It was once one of Sheffield’s thriving hubs of business and now, after standing empty for 20 years, the aim is to restore Leah’s Yard back to its former glory.
One of the last surviving Little Mesters buildings in the city, the mid-Victorian era site on Cambridge Street was bought by Sheffield Council in 2015.
It once housed long-gone trades such as silversmiths, burnishers, silver platers and hammer-men.
But a rare chance to go into the building and a walk around its giant courtyard, showed there is a much more pressing priority for the site.
The scaffolding masking the front of the building offers a clue as to its current state, but once inside the scale of the job faced by building engineers and developers can be seen.
We are led on the tour by Philip Drury, who started as an apprentice in his father Jack’s silversmith business in 1959 and worked at the site until it was sold to property developers in 2000.
As we make our way through the front building on Cambridge Street and into the courtyard, the sheer amount of scaffolding, props and steel beams tells its own story about the state of the site.
Leah's Yard once a true hub of activity right in the middle of Sheffield city centre, with workshops for silversmiths, and at its height more than 100 people worked there.
Mr Drury, who took over the business – F Drury Silvermiths Ltd in 1981, said: “We had eight silversmiths and it was a hive of industry. We had to work 18 months in front because of the amount of orders for cutlery and silver – it was manic.
“The space wasn’t that big and with the compressors going it was very rowdy. We had belt-driven laithes and orders from all over the place. We had most of the building, three silversmithing shops including one that just did repairs, and other parts of the building were let out.”
In the courtyard, almost hidden behind all of the scaffolding is the old water tank as steam power was introduced to run a grinding hull and drop hammers in a silver die stamping shop towards the end of the 19th century.
And in the workshops, which were scattered throughout the building, some of the workers’ original tools can still be seen.
But it is hard to miss the state of the building and as Mr Drury, now aged 73, pauses for breath, he describes it as ‘shameful’.
He said: “It’s very sad to see the state it’s in and how it’s deteriorated over the last 20 years. The work should have been done 20 years ago it could have been superb.”
Engineers and developers who joined us on the tour said any plans or work on the site would be subject to intense scrutiny from experts such as Historic England due to its Grade-II* status.
The tour was also the first time Coun Mazher Iqbal, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for business and investment, had seen the site.
He said there were no confirmed plans for the building but the idea of opening up the courtyard for outdoor dining and drinking with a café and/or bar was being discussed.
Coun Iqbal said: “I have never been inside. When you look from the outside, you just think it’s a little shop but it’s like a Tardis.
“When you look at the features, we just don’t make them like that anymore. Having Philip to talk through its history on the tour has been amazing too.
“We were a city of makers and creators and Philip was telling us about the 19th century, his family took it in the 20th century and now we are wanting to recognise all that in the 21st century.”
Leah’s Yard lies within the site of the £500 million Heart of the City II development but no applications have been submitted yet.
Coun Iqbal said: “The vision for the council is to bring the vibrancy of the building back.
“It’s going to be a challenge but it has a rich history and from walking around it’s important that we try and keep as many of the features as we can.
“They tell an amazing story about not just the building’s history but the city's history.”
Coun Iqbal said the courtyard offered a great city centre location for bars, restaurants and cafés.
He added: “We have been speaking to a number of stakeholders across the city and there is this idea of a food hall and bringing the workshops back into use for small businesses.
“Jewellery making is still going so if we could bring that back here that would be great. We want to make it something that makes it vibrant and thrive again.”
Despite his concerns about the state of the building, Mr Drury said he would welcome a food hall on the site.
He added: “I like the idea of an open courtyard with a bar and little workshops above. There could be little shops on the ground floor on both sides.
“I would like to see it, certainly get back to what it was, and once that is done there is so much that could be done with it.”