Before Furnace Park
July 10, 2013 2 Comments
“Most human activities produce marks in the physical world.
These marks are vestiges.
They freeze fleeting moments of engagement in practice into monuments,
which persist and disappear in their own time”
Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning & Identity, CUP: Cambridge, p. 60
The site bounded by Matthew Street and Doncaster Street had many lives before it became Furnace Park. My interest is in how different types of people try to trace back into this layering of past uses and how and why they do it. In my research I study this trace-work as it is undertaken both by professionals (surveyors, engineers, planners, developers) and enthusiasts (amateur archaeologists, urban explorers, psychogeographers, poets and curious passerbys).
Looking at the past
In each case this trace-work involves staring intently – either on site or in an archive – to try and bring to the surface the site’s former use and arrangements, something only now hinted at in the site’s current state.
In each case the attention paid to the ‘lost past’ of the site is directed towards making it better known, more deeply understood. For the professionals that knowledge has very practical aims and benefits. Knowing the site’s past enables costly future problems to be anticipated and managed in any ensuing redevelopment. For the enthusiasts it presents something a little more intangible. Some seek to ‘know’ the site in terms of preserving its histories and its stories, for others is it more poetic – enabling a more open, flowing engagement with this place through tracing the rich colour and diversity of its former lives. For these, showing that a site has been many things over a recorded span of history prompts the viewer pause at the gates of this currently scrubland site and to see quite different things through the railings – the ghosts of former uses, arrangements and activities that once took place there.
The Furnace Park site is particularly rich in its layers – and once you start digging through them (whether physically or in the archive) many versions of use and arrangement tumble forth. Yet there is little currently at this site to suggest that this would be so. The site sits now in an unloved, overlooked corner of the city surrounded by change (industrial units giving way to apartment blocks) but the site itself sits dishevelled and static. It is an ‘L’ shaped plot of made ground, weeds and remnant brick walls.
Digging into the history of the site is not about hoping to find and restore a more noble or more fully engaged era of use of this site. There is no golden age to excavate. In the most cases the former uses were mundane – places of work and play, day-in day-out places that may have been used without any special regard. Also, as we peer back through time each phase of use is alien to each other, and largely self-contained and unconnected to what came before or after it. It is not that all the previous uses ‘knew’ each other and that only us, in the ‘now,’ are strangers to a happy club of former uses. No, what captures the attention most is glimpses of uses that are all quite different to each other, and separate in time, on-site location and nature from each other. This pausing to look and trace back what has now gone gives us scope to think about how other people – other generations – might have gone about their use and arrangement of what would to them perhaps have seemed the only form in which this site could exist.
As part of my contribution to the Furnace Park project I have been working through old maps and Sheffield City Council’s photograph archive, in order to summon some sense of these former incarnations of this now scrub-land site. In what follows I give some glimpses of what I have found, and how it has struck me, in a more enthusiast-than-professional style.
Turning the lights back on
Half of the site – that part nearest to The Ship Inn and the dual carriageway – is now just a bare concrete pad. Weeds thrust up through cracks in this now deteriorating surface. Remnant rich red brick walls flank this pad, the only signal left of the large building once standing here. For this portion of the site was formerly the Council’s Street Lighting Department’s depot. Here’s a view of the building, as far as I can tell it was demolished in the 1990s, the demolition debris then spread across the other portion of the site.
S12575 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
What strikes me is the purposefulness of this image. Almost like a child’s impression of a depot. Vans loaded awaiting despatch. A place of municipal action. A place dedicated to keeping the lights on.
S12573 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
And archival photographs can also take us inside now-absent buildings. I love this photo. Here is order and purpose in abundance – a floor to ceiling organised system of purpose, everything assigned its place. The contrast to the site today is quite extreme – this depot occupied the site vertically as well as horizontally. There’s lots of empty airspace now, where once these stacked racks sat, reaching up to the rafters of the depot building.
A place to play
The Doncaster Street end of the site started recorded life (in 1860s mapping) as dense court style housing. Much of this was demolished in an early 1920s slum clearance project. The archive gives us – perhaps – a glimpse of the planning of that erasure. Here’s an annotated image of the Doncaster Arms pub, that sat on-site at the corner of Matthew Street and Doncaster Street. The pub appears already to have been shut-up, ready for demolition. The photo comes from the Council’s City Engineers’ Department’s papers, the measurements inscribed onto the image likely part of the compensation calculation for the compulsory purchase of this derelict building in the run up to its demolition.
U00972 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
Once the pub (and 97 neighbouring houses) had gone the vacant site was repurposed as a children’s playground, the gift of city benefactor J.C. Graves, as recorded in the jubilant scene recorded in the park’s opening in 1931. Happy faces indeed, but also a glimpse of another era of social relations, a world of rank denoted by which type of hat you wore :
S03839 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
The playground was in its day a model, a local echo of an early Twentieth century movement to improve the physical and moral health of the working classes through the provision of equipment for recreation, a move towards the structuring of play, bringing it off the streets and into a mechanically and spatially organized play-ground. This ‘arranged-ness’ of this playground is captured well in the ‘outdoor factory’ appearance shown in this image:
S03994 www.picturesheffield.com Reproduced with permission of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
And at this place, there is a particular poignancy to the idea of bringing play off the streets and into a space specifically set aside for it. For what is now the HSBC offices site on the opposite side of Doncaster Street to the Furnace Park site used to be the Daniel Doncaster & Sons’ foundry.
Here on Wednesday, 25th August 1886, at around 5pm the 18 feet high wall of Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard gave way, raining hundreds of tons of steel and iron bars, bricks, roofing timbers and slates out into Matthew Street, and onto a group of local children playing in the street.
Source: The Illustrated Police Review, 2 September 1886
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’ve found no suggestion that the playground opened in 1931 was intended as a memorial to these children, or that it reflected particular concern about street-play in this particular inner city location. J.G. Graves set up a number of playgrounds around Sheffield around this time. The post-slum clearance open plot bounded by Matthew Street and Doncaster Street lent itself well to a philanthropist seeking a site for a modern life-enhancing playground.
Also, the 1886 event and the 1931 opening ceremony were 45 years apart. Two generations. Two different phases in the life of what now is set to become Furnace Park.
Image Sources: Photo of the concrete pad: Amanda Crawley Jackson. Archival images courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies, Sheffield City Council. Illustrated Police Review via http://www.chrishobbs.com/deathatdoncasters.htm