This is one of a pair of blogs reflecting on the demolition of the Edwardian wing of Jessop Hospital for Women in Sheffield. You can find the other here.
Historical buildings offer some of the most immediate, emotive connections to the past. Standing just where people used to stand, seeing just what they used to see: it feels as close as we’ll ever get to time travel (alongside maybe historical reconstructions, as I discussed in an earlier blog post). To see Jessop Edwardian being demolished can therefore hardly fail to evoke a sense of loss described in Claire Williams’s blog-post (and in an earlier post by Freya Massey in Assemblage, Archaeology’s graduate blog), given its historical place within the city, and quite apart from its undoubted architectural merits. Now it’ll only ever be seen on the flat page or flickering screen.
Yet I have to admit that I am watching it go with relative equanimity. Perhaps this is because being an early medieval historian encourages a more critical attitude towards architectural heritage in general. Early medievalists are very aware that most of England’s – and Europe’s – crowning glories of medieval architecture were created at the expense of earlier buildings. The majestic spires of cathedrals like Canterbury and York were preceded by previous churches, of most of which nothing, not even pictures, now remains. Some early medieval and Anglo-Saxon buildings do survive, but these are usually the marginal ones, in out of the way places, which is why they were never ‘upgraded’. Staring in wonder at York’s Gothic extravagances, I cannot but help regret the total destruction of the smaller, more intimate space that Alcuin would have known in the eighth century, and marvel at the arrogance of the Anglo-Norman and Plantagenet architects.
Bereft of architectural survivals beyond crypts and remote chapels, we early medievalists are unlikely to confuse the tangible fragments of the past with an appreciation of that past’s significance. In Sheffield, of course, even the later medieval past has largely fallen prey to over-exuberant town planners. Entombed beneath Castle Market’s concrete foundations lie the ruins of Sheffield’s medieval castle. Now there are plans to restore it and display it as a visible reminder of medieval Sheffield: at the expense, though, of the market, an important example of post-war architecture that is scheduled for demolition (see here). How can one establish which of these historical legacies is more important, or more worthy of attention?
Admittedly, even the most optimistic university planner would not suggest that the new Engineering building is likely to rival York Minster in the affections of the nation or its architectural elites, or even Castle Market for Sheffielders. But in understanding that any built environment is the product of a long and changing history, and moreover that it privileges certain stages of that past over others equally valuable, one becomes less concerned to retain a snap-shot in the flow of time. All buildings are statements of power and capability that, in representing something new, destroy what came before. As Claire points out, Jessop Edwardian was an important site in an important moment in Sheffield’s history, attesting to the creation of new forms of medical knowledge and practice (for example, the ‘medicalisation’ of child-birth, now perhaps in reverse) – just as the new Engineering building represents the increasing globalisation of higher education, and the University’s confidence in its role in that process, potentially of great benefit to the city to which the University has always shown great commitment.
Because Sheffield has a future as well as a past, we need to create buildings that inspire, that work, and that later generations will think worth preserving, and not simply curate those bequeathed to us, for that would make us imaginatively imprisoned by our predecessors. Obviously anyone historically minded will be enthusiastic about preserving traces of that past, in so far as practical, as reminders of what came before – as teaching aids, one might say, and for the sake of commemoration (and it ought to be noted that the University actually has a pretty good record here, with sympathetic restorations of St George’s, the Arts Tower and the Jessop Building, the Victorian Wing of the Jessop Hospital [pictured above], to its credit). But we should neither fetishise these traces, which are themselves built on earlier demolitions and destruction, and are necessarily unrepresentative of a city’s past as a whole; nor imagine that they can take the place of reasoned inquiry in coming to an understanding of that past, including times no longer represented in brick or concrete. Isn’t it the task of historians to contribute towards such an understanding, not to advocate turning our surroundings into a museum?
[You can find another History Matters blog on this topic here.]
Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. You can find him on twitter @Pseudo_Isidore and his book, Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100, is out now.
Image: The Victorian Wing of the Jessop Hospital for Women, now home to the University of Sheffield Department of Music and teaching rooms ©University of Sheffield