Nether Edge – History of a suburb

Written by John Baxendale

Some city suburbs are former villages, engulfed by urban expansion but still retaining the core of a rural community – an old church, a pub or two, perhaps a manor house and a few cottages amid the modern housing. Nether Edge is not one of those. It was built pretty much from scratch by many individuals and speculative builders between the 1850s and 1914, in response to the rapid growth of Sheffield’s population, the prosperity of its middle class, and the development of public transport. In the twentieth century it was threatened by urban decay as those large Victorian houses fell out of favour, but in time it came to be valued as a classic Victorian suburb with a vibrant community, and protected as a Conservation Area.

In 1850, on the eve of suburban development, what we now call Nether Edge was almost all farm land as it had been for centuries; in fact the very name ‘Nether Edge’ was adopted from one of those farms, on the slope down from Brincliffe Edge. There were two small hamlets at Machon Bank and Cherry Tree, little more than a few cottages adjoining a farm, of which hardly anything survives today. But when you look at the Ordnance Survey map of 1851, in the area we now call Nether Edge, roughly bounded by Brincliffe Edge, the ancient Sharrow Lane, and the two turnpike roads Abbeydale Road and Psalter Lane, what you see is mainly fields, of unknowable and possibly ancient origin, crossed by country lanes and cart tracks. A landscape, let it be said, as much a product of human intervention as any city street or suburban estate, but still an old landscape.
But appearances can be deceptive. Sheffield’s influence was slowly but steadily growing. As cutlery works developed along the river valleys many local inhabitants combined agricultural with industrial work, in their own homes or in the water-powered mills along the Porter to the north and the Sheaf to the south, or in the quarries along Brincliffe Edge where the local stone had long been harvested for grindstones and building material. Ironically, but not unusually, there was more industry in Nether Edge before the Industrial Revolution than after. These are noisy trades, and the din must have carried to the agricultural plateau between, conveying the message that this was now a mixed economy.
Looking more closely at the 1851 map we see another portent of change: a scattering of mansions, some recent, some older, some now lost, others surviving. Country houses were not unusual in rural England, often funded by colonial or urban investment, but still closely tied in to hereditary land ownership and the rural economy. Those in Nether Edge were more like a proto-suburbia, not ancient family seats (though sometimes pretending to be) but built by men whose business was not on the land but in the growing trade and industry of Sheffield, whence they travelled every day to work – houses like The Edge, Osborne House, Prior Bank, Violet Bank House, George Wostenholm’s new pile at Kenwood – and a whole string of them along Sharrow Lane from Sharrow Head House to Mount Pleasant – all the product of Sheffield’s growing wealth, and those who benefitted from it.
Perhaps the most spectacular incursion of modernity into pre-suburban Nether Edge was the Ecclesall Bierlow Union Workhouse, opened in 1843 – not because it was a modern building (in style it was fashionable Tudor Gothic revival, like Wostenholm’s house, and designed by the same architect, William Flockton), but because it was the expression of a (then) modern ideology. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act stipulated that if you were unable to support yourself through unemployment, illness or old age you should no longer get ‘poor relief’ from the parish to keep you going, because that was held to discourage work and subsidise low wages, but go into the Workhouse, where you were taken care of but life was made less attractive than any job available outside. Our Workhouse – later Nether Edge Hospital (1929), and in 2003 converted to upmarket housing – was built by the Ecclesall Bierlow Union, an elected body responsible for the poor in a largely rural area stretching from the Moor to Norton, Totley and Broomhill. The land was purchased from the Bright family, who owned much of the area below Brincliffe Edge. Although the original building, which still stands, was thought by many too grand for paupers, life inside it was anything but.
The turning point in the suburbanisation of Nether Edge came quite rapidly in the early 1850s. In 1844 George Wostenholm built himself a mansion at Kenwood, designed by William Flockton, with grounds laid out by Robert Marnock, creator of the Botanical Gardens and a rising landscape designer. Wostenholm was a cutlery manufacturer who had grown his family firm into one of Sheffield’s biggest by expanding his American trade and bringing all stages of production under his control in his Washington Works on Wellington Street near the present Devonshire Green. A shrewd businessman, Wostenholm saw the potential profit to be made from Sheffield’s suburban growth, and began buying up land around his new house. In 1853, with Marnock’s help, he laid out leafy roads and building plots between his house and Sharrow Lane and called it Kenwood Park. Leases specified that only sizeable, middle-class houses should be built, the quality of materials was laid down, and all forms of trade and industry forbidden. Wostenholm wasn’t trying to establish an ideal community like Titus Salt at Saltaire or George Cadbury at Bourneville, but simply to make money by building an upmarket estate – and in the process, perhaps, to stop his new home being swamped by the advance of working-class terraced housing, some of which he also built, but on the other side of Sharrow Lane.
Also in 1853, the Nether Edge Estate, about 38 acres of farmland between Machon Bank and Brincliffe Edge, along with the farmhouse (later the Brincliffe Oaks pub), was acquired for £7,000 by the Reform Freehold Land Society. After the last harvest had been taken in some 260 building plots were laid out to be sold to Society shareholders who thereby became freeholders, and therefore voters under the 1832 Reform Act. The Chairman of this Society, which had already laid out estates at Crookes and Heeley, was Robert Leader, editor of Sheffield’s Liberal newspaper the Independent, so there was clearly some political idealism at work; at the same time, it was an effective way of getting houses built, which made money for landowners and builders, and significantly both Wostenholm and his favoured builder Thomas Steade were involved in the original land transaction.
Nether Edge, or part of it, thus acquired its name. The old narrow dog-legged Charley Lane, which ran from Machon Bank up to Brincliffe Edge, was straightened out and renamed Nether Edge Road. Adjoining estates were later acquired, including the land belonging to Upper Edge Farm, where Fountside flats now stand, although the farm itself lingered on as a market garden with stables and coachhouses between Byron Road and Edgebrook Road. By the 1870s the Brincliffe Park Estate to the west of the Workhouse was under development, with its large building plots anticipating upmarket housing.
Building proceeded steadily but slowly, and it took a while to fill all the plots that had been laid out in the 1850s. In 1861 there were still only 120 people living on the former Nether Edge Estate, and when Wostenholm died in 1876 there were still only eight occupied houses on Kenwood Park Road, and a number of the vacant plots were sold on to Thomas Steade for speculative building. Some of the Brincliffe Park plots remained unbuilt on into the twentieth century, many let out as allotments. Although steadily urbanising, Nether Edge retained a semi-rural feel, and many artists were attracted to its leafy surroundings. So too, and less welcome, were working-class Sheffielders, who were accustomed to spend leisure time in the countryside and with the coming of the trams found Nether Edge a near enough substitute, where they could drink, fight, play football and commit all manner of rowdyness on the remaining vacant land, to the displeasure of respectable residents who feared for their well-tended gardens. It was only when the land was filled with houses that such ‘outrages’ diminished.

Victorian heyday
It was at this point, the late 1870s, that Nether Edge’s next growth spurt began, and the sight and sound of bricklayers, tilers and stonemasons at work, employed by master builders such as Steade, Henry Brumby or James Sivil, who all lived locally, became a continuous feature of Nether Edge life. These years brought not only more houses and people, but the shape of Nether Edge as a coherent entity which is familiar to us today. Until the opening of Montgomery Road (1864) and Moncrieff Road (1870) the route from Nether Edge Road to Sharrow and thence to town was convoluted and inconvenient: horse buses had to travel via Kenwood and terminate on Cherrytree Hill. Now Steade, anxious to sell his new houses to commuters, was able to set up a bus route along Montgomery Road in partnership with other local businessmen. With the opening of shops in converted residential properties around the bottom of Nether Edge Road, and Henry Brumby’s landmark ‘Nether Edge Market’ building (1880), a recognisable geographical focus began to emerge around the junction with Machon Bank Road and Moncrieff Road. The coming of the horse-drawn tram in 1877 enhanced the focus with its terminus and depot on Machon Bank Road (where Sainsbury’s and the garage now stand, using some of the original tramway buildings), and a substantial cabman’s shelter at the crossroads drove the message home. In September 1899 the Nether Edge route was the first to be electrified, and the ceremonial first tram packed with civic dignitaries arrived at the terminus along streets crowded with cheering onlookers.
The social amenities which make a community were also arriving. The Nether Edge Bowling Club came in 1867, playing the role of a gentleman’s club for the better-off inhabitants, while less exclusive bowling greens also existed at the Brincliffe Oaks pub (the old Nether Edge farmhouse) and at the eponymous Bowling Green Inn on Cherrytree hill. Vacant land awaiting house-building offered an opportunity for tennis, which was very popular with the late Victorian middle class for social as well as sporting reasons, and several clubs, mostly short-lived, started up in the area from the 1880s onwards. As for pubs, the Stag’s Head on Psalter Lane had been there long before the houses, the Union Hotel as its name suggests was built by the Boot family at the same time as the workhouse, and the Brincliffe Oaks came with the Nether Edge estate, while the Byron House converted from a grocer’s shop to a pub. Churches and chapels also arrived on the scene in the 1860s, including two rival Methodist chapels on Union Road, and the usual range of Nonconformist chapels within striking distance. A proposal for an Anglican parish church at Sharrow Head on land donated by Wostenholm had been floated in 1854, but it was not until 1869 that St Andrews, Sharrow was built with substantial donations from Wostenholm and Sir John Brown – its name indicating, perhaps, that Nether Edge had not yet fully taken off as a catch-all name for the area.
By 1900, then, Nether Edge was a well-established middle-class suburb known for its sizeable houses and its wide, attractive tree-lined streets. As the Sheffield Independent remarked in June 1891,
Not many existing roads can show a more delicately beautiful perspective than does Wostenholm Road at this time of writing as it is seen, say, from the top of a [tram]car going to Nether Edge; and rarely may one scent a more delicate perfume than that which will shortly be diffused by the lime trees that border it.
But who were the Nether Edgers, and how did they live? For the most part they were business and professional men, their wives, children and servants. The essence of suburban life was the separation between work and home, and the divergent roles of men and women. Many of the men ran family firms in the small cutlery works scattered through the city, others were lawyers, bankers or shopkeepers with businesses in town. Few of their wives and daughters did any paid work, an exception being the many small private schools for local children for whom a Board School education was not socially acceptable, often run by widows or single middle class women lacking male support. Living-in servants, usually young women from working-class Sheffield or the surrounding countryside, were ubiquitous – perhaps a housemaid and cook in the larger houses, or a single maid living in the attic and doing the heavy work in more modest households – work which was not, of course, regarded as in any way problematic. Only a few wealthy households employed male servants – a coachman, or a gardener – so overall the population of Nether Edge was predominantly female.

Peak, decline and revival
By 1914, the great majority of the housing in present-day Nether Edge had been built, and the few vacant pieces of land, including some no longer needed for grazing horses, were to be filled during the following decades. Some feared that all remaining open space would be lost in the interwar housing boom, a fear going back as far as the 1880s when Sheffield plutocrats began to flee their suburban estates for country residences. In 1922 on the death of Miss Rundle, sister and heir of Wostenholm’s third wife, Kenwood House and its grounds went up for sale. Ominously, prospective buyers were told that ‘the land is ripe for development, and is specially suitable for the erection of villa residences’. To general relief the mansion was converted to a residential hotel and Marnock’s grounds preserved, although some housing was built on the fringe of the estate in the 1920s and 1930s, along Rundle, Montgomery and Cherrytree Roads.
These new houses were smaller, more in accordance with the needs of the time than their big, draughty Victorian predecessors, so difficult and expensive to maintain without servants. The Victorian houses, so redolent of their age, came to look neglected and down at heel, along with the suburb they typified. As early as 1916 Sharrow – a term which included the Kenwood and Cherrytree areas – had been described to a Council planning enquiry as a decaying district. By the time of the Second World War an increasing number of the larger houses, formerly prosperous middle-class family homes, had gone into multiple occupation, a trend which continued after the war, under the pressure of the growing student population.
Despite its residential character, Nether Edge was badly hit in the Sheffield Blitz of 12-13 December 1940. Over fifty people were killed and many houses all over the area were destroyed, some left as bomb sites into the 1950s. A walk round Nether Edge today will reveal many postwar houses filling gaps in the Victorian streets which the bombs had left.
It was during and after the 1960s that the tide turned back and Victorian houses became fashionable again. Renovating builders whose first ‘modernising’ instinct had been to turn them into an approximation of the 1930s semi began to learn the value of ‘original features’. Many were rescued from decay to be reinstated as family homes. It was all part of a cultural restructuring of the British middle class. By contrast with the hard-headed businessmen who preceded them, many of the new Nether Edgers were in public sector or creative occupations. Helped by the proximity of the Art College, the area reacquired the faintly bohemian reputation which it had possessed a century earlier. Vegetarianism, wood-burning stoves, tree campaigns and conservation became the order of the day. And who in the 1950s would have thought middle-class Nether Edge would elect Labour or Green Councillors? The community itself was revived, with a Neighbourhood Group, Farmer’s Market, annual Festival, and – dare I say it – a History Group. Maybe we present-day Nether Edgers are mere interlopers, inhabiting a world that was build by and for people different from us in so many ways– though perhaps in other ways quite like us after all. But for the time being it is our Nether Edge. What our successors will think or do about it will be up to them.