In 1914, Sheffield’s Medical Officer of Health described properties on Matthew Street and Doncaster Street (along with others in the adjacent area) as being ‘in a condition so dangerous or injurious to health as to be unfit for human habitation’ (see Scott Lomax, The Home Front: Sheffield in the First World War [Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2014], p. 2). A municipal slum clearance project began in the 1920s and was clearly still ongoing when, in 1936, George Orwell stayed with a family living on Wallace Street, just a mile or so away from what we now call Furnace Park.
Had a very long and exhausting day (I am now continuing this March 4th) being shown every quarter of Sheffield on foot and by tram. I have now traversed almost the whole city. It seems to me, by daylight, one of the most appalling places I have ever seen. In whichever direction you look you see the same landscape of monstrous chimneys pouring forth smoke which is sometimes black and sometimes of a rosy tint said to be due to sulphur. You can smell the sulphur in the air all the while. All buildings are blackened within a year or two of being put up. Halting at one place I counted the factory chimneys I could see and there were 33. But is was very misty as well as smoky – there would have been many more visible on a clear day. I doubt whether there are any architecturally decent buildings in the town. The town is very hilly (said to be built on seven hills, like Rome) and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly to give horses etc, a grip. At night the hilliness creates fine effects because you look across from one hillside to the other and see the lamps twinkling like stars. Huge jets of flame shoot periodically out of the roofs of the foundries (many working night shifts at present) and show a splendid rosy colour through the smoke and steam. When you get a glimpse inside you see enormous fiery serpents of red-hot and white-hot (really lemon coloured) iron being rolled out into rails. In the central slummy part of the town are the small workshops of the ‘little bosses’, i.e. smaller employers who are making chiefly cutlery. I don’t think I ever in my life saw so many broken windows. Some of these workshops have hardly a pane of glass in their windows and you would not believe they were inhabitable if you did not see the employees, mostly girls, at work inside. The town is being torn down and rebuilt at an immense speed. Everywhere among the slums are gaps with squalid mounds of bricks where condemned houses have been demolished and on all the outskirts of the town new estates of Corporation houses are going up. These are much inferior, at any rate in appearance, to those at Liverpool. They are in terribly bleak situations, too. One estate just behind where I am living now, at the very summit of a hill, on horrible sticky clay soil and swept by icy winds. Notice that the people going into these new houses from the slums will always be paying higher rents; and also will have to spend much more on fuel to keep themselves warm. Also, in many cases, will be further from their work and therefore spend more on conveyances.
(From the diaries of George Orwell, 1936. Available at http://www.chrishobbs.com/orwellsheffield1936.htm)
In April 1931, just a few years before Orwell’s visit to Sheffield, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield opened the Matthew Street playground, the construction of which had been funded by local philanthropist Alderman J.G. Graves. The playground occupied a site made vacant by the recent demolition of the Doncaster Arms public house, which had fallen into a state of disrepair and dereliction, and 97 nearby houses.
The corner of the playground, visible here, is where the entrance to the Doncaster Arms once stood. The large building in the right-hand corner of the image is the Don Cutlery Works. The upper level of Furnace Park now occupies what was once this children’s playground. The smaller buildings which stand in front of the cutlery works (to the right of the image) were demolished many years ago.
Read this wonderful guest post by Anne Grange on what flourishes here today, where children once played.