scrub and subsequent over-fill of this plot. I walk on further down Matthew Street, to the littered bell shaped main entrance, beyond is a flat scrubby plain, bounded by fragments of spalled brick walls. Here was the Council’s Lighting Dept, in its day a proud-looking multi-levelled municipal compound of workshops, stores and offices, the hub from which the city’s street lighting was maintained. But the place that once helped us to see Sheffield’s streets is now invisible, erased, gone: building and all. Yet, courtesy of the Council’s photograph archive, I have recently peered into this now non-existent building, my eyes have traversed the ordered racks, signage and stepladders – a dense vertical occupation of this now empty space.
I have sat and stared at photographs of the depot and the playground, straining to correlate each to each other and to the current lie of the land. I think I have worked it out, but I must distrust this achievement – for, if someone had thrown in a faded picture of a playground or workshop from somewhere else, I fear my mind would have managed to persuade me that that view too was part of the former lives and arrangements of the Furnace Park site.
I hear no voices. There are no ghosts of activity here. The only legacies are those I see (bricks) and sense in the ground (contamination). The emptiness of this site does not deliver to me an upwelling of the past as an occupied place. But I do sense the ghosts that Michel de Certeau sees stalking the inner-city:
“seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)
For, along Matthew Street I see the truncated roads, the exposed layers of street surfacing, the fragments of walls that linger untouched in this deadzone. These may be swept away by redevelopment someday, but until then this space is limbo. But those traces are partial, and each layer erases some of the traces beneath. The tarmac of the playground hid the foundations of the 97 back-to-back houses cleared here in a 1920s slum clearance scheme (a scheme reported with pride to a Parliamentary committee in 1927 and proudly recorded for posterity in Hansard as one of 91 schemes approved since 1919 for the “improvement of unhealthy areas”). The convenient spreading of the rubble of the Council’s depot then in turn overtopped the by now perished surface of the playground. The park project will see that surface obscured by geotextile and/or a carpet of pallets and in turn, perhaps, some more permanent erasure as the site finds future purpose when the commercial appetite for marginal sites returns.
I turn and walk back down Matthew Street. I reach the junction with Doncaster Street. Matthew Street used to carry on across from here, into what is now the car park of the HSBC building. Here, until the 1950s was Daniel Doncaster’s foundry. Here, in 1886 was Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard. Here, was where the 18 feet high wall of that abundant place gave way at 5pm on Wednesday, 25th August that year and tonnes of steel and iron bars, bricks, roofing timbers and slates fell onto a group of children playing in the street.
Eight died: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (seven), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five) Herbert Crookes (five).
I conjecture that perhaps Graves’ playground was intended as a memorial for this tragedy, something for the memory of these street children, but then the maths pulls me up short. Forty years separate these events. They were alien to each other, just as we and the site are now alien to either of these former eras of use.