City archives collection houses six kilometres of documents dating back over nine centuries.
An anonymous-looking building on Shoreham Street in Sheffield hosts a treasure trove of nine centuries of city history and a unique insight into the lives of Sheffielders.
Pete Evans is archives and heritage manager at Sheffield Archives.
The collection of books and documents is housed on six kilometres of shelving.
It’s all stored at a temperature of 16 to 18 degrees and the humidity level is maintained at 55 per cent.
Pete said: “The recorded history of Sheffield is kept in the archive service.
You can imagine the smoke and smell of the small streets and houses
“It covers all the great events in the city’s history, including the flood of 1864, the setting up of the market, the castle, the plague.
“In more recent times, it covers events such as World War One and the Hillsborough disaster. The archivists look after the material.”
The jewel in the crown is the beautiful market charter of 1296, with its ornate seals, granting permission from Edward I for weekly markets to be held to Thomas de Furnival, the Lord of Sheffield Manor.
That effectively marked the founding of Sheffield as a city.
Other documents in the collection include records from the council, schools, coroner’s and magistrate’s courts, churches and chapels, lunatic asylums, community groups, trade unions and many companies including all the big steelworks.
“We’ve got the best metallurgy collection in the city,” Pete added.
Items range from small microfiches of documents to huge Victorian ledgers.
The collection is accredited by the national archive service, the only one in Yorkshire to be so recognised, which is quite a feather in the team’s cap. It covers Sheffield with some areas of South Yorkshire included.
Fascinating 19th-century magistrate’s court documents list the many crimes our forebears got up to. “It shows nothing changes,” said Pete, dryly.
He added: “The magistrate’s court records make you realise that whatever period of history it was, we’re all human and make mistakes and struggle to get through life. It’s an insight into how the Victorians lived.”
They keep track of everything on computerised catalogues. “We can normally find stuff in five minutes,” Pete said.
“I’ve been here about 12 years and I haven’t got to know the whole thing. There’s a fair amount we’re still working through and we get around 500 extra boxes a year to deal with.”
Everything is sifted through, catalogued and added to the main archive.
Public health records are another interesting area. A report from the 1840s showed the dire situation that many Sheffielders faced.
Those who lived in the crowded courts only had one privy to share between 15, emptied once in a blue moon.
Pete said: “You can imagine the smoke and smell of the small streets and houses. In one way. We’re still facing the same issues of crime, anti-social behaviour and poor housing.
“It’s the same problems in a different format.”
The Middlewood asylum records give hints of horrible times in people’s lives. One chemical works foreman from Highfield was admitted with dementia caused by work-related injuries. He was admitted in February 1879 and left in August the same year.
The collection of maps in the archives is one of the best outside London and many came from Fairbanks surveyors. “Their archive has survived with thousands of maps, showing each plot of developments through time,” said Pete.
One room contains special media such as cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs and outdated computer storage systems including floppy disks. They have to keep the machines that can play them as well, otherwise the information would be lost.
The collection includes thousands of news tapes made by BBC Radio Sheffield and there are newspapers dating back to the 1700s.
A copy of the Sheffield Independent dates to July 3, 1916, declaring that the German line had been broken and “our troops fought with great gallantry”. It was the third day of the Somme and the news was not quite so good as the headlines said, of course.
Pete said that many people who visit want to research either their family history or the history of their community. He said: “We give advice and guidance of what they can use to build up their knowledge.
“We also get legal inquiries, about boundaries for example. We deal with tens of thousands of people who can ask about any subject under the sun.”
The archives are currently open to the public on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. To access the records, you have to register as a reader and need to take along two forms of identification.
There’s also access to records via the Find My Past website, which is free to use at any city library. A photographic archive is online at Picture Sheffield