I posted a piece on the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield in May last year. Keith Marriott contacted me via email with a long and very interesting account of his own experience of growing up on the estate and his subsequent career. With his agreement and support in supplying many of the images included, I’m pleased to feature that response in this week’s post. Keith will introduce himself in the article that follows.
I grew up on Gleadless Valley in the 1960s. My Mum and Dad, my elder sister and I moved to Raeburn Road on Gleadless Valley in 1961, when I was aged two. I know that work began on the estate in 1955, and this was one of the earliest parts of the estate to be constructed so I don’t know whether the house was new when they moved in or not.
In the 60s, there was a wide socio-economic mix on the estate – unskilled and skilled manual workers, clerical and junior management. Many of the early residents of the estate had either grown up in the terraced back-to-back housing which was demolished to make way for the Park Hill flat or had quickly moved from Park Hill, which soon became prone to vandalism and became socially stigmatised.
My mum worked as a clerk at Sheffield Town Hall in the 70s ‘Egg Box’ extension. At the time they moved to Gleadless Valley my Dad was a commercial manager for British Tar Products in the city centre. Although he had left school in 1934 aged 14, this was only his second job including his six years in the army during WWII. He had the opportunity to go to grammar school but that was an unaffordable option for my grandparents. His company moved its offices to Manchester in 1966 so he took a job, instead, at the Orgreave coking plant and chemical works. We didn’t own a car until then but it was a necessity as the bus journey was not feasible.
My parents lived in the same house at Gleadless until they died; my Dad in 2001 and my Mum in 2015. They remained as tenants throughout. When Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy in the early 80s, they didn’t buy theirs, as many of their long-time neighbours did. They had a very risk-averse attitude to debt and were unpersuaded about the benefit of embarking on a mortgage late in their working life.
I recall there was a very narrow racial mix on the estate; I don’t recall a single black or Asian pupil at primary or secondary school, but I don’t know how far this reflected the mix across Sheffield in the 60s and 70s.
It’s about five years since I’ve visited the estate but I feel, despite a loss of architectural coherence due to the impact of the Right to Buy, it has remained fairly intact except for the loss of its schools, library and the missing third tower at Herdings. The much later Supertram terminus below the towers is a positive addition, I’d say.
Womersley’s team had designed a community centre, between the shops and the towers at Herdings with a timber gridshell hyperbolic paraboloid roof but it was sadly never built. It would have been a fabulous addition, architecturally and socially.
The private housing built in the 1990s at the base of the towers helps to give a bit of shelter to what was a pretty exposed hilltop. It’s 700 feet above sea level and was a bleak spot where you wouldn’t linger in winter. I remember visiting elderly residents in one tower in the 60s who felt rather isolated there when they were trapped in by bad weather. On the positive side, the panoramic views were stupendous, towards the hills of the Peak District or with the whole of the city lit up below. I’ve always felt that the Herdings towers were designed to be seen as landmarks in the landscape though rather than places to view from.
I think it is the estate’s low-rise, low-density housing that is its strongest point rather. The architectural team for Gleadless Valley comprised eight architects (credited in the Housing Department’s 1962 book ‘Ten Years of Housing in Sheffield 1953-1963’) who showed enormous creativity in developing housing types with their own private outdoor spaces to suit the steeply sloping terrain.
They display a wide variety of different relationships to both private and public outside space, putting a great emphasis on privacy, which is, I think, one key to its lasting appeal. The 1962 book (it’s very telling that it is printed in the same format as Le Corbusier’s L’Oeuvre Complet with text in French and Russian) states the percentage of the housing stock built on steep slopes as well as the density. The density is in sharp contrast to the way Park Hill and Hyde Park handle a similarly steeply sloped site. Here the aspiration was to allow easy access to use the open public space, whereas at Park Hill the public space is really only a visual asset.
The existing woodland has flourished especially where it was extended, particularly at its south-east boundary. Comparing the 1892-1914 OS map with the current aerial photo on Bing maps on the National Library of Scotland’s geo-referenced side by side OS maps, shows this really well.
All the infrastructure of social facilities – shops, schools, libraries, pubs – were planned and built very early as the design recognised this as fundamental to a thriving community.
Education and transport vision supports housing and health. Sheffield’s subsidised bus service was legendary throughout the 60s and 70s and well into David Blunkett’s tenure as leader of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Cheap, frequent reliable buses made it possible to get anywhere in the city (except Orgreave!) out as far as Castleton in the Peak District punctually and affordably. Access to the countryside, particularly to the west of the city, was promoted as a key benefit and by the Council to be enjoyed by all. See Sheffield: Emerging City (C.R. Warman 1969).
The original Herdings, Hemsworth, Rollestone and Gleadless Valley schools are all gone now, sadly. Womersley’s department designed all these civic buildings. All very good examples of mid-century modern public buildings, carefully and thoughtfully designed; functional, practical but above all a joy to inhabit. Herdings primary school and Gleadless Valley secondary school were opened in 1961 or 62, I think.
Herdings was two-storey with the full width of the south side glazed onto a very spacious playing field. Despite their aspect, the rooms didn’t overheat, due to plentiful fully opening windows. All the ground floor classrooms had direct access to the playing field and all the upper rooms for the eldest pupils had dual aspect, so were even brighter and airier.
I don’t think it’s just ‘rose tinted glasses’ but I’d go so far as to say the education was inspirational and visionary – particularly at primary school. There was a culture designed to broaden children’s horizons. We were exposed to gramophone records of Rubinstein playing Chopin, Albert Schweitzer playing Bach during daily morning assembly and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett during indoor lunchtimes in the hall. French was taught from seven years, the head teacher published books on French and on sex education for primary school children.
I went to secondary school in 1969, the first year Sheffield introduced comprehensive education across the city. Prior to that Gleadless Valley school had been a secondary modern school and the large majority of its intake was from the Gleadless Valley estate. It was actually located about half a mile south-west of the estate on Norton Avenue.
It comprised a three-storey main block orientated north-south again with full-width windows overlooking spacious playing fields and clerestory glazing on the top floor. General purpose classrooms facing east and labs and arts rooms facing west. A block containing assembly hall, gym, dining room and kitchen and a separate technical block were connected to the main block by fully glazed single-storey link corridors.
Other public buildings now lost include the original Hemsworth public library on Blackstock and one of Womersley’s gems. It closed to much protest in 1995 and was converted into a Lloyds chemist shop. It was a long, low block with an over-sailing flat roof forming a wide entrance porch; two long sides of the rectangular box were full-height glazed with end walls in brick inside and out. Internally the fittings were purpose-made joinery and matched slatted timber ceiling; it was a sort of display cabinet for books and culture!
I went to Liverpool University to study Architecture in 1976, the first in my family to go to university and of course in those days fees and a full grant were paid by my Local Education Authority. Early in my working career as an architect I worked for Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre. The theme of the visibility and accessibility of culture was a dominant one in his practice. I worked with him on a competition entry for the new Paris Opera House in 1983 and its key design principle was egalitarianism: everyone should have as good a seat in the house as everyone else and the glazed facade displayed what was going on inside to the world outside. He believed passionately, as did his patron at the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, that Culture (with a capital C) was not just for the privileged few; he would brook no dumbing down – he thought Shakespeare and Aristophanes could and should be enjoyed by all. This was a milieu that my teachers at Herdings primary school understood and promoted.
The churches have survived well. St Anthony’s Catholic Church at the Norton Avenue end of Raeburn Road and the now well-known Gleadless Valley Church on Spotswood Mount both remain. The former is not one of Womersley’s but with a distinctive copper roof is rather good example of a 60s Catholic parish church. The original entrance facing Sandby Drive was a glazed end wall but has been obscured by some untidy single-storey porches and ancillary spaces. St Anthony’s retained a patch of land alongside Norton Avenue on which it intended to build a Catholic school but this was sold to a housing developer in order to pay for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982.
One aspect of the estate which has not proved so successful into the 21st century is the huge increase in private car ownership. The roads, including the primary bus routes, are narrow, twisty and hilly. I think perhaps the increase in private car ownership was apparent to Womersley as early as 1962, by which time his department was already designing house types at a planned estate at Middlewood on the north side of Sheffield, which had integral garages. Perhaps it had become apparent that the limited number of rentable garages in small separate courtyards on Gleadless Valley was in high demand.
For me there are three outstanding achievements. Firstly, I love the ingenuity of the range of houses, maisonettes and flats to suit the hilly terrain. Secondly, Womersley’s positioning of the three tower blocks on the highest point of the estate where they can be seen from 15 miles was probably his bravest architectural move as Sheffield’s Chief Architect. Thirdly, the decision to retain and enhance the existing woodland allowed the relationship between public and private space to be both rich and usable. Gleadless Valley was a fine and humane place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. I found the relationship between its architecture and Sheffield’s topography and landscape to be an inspiring one.