Attercliffe’s rising fortunes: How Sheffield suburb’s heritage is being preserved 

Mike Higginbottom outside the Zion Sabbath School, now a motor repair shop.
Mike Higginbottom outside the Zion Sabbath School, now a motor repair shop.

Attercliffe may be an up and coming area – but its past is just as important as its future.

Yesterday The Star focused on the developments that are driving change in the suburb, such as the Olympic Legacy Park, the arrival of new businesses and the prospect of more homes.

The old Adelphi cinema in Attercliffe.

The old Adelphi cinema in Attercliffe.

But, says Mike Higginbottom, a former English teacher at Ecclesfield Secondary School who now organises history tours through his own venture called Interesting Times, there is huge local interest in the district’s heritage.

“It’s not only from people in their sixties or upwards who remember its heyday, but also younger people who are curious about what remains and what’s gone,” he says. “My Heritage Open Days walks round Attercliffe have been fully booked for two years in succession, and I have over 40 people on a waiting list for next year.”

An entry in the Domesday Book - Ateclive, meaning 'at the cliffe', an escarpment beside the River Don - is the earliest reference to the place, where makers of knives and tools based themselves at the dawn of the 19th century. The Lower Don Valley subsquently became the powerhouse of Sheffield's heavy steel trade and Attercliffe was where its workers lived.

“Some surviving Attercliffe buildings have been altered inside, but there are others that could become heritage attractions in one form or another,” says Mike. 

Alison Davies looks at a gravestone during an open day at the Zion Graveyard.

Alison Davies looks at a gravestone during an open day at the Zion Graveyard.

Hill Top Chapel, dating from 1639, is once again used for worship, Carbrook Hall - fated to become a drive-through Starbucks if plans are approved – has Jacobean panelling and plasterwork possibly by the same craftsmen who worked on Bolsover Castle, and The Adelphi, from 1920, has an elegant interior behind the paraphernalia left behind from its afterlife as a nightclub. The former Banner's department store, now a business centre, fronts on to Attercliffe Road and is still impressive with its ornate Selfridges-type facade.

“People tend to think the old Attercliffe community has gone entirely, but there is housing near the tram line, and pockets of social activity survive. The Attercliffe Liberal Club opened in 1882 and still welcomes members. The former Bodmin Street Wesleyan Reform Chapel of 1890, which could easily have been demolished in the 1970s, is now a thriving mosque.”

But, says Mike: “I think the heritage focus for a redeveloped Attercliffe should be the Zion Graveyard.  It contains historic graves from the beginning of the 19th century and is a wildlife haven. The 1854 Sabbath School across the cobbled Zion Lane would make a useful heritage centre, and the site of the 1863 chapel, burnt down in 1987 and now a car lot, could be excavated to reveal the footings of the church and possibly some forgotten graves.”

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For many years Penny Rea, chair of the graveyard’s Friends group, has been researching the life of anti-slavery campaigner Mary Ann Rawson, who is buried in the cemetery. Penny was able to gain access to the overgrown site when it was put up for sale at the start of 2017.

“The magic of the graveyard being an oasis of history and nature in the industrial desert of modern Attercliffe was recognized,” says Steve Randall, a trustee of the group which was formed last July. Fearing the graveyard was going to be bulldozed to expand the neighbouring car lot, the society bought the land using public donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

“This is where the incredible generosity of the people of Sheffield comes in,” Steve says. “Donations, some large and many small, poured in and it still gives me a lump in my throat when I think of it. To date we've received about £10,000.”

The main motivation – saving Rawson’s grave – has now been expanded upon, as the group has realised how many notable people were laid to rest at the site.

“We are going to continue to clear the graves to find out who is buried there. Within the last month we've found another three. At the same time we want to balance the clearance with maintaining it as a natural history refuge to ensure that its mystical atmosphere is not lost. We are open to anyone at no charge in the afternoons of the second Wednesday and Sunday of each month and where possible we will open specially for groups, schools and relatives trying to trace their ancestors’ graves.”

An oral history project will also record the memories of past Attercliffe residents for posterity.

“We are keen to see Attercliffe's fortunes rise and we see ourselves as part of its very rich heritage,” says Steve. “Zion Lane is a narrow cobbled road with the tracks made by carriages clearly visible. I can't look at these tracks without seeing the bustle that made Sheffield's fortune.”