RETRO: Legendary battle to save community

Two children in Elton Street, Walkley, c1970. The street is now demolished. It stood where Ruskin Park is today.
Two children in Elton Street, Walkley, c1970. The street is now demolished. It stood where Ruskin Park is today.
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It was called the Battle for Walkley and, to many, it seemed like an unwinnable David versus Goliath fight. In 1969, residents of the little suburb watched in horror as Sheffield Corporation bulldozers lined up to demolish their homes as part of a city-wide slum clearance. The entire area was to be flattened.

But those residents – indignant they would be moved to strange parts of the city away from friends and neighbours – chose to fight the authorities.

Now a new exhibition, featuring these exclusive pictures, will show how they used people power to save their streets in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

“It was an astonishing victory,” says Bill Bevan, the historical interpreter who has created the display for this year’s Walkley Festival.

“And saving these homes was absolutely the right thing. Those so-called slums today are valued at £130,000 while Walkley itself has managed to retain its identity.

“I live in one of the houses which would have been demolished myself. Is it a slum? No, it’s a lovely place with a nice plot of garden too.”

In contrast, the housing block many residents would have been moved to – the then newly built Kelvin Flats in Infirmary Road – have long since been demolished after becoming plagued by crime and antisocial behaviour.

The Battle for Walkley – a civil little affair restricted to protests, polite requests for official information, and lots of letters – kicked off with the formation of the Walkley Action Group in June 1969.

By that point, about 1,200 houses had already been knocked down in Lower Walkley. Harold Street and Elton Street, both pictured before the bulldozers moved in, were among those demolished. But residents further up the hill were enraged there were the same plans for their homes.

“These houses needed improving, yes,” says Bill, of Fulton Road. “They needed bathrooms, indoor toilets and central heating but it was clear this would be no more expensive than the slum clearance.

“Ultimately, people didn’t want to leave because this was their home. They didn’t want to be moved into a high rise concrete block. They loved the community.”

The group, led by the indomitable Elsie Collett, conducted a survey of 3,000 residents. The result showed, overwhelmingly, people did not want to leave. It persuaded a Sheffield Corporation official, Narendra Bajaria, to take the side of WAG, while local councillor Veronica Hardstaff threw her weight behind the campaign too.

“For a time you had part of Walkley demolished and the bulldozers ready to move to the next part,” says Bill who has put the exhibition together with Walkley Community Centre. “Campaigners came from a cross-section of the community – the churches, shopkeepers, families – with support from Sheffield University researchers. They fought for information, wrote letters, published demolition plans and shamed landlords into making repairs.”

Faced with such opposition, the corporation eventually backed down.

Officials agreed to use newly introduced government home improvement grants to upgrade properties. Where properties had to be knocked down on safety grounds, public amenities were built in their place. In this way, a car park was created off Freedom Road while Ruskin Park now stands where Elton Street had once been.

By 1974, Walkley had officially been saved. The victory would inspire other Sheffield communities, including Pitsmoor, to fight and retain their own houses.