RETRO: Streets in the sky revolutionised Sheffield

Hyde Park and Park Hill Flats From Crane at Moorfoot 1 August 1978
Hyde Park and Park Hill Flats From Crane at Moorfoot 1 August 1978
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It was one of the most ambitious civic building projects ever undertaken in the UK.

“Our aim,” said Alderman Albert Smith when the proposal was first mooted in 1949, “is to provide beautiful, well-designed flats that will be an advance on anything that has gone before; something that will be attractive to the eye, complete with ornamental gardens and greens.”

Playground with Park Hill Flats under construction in background 29 July 1959

Playground with Park Hill Flats under construction in background 29 July 1959

The result was Park Hill and Hyde Park – two schemes which, residents would later declare, should be “twinned with Alcatraz”. Now, a new book charts the complete history of these brutalist blocks – from the utopian hope to the eye-sore reality and through to their status as heritage buildings.

Sheffield Flats, by The Star’s Retro writer Peter Tuffrey, records how Park Hill (opened 1961) and Hyde Park (1966) changed both the city skyline and council housing forever.

“As buildings go I don’t think you could call them anything other than revolutionary,” says the 60-year-old who has penned more than 80 books on local history. “Creating streets in the sky was a radical solution to both housing shortages and the need to clear slums and rebuild after the blitz.”

The basics of the story will be well-known to readers of The Star.

Park Hill flats 1960

Park Hill flats 1960

Impressed by the potential of high-rise flats, Sheffield City Architect John Womersley approved Park Hill in the mid-Fifties, the first brick was laid in 1958, and the first tenants arrived in 1959. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell opened the £2 million estate in June 1961 declaring it “has no equal in the country”.

Central heating and 24-hour hot water came as standard in all 995 flats. Kitchens were electric and had a point for a washing machine. Famously, the walkways were spacious enough for a milk float to drive down.

Before the first tenants had even moved in, the council was already planning the nearby Hyde Park. This four-block estate – home to 1,313 flats including the then tallest residential tower in the UK outside London – was officially opened by the Queen Mother in 1966.

The schemes were so highly thought of that John Womersley was honoured with a CBE, while Park Hill was voted Top Of The North in a Ministry of Housing competition.

Yet problems emerged almost instantly.

As early as 1961, Park Hill was labelled a “hooligans’ playground”. The dark walkways and enclosed spaces created an intimidating atmosphere. Late- night noise was an issue. This newspaper reported complaints of “lovemaking in the lifts”. A sign put up to warn that vandals would be prosecuted was itself removed – by vandals.

“Quite simply, it went wrong,” says Peter, of Warmsworth, Doncaster. “So many people living on top of each other magnified problems. I don’t think horrendous is too strong a word to describe conditions.”

Rats and ants were regularly reported. Damp became a problem. Yobs would throw bottles, slabs and furniture from upper walkways. Tragically, on April 18, 1979, a TV lobbed from a Hyde Park balcony killed an eight-year-old girl.

“It became a no-go zone,” says Peter. “You go through The Star archives and there are reports of trouble more or less every week. It’s quite depressing.”

By the Eighties, there were calls for both estates to be torn down. Indeed, two of Hyde Park’s four blocks were demolished in the early Nineties.

But the other two and all of Park Hill were kept.

Hyde Park was refurbished as an athletes village for the student games – “a Benidorm-style hotel mixed with health farm,” noted The Star – and is now social housing once more.

Park Hill was famously listed by English Heritage and is currently undergoing a massive £168 million makeover.

Sheffield Flats, published by Fonthill, is in shops from December 12. Costs £14.99

Just a few minor issues

* Park Hill and Hyde Park, said one resident in a letter to The Star in 1979, have created a “legacy of doom”. A few of the issues our correspondent might have been referring to included:

* Crime and anti-social behaviour were common. Arson, violence and drug dealing were all behind one residents’ association comparing Hyde Park to Alcatraz.

* Cockroaches became an issue in 1975. Edith Pass collected two jam jars full to take to council officials. Another complainant, Amy Jones, told The Star: “Down at the rent office I’m already known as Mrs Mouse because of our other unwelcome visitors but there is nothing funny about having your home ruined.”

* Damp proved a problem in March 1979. The walls of several flats turned black with mould. “I think I could grow mushrooms,” noted David Green.

* “Lovemaking in the lifts,” was reported by The Star in November 1961. “They don’t seem to mind what they do,” a Mr Saunders said. “And no-one seems able to stop them.”

* An armed siege lasted four hours in June 1993 – and could have ended more seriously after uninvolved residents set off firecrackers. Their apparent aim was to provoke a fire fight by making gun-toting officers believe they were being shot at. “These people are crazy,” said a police spokesperson.

* A bid to have Park Hill listed with English Heritage was firmly rejected by Sheffielders in 1996. A poll found almost 90 per cent wanted the building demolished. It was given Grade II* protected status soon afterwards.

Tragedy at Hyde Park

Bottles, furniture and even excrement were all thrown from the flats of Hyde Park at some point or other. But no-one was prepared for the tragedy which unfolded on April 18, 1979.

Then, little Lisa Dean – just eight years old – was struck and killed by a TV launched from the block by a 13-year-old boy.

“This is a terrible place to live,” her heartbroken mother told The Star.

More than 200 mourners attended the girl’s funeral. The boy was cleared of manslaughter. Mr Justice Waterhouse said the intellectually challenged youngster had looked before tipping the TV but Lisa had run out afterwards.