Working at NESM is finally paying off! And I only had to wait three years…
I’m kidding, of course - being part of team NESM has always been a joy. But it is true that I’m currently working on a really exciting project for the museum that will let me realise a lifelong ambition; I’m writing a book!
OK, so it’s not likely to be an international bestseller or win me a Booker Prize, but it is something that we’ve wanted to do for a while; tell the story of our amazing historic home. There’s so much history within the walls of our Victorian police, fire and ambulance station to share and we know that many of our visitors would love to know more. And with the museum’s 90th birthday falling this year it seemed like a good time to do it.
As part of my research for the book I’ve been spending a fair bit of time on an amazing online resource, the British Newspaper Archive. This is a great site for hunting down stories about West Bar station that briefly hit the headlines 80, 90 or even 100 years ago, but which then disappeared from view. (As they say, today’s headlines are tomorrow’s chip paper!)
Digging through the archive has unearthed some fascinating snippets of life at West Bar and in this week’s blog I thought I’d give you a sneak preview of some of the stories I’ve uncovered. They won’t all make it into the finished book (available later this year in all good NESM gift shops!) but they give a real insight into the life of our historic home when it was a working police, fire and ambulance station.
A place of safety
Many of the newspaper articles I uncovered demonstrate just how important West Bar station was to the local community during the early decades of the 20th century. Before the advent of the famous 999 number - and before everyone had a home or mobile phone - the station was often the first port of call for members of the public who wanted to report a crime, raise the alarm about a fire or other emergency, or even find medical assistance.
Two stories that made the news in 1913 demonstrate this well.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph of Monday 5 May reports how a woman named Mary Ann Singlehurst arrived at West Bar station with “injuries to her body, which she said had been caused by her being kicked”. She was taken to the city’s Royal Infirmary in the station’s ambulance (once kept in the space that now hosts our ambulance exhibition, Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights) where she was treated for her injuries. Her husband, Robert Singlehurst, was later charged with the assault.
Sheffield's no.2 ambulance, in the yard at West Bar
In September, James Jordan was taken to West Bar suffering from cuts to his wrist. The same newspaper reports that a few hours later Mary Sweeney, who lived with Jordan on Love Lane in Sheffield, was arrested and charged with unlawfully wounding him with a knife. The newspaper reflected that “the affair…arose out of a sordid quarrel that is somewhat typical of the ironically-named lane”.
The Sheffield Independent on Friday 20 July 1928 reported another occasion when the station was the first point of call in an emergency. The newspaper shared the story of 12-year-old Lizzie Kenyon, who ran half a mile to the station with blistered feet to summon the fire brigade. Lizzie and her younger sister had escaped their attic room when a fire had begun in the rafters, causing the ceiling to collapse. After running across burning debris, Lizzie pulled on a pair of slippers and ran to West Bar for help. “Owing to her plucky action”, said the newspaper, “the brigade got to the house in time to prevent extensive damage being done”.
Not all the cases recorded by the newspapers are quite so dramatic but even the smallest snippets show how the station became a focal point for the life of the community. Everyone from witnesses to ‘motor car’ accidents and reckless youngsters on bicycles, to people with information about a lost spaniel, were encouraged to present themselves at West Bar.
A smashing time
Sometimes the officers at West Bar didn’t have to go looking for those with criminal intent. As the newspaper archive reveals, occasionally the criminals came straight to them.
On Saturday 10 March 1934 Albert Egginton walked into West Bar station to hand himself in. He had, he confessed, stabbed his brother George - causing a facial wound that required 15 stitches - and thrown the knife on to a works roof. Three days later the Sheffield Independent reported Albert’s appearance in court. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he asked to be remanded in custody stating, according to the paper, “he was afraid to go home”. I can understand why!
Occasionally the violence was perpetrated on the building itself. On Thursday 26 November 1908 Elizabeth Hodgkinson, described as an “elderly woman” by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, decided to hurl a half a brick through the glass door of West Bar station. It was deemed she had caused damage worth half a sovereign and Elizabeth found herself with 14 days’ imprisonment as a result.
In 1934, 29-year-old Daniel Eagers was charged with doing wilful damage to the windows of West Bar station. Sadly, it's clear from the report in the Sheffield Independent on 8 May that this was not just an act of mindless vandalism. The newspaper reports Eagers as saying "I did did deliberately and if you don't hang me, hope's a hypocrite...will you sentence me to death as quick as you can, because I am fed up". The newspaper reports that Eagers was sent for medical examination; let's hope the unhappy young man got the help he needed.
A scandalous accusation
Occasionally there was as much drama inside the station as the force were dealing with outside.
In 1933 a letter was received by the chief constable of Sheffield Police Force, apparently written by a serving constable, setting out some serious allegations against two of the senior men based at West Bar. It alleged that Superintendent Samuel Briggs and Inspector George Ibbotson had argued within “view and hearing of subordinates”. Their behaviour and language was “disgraceful” and their conduct was “subversive to discipline”. The letter went on to say, “It is not the first time it has occurred, and it arises from the insane behaviour of the senior inspector, who, I regret to say, does not do his work, but leaves it to others.’
Another letter, this time written anonymously, alleged that the same Inspector Ibbotson - in cahoots with a fellow unnamed officer – was taking bribes to allow two of Sheffield’s taxi drivers to ferry prostitutes around the city.
The allegations proved to be false and in March 1933 newspapers reported the denouement to the story; a retired Sheffield superintendent, Thomas Hughes, pleaded guilty to two charges of libel at Leeds Assizes and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Quite what prompted the former officer – who had retired three years earlier with an unblemished record – to commit such an act is not recorded by the press. Was it a case of professional jealousy? It was revealed in the newspaper that Inspector Briggs was up for promotion at the time the first allegation was made. Was it bad blood between old colleagues? Or was there an old score to settle? Whatever the reason it’s clear that ‘office politics’ has been around for a lot longer than we may have thought, even if those professional squabbles don’t often end up in the dock!
A scandalous libel involving officers from West Bar made the front page
At work and play
Of course the newspapers recorded a lot of gory details about the emergencies and incidents dealt with at West Bar every day. But they also occasionally give a glimpse into what life was like off duty for the people who lived and worked at the station. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of Tuesday 5 July 1927, it was reported that Chief Constable Sillitoe had officially opened the station’s new recreation room the previous day. Guest of honour at the reopening was sporting star Joe Davis, who became world champion in both snooker and billiards that year and would go on to win the World Snooker Championship an amazing 15 times. Joe was at the station to play an exhibition match on West Bar’s brand new billiards table.
Sports star Joe Davis helped to open the station's new recreation room
I’m sure there will be plenty more interesting snippets to dig up before the book hits the shelves. If you or someone you know worked at West Bar station, or you have any interesting snippets about the history of our building to share, please do get in touch. You might even make it into print!