Lewis Womersley, having made his reputation in Northampton, was appointed City Architect for Sheffield City Council in February 1953. Many of you of will know his most celebrated project Park Hill but some say his: (1)
supreme, but often overlooked, achievement … is the Gleadless Valley Estate which combined urban housing types and the natural landscape so effectively that it still looks stunning, especially on a bright winter’s day.
Today, we’ll give that scheme its due.
The context, in this steel city, was firstly the appalling housing conditions created by the rapid urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Hitler was to add his own contribution: the Sheffield Blitz in December 1940 killed almost 700 and damaged some 82,000 homes, over half the city’s housing stock. As the city looked to rebuilding, its 1952 Development Plan estimated the need to replace 20,000 unfit homes and build a further 15,000 to cater for the natural increase of population.
Adding to the difficulties of the task were Sheffield’s hilly terrain and restricted borders. An attempt to extend the city’s boundaries in 1953 was rejected; Sheffield had to rely on its own resources. It bought land either side of the Meers Brook – the Gleadless Valley – lying two to three miles south-east of the city centre: ‘a beauty spot considered too steep and north-facing for development in the 1930s but purchased in desperation in 1952-53’. (2)
Elsewhere in the city, the Council looked to high-rise. In 1949, a deputation from the Housing Committee had visited multi-storey schemes in Copenhagen and Stockholm and concluded that these offered both a necessary and attractive way of solving some of the city’s housing problems. By the mid-1950s, density zones of 70 persons per acres had been agreed for greenfield sites, 100-120 for inner-city slum clearance areas and 200 for ‘one great project’ in the city centre. The latter would become Park Hill (and, less grandly, the Hyde Park flats). The Gleadless Valley would be, in its own way, another great project. (4)
The Gleadless Valley offered a rare opportunity for innovative and exciting design and layout but it required a strong council and enterprising Architect’s Department to harness it. The leadership of the Council came principally in the form of two strong Housing Committee chairs, Councillors Albert Smith and Harold Lambert, who were prepared and able to give Womersley his head.
Womersley himself – variously described as ‘domineering’ and ‘a no-nonsense Yorkshireman’ – added his own impetus and style. But, despite that powerful persona, Womersley’s key contribution – in an echo of the pluralism of the London County Council Architect’s Department of the day – was to give his team freedom and latitude to develop their own ideas and designs. By 1963 (just before Womersley’s departure for private practice), Sheffield’s Architect’s Department comprised a staff of over 200, of whom 80 were architectural. (5)
Firstly, Gleadless was part of a grand design encompassing the entire city: ‘Sheffield’s situation at the centre of a landscape of hills and slopes was to be visually integrated, united, through public housing’. Harold Lambert believed that: (6)
The careful exploitation of this topography – the building up of hill-top architectural compositions – is gradually producing something of the fascination of the Italian hill towns. It is stimulating; it is exciting!
Tower blocks were placed at high points in the city to act as landmarks – in Netherthorpe east of the city centre, Burngreave to the north, and Norfolk Park to the south-east. Additionally, two complexes of point blocks were built in prominent points at either end of the Gleadless Valley scheme: six towers at Callow Mount (one of fifteen storeys and five of thirteen) at the top and three thirteen-storey blocks one mile to the south in the Herdings district. Here, as elsewhere, Womersley applied his favourite maxim from the eighteenth-century landscape architect, Capability Brown, to ‘flood the valleys, plant the tops’.
When it came to the valley – ‘a piece of impeccable English pastoral landscape, everybody’s favourite summer-evening stroll out of south Sheffield’ – finesse was applied. The Council first carried out an aerial survey and slope analysis; gradients averaged one in eight, it was said. The planners concluded that the topography divided ‘the development naturally into three neighbourhoods’ – Hemsworth, Herdings and Rollestone – with each, reflecting the community thinking of the day, planned to have its own schools and shopping centre. (7)
The natural characteristics of each area have formed the basis for house design and layout. Much research work was carried out in designing house types suitable for the steep slopes, sometimes leading to unconventional solutions.
Here the genius of Womersley’s approach came into its own. Teams of architects were established with specific briefs – some for two-storey homes, some for maisonettes, some for housing for elderly and so on – but the overall vision was to create a truly mixed development with forms appropriate to the landscape in the various areas of the estate. (8)
The estate as a whole, built between 1955 and 1966, would comprise 4451 homes (2387 houses, 1115 flats and 949 maisonettes), housing a population of around 17,200. Of 450 acres in total, housing occupied 267 acres (including ten acres set aside for private housing), and schools, shops and community facilities took up 22 acres. Some 161 acres of the estate were preserved as parkland and woods. Whilst the housing itself reached the prescribed density of some 70 persons per acre, the plentiful open space reduced the overall density to 39 per acre. But, beyond the numbers, its exceptional quality lies in both its vistas and its detail.
The vistas – better seen in person – can speak for themselves. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the detail. To begin with some of the most remarkable and innovative designs, there are the patio houses, seen dramatically on Spotswood Mount below Holy Cross Church (itself a striking design by Braddock & Martin-Smith completed in 1965). These three-bed, two-storey homes are carefully stacked up the steep hill leading to the church, their first-floor living rooms giving sweeping views across the valley.
The ‘Upside-Down’ houses dotted around the estate were also designed to both exploit and fit their hilly siting and, as the name implies, are constructed with entrances and living rooms on the upper floor and bedrooms on the lower. Again, they provide stunning views.
Sloped terraces of more conventional two-storey homes were another means of coping with the terrain. Three-storey cluster blocks of flats, adapted to the contours, were yet another adaptation. Less attractive – not least through the greying pebbledash that encases them – are the six-storey blocks along Blackstock and Ironside Roads. The (economising) innovation here was the bridged entrance at second-floor level which avoided the need for lifts.
In the words of an admiring Lionel Esher, architect, planner and RIBA president in the mid-sixties: (9)
the architects used every kind of ingenious hill-climbing or adjustable dwelling capable of being entered at any level, with results that are both entertaining and economical.
Higher density housing on flatter land was provided in the four-storey maisonette blocks (concentrated particularly along the Gleadless Road in Rollestone) and three-story blocks of flats elsewhere. And then there are the two-storey houses familiar across the country – the key was always variety and ‘fit’.
It was, in all, a stupendous achievement and the estate became a Sheffield showpiece, celebrated in the City Council’s report Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published (in English, French and Russian) in 1962 and, ten years later, still shown to official visitors as ‘a symbol of an emerging city’. More importantly, it was popular with tenants who thought they were ‘privileged’ to live there and believed it ‘the finest estate in the city’. Beyond the decent homes and facilities, residents praised ‘the attractive surroundings, greenery and open views’. (9)
Esher, writing in 1981, thought it ‘one of the prettiest suburbs in England and undoubtedly a powerful agent in the embourgeoisement of the Yorkshire working man – whatever one may think of that’. It seems astonishing therefore that some, however unfairly, were describing Gleadless as a ‘sink estate’ not too long after.
Symbolically, the estate’s later fall was marked by the decision in 2013 of Sainsbury’s, following Tesco, to ban home deliveries to the area. More objectively, recent data place areas of the Gleadless Valley among the five percent most deprived in the country. High rates of crime and antisocial behaviour were also reported.
Whatever the figures and the always complex, more mixed reality on the ground, views of the estate – though sometimes from those who knew it least – were damning: (10)
The perception of the estate in local and national media is as one of the worst places to live … In the Sheffield urban folklore, Gleadless Valley is synonymous with deprivation, anti-social behaviour and crime.
What had happened?
Well, for one, there was mass unemployment. For Sheffield as a whole, the unemployment rate in the 1960s stood at 2 percent; by 1984, it had reached 16 percent. Between 1979 and 1983, Sheffield lost an average of 1000 jobs a month; 21,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry alone. Working communities – in every sense – stopped working.
The current headline rate of joblessness in the city is, of course, much lower but such data take little account of the numbers working in low-paid and precarious employment. The testimony of one Gleadless Valley resident captured the shift: (11)
There aren’t many jobs round here, so no-one has got much money. That’s just the way it is. My dad used to work in a steel mill and when I was at school my work experience was done in a steel mill. If the jobs were there … I would have gone into the same work as my dad. That’s what people always did but those jobs have gone now.
Instead, Jack Clithero was working eleven hours a week at £8.50 an hour in ‘the chippy round the corner’.
For those in work and receiving benefits and those who were unemployed, the impact of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s welfare reforms from 2010 was also devastating. Cuts to Housing Benefit, disability benefits, the impact of the Bedroom Tax and so on were estimated to have reduced the average annual income of working-age adults in Gleadless Valley by £570 – equating, beyond their personal impact, to an £8.8 million hit to the local economy. (12)
There have been other social changes. The growth of smaller households means that the estate, designed for an average approaching four persons per home, is – at 55 percent of its maximum occupancy level – significantly under-occupied. As a result of Right to Buy, just 50 percent of homes are now social rented, 38 percent owner-occupied and 12 percent privately rented. (13)
If all this takes us some way from the architecture and design of the estate, that’s no accident. Of course, there has been some obsolescence. The six-storey maisonette blocks haven’t stood up particularly well. Ground floor garaging in some of the larger maisonette blocks – designed in the car-friendly, affluent sixties – is underutilised and may be adapted.
The tower blocks were renovated between 1998 and 2011. Their colourful new cladding (thankfully found fire-resistant) makes a visual impact that perhaps even Harold Lambert wouldn’t have anticipated. One tower – Raeburn Place in the Herdings – was demolished in 1996, not through any structural failing but because it was found to have been built on a fault. Flats in Handbank House on Callow Mount are now reserved for elderly people.
In general, the estate escaped large-scale regeneration in its earlier iterations but in 2017 it was allocated £515,000 from the Government’s Estate Regeneration Programme. Resident consultations have followed and various ideas floated. There is a case for new and more diverse housing in Gleadless Valley, for the remodelling of some existing housing and for better use of some of its open space. Residents were clear, however, that they didn’t want the estate sold off to a private developer and it’s a sign of Sheffield’s continuing municipal ambition that it will take the lead role in the thirty-year programme to follow.
Gleadless Valley is not a failed estate, merely an estate that has grown older in a changing world. As Owen Hatherley has argued, ‘even the tweediest anti-Modernist would have to apply industrial strength blinkers to see this place as harsh or inhuman’. He describes it as an example of the English picturesque – ‘the aesthetic at its most stunning’.
A Times article in 1969 was similarly extravagant in its praise: (15)
Gleadless Valley has the fragmented quality of a village. Here the footpaths wander through rough grass, sidle past back doors, lead under the main road and suddenly emerge in the shopping centre … It is a casual, slightly shaggy environment on which the planners have used the lightest of touches … Gleadless Valley is touched with the English genius for country things: it is a place for children, for family life …
Some of those judgements would later be contested but the estate remains a powerful fulfilment of the political and architectural ideals which inspired it. It remains, quite simply, in its layout and design, one of the outstanding council housing schemes of the last century.
Can this century rediscover some of that ambition and vision?
(1) Ruth Harman, John Minnis, Roger H. Harper, Sheffield, (Yale University Press, 2004)
(2) Elain Harwood, Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975 (Yale University Press, 2014)
(3) Another, more extensive, visit to continental Europe followed in 1954. The ensuing report, ‘Multi-Storey Housing in Some European Countries: Report of the City of Sheffield Housing Deputation’, approved by the Housing Committee in March 1955, concluded that members were ‘satisfied that housing development in the form of well-designed multi-storey flats can provide living standards which are in every way adequate as an alternative to two-storey housing’.
(4) Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: the Rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (Allen Lane, 1981)
(5) The characterisations of Womersley’s personality come from Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State: An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970 (Scottish Centre of Conservation Studies, 2017) and Esher respectively. Details of the Architect’s Department are drawn from FE Pearce Edwards, JL Womersley and W George Davies, ‘The Work of the Sheffield City Architect’s Department’, Official Architecture and Planning, Vol 26, No. 7 (July 1963)
(6) The preceding quotation comes from Muthesius and Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. The words of Harold Lambert come from his foreword to Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield, published by the Housing Development Committee of the Corporation of Sheffield in April 1962.
(7) The Corporation of Sheffield, Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield. The quotation which follows is drawn from the same source.
(8) For a map and typology of the estate’s varied housing, see Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7
(9) The first quote, from the Morning Telegraph, 21 June 1972, and the following are drawn from Barry Goodchild, ‘Local Authority Flats: A Study in Area Management and Design’, The Town Planning Review, vol 58, no 3, July 1987
(10) See Manor, Arbourthorne and Gleadless Housing Market Profile (ND but the data is drawn from the early 2010s). The quotation comes from Reform, Gleadless Valley (ND), uploaded by Sid Fletcher of TowerBlockMetal who has also written fully and informatively on the estate.
(11) Jack Clithero, ‘I thought I’d follow my dad into the steel mill but those days are gone: My Wigan Pier Story’, Daily Mirror, 26 February 2018
(12) Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Communities and Households in Sheffield (Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social, November 2014)
(13) See Urbed, Gleadless Valley Masterplan Public Consultation Boards, pp1-7
(14) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso, 2010)
(15) Gordon Aspland, ‘Achievements in Bulk Housing’, The Times, 10 November 1969