100 years on the campaign trail

Historian: Joseph Hunter
Historian: Joseph Hunter
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AS beginnings go, it was an unassuming start.

On May 13, 1912, a group of 13 Sheffield gentlemen, professionals and academics met up in a small Shrewsbury Road studio to discuss the city’s heritage.

They were alarmed by the apparent indifference of those in power to the region’s history, and they vowed to fight the problem.

Then they did what men of that generation tended to do: proposed and passed a move to form a society.

“We’re still fighting today,” says Martin Waller, programme secretary with the Hunter Archeological Society.

“We’re still beavering away, trying to raise awareness and get our area’s heritage noticed.”

Next month, the society – which now meets at Sheffield University and is rather larger at some 200 members strong – will celebrate its centenary.

And, while those origins may indeed have been relatively modest, its achievements in the intervening 10 decades have been anything but.

It is because of this group we know so much about Sheffield Castle – they campaigned for the excavation of the site in 1927 – and it is also because of them that the city centre’s oldest building, The Old Queen’s Head in Pond Hill, survived so-called 20th century progress.

More recently they had a big hand in ensuring a threatened 50 per cent cut to the South Yorkshire Archeological Service’s funding was never passed.

“There is a view – and there always has been – that history in Sheffield started with the steel industry,” says Martin, a 68-year-old retired steelworker of Fulwood.

“But it’s got a remarkable past stretching back long before that to the Romans and even the Bronze Age.

“This is what we try to draw attention to.”

They do that through winter lectures, summer excursions and the publication of their two-yearly journal, Transactions Of The Hunter Archeological Society.

But perhaps more importantly is the monitoring of sites of potential historical interest in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, and the carrying out of their own field research.

“We’re a campaigning body,” says Dr Ruth Morgan, a one-time professional archeologist and secretary with the group.

“We make sure that archeology doesn’t get forgotten when other groups perhaps have other priorities.”

Such as with Sheffield Castle.

It was the Hunter Archeological Society, named after the famous 19th century Sheffield historian Joseph Hunter, which campaigned for the now famous excavation of the site in 1927.

What was found – a base of one gateway tower and part of the gate itself – may not have been enough to save the site from having Castle Market built there, but it does mean when that particular building is demolished in the next few years, the group will ask for more studies to be carried out.

“We would say that while there’s a hiatus, it would be the ideal time to bring in a team to assess once and for all what exactly is down there,” says Martin.

An even earlier success was ensuring Stanage Pole – the iconic Hallam Moors landmark noting the border of Derbyshire and Yorkshire – remained wooden.

“In 1916, the authorities wanted to replace it with a metal pole,” says Bill Bevan, an independent heritage interpreter who is working with the group during its centenary year. “That’s essentially the equivalent of putting metal rendering on the brickwork of the Town Hall.

“The group fought those plans, and it was agreed the pole would remain timber. It was one of their earliest victories.”

Along similar lines, the group has successfully campaigned on three separate occasions to ensure The Old Queen’s Head – the oldest building in Sheffield city centre – is not demolished in the name of moving forward.

Without members standing its corner it would almost certainly have been reduced to rubble during the building of the adjacent bus station in 1936 and then again during the hub’s development into Sheffield Interchange in the 1990s.

“To lose it would be a real shame,” says Dr Morgan, 61, of Deepcar. “It’s a piece of history.”

Less successful, however, was an attempt to buy the land where the old Templeborough Roman fort stood in Rotherham. In 1916 it became clear the site was to be turned into a steelworks. The group tried to raise the money to purchase the land themselves to save it for future excavation but failed.

The steelworks – now the Magna Centre – was built and the Roman remains are buried to this day.

“We still keep an eye on what’s going on there and, if the opportunity arose, we think a full excavation would be worthwhile,” says Martin.

For now, however, the centenary year is providing a chance to try and get more people on board.

The group has been granted £36,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to mark the anniversary and it will be used to fund exhibitions, a booklet and a weekend of talks and events.

But it’s hoped the celebrations will have a couple of practical purposes too – attracting more members and generating interest around another campaign.

“There are no archeology storage facilities in South Yorkshire at present,” says Ruth. “And that is something we feel should be addressed. It means any archeological finds which are made here cannot stay in the area. That is not an ideal situation.”

Martin agrees.

“Because of the recession, this has been a difficult time for archeology and heritage,” he says. “State finance has diminished and priorities have changed but that makes our work more important than ever.

“We’ve been around 100 years and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be around in another 100.”

Exhibitions illustrating the group’s work and history are being run at Weston Park Museum, the Local Studies Library and University Library – see individual websites for details. A booklet is being produced on the group’s history, and a centenary weekend, May 11-13, will include exhibitions, talks and walks. For more information visit www.hunterarchaeologicalsociety.org.uk

Who was Joseph Hunter?

HE died some 51 years before the Hunter Archeological Society was formed yet the suggestion at the group’s first meeting to name the group after Joseph Hunter was met with absolute agreement.

Perhaps there is little wonder.

For this was a man who, even today, is still considered the finest historian ever to come from Sheffield.

His mighty books, Hallamshire, released in 1819, and the two-volume South Yorkshire, published in 1828 and 1831, remain perhaps the defining texts on the region’s pre-industrial past.

Born in 1783, Hunter, the son of a cutler, was educated initially in Attercliffe before studying theology at Manchester College in York.

Although he never again lived in South Yorkshire, his research skills and genealogy were vital in his three works.

After making his name with them, he became an Assistant Keeper of the Public Records in London and is particularly remembered for his work in classifying the Exchequer records.

He died on May 9, 1861, and is buried in a place he selected at St Mary’s Parish Church, Ecclesfield.