Telegraph Voices: How can Sheffield promote and protect its legacy in new ways?

The Shepherd Wheel workshop waterwheel in action
The Shepherd Wheel workshop waterwheel in action

‘Meet expectations, make a plan and forge strong links’

Ann Le Sage, Friends of the Porter Valley

5 April  2016 .......          Portland Works, Randall Street in Sheffield.  Picture Tony Johnson

5 April 2016 ....... Portland Works, Randall Street in Sheffield. Picture Tony Johnson

The Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust is particularly well-placed to tell the story of this great city’s rise in the Industrial Revolution, from its origins in small hamlets along the green western valleys.

I hope SIMT continues to go from strength to strength and I look forward to meeting Helen Featherstone when she takes up the important post of director. The story we should all know and treasure, but maintaining historical sites is crucial to telling that story: it is hard to learn about something that has completely disappeared through disuse.

Fortunately for the origins of the cutlery industry at the Shepherd Wheel, for example, the council was keen to support the restoration.

Once the technology of steam power was harnessed over 200 years ago, and mass production developed to feed the needs of the growing population at home and overseas, the little water-powered metal workshops faded away and left just that one: in the Porter Valley.

Partnerships are also crucial to getting the funds in place to restore and expertly run sites.

The calibre of local grassroots organisations involved is also crucial.

The Friends of the Porter Valley is SIMT’s partner and a rather special group: environment volunteers all.

We started to lobby and raise funds 10 years ago and thus got the show on the road – but we needed SIMT’s technical capability for the restoration and operation.

Getting this 500-year-old story to come alive again was a triumph of that partnership and collaboration with the council.

Spot trouble and plan ahead – great care was taken to beautify the Porter Valley. Now we have to consider the design for Endcliffe Park as a potential flood storage area.

Another essential is to win audiences. Over 28,000 people pass through Shepherd Wheel, tiny though it is, every year, and events take place from time to time. If the location is already a natural hub you can build on it. If not, then the attractiveness and use of the surrounding area needs to be worked on. Educational needs can be a driver for industrial heritage preservation: find the curriculum or the research project that matches the offering. Use social media. Meet users’ expectations. Publicise your successes.

‘Historic sites can be a haven for start-ups’ Brian Holmshaw, Sheaf Valley Heritage

I believe heritage creates connections between people. It helps to build local identity, trust and community cohesion. Cross-sector working also helps – linking health and heritage for walks, projects and activities or joint arts-heritage projects. Festivals can be especially effective in communities with great social, ethnic and economic diversity like Sheffield.

Supporters of industrial built heritage are realising this, but it is a struggle. Little money or direction comes from the local authority or Historic England to assist with strategic development. Volunteer groups, after a lot of hard work, have a less than 25 per cent success rate when applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Giant corporations and property developers often say heritage is an economic drag; that it is more cost-effective to replace old with new. They use this argument to bully politicians, council officers and community groups, bring lawyers in to push through planning decisions against community opposition. When they win we lose the buildings and the profit goes to off-shore accounts.

There is, however, lots of evidence to say restored and characterful historic buildings and streetscapes are a pull-factor. They draw in young talent to Sheffield, giving us the highest student retention rate in the UK. They provide us all with an improved backdrop to our lives. The State of Sheffield Report 2017 and the recent Digital Report show the importance of old industrial buildings to the city. Start-ups have to start somewhere.

Industrial heritage is, and has to be, a vital part of regenerating Sheffield, of the essential character of the city: a valuable asset. Helen Featherstone, I wish you well. The industrial heritage of Sheffield is in and on the streets.

‘Flood defence work offers a vital chance’ Joy Bullivant, Time Walk Project

If you look at most of the tourist accounts of Sheffield it’s pretty likely Kelham Island Museum will feature there. Despite the lack of publicity in the city’s promotional videos, Kelham’s Victorian Fayre is a huge event and in other cities would have been given a mention in every tourist promotion.

Brown signs directing people to SIMT’s museums are few. It is a clear indication that we don’t think enough about what visitors want to see.

Kelham Island is at the heart of industrial archaeology of worldwide significance. Once there were over 200 water-powered wheels on Sheffield’s waterways. Yet much of the archaeology has been poorly recorded and is unprotected. Sheffield’s industrial heritage is intrinsically valuable as a record of the city’s unique role as a centre for the metal trades from medieval times through to the 21st century. It is also a defining feature of the cityscape, which, though eroded and fragmented in places, remains distinctive, memorable and rich in cultural and historic associations. Historic England has voiced concern that most of the archaeology in and around our waterways is not legally protected.

We should be celebrating our history, not sweeping it away . Now we are considering flood defences, can we not work at the same time to protect and enhance the industrial archaeology in and around the waterways and promote the museums of Kelham Island, Abbeydale Hamlet, Shepherd Wheel and Wortley Forge?

In the Ruhr Valley in Germany they made a feature of their industrial archaeology. It has brought tourism and investment to what is, and was, a landscape of steelworks and coal mines. In Nursery Street they have built a pocket park that helps keep back floodwater from the beautiful Aiz-lewood’s Mill, so it is not without precedent that we could use the flood protection scheme to enhance the waterways, improve paths along the waterways, and create more heritage walks.

‘Time to think about a World Heritage bid’ Paul Iseard, The Famous Sheffield Shop

I have run The Famous Sheffield Shop for 17 years and one thing I’ve learned is visitors are more enthusiastic about the city than we are.

The North of England was the world’s powerhouse in Victorian times and our buildings and industrial history have no parallel. Kelham Island Industrial Museum, the Abbeydale Hamlet, Shepherd Wheel and the Millennium Gallery’s permanent exhibition give us really good building blocks for future developments. Roger Hamby should be given great credit for his immense contribution. What is needed now is to celebrate and protect our vulnerable buildings such as the Victorian Town Hall, Portland Works, Stag Works, Beehive Works and other vestiges of our industrial/civic past that survive.

On top of that, and recognising the importance of heavy industry, we need to think hard about what is left in the Don Valley alongside Forgemasters and Magna. Only last week I heard there is an old Sanderson’s factory that has intact crucible ovens. Some of these sites are so important I wonder if anyone has thought about World Heritage status – Saltaire has it and so does the Derwent Valley. It is almost incredible that the world’s foremost steel city doesn’t even seem to have considered the possibility.

I used to work in another borough of South Yorkshire where there was said to be ‘poverty of aspiration’. I think we in Sheffield are guilty of the same problem.

Helen Featherstone will no doubt have a full in-tray. However, I do hope she will be able to carve out some time to get leaders of industry, the universities, and public bodies, to see how we could develop a bid for World Heritage status. It is no accident that the Advanced Research and Manufacturing Centre has attracted the likes of Boeing, Rolls Royce and McLaren. They are here because of Sheffield’s reputation and expertise. I am sure they would engage positively in any heritage-related initiative that enhances our reputation across the world.

If Saltaire and the Derwent Valley can do it, I am sure Sheffield can.