Retro: Photos from the 1980s stir strong Sheffield memories for former Star journalist

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Renowned and revered as a Star columnist, Stephen McClarence was also a prolific photographer. Using what he describes as an antiquated camera, he has amassed a unique collection of black and white pictures of Sheffield taken during his time in the city from 1981 until 1994.

“I reckon there are about 2,000, none later than the early ’90s. They're kept in old Ilford printing paper boxes which stack up to two feet high,” says Stephen.

There's another six or seven feet of his other pictures, proof of his passion for photographs.

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He was good too, having exhibited in museums, country houses, cafes and bars. Many of the photos were taken with his Bellows camera, which sits on the table of his Fulwood home, an antique now which has many memories attached to it.

The boxes of film at the home of writer and photographer Stephen McClarenceThe boxes of film at the home of writer and photographer Stephen McClarence
The boxes of film at the home of writer and photographer Stephen McClarence

“It wasn’t expensive, my father bought it in the early 1950s for £10 from the Co-op,” says Stephen. “Over the years, the camera needed frequent repairs - patching up or fixing worn-out springs.

“I had it revalued and now it is worth £8. I don’t use it and haven’t used it for 20 years.

“My father bought the camera in the early 1950s to document my childhood - and the pictures he took on our holidays on the East Coast are still in the family album. At six years old I was clearly a dab hand at sandcastles.”

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It has served Stephen well too. When he went out on jobs with photographers, he wouldn’t take his own camera but did return at the weekend to many of the spots they had visited to do his own shots.

Stephen McClarence in his Star daysStephen McClarence in his Star days
Stephen McClarence in his Star days

“Much of what I did was street photography, wandering round waiting to see what might crop up round the next corner. Or who might turn up. I avoided gadgets - no telephoto lenses, no flash, no motor-drive.

“It was very basic photography - with what in some respects was a rather primitive, or at any rate basic, camera.

“I didn't use an exposure meter or range-finder. I estimated the correct exposure. If there wasn't much light and it was a posed portrait, I used to pace out the distance between me and the person I was photographing.

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“This had the advantage of relaxing people. If a man with an ancient camera asks you to hold a tape measure to the end of your nose, you assume he's a crank and relax.

Writer and photographer Stephen McClarence at home in SheffieldWriter and photographer Stephen McClarence at home in Sheffield
Writer and photographer Stephen McClarence at home in Sheffield

“I was interested in Sheffield, it was an interesting time.”

His work got noticed.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, he had exhibitions, including at the Graves Art Gallery, the Globe Works, the Royal Festival Hall in London and a gallery in Preston where the exhibition spelled it out with its title - 'No Fancy Gadgets'.

Many of these exhibitions, plus various book illustrations, were commissioned and organised by Yorkshire Art Circus, the Pontefract-based community historians and publishers.

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Chasracterful faces like this are typical of the pictures taken by Stephen McClarenceChasracterful faces like this are typical of the pictures taken by Stephen McClarence
Chasracterful faces like this are typical of the pictures taken by Stephen McClarence

He was asked to do pictures for a Sheffield book celebrating a centenary of city status called The Sheffield Collection: Celebrating Sheffield’s Centenary 1893 - 1993.

“Some of the pictures in the book go back to when I was aged 10 including a school trip to Stratford and Shakespeare’s birthplace.

“Modern cameras do the work for you.

“Mine was an antique camera when I was using it. My dad would set up in the attic, he had the blinds down so he could develop and print his film. It was magical.”

Happy memories of the Sharrow home where Stephen was inspired by his dad’s love of photography. “He would put the images in a printing tank and they would gradually come up. It was like magic, I had not seen anything like it, it was exciting.”

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Stephen continued the tradition. “I developed all the films myself, in the cellar, and hung them up to dry in the bathroom - once I'd moved into a house that had one.”

Stephen McClarence's photo of a window cleaner in the shadow of Kelvin Flats was recently published by The Star and prompted him to get in touch.Stephen McClarence's photo of a window cleaner in the shadow of Kelvin Flats was recently published by The Star and prompted him to get in touch.
Stephen McClarence's photo of a window cleaner in the shadow of Kelvin Flats was recently published by The Star and prompted him to get in touch.

Born in Sheffield, Stephen went to High Storrs Grammar School and then York University. His Sheffielder column started without a byline in The Star but became his signature piece. “Over my Star years I reckon I wrote about 3,000 columns,” he says.

Stephen says he enjoyed working with staff photographers and has good memories of the experience. “We were doing it as a team.

“We would go on trips to the seaside because we had the coast edition and would be in Bridlington and Skegness asking ’Is anyone here from Sheffield?’

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“I’d been asked to do a fish and chip shop survey and had to sample five lots of fish and chips.

“By the time I got to the fourth lot I wanted to give them away.”

His column was published five days a week. “I used to go somewhere in the afternoon to do a colour piece, maybe a council meeting, maybe a budgie show. People suggested things but more often it would come from my own initiative.

“People never quarreled that I went in, wrote a column and then went off again. I was only ever in the office for two or three hours a day because the stories were out there in the city.

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“The 1980s were a significant time for news. The miners strike - I was at Orgreave when there were battles between the police and the pickets.

“The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire and flying the red flag over the town hall, at a Cutlers Feast when there was a rally outside to unwelcome Margaret Thatcher. As she went in an egg was thrown and one of the guests said ‘I knew it, they can’t be poor throwing eggs at the price they are’.”

He also went to Royal weddings, writing pieces for The Star on Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana Spencer and Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson.

But it was Sheffield which brought him back to The Star. Stephen got in touch after one of his pictures of the former Kelvin Flats featured in our Retro section. The infamous 13-storey blocks were on Infirmary Road and by the 198s were crumbling.

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“A Tory housing minister was taken on a tour and went in a flat where the walls were cracking and mould covered the widows. The place was an absolute tip but he said ‘With a bit of work, these could be really rather super’.”

His pictures also featured in a book with words by his wife Clare Jenkins, who Stephen met when she was reviewing theatre for The Star and he was reviewing for the Yorkshire Post.

“We actually met on the 69 bus to Rotherham when we were both going to review a Roman farce at the Arts Centre there.”

The book is called On The Knife Edge, the inside story of the Sheffield cutlery industry. It was published in 1989 and transports you to another time.

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Clare, now a journalism lecturer at Hallam University, says: “We were privileged to interview two women who were mirror polishers in the Beehive Works on Milton Street in the city centre.

“When they opened the door we fell back in amazement. It was as if we were in 18th or 19th Century Sheffield. Dust was everywhere. It was Dickensian”

Stephen adds: “The pictures were taken when Sheffield still had steel and cutlery, even though it was in decline.

“My feeling was that a lot of the traditional character of the place was just going, disappearing and in a way it was a last ditch effort to capture old Sheffield.

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“It was a city where people were proud to be parochial and the photos recall somewhere almost unrecognisable. People were proud of the work they did.”

Stephen’s most recent work has been as a travel writer for The Times and Daily Telegraph, including 25 trips to India and others to Albania and Estonia.

His photography has had to adapt. “Now that I've moved on to digital colour, I generally take a small camera with me when Clare and I are away on travel-writing trips - and the pictures are often used with my pieces.

“s a result, I've got thousands of photos just from our 25 India trips.”

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So he hasn’t been around much in Sheffield recently and his trips into the city centre are few and far between.

The 69-year-old says: “I wish Sheffield well but it doesn’t interest me as much as it used to.”

Clare adds: “When you’ve lived in a place for a long time, you have got ghosts there always, memories.”

And for Stephen, those memories can point to sadness. “I was drawn to certain things, say after the demolition of buildings, it seemed like decline.”

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They can also be positive. “Despite its problems during that period, the city was still a friendly and characterful place - crucially it still is, with a massive arts and music profile. Ask most students!”

Stephen is now talking about exhibiting his pictures in Sheffield and with so many from such momentous times it would make for a fascinating show.

It is certainly a brilliant resource and one Sheffield would do well to preserve.

The book, The Sheffield Collection, is available on Amazon.

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