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Secrets of Georgian city planning

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Sheffield is famous for many things - its steel and cutlery industry, its avant-garde public housing policies of the 1960s and now for its male strippers - but one thing it's not noted for is its elegant eighteenth- century town planning and architecture. This is perhaps not surprising since even the most observant and inquisitive visitor to the city can easily overlook or misunderstand the evidence of something quite extraordinary. In the late eighteenth century plans were made to give Sheffield a huge and high-class residential quarter which would have competed in architectural style and social ambition with the best contemporary developments in Bath and Edinburgh. In fact, the development did get under way and its ordered grid of streets - now much devastated by demolition, unsympathetic redevelopment and brutal road engineering - survives in the south west city centre between the town hall and the railway station.

This area, known as Alsop Fields, was owned by the Duke of Norfolk who, with the town trustees and the church burgesses, was one of the three major owners of the land on which Sheffield was built. During the second half of the eighteenth century the manufacturers of Sheffield began to amass wealth through industry and the duke felt it would be profitable to provide these newly rich men with an elegant residential quarter in which they could display not only their wealth but their fashionable tastes. He employed James Paine, who had worked for him on the design of Worksop Manor, to design a masterplan for the estate and furnish specimen house and street elevations. These drawings, which languish virtually unknown in Sheffield's City Archives, are remarkable. Paine proposed an orthogonal grid of streets of subtly different scale, and thus of social importance, and within each of the blocks defined by the grid of main streets he proposed a pattern of smaller streets to serve mews buildings and humbler dwellings. This hierarchy of streets was intended to create building plots of different sizes and values so that the new piece of city could accommodate occupants of differing wealth and social status, and even a variety of uses ranging from large and ornamental houses for the wealthy on the main streets to stabling and servants' accommodation in the mews behind.

In the usual manner of Georgian estate development it was assumed that the land would be divided into building plots which would be leased to speculating builders who, scenting profits, would eagerly take up leases on the plots and build the grand designs envisaged by Paine. The early confidence felt by the estate in the possibility of realising its grand project for Sheffield is revealed by designs in the archives for palatial pedimented terraces - of the sort then being built in Bath - produced by architects who clearly wanted to share in the profits to come. The best of these are by Thomas Atkinson, the leading Yorkshire-based architect of the second half of the century. It is not clear exactly why Atkinson produced these designs, dated 1776, but probably the estate intended them to supplement the Paine designs and serve as models for prospective builders.

In fact things did not work out quite as planned. The death of the ninth Duke of Norfolk in 1777 and the minority of his heir no doubt caused some confusion but the real problem was that those inhabitants of Sheffield able to speculate in house building or who needed premises simply did not want the sort of grandiose scheme on offer. Paine's grid was laid out during the 1780s - as revealed by an estate map produced by the prodigiously productive firm of Sheffield-based surveyors and architects called W&J Fairbanks - but initially only that portion near the city centre, and then with amendments. For example, Paine's idea for a grid of minor streets within each major urban block was abandoned in favour of an orthogonal grid of service alleys running through the entire estate and set parallel with the major streets. This relationship between major streets and alleys and mews had much in common with James Craig's plan of 1766 for Edinburgh New Town.

Dates of leases granted by the estate reveal that building on the north- east portion of the estate was under way by 1790 and that many of the men, and a few women, who took the standard 99-year leases were generally involved in the cutlery industry. These people did not require the gentry houses proposed by Paine and Atkinson but more modest dwellings which would double up as home and workshop. The lease books also reveal that the head lessees usually sub-let their land so plots intended for one large house were often developed to provide two or three buildings containing residential accommodation on the street and workshops to the rear, often organised around a small courtyard. Typical are the leases for plots on Arundel Street and Howard Street. The Arundel Street plot, on the corner with Charles Street, was granted on a 99-year lease in 1794 to Henry Tomes, who is described as a carpenter and was thus probably a speculating builder. He developed his relatively modest plot - with 14.5 yard frontages to both streets - as three small houses which, incorporating workshops, were calculated to serve the needs of the market. The plot on the corner of Arundel Street and Howard Street was leased in 1796 to Richard Jessop, described as a 'silver-plater', who built two houses and workshops on the site - one presumably for his own use.

These buildings survive, although much altered, and, with the few other surviving original buildings on the estate, represent a fascinating moment in the evolution of a building type. These modest, and little known, buildings mark the transition from domestic to industrial architecture and show how the nineteenth-century factory - with its strips of horizontal glazing lighting workshop interiors - emerged during the eighteenth century from the cottage industry architecture of such pioneering industrial communities as Sheffield.

The survival in the city archives of an extensive collection of early documents and surveys detailing the development of the city has inspired the school of architecture in the University of Sheffield to undertake a survey of its own. Students, led by Peter Blundell Jones, have commenced construction of large-scale models of the city centre. These will show the city as it was in 1900, when it was arguably in its prime, and as it is now, with both the forms of existing and lost buildings and their uses. This project will investigate and explain the nature of the city but is not intended merely as an academic exercise. Once completed it will be immensely useful when considering proposals for new buildings in the city centre. Too often architecture schools have little practical involvement with the city in which they are based but, as Blundell Jones explains, this project means that the university can make a contribution to the city while also making Sheffield more relevant to the students.

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