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William Bragge F.S.A, F.G.A. and Shirle Hill

A man of many parts.

by Pril Rishbeth

We have to thank William Bragge for the Shirle Hill house that we see today. His first Sheffield home was in Collegiate Crescent but In 1865 he bought a modest Georgian house from John Brown, who’d moved to his grandiose new home, Endcliffe Hall. With the help of architects Firth Bros and Jenkinson, Bragge transformed Brown’s modest Georgian house into an impressive Victorian Italianate building. A similar project had been carried out on a larger scale by Prince Albert for the Royal family at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The original Shirle Hill house was refronted to compliment the large Italianate extension, complete with tower. Pevsner later described the house “as an odd mixture of rendered elevations, stone lintel and rusticated giant pilasters which terminate in elaborate finials on the older part. A tall Italianate tower to the rear”. The whole would house Bragge’s growing family, his collections and reflect his position. He was to become Master Cutler in 1870.

William Bragge was a man of the Victorian Age. He embodied the enquiring mind and far reaching interests of his time. Born the son of a Birmingham jeweller, he studied mechanics and mathematics in Birmingham and trained as an engineer and surveyor. He was a surveyor on the Chester Holyhead railway line before going out to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro he helped install gas and a water supply and surveyed for the first railway line in Brazil. His railway interest presumably inspired him to name his second son, born there, George Stephenson Bragge. The Emperor of Brazil Dom Pedro II awarded him the Order of the Rose, in appreciation of his services (the medal and ribbon is held in the Sheffield archives). In fact Bragge and Dom Pedro shared so many interests that when the Emperor(called The Magnanimous), was travelling incognito in Europe in August 1871 he visited Bragge at Shirle Hill.

He called in with his wife and Chancellor during a croquet party. They “accepted biscuits and claret cups” according to a letter describing the visit by a Bragge relative who was present. “They went to see the Pipes[tobacco]-and there began a tour of the whole house, even the pantries, and lavatory!” “An English house, with the water taps, drains, and comforts generally, was a novelty to them all- so they asked to see everything”. On leaving he presented Bragge with signed carte de visite portraits of himself and the Empress.

After his time in Brazil, Bragge moved to Sheffield to work for John Brown at his Atlas Steel works, and was made a Managing Director. He was involved in establishing the armour plate manufactory. Leaving Sheffield in 1872, he went to Paris. Here things didn’t go so well for him. His one failure was attempting a sewage system for the Société des Engrais. He returned to England in 1876 and settled in his birth city of Birmingham, calling his house there Shirle Hill. Here his engineering took another turn, for he organised the successful manufacture of watches on the American system. Unfortunately before he died in 1884, he went blind.

William Bragge was an engineer of repute, but during his time in Sheffield he involved himself in many activities beyond his work at Atlas. He served on the Council, becoming a member of the Public Libraries committee. And as part of the Literature and Philosophical Society, he was able to influence the handing over of their museum collection to the library. This formed the nucleus for the setting up of the City museum in Weston Park.

Bragge was the speaker at the School of Art in Surrey Street in 1874 and copies of his speech are held in the City Archives. The speech is wide reaching, remarkable for its scope and even relevant to today. Starting with the need to enlarge the School of Art, he went on to the need for better education for every child and suggesting the appointment of a Minister for Education. He argued that Europe was doing better and leaving Sheffield behind to face foreign competition. Every worker in the iron,silver and cutlery works should have access to a broad education and understand the whole process of production. He recommended setting up a Metal Work Museum. He pointed out the excellence of museums being set up at the time, namely in South Kensington (now V & A) but also in towns like Halifax, Huddersfield, Nottingham and Birmingham. Prince Albert had given a lead and Bragge was sure that the V & A and the British Museum would loan exhibits rather than keep items in cellars. He emphasised the need for Sheffield to move ahead or loose out to others.

But Bragge is perhaps best known as an antiquarian and bibliophile. He collected. His biggest collection was everything to do with smoking. He created a bibliography (Bibliotheca Nicotiana) of all books related to tobacco, an innovative idea, which he published and later revised. He also had a collection of artefacts such as pipes (13,000 of them !), types of tobacco and snuff boxes. He also collected all the works of Cervantes, 1,500 volumes which he donated to the Birmingham Free Library in 1873. Unfortunately these were all lost in the fire of 1879.

Somehow he found time to travel and learn languages. On his extensive travels in Europe, Russia, Egypt and America, he amassed assorted objects that interested him. A cabinet of gems and precious stones from all parts went to Birmingham Art Gallery. Other objects found their way to the British Museum. He didn’t actually sell his Shirle Hill house in Sheffield until 1877 when the sale catalogue makes clear that the house was stuffed with books and curiosities. The New York Times of 11 June 1882, in a gossipy foreign news item, mentions the sale in London of some of Bragge’s collections. This would have been when he was going blind. It is clear that, although he liked to be surrounded with many of his acquisitions, he was a great supporter of museums, art galleries and libraries.

This man of many parts was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Anthropological Society, the Royal Geographical Society and many foreign societies. There were many remarkable men and women who embodied the spirit of the Victorian Age, and it seems that William Bragge should be included amongst them.

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