Historic Sheffield building is a key exhibit of city National Emergency Services Museum

Until the 1960s the building was the headquarters of the Sheffield City Police central division. These offices are now where visitors come into the National Emergency Services Museum
Until the 1960s the building was the headquarters of the Sheffield City Police central division. These offices are now where visitors come into the National Emergency Services Museum

A fire engine that served in the Blitz, one of the UK’s last surviving horse-drawn ambulances and a full-sized lifeboat are just some of the treasures visitors to Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum can discover. 

What they might not realise, as they explore more than two centuries of history preserved within its walls, is that the bricks and mortar surrounding them are an equally precious part of the city’s heritage that the museum is determined to protect.

A police officer using the station's telephone, c 1910

A police officer using the station's telephone, c 1910

The museum’s home, at West Bar in Sheffield city centre, is more than a century old and at the time it was built was at the cutting edge of Victorian innovation.

Completed in 1900, it was one of Yorkshire’s first purpose-built combined fire, police and ambulance stations and was the brainchild of Chief Constable John Jackson and Chief Fire Officer William Frost.

It was Jackson who recognised the need for a combined emergency services hub in the increasingly bustling city centre.

He, Frost and architect Joseph Norton also took inspiration from a visit to the New York Fire Department in 1898 and the pioneering equipment in use there.

From left, a steam fire engine, escape carrier and equipment carrier leave the West Bar station in around 1900

From left, a steam fire engine, escape carrier and equipment carrier leave the West Bar station in around 1900

The result was a building that was full of the most up-to-date technology available at the turn of the 20th century, much of which had never been seen or used in mainstream firefighting in Britain.

This included the electric call-out system, the iconic ‘pole drop’ and the quick-hitch harness system, which allowed a fire horse to be strapped to an engine in less than a minute.

This country’s first-ever turntable ladder was also in operation from West Bar from 1903.

When the building opened in 1900 the fire service occupied most of the station including the engine house, where the museum’s historic fire vehicles are still displayed, and the upper floors which housed firefighters’ bedrooms.

This quick-hitch harness allowed a horse to be strapped into a fire engine in less than a minute. The horses in their stables are visible in the background.'

This quick-hitch harness allowed a horse to be strapped into a fire engine in less than a minute. The horses in their stables are visible in the background.'

The police took part of the ground floor which included stables, an inspector’s office and cells, which survive in the museum and can be explored by visitors.

The city’s ambulance and mortuary vehicle were kept in the cobbled yard.

After nearly 25 years as a combined station the fire service left West Bar in 1924, at which point the police force moved into the whole building.

It had become the headquarters of the Sheffield City Police’s central division in 1927 and the home of its mechanised transport fleet.

A steam-powered engine outside West Bar in the 1900s. These vehicles were kept constantly in steam, which made the station both hot and dirty

A steam-powered engine outside West Bar in the 1900s. These vehicles were kept constantly in steam, which made the station both hot and dirty

As a result both the fire and police stables were demolished to make room for the much larger motor vehicles which had, by then, completely taken over from horse-drawn power.

The building was also the hub for the police’s switchboard which linked into a network of police boxes around the city.

On the outbreak of World War Two the cells were used as a secure location for police telephone communications, safe from the threat of bombing.

By the 1960s, however, the police had also outgrown the 65-year-old building.

Following the force’s departure it was used briefly as shops and storage before falling into disuse and disrepair.

It was not until the 1980s, when firefighters acquired the building to house a rapidly-growing collection of artefacts, that its life as a museum began.

The National Emergency Serives Museum, Sheffield reception is housed where police officers once sat

The National Emergency Serives Museum, Sheffield reception is housed where police officers once sat

A part of the building opened in 1983 as the South Yorkshire Fire Museum and 12 years later the old police section was restored.

In 2014 the museum became the National Emergency Services Museum to better reflect the increasing breadth of its exhibits and collection.

Matthew Wakefield, chief executive of the museum, readily admits that such an old building presents huge challenges for a modern museum.

Space is a major issue; only around a quarter of the museum’s historic fleet is currently displayed and archive space for its one million items is running out.

Maintenance requirements are huge and accessibility is an ongoing issue.

There have been, in the past, discussions about moving the whole museum to a bigger, purpose-built site but that is not part of its current plans.

Matthew said: “We are absolutely committed to preserving the history of the emergency services and of the city and, for us, that includes protecting this building and all the stories it has to tell.

“However, we also want to develop our museum to provide the best possible visitor experience we can.

“In many ways we’re making the task much harder for ourselves by staying here but conserving this historic site, and remaining within the city centre, is one of our main priorities.”

West Bar police, fire and ambulance station decked out for a visit by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1905

West Bar police, fire and ambulance station decked out for a visit by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1905