Secrets of the past

Local historian Chris Hobbs
Local historian Chris Hobbs
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HERE’S a few things you won’t find on Chris Hobbs’ Sheffield history website: the Great Flood, Charlie Peace or anything about Bessemer, Brearley or Benjamin Huntsman.

“That stuff has been done to death,” he says. “I’m interested in history that’s new. If that makes sense?”

Local historian Chris Hobbs

Local historian Chris Hobbs

So, here’s a few things you will come across: the 1942 Beighton railway disaster (14 people dead, 34 injured and not a single paragraph in The Star because of wartime restrictions), the first-ever air raid on Sheffield (some 24 years before the more famous Blitz) and the city’s workhouse scandal – an 1882 cover-up where officials were suspected of stealing bodies for medical research.

Never heard of them? Don’t worry – that’s sort of the point.

“The mission has always been to feature things that have been relatively unreported,” says Chris, of Spring Hill, Crookes. “There’s no point me researching the Sheffield Flood because you can find that anywhere.

“This is for the things which have, to some extent, slipped by under the radar.”

Sheffield's Shocking Past by Chris Hobbs & Matthew Bell

Sheffield's Shocking Past by Chris Hobbs & Matthew Bell

There is some irony, then, that the website has very much not gone unnoticed.

Its huge collection of primary material and ‘well-fancy-that’ facts (who knew that a Sheffield United match – against Arsenal in 1927 – was the first football game ever broadcast on radio or that a murder at a Crookes laundry made national front-page news in 1922?) has proved something of a hit.

Founded as a hobby in 1999 (“it was an excuse to mess about with this new thing called the internet”), it now receives more than 80,000 page views a month while the 58-year-old father-of-two has just released his first book featuring a selection of stories he’s uncovered.

But perhaps most gratifying for the university technician is the sheer number of people who have emailed to say his site has solved historical mysteries which have confounded them for years

Like the naval rating who had been on board the train during that Beighton disaster but never knew what occurred.

“It happened during World War Two so, for morale purposes, it had been largely unreported,” says Chris.

“There was a paragraph in The Times which I came across while I was looking to see what had been reported on Sheffield over the years – and that’s all.

“This rating had got to the point where his family didn’t believe him so he said it was a relief to stumble on my website.”

There was also the story of John Raynes, a Heeley Victoria Cross hero. Chris found his dedication in the 1915 London Gazette and put it on-line. It explained how, during World War One, the sergeant-major had rescued a colleague from no-man’s land.

“Shortly after that a police officer who was researching VC heroes emailed saying he’d found the website useful,” explains Chris. “He invited me to a re-dedication ceremony at John’s grave in Leeds. It was a full ceremony – a band and the works. I remember his granddaughter saying to me it was all down to my research. That was lovely.”

Now, he hopes that book – a death-and-dastardly-deeds romp through Victorian Sheffield – will bring a few more tales back into popular conscience, while he plans to keep researching.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s like doing a puzzle. It’s marvellous when I get emails saying I’ve helped solve family mysteries but I get a tremendous buzz out of doing this for myself.”

Visit Chris’s website at www.chrishobbs.com or buy Sheffield’s Shocking Past, co-written with Matthew Bell, at The Star shop from April 13.