Post-war city vision to rival Paris or Milan

A copy of a planning book from 1945 at the Local Studies Library in Sheffield with some artists impressions of how planners wanted the city to look after redevelopment
A copy of a planning book from 1945 at the Local Studies Library in Sheffield with some artists impressions of how planners wanted the city to look after redevelopment
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VAST civic plazas, continental-style squares, tree-lined boulevards, 34 acres of prime shopping precincts, a theatre quarter, and an inner city road system the world would envy...

Welcome to a vision of Sheffield’s future – from the past.

A copy of a planning book from 1945 at the Local Studies Library in Sheffield with some artists impressions of how planners wanted the city to look after redevelopment

A copy of a planning book from 1945 at the Local Studies Library in Sheffield with some artists impressions of how planners wanted the city to look after redevelopment

These stunning images show how planners dreamed the city would look back in 1945.

Their almost revolutionary proposals included a giant plaza stretching from the Town Hall to the City Hall and beyond, an enormous court complex near Cambridge Street, a sports stadium, a network of inner-city gardens and green spaces, and a giant escalator walkway to transport visitors from the station to the city centre.

The ambitious ideas were put forward in a fascinating, 70-page planning document – Sheffield Replanned – published just months after World War Two ended.

Now, The Star showcases the pictures in full colour for the first time to highlight, in these years of flux, the city has been ever-changing throughout its history.

The vision was dreamt up by city officials who were told, following the destruction of Hitler’s bombers and decades of near nonexistent city planning, to think big.

“The reshaping and rebuilding of the great City of Sheffield is a vast undertaking but, as a consequence of the war, it is one we must engage in,” noted Lord Mayor G E Marlow in his forward notes.

Among other bolder ideas were zoning housing, industry and retail into different central ‘quarters’, and digging a network of pedestrian subways. Ornamental gardens would rise from the slopes behind the train station, while the Corn Exchange – then standing close to Park Square – would be restored and made a model gateway to the city centre. Even a regional airport was considered: “the question of providing air transport facilities to and from Sheffield is receiving the close attention which its importance demands.”

“It’s an amazing book,” says Cheryl Bailey, senior archivist with Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library, where the document is stored. “You look at it and you’re wowed by some of the ideas that were being put forward.

“Sheffield is lovely today and has some great places but if these plans had been made reality it would have been very different. It’s almost like the planners were trying to make it a little more like Milan or Paris.”

Undoubtedly, the document is an indicator of the grand plans civic leaders had in 1945.

With vast swathes of the city centre reduced to rubble during the Sheffield Blitz of 1941 and with the promise of government grants to help rebuild, Sheffield was seen as, if not quite a blank canvas, certainly one that had potential for huge change.

“The plan now presented is prepared to believe in the not too distant future we may hope to realise the happiness of homes, the new ideals in education, and all the contributions to the good life in a replanned City of which we may be justly proud,” wrote chief city engineer and surveyor J M Collie in the tome

Today, it is easy to scoff at the almost innocently high ideals. Certainly much of the document came to nothing.

That vast central plaza – a city square surrounded by the Town Hall, City Hall, newly built court complex and civic theatre – continued to inform planning decisions for almost a decade. Entire schemes were drawn up to demolish Burgess Street and Cambridge Street in preparation. And then, in the mid 1950s, it was suddenly dropped as councillors decided it would cost too much.

Similarly, a city centre stadium fell by the wayside; while the slopes behind the station were turned, not into terraced public gardens, but into the location for one of the largest concrete blocks in Europe, Park Hill. The Corn Exchange, meanwhile – described in the document as “a building of architectural merit which deserves better treatment than it receives at present” – was knocked down.

A library extension never happened; no new art gallery was built until the millennium; and as for the roads becoming the best in the world? Generations of city drivers will no doubt have a view on that. And yet. And yet.

“The planners were told to be ambitious so naturally some of their ideas didn’t come off,” says Cheryl again “But plenty did. It’s not all that difficult to equate some of the ideas in the book with modern Sheffield.”

The theatre quarter, initially planned for the east of the city centre, came to fruition albeit in Tudor Square some 30 years later. And the idea that the city should be served by one train station was also to come true, for better or worse, when Victoria Station shut in 1970.

A Town Hall extension would be built as suggested in the document – although the word eggbox never cropped up in 1945. And, painfully perhaps given the current cuts, the idea that a library should serve every suburb did indeed become reality. In short, these stunning plans were never just dreams. Many of them came to pass. Sheffield really could have looked like this.

“It is our hope,” noted Alderman CW Gascoigne, the chairman of the Town Planning Committee, “the plan will eventually result in the creation of a noble city worthy of the citizens who will be privileged to reside therein.”

If that was the one true aim, perhaps indeed it was achieved.