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.
It seems very apt that this blog is called History Matters as currently a large number of the people of Sheffield are questioning whether this statement is true. The latest government legislation on the demolition of historic buildings suggests not. And the view from my window in the History Department of the historically significant Edwardian building being demolished suggests that to some people, history does not matter at all.
I think it’s important for me to write this blog post as I am not a historian, but as an employee of the university and a resident of Sheffield I can speak for my friends (some of whom were born in the Jessop Hospital), colleagues and the ‘regular folk of Sheffield’ on how history does matter to all of us. The demolition has made us all feel concerned that this could lead to more of our historic buildings being destroyed. The new government legislation states that any building can be pulled down if it’s ‘in the public benefit’ and in the case of Jessop’s Edwardian Wing this legislation was pushed forward by our Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. This article in The Observer earlier this year explains about the new government legislation more articulately that I can and poses a strong case for saving Jessop’s Edwardian Wing.
The building represents important developments in women’s health care in the city. The under-representation of women in history is always a hot topic of debate, most recently on a national scale in the change of faces on the UK banknotes. It is a shame for a building that was the stage for major medical developments to be destroyed. It was the first hospital in the city where women were cared for during childbirth, rather than being at home. The building is also an excellent illustration of Edwardian architecture alongside the Jessop Building which houses our Music Department, the two buildings are a clear example of the move between Victorian and Edwardian architecture, created by the same prominent architect John Dodsley Webster. As a resident of Sheffield I want to keep the structural evidence of this history and be proud of it. Using the Jessop Wing as a place for learning would have done the building a justice it deserves. The Historic Survey of Jessop’s Edwardian Wing illustrates clearly all the important historical factors in favour of saving the structure.
Valuing historical buildings does not mean we shouldn’t be in support of new architecture and development. The university have some amazing new buildings that we should be proud of, our own Jessop West being one of them. It’s the forward thinking nature of the university that makes it one of the best in the world. But I believe this forward thinking should come hand in hand with the safeguard and appreciation of our historical structures. This ‘red brick’ heritage is what distinguishes us from the newer Universities. There are some excellent examples of modern and historic architecture working in unison and being a strong symbol of an Academic Institution. The John Ryland’s Library in Manchester is a notable example.
Charles West, in the accompanying blog to this, very eloquently explains that as a medievalist he has a more critical attitude to preserving historical architecture. Many of the buildings from his period of focus were destroyed to be replaced by Gothic cathedrals. I have no knowledge of how people responded to these demolitions at the time, but I do know that we now live in a completely different ideological age. As a nation today we are more inclined to try to forge links with our ancestry than we are to believe in God and in the medieval period people had a very different world view which was more focused on religion. Today caring for our heritage and learning about the past gives our more secular culture a purpose and a pride that would have been filled by religion in the past. Preserving our heritage is a modern concept and really represents the period in which we live. Maybe it is because as a child of the 1980’s heritage boom, suffering the weekly Sunday visit to the local National Trust property, I was conditioned to believe that heritage is important. But to quote Charles ‘because Sheffield has future as well as a past’ I believe both should be of equal importance.
Preserving heritage should not hinder us going forth and making more great architecture. But to say that re-using space created by the Edwardians is merely ‘curating’ the buildings built by our ancestors. If we need buildings to represent us and our time, why do we not bull-doze the whole city and start from scratch? I live in an Edwardian house maybe I should knock it down and build something that truly represents me. I am inclined to say that it is quite wasteful not to use what is already there and perfectly functioning (you can probably tell I have a wardrobe full of vintage ensembles). Surely any historian would agree that visual evidence of our development through time is a necessary thing. And just because certain periods lack structural evidence it doesn’t mean that other periods should suffer the same loss.
The fear in people’s minds is now for the future of our civic heritage. If ‘public benefit’ can outweigh the historical significance of a structure, it leaves us to wonder what the government will allow to be knocked down next. Can they knock down Westminster Abbey to build a car park if it’s in the ‘public interest’? Can they replace our own Firth Court with a more spacious modern structure to get more bums on seats and more revenue to the university? Where will it stop? The precedent has now been set and it’s a frightening time for our built heritage.
[You can find another History Matters blog on this topic here.]
Claire Williams is Student Liaison Assistant in the History Department, University of Sheffield. She has a BA in Cultural Heritage and has previously worked in conservation for The National Trust. You can find her on twitter as part of her band @CanyonFamily.
Image: Jessop Hospital Edwardian Wing, 7 August 2013 ©Claire Williams