The present pasts of Furnace Park

Over the last few months, people from the local community have been getting in touch with their memories and knowledge of the Furnace Park site, which has variously been home to Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard (connected to the furnace on Matthew Street, after which the Furnace Park project was named), the City Council’s Municipal Lighting Department depot (part of the wall of which now forms the current site boundary, by the Queen’s Row entrance), the Brunswick Arms pub (the ghostly floor plan of which is traced almost exactly by the fence and gate at the current main entrance to the site) and a children’s playground (opened in 1931 by J. C. Graves), and slum housing arranged in grandly named ‘courts’.

In 1886, 8 local children were killed by a deluge of iron bars, roofing timbers and slates when one of Doncaster’s stockyard walls collapsed as they played beneath: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (five), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five), Herbert Crookes (five). We learned of this story from Neil Anderson, a descendant of Clifford Anderson who lived at 4, Court 5, Burnt Tree Lane and was buried in the Burngreave Cemetery in Sheffield. 

Neil was also related to Frank Anderson, who was killed, aged 15, in a boiler explosion in 1899 at the Southern & Richardson Works, located at the junction of Doncaster Street and Ellis Street. The remains of this building – now listed – adjoin the upper part of the Furnace Park site. We also received information from a descendant of John Whitehead, who lived at 26 Shepherd Street, and was killed, aged 54, in the same accident. Harry Dickinson (55), William Ward (27), Herbert Arthur Lickfold (24), Albert Warton (54) and John Ellis (16) also lost their lives in the explosion.

Many of those who were killed lived just around the corner from Furnace Park, in streets which still remain today: Burnt Tree Lane, Shepherd Street, Hoyle Street…  The Southern and Richardson Works building still stands, derelict, in what is now the H. Harrold and Sons car park. And yet the houses in which the eight children and seven men lived have long since disappeared, demolished perhaps in the much vaunted municipal slum clearances of the 1920s. In their place now stand factories, showrooms, warehouses, many of them now empty and abandoned in their turn. The layout of the streets has changed too. Hoyle Street is now part of the inner ring road. It’s difficult, sometimes, to map the present city onto the Victorian street plans we’ve examined in the Central Library. As we walk the streets around Furnace Park, the past flickers in and out of our sight, our grasp.

People coming to volunteer at Furnace Park and participate in the events we’ve hosted so far have shared with us their memories of the playground in the 1950s, of their fathers coming to work in the factories that now stand empty in the streets adjoining the site. We have heard about the rich smells coming from the brewery on the other side of Hoyle Street and the sweet chocolate sold in grandparents’ grocery shops. They have told us of their research into working class family histories and of the tragedies they have uncovered. They have brought with them histories and memories that lend this ostensibly ’empty’ and ‘vacant’ site a depth and resonance that is at once political, social and personal.

There are no plaques at the Furnace Park site, no memorial stones to those who lost their lives in industrial accidents within yards of where we now stand, and – bearing in mind the words of Robert Musil, writing in 1927: “There is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments” (1)… – we have no plans to erect any. Instead, over the next few months, and working in collaboration with a number of artists, writers and members of the local community, we are planning a number of projects that will explore how these histories might be remembered and re-told, focusing particularly on their continued valence in the present moment. We are interested not only in the personal stories that have emerged from our encounters and conversations in the making of Furnace Park, but in the social, industrial and political contexts that produced them and continue to produce and shape the ways in which they are told (or not told). There will be exhibitions and performances and – we hope – a co-produced book that connects these present pasts to the ongoing story of Sheffield and Shalesmoor in particular.

If you would like to get involved in these projects, please email a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk

More information about the histories of the Furnace Park site can be found in the article by Luke Bennett in the Furnace Park Magazine, available as a free pdf download.

A note from a visitor to Furnace Park, October 2013
A note from a visitor to Furnace Park, October 2013

(1) “Robert Musil, ‘Monuments’, Selected Writings, Burton Pike (ed.), London and New York: Continuum, 1998, p.320 (originally published in German in 1936)

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