Sheffield Heritage Open Days 2018: Call for new history consortium as festival returns

Louise Watts and Liz Godfrey, Heritage Open Days co-ordinators.
Louise Watts and Liz Godfrey, Heritage Open Days co-ordinators.

A new citywide body is needed to champion Sheffield's history, it is argued – and supporters will be pressing the case when an annual festival returns.    

Heritage Open Days are back on Thursday, taking place over two long weekends this month rather than one for the first time, offering more than 100 free events from tours of notable buildings and talks that illuminate the lives of great Sheffield figures to unusual activities with an inventive take on the city’s past.

Sheffield's Old Town Hall.

Sheffield's Old Town Hall.

And this year organisers will be joining calls to launch an organisation – similar to the local Culture Consortium made up of arts chiefs – that could steer the way Sheffield’s heritage is managed, promoted and funded.

“We need to have a consensus,” says Louise Watt who, along with Liz Godfrey, co-ordinates the open days for the Sheffield Civic Trust.

“There are people all over putting their heart and soul into working with the grain of Sheffield so our city is distinctive. We need champions just like art and the Outdoor City. We’re missing a trick, really, because we can’t say ‘The council do that’. They never could, and things are done differently these days anyway.”

Louise thinks the plight of the decaying Old Town Hall in the city centre, and the disused Victorian Birley Spa Bath House – both listed properties that have attracted separate campaigns to save them – make a formal heritage consortium more necessary than ever.

Archaeologists digging at the site of Sheffield Castle.

Archaeologists digging at the site of Sheffield Castle.

“It’s all firefighting,” she says. 

The organisation could bring together the public and private sectors to attract investment, she suggests, citing Kollider, the firm creating a £3million digital tech hub at the old Co-op department store on Angel Street, and True North Brew Co, the bar operator that has revived several historic buildings, as ideal candidates. “They know how to make money out of it.”

A group called Joined Up Heritage already exists in Sheffield, made up of Friends societies, campaigners and other interested parties. Members have been working on a heritage strategy for some time as a grassroots project, but Louise says: “It still feels to me as though there’s a need for something like the Local Enterprise Partnership – they get money from central government.”

The idea will be discussed during a live debate next Saturday from 7pm at The Burton Street Foundation in Hillsborough. Louise is on the panel alongside Kim Streets, chief executive of Museums Sheffield; John Dawson, the development manager of Locality, a national network for communities and Howard Bayley, chair of the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery.

The Birley Spa Bath House, off Birley Spa Lane, Hackenthorpe.

The Birley Spa Bath House, off Birley Spa Lane, Hackenthorpe.

“We’re really hoping lots of people will be interested in going,” says Louise.

There are 116 open days happening this year, roughly the same as in 2017. The programme features many new additions - Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Arts, at the former Head Post Office in Fitzalan Square, is welcoming visitors for its 175th anniversary and the hospital archives at the Northern General are running special tours. 

Abbeydale Picture House; Beauchief Abbey; the Cutlers’ Hall; the Madina Mosque on Wolseley Road and Tapton Hall in Crosspool are opening their doors, along with several churches, among them St Marks in Broomhill and Hill Top Chapel in Attercliffe.

People can go ‘drainspotting’ - walks focusing on the features of Sheffield’s pavements - or join a guided stroll looking at the city’s role in shaping the rules of football. Grenoside Steel Works’ furnace cellar and Wortley Top Forge will be demonstrating the skills that made Sheffield an industrial powerhouse.

This year’s open days coincide with archaeological digs at the site of the lost Sheffield Castle; experts will lead tours of the excavation plot, and visitors themselves can pick up a trowel and help out. These sessions have proved so popular more have been added to meet demand.

For 2018 there is an overarching theme of ‘extraordinary women’, commemorating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote. Artist Annie Bindon Carter and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Anne Rawson are among the women who will be recognised, and there are two talks dedicated to countryside activist Ethel Haythornthwaite.

“She was this unassuming women who originated the Campaign to Protect Rural England, had the idea for the Green Belt, who told Alderman Graves to buy Ecclesall Woods and give them to the people of Sheffield – little people do amazing things. We need to champion everybody,” says Louise.

The co-ordinators have ramped up their social media channels but say the closure of Sheffield’s tourist information office on Surrey Street has had an impact, taking away a valuable means of distributing printed programmes. “We have not got a central point where we can do that at the moment,” Louise says.

The history festival’s popularity in Sheffield has grown rapidly, with the number of individual events more than doubling since 2015. Part of a national initiative that began in 1994, it relies on the efforts of volunteers.

“There are some wonderful people out there,” says Louise. “If you put your postcode in to the national online site to look at what’s happening near you, you would find something in Ecclesfield, High Green, Walkley, Crookes, Attercliffe – it’s everywhere. It’s not just big stuff, it’s Wincobank Hill, Tinsley, Heeley; everywhere you look people are proud of where they live. I think that's terrific and such a healthy thing.”

Dates have already been set for 2019, when the festival will expand again to 10 days from September 13 to 22 with a theme of ‘people power’.

“That’s right up our street,” Louise says.

Open days run from September 6 to 9, and 13 to 16. Visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk for details.

See The Star next week for a series of HODS features, starting with the Institute of Arts on Monday.