They were an iconic part of the skyline for 70 years; a symbol of South Yorkshire’s industrial heritage and, later, a sign for city folk driving along the M1 they were almost home.
These were the 250ft high Tinsley cooling towers. And five years ago this weekend, at 3am on August 24, 2008, they were demolished. An estimated 10,000 onlookers – ranging from city dignitaries to Saturday night post-club revellers – turned up to watch the historic moment.
Today, to mark the anniversary, Midweek Retro brings you these pictures both from the night itself and from when the towers still stood proud and in use.
“They were utterly beautiful,” says Tom James, the then 25-year-old who launched a campaign to save the structures and have them turned into two massive art galleries. “I accept they had been out of use for a long time but it was such a waste to have them destroyed. It was taking away part of Sheffield’s past. I live in London and whenever I head back it hurts they’re not there.”
The towers – nicknamed the salt and pepper pots – were built in 1938 to help meet demand for electricity from the ever-insatiable steel industry. Five wooden towers already in use at the Blackburn Meadows Power Station were no longer sufficient to cope, leading to the 3,500 ton developments.
It is unclear exactly how long they were designed to stand for but their survival for 70 years was down not just to their extraordinary capacity – but also to sheer good luck.
It is thought they were never targeted by Hitler’s bombers during World War Two simply because they had been so recently built they did not appear on Ordinance Survey maps.
By a similar quirk of fate they also survived when the power station itself closed in 1980.
By then the motorway viaduct, built in 1968, stood so close to the concrete monsters (12 metres to be exact) it was judged unsafe to demolish them. Thus, for almost three decades, the towers remained standing but redundant.
“I think they became a real symbol of Sheffield,” says Tom today. “They still are even now.”
Then, in 2006, owners e.on announced that advancements in controlled explosion technology meant it would be feasible to bring down the towers. It planned to build a £60m biomass power plant on the site. The firm ignored both a petition signed by thousands of Sheffielders to spare the landmarks and city MP Clive Betts who labelled the process “historical vandalism”.
“Love them or hate them, we have got to be pragmatic,” spokeswoman Emily Highmore said on demolition night two years later, “The towers were never designed to be up for 70 years and they would have been very expensive to retain.”
The detonator on the night was pushed by Dinnington hairdresser Claire Brookes who had won a competition.
“Not many people can say they destroyed Tinsley cooling towers,” she noted afterwards.
But, of the thousands who witnessed the moment, it was perhaps Norton schoolgirl Kelly Longner who summed up the feelings of many.
Speaking to The Star, minutes after the twin explosions, the 14-year-old said: “I miss them already.”
Stacey Hallam was one of thousands who attended the demolition of Tinsley cooling towers. She said:
“I was 15 in 2008 but I knew if I didn’t go to see the Tinsley towers demolished I would regret it. They were the landmarks which welcomed you home when you pulled off the M1, so my parents didn’t take too much convincing to take me – even though we were due to go on holiday the following morning.
“I was stood on the walk-way at Meadowhall train station. It was busy, but not overflowing with people, which was surprising to say the roads were jammed with traffic.
“I remember feeling rather giddy with anticipation, then the sirens started and they seemed to drag on before the sound changed. That’s when you heard the ‘boom’ and the first tower came tumbling down in a cloud of dust. The second went shortly after and the crowd’s roar was deafening.”
CLICK ON THE VIDEO TO WATCH THE DEMOLITION
The Tinsley cooling towers were just 12cm thick.
There was a delay of two seconds between detonations to minimise ground vibrations.
The blast was heard as far away as Aston.
Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor had agreed to develop a massive temporary installation for inside the towers before their destruction – but owners e.on declined the proposal.