Joan Flett (1923 – 2016) : local historian
-Chris Venables with help from Joan’s daughters Jane Harrison and Lindsay Smith.
“Joan was one of the leading lights in the previous Nether Edge History Group, the author of publications on Cherry Tree Hill and the Workhouse, and a key contributor to They Lived in Nether Edge and Sharrow (1988). We owe a great deal to her work and her inspiration” -John Baxendale.
Joan Flett was born in London in 1923 and she started working at the GEC Laboratories in Wembley at the beginning of the Second World War. She loved her work, being deployed first on light bulb testing and then supporting ground-breaking X-ray crystallography research, despite her young age helping some of those foremost in the field. She was lucky to meet the Joliot-Curies (Marie Curie’s daughter and son-in-law) when they were being shown round the GEC.
She married Tom in 1948, having first met him at primary school and then later through their mutual interest in Scottish dancing. Whilst Tom completed his PhD in mathematics, they lived in Cambridge and Joan worked in Trinity College library to make ends meet. They moved to Wallasey when Tom began lecturing at Liverpool University. With her background in developing X-ray films, Joan went to work for Kodak and the eminent photographers, Burrell and Hardman. In the 2010s, Joan returned to the Hardman’s house on Rodney Street, Liverpool now preserved by the National Trust, and was pleased that it was just as she remembered it in the 1950s.
In 1967, following Tom’s appointment as Professor of Pure Mathematics at Sheffield University, they moved to Sheffield and lived initially in a flat on Sharrow Lane while they house hunted. Settling on Nether Edge as the best place to live, it took a year to find their Kingfield Rd house with large garden which Joan tended with such pride even in her late 80s, long after Tom had died early in 1976.
So where did Joan’s particular interest in local history come from? Joan used to go English folk dancing and she and Tom were experts on the history of traditional dancing, having started their own pioneering field research with a trip to the Hebrides in 1953. They published their first book in 1964, the definitive ‘Traditional Dancing in Scotland’ and Joan went on to publish a further two books on dancing after Tom’s death.
Turning to researching local history was a natural move for Joan with more time on her hands as her daughters left home. After Tom’s death, Joan started working at Nether Edge Hospital, and, having become interested in its history, she wrote, ‘The Story of the Workhouse and Hospital at Nether Edge’, to raise funds for the Friends of the Hospital. Following the formation of the Nether Edge Neighbourhood Group Local History Section in 1982, Joan produced her first book with the Local History Section entitled ‘They lived in Sharrow and Nether Edge’, which according to Amazon has sold some 6,000 copies since it was first published in 1988. The book was used as a precedent for this current book about people and places.
Her last book on Nether Edge was “Cherry Tree Hill and the Newbould Legacy”, published in 1999. This was the result of fortuitously living in the last house to be sold from the Elizabeth Newbould Estate and thereby receiving with the house deeds all of the documents relating to the sale of the entire estate dating back to 1702. She continued to be interested in local activities and in 2008, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of NENG, she wrote the preface to the Nether Edge History Group’s “Old Sharrow and Nether Edge in Photographs” (2nd edition). Pleased to record that George Wolstenholm’s home and the Kenwood area with its tree lined streets had changed little, she wrote of new housing anticipated as Sheffield Hallam University were vacating the old Bluecoat School site.
Joan became involved with the Nether Edge Neighbourhood Group when it was formed in 1973, helping wherever she could as well as keeping a weather eye on planning issues and campaigning to preserve the older properties in Nether Edge. She worked hard to ensure that the former Victorian Workhouse/ Nether Edge Hospital site (bought by Gleeson Homes in 1997) wasn’t turned into a giant housing estate and was delighted when Nether Edge became a Conservation Area in September 2002. She was appointed NENG’s Chairman in 1976, Vice Chairman in 1979, Secretary 1981-1987 and Chairman again 2001- 4.
Joan was also active at the Traditional Heritage Museum – Sheffield’s “Secret Museum” on Ecclesall Rd., which was established by Prof. John Widdowson and opened to the public in 1985. During the Sunday openings she could normally be found welcoming visitors and showing them the “shops” which had been re-created by Harry Pearson, Malcolm Weston and others. She particularly liked the “basket makers, clog-makers, pawnbrokers, high-class grocers and posh parlour with a small harmonium used in Ecclesall Parish Church until the 1970’s.”
She was very disappointed when, due to structural problems, the museum closed in 2011 and some 46,000 items were put into storage pending their transfer to other sites. Many of the museum’s domestic household items, covering the period 1850 – 1970, went to Green Estate, who runs Sheffield Manor Lodge, to form part of the site’s WW2 Living History Cottages (on Manor Lane, S2).
Until 2013, still keen to make use of her research skills, Angus Hunter remembers, “sharing the General Cemetery Gatehouse office with her on many a cold morning” as she spent two mornings a week transcribing microfiche records of burials for family history research for the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust and visitors. She produced a number of articles for their magazine “Undertakings” on notable cemetery ‘residents’ and went on to write, together with Jean Lees and Tanya Schmoller, ‘Post Mortem’, a book on interesting people buried in the Cemetery associated with the Medical profession.
Joan ran the Nether Edge Neighbourhood Group’s Luncheon Club for the housebound at Shirley House for 30 years – co-ordinating the food, entertainment and attendees. Sue Bolger remembers, “I became a volunteer driver after moving to Sheffield, brought my youngest on the trips, and made a lot of friends. The luncheon club folded when the cooks became older and more tired than the dwindling attendees: some were well over 80 yrs. Joan was much admired and sometimes frightened of as she ran a tight ship!”