Thursday, May 14, 2020

850 Years of History: An Introduction to Sheffield's City Archives

Miss Meredith collecting archives for Sheffield in the 1960s.
Our doors may be temporarily shut but there's no better time to explore your archive.  Many people have taken advantage of the lock-down period to do their family trees, learn about the history of their house and local area, press on with academic research or simply take a trip down memory lane by browsing Picture Sheffield (and many new photographs have been donated recently - the result of people having time to sort out their attics!) The archivists have been busy each day answering a wide variety of enquiries, some from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  Given the level of interest in our local history, we thought we'd take the opportunity to showcase some of the amazing documents that have survived throughout the centuries in Sheffield.

A record of the foundation of St
Leonard's Hospital [Spital Hill],
The collections at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library go back around 850 years.  The earliest item preserved in the City Archives is a small parchment document which records the foundation of St Leonard's Hospital [at Spital Hill] near an existing bridge over the River Don, c.1150-1180. The land was gifted by William de Lovetot to the sick of Sheffield.  Little is known about the hospital other than it was in decay by the 1580s.  The City’s documentary archive spans many miles of shelving and each unique and irreplaceable document tells the story of Sheffield’s development from the 12th century to the present day.  Many of the collections are of such great historical significance, that scholars travel from across the globe to study first-hand the manuscripts held by the City Archives.  It would be impossible even to scratch the surface of this archival treasure trove, but what follows is a brief exploration of some of the City’s hidden gems…

Mad about maps?  Sheffield has been comprehensively plotted and mapped in great detail since the 1770s. In fact the map collection at the City Archives is second only to London when it comes to quality and detail. This is thanks to the Fairbank family of Sheffield - three generations of surveyors - who preserved all of their work starting with the first William Fairbank in 1739.  The collection contains an astonishing 4,500 plans providing an excellent source for many types of research: local history, topography, transport, history of surveying and family history; the archives reveal the appearance of Sheffield as it was nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, and show the changes which wiped out, one by one, the ancient landmarks of Hallamshire during a century of rapid growth.

An incredibly detailed plan of Wain Gate by the Fairbanks, 1770s
The wax seal on Sheffield's Market Charter, 1296
Establishing the market.  In 1296 a charter to hold markets and fairs in Sheffield was granted by Edward I to Thomas de Furnival, Lord of the Manor of Sheffield.  Over the next 600 years, the markets were owned, operated and developed by the lords of the manor.  In 1899 Sheffield Corporation purchased the markets and rights from the Duke of Norfolk, and since that time the markets have remained the property of Sheffield City Council.  The charter survives some 700 years on in pristine condition. Pictured is the wax seal attached to the document depicting King Edward I.

Sheffield Blitz reported in St Louis Globe, 1940
Read all about it!  Old newspapers are a valuable and fascinating source because they are effectively the personal diary of any town or city; they reflect popular opinion and offer great (and sometimes scandalous) detail on day-to-day life as it unfolded.  Not everyone was a fan of the newspaper: Thomas Jefferson famously stated in 1807: ‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle’!  However, if like us, you love a good read, a comprehensive list of local titles can be found at the Local Studies Library dating back to the 1700s.  The newspaper pictured is a copy of the St Louis Globe which reported on the Sheffield Blitz in 1940 all the way from Missouri, USA.

Unidentified Middlewood patient, 1923

In a dark wood.  The records of South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum (later Middlewood Hospital) are a source of endless interest for psychiatric specialists, family historians and curious observers. The Asylum received its first patients in 1872; the name of each inmate was meticulously documented along with their ‘cause of insanity’.  Extensive records were kept which survive at Sheffield City Archives.   In the words of F.T. Thorpe’s centenary book: ‘the history of Middlewood Hospital chronicles the passage of prejudice, enlightened by the advances of discovery and the acceptance of more humane treatment of patients.  The gradual lifting of the veil of ignorance shows how concern for the patient has replaced the stigmas of mental illness.’

Police ticket of leave book, Sheffield, 1864
Criminals and convicts.  With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, came the possibility of creating a true likeness of people.  This was especially useful when it came to criminals in order for them to be recognised.  The ‘Ticket of Leave’ book at Sheffield City Archives dates from 1864 and records in great detail the character, physical description and misdemeanours of a number of shifty individuals.  Under the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869, criminals could be let out early on a 'ticket of leave' - a permit allowing them to leave prison under specific restrictions. However, it could (and frequently was) withdrawn for misconduct.  The volume includes two entries for the notorious Charles Peace (both as aliases).

The curious teapot.  Unsurprisingly, business records form a core part of the City collections.  The records of James Dixon and Sons Limited, Silversmiths of Cornish Place, are particularly interesting.  In the later years of the nineteenth century it produced holloware to the designs of the celebrated Dr Christopher Dresser - 'sleek objects of great practicality, which anticipated the functional lines of the twentieth century'.  Dresser worked for Dixon's from c.1870 to 1883; his designs including tea and coffee services.  His work for Dixon's is of interest not only for its highly original artistic quality but also because Dresser was one of the earliest true industrial designers.  Photograph albums and cost books show Dresser’s work in great detail and these records have been called upon to verify the authenticity of rare Dresser pieces that have come to auction.  An incredibly rare and priceless teapot, the design of which is detailed in the archives, is on show at the V&A Museum in London - one of only a handful ever made.

This is a very brief introduction to Sheffield's vast archives.  The City Archives and Local Studies Library look forward to re-opening in due course.  Until then, please feel free to keep directing your enquiries to us at: 

We're now on Twitter too - follow us at: @SheffArchives

We're also collecting Covid-19 documents.  Read more about our appeal here: 

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