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Heritage Sheffield: Get Schooled

To celebrate the return of our resident student population, Heritage Sheffield’s Richard Phipps delves into the history behind the city’s two universities.


The founding of the University of Sheffield saw the merger of some of the oldest educational institutes in the city; it brought together the who’s who of Victorian gentlemen and provided a base to train the future metalworkers, cementing Sheffield’s reputation as a world-renowned steel city.

The story begins in 1828 with the establishing of the School of Medicine. A meeting was held in the grand Cutlers Hall where the Duke of Norfolk and Earl Fitzwilliam agreed to the opening of a recognised institute of medicine. They both donated generously to the venture, land was purchased on the corner of Surrey and Arundel Streets and it opened its doors a year later to students. The school proved to be increasingly popular throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, so much so that it outgrew its current building.

Mark Firth

Mark Firth

A new medical school was opened in 1888 on Leopold Street, ironically beside Dr. Overend’s old practice, a surgeon who disagreed with the original opening back in 1828 and was consequently run out of business. The Leopold Street school building still stands and the Latin inscription that adorned the original Surrey Street base has been removed to the Hallamshire Hospital, Glossop Road.

Towards the latter end of the 19th century another institute was in the making. Many of the UK’s industrial centres lacked a university so Cambridge University introduced the Extension Movement to bring high level education to these areas. The courses in Sheffield proved to be particularly well attended and Mark Firth, one of the city’s wealthiest steel magnates, established the Firth College on Leopold Street in 1879 to teach the populace arts and science. Firth was one of the city’s greatest benefactors. As well as giving his name to Firth Court, arguably the university’s most striking of halls, he donated money for the construction of the almshouses at Endcliffe and gifted the city 35 acres of land attached to his Page Hall estate which was named ‘Firth Park’.

Firth College

Firth College: Photos: Santiago Arias Franco (@arias.arch.ph)

Out of the Firth College emerged the third and final piece of the jigsaw, the Sheffield Technical College. Sheffield’s place as a steelworking hub was well established but the need for proper schooling of metallurgy and the trades was recognised to keep the city ahead of its competitors. The school was formed in 1884 and classes were held on Leopold Street before relocating to the Grammar School at St. George’s Square two years later. The Technical College also proved to be immensely well attended and after a string of extensions to the building, Sheffield architects Flockton & Gibbs were enlisted to design the Sir Frederick Mappin Building in 1902, an arm of the University of Sheffield that still hosts lectures today.

These three institutions, linked by a group of Sheffield philanthropists, amalgamated in 1897 by Royal Charter and formed the University College of Sheffield. The plan was to join the Victoria University group, a northern federation comprising the university colleges of Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, but this soon broke down and they went their separate ways.

Sir Frederick Mappin

Sir Frederick Mappin

Sheffield followed suit and on 31st May 1905 the University of Sheffield was born. Just over a month later King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra entered the city and cut the ribbon to the newly built Firth Court on Western Bank. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first Royal visit linked with the university, or indeed Mark Firth, for his college that opened in 1879 was attended by Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son (the same Prince Leopold who was immortalised in today’s street name). In its first academic year there were 114 full time students taking degrees in science, the arts and medicine, the principle subjects on which the university was founded.

The city’s second university is Hallam. Similar to Sheffield, it can trace its origins back to the first half of the 19th century, although Hallam’s beginnings are somewhat more modest. It all started as the Sheffield School of Design in 1843, when 32 pupils attended lessons in a rented room above the original Glossop Road Baths. The bathhouse had been built by public demand following the Cholera pandemic a decade before, but it was demolished in the 1870s to make way for the current Turkish baths. A beautifully constructed school with a columned terracotta facade was erected on Arundel Street, a stone’s throw from today’s campus, and set the gears in motion for the school’s expansion.

Sir Frederick Mappin Building: Photos: Santiago Arias Franco (@arias.arch.ph)

The 1850s was a period of progress and success for the school. A change of name to the Sheffield School of Art and the enrollment of 1,000 pupils was the precursor of what was to come. The Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 saw the arts school scoop four gold medals in the arts and design category, a feat surpassing all others in the UK.

In the same year that the University of Sheffield was granted its Royal Charter (1905), the Sheffield City Training College opened on Ecclesall Road, now known as the Collegiate Hall. 132 students enrolled in its inaugural year and it was one of the first to admit both sexes, although they didn’t share classes until the 1930s. Requisitioned in the First World War, it became the third Northern Base Hospital and saw more than 64,000 wounded army personnel pass through its halls. Fast forward to the Second World War and it was badly damaged to a point of being uninhabitable during that devastating December night when the German bombs rained down. It is thought that the shrapnel indentations of that night can still be seen in the stonework.

Owen Building

Owen Building: Photos: Santiago Arias Franco (@arias.arch.ph)

After the war years a collection of educational centres opened. The Sheffield College of Technology (1950), Bowling Green Street and the more recognisable Sheffield Polytechnic (1969) – now the Owen Building – were established and, combined with the Sheffield School of Art, which had now relocated to Psalter Lane, formed the basis of what was to come. The polytechnic’s first chairman, Sir Eric Mensforth, gives his name to Hallam’s Department of Bioscience and Chemistry.

The second chairman, Bill Owen, became the city’s Lord Mayor and was an active animal rights activist. Following the original trinity of schools, the Sheffield City Training College, now known as the City College of Education, and Totley Thornbridge College of Education also joined the mix and in 1992 Sheffield Hallam University was formed. Two years later, the largest construction project in higher education took place and Queen Elizabeth II was present to open the Atrium, a design that won an award by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

As far as history is concerned, both universities provide a fascinating insight in to the progression of the city and its people. They continue to play a vital role in the development of the Sheffield, both in terms of education and shaping the future of city.
@heritagesheffield




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