Hidden behind the Sheffield City Cathedral and nestled by the Law Courts lies a 120 year old secret; okay, so perhaps not so much secret but most certainly a wealth of hidden history. Constructed between 1897 and 1900, West Bar Police, Fire and Ambulance Station was the brain child of Chief Constable of Sheffield, John Jackson and Chief Fire Officer, Superintendent William Frost. A combined station which housed all three services and living accommodation this was a building which had to work especially hard. The building, which was designed by architect Joseph Norton, featured cutting-edge technology ensuring that whilst it remained beautiful in all its Victorian glory, it had efficiency at its core. Every specialist design feature ensured that all three services could work at maximum capacity and with the highest level of success. Created as a monolithic example to all emergency services, the design encapsulated all of the hopes and dreams the Victorians had for the future and its combined nature led the way for many other combined service stations.
It wasn’t just an impressive façade, inside was an amalgamation of the best of British and American innovation, from pole drops to quick hitch harness systems. These ideas, technologies and systems were some of the first in the country and were inspired by Norton and Frost’s trip to New York in 1898. The result of clever design features and ‘modern’ innovations and technologies was a station that could fill some significant gaps. Older stations in the city paled in comparison, for example, certain advanced technologies such as the Quick Hitch Harness System and the pioneering design of the space meant that appliances could be out and ready for action within 4 seconds in the day and 20 seconds at night. This was a massive improvement on other stations (both locally and further afield) particularly stations such as Rockingham Street Fire Station in the City. The station was also one of the first to install the American-inspired pole (ours is a whopping 36’ 7’’and still in use! Not that we are showing off…) and the building was fitted with another snazzy feature that remains today, the watch tower. This watch tower was used for, yep…watching. Built in a time when it was illegal to build any higher than a fire station, one lucky soul was picked to stay up here for their shift and their job was to keep a look-out for fires and incidents around the city. Now this sounds daft, but in a time where you couldn’t pick up a phone and dial 999 this was one of the most efficient ways to monitor the city and on a good day a watcher/look-out could see up to a two mile radius!
Fire men and their wives in the yard of West Bar station in 1900.
The fire station side of the building went on to house the country’s first ever turntable ladder and, later, a fancy new electric call out system. But as further innovation rolled in, motorised vehicles meant room became tight and after almost 25 years as a combined building, the fire service left in 1924.
But what about the police side to our building? Well this wasn’t overlooked, thanks to our friend John Jackson (if you’re thinking he sounds familiar, his GIGANTIC oil painting lives above the fireplace in our entrance). Jackson was determined to ensure that Sheffield City Police was an example to all other police forces and in a time where city crime was on the rise (just outside our building, the first police constable was killed on duty whilst trying to contain a large and ‘ferocious’ mob) a modern and efficient station was of critical importance. Designed in a similar style to the new stations popping up in London, the police station side of the building had a majestic curved entrance to the street (still does-except it’s the door to the cobbled display area and not our front door!) and four holding cells (measuring 9ft X 13ft with 18 inch thick walls) with a less-than generous exercise yard. Sadly, John Jackson never lived to see his designs work, passing away in 1898, just before the building opened in 1900. But this busy station saw A LOT and was never quiet, it functioned well for a grand 64 years until the police waved goodbye and moved…next door.
Once again, advanced for its time, the building contained Sheffield’s first ambulance and this rudimentary service was run by those men stationed at the building trained in basic Victorian first aid. Despite its rudimentary nature, it was commended as highly successful and in 1907 “the ambulance calls amounted to no less than 2,691, and there were only two days of the whole 365 when the ambulance vans were not required.”
"Many calls have already been made on the new ambulance van recently purchased by the Sheffield Corporation, and as proof of the necessity for such a vehicle, it may be mentioned that on Saturday it was requisitioned on no less than three occasions. In the first case it was taken out to remove a man who had fallen in a fit, in the second to the assistance of a man who had been badly crushed at Heeley, and in the last instance to convey a woman, who had taken a dose of carbolic acid, to the Hospital. In the possession of a first-class ambulance, Sheffield may be justly proud, but probably few people are aware that anyone is entitled to its use.”
Sheffield's first ambulance (1900)
But this all round success would not have been possible without the people that lived and worked there. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have spent their lives in this station or its accommodation cottages; it was indeed a shining light amongst the smoke and darkness of a growing industrial city, offering up opportunities for safety, security and escape from the poverty that was rife in the Sheffield.
West Bar station continued to be a shining light for decades later. Through countless emergency call-outs, hundreds of Christmas parties, thousands of hectic footsteps, many families and many changes over the years, our station has always remained steadfast. It began as a modern innovation, leading the way for significant changes within the fire, police and ambulance services nationally and has gone on to see world wars, a changing cityscape and many changes in purpose. But for now, this aging giant of a building (it really is like a Tardis) is the home of NESM and we hope to continue to take care of it as it’s taken care of over 120 years of its residents.