If you speak to a local Sheffielder, you’ll find that there’s a lot of confusion regarding the use of the building NESM is housed within and the building known as West Bar Police Station. Hopefully this blog will help clear some of this up and, fingers crossed, the word will get out to retired service personnel and they will come forward to share their stories and memories to help us understand our building better.
I’ve spoken about the history of our building in previous blogs but never really focused on its history after the fire service re-located to a new station at Division Street, Sheffield in the 1920s.
Keeping it brief, in the late 1800s the designs for what is now our museum building had been agreed and work commenced on the new combined police, fire and ambulance station. The rapid development of both the emergency services and technology saw the building become unsuitable for all three services relatively quickly. By 1925 both the fire and ambulance services had re-located into the newly built and extended Division Street station, leaving only the City of Sheffield police at West Bar.
Policing in this building no longer required the use of stables onsite and, with the introduction of the motorised police car, the fleet required much more space so major changes to the building were required. This section of the building's history is a little sketchy as very few photos or documents exist outlining the exact use during the late 20s to the early 60s.
This photo shows the enquiries office in what is now the museum's visitor entrance.
So what do we know? Not a lot if we’re honest; we have a total of four photos showing the building in use fully as a police station. Two of these images show the 'enquiries office' located in what is now the museum’s main entrance and the other two photos show early motorised police cars in the building. It’s always great to capture the story of retired service personnel as this can give us a better insight into the building's history first hand.
The late Inspector Raymond Howard was an avid collector of police memorabilia, a retired Sheffield police inspector and a Trustee of our museum. Ray would like nothing more than sitting down, having a coffee and chatting about his time in the police. Ray remembered coming into our building for an interview to become a junior officer in the early part of its life as just a police station. Over time Ray gathered information and stories from his colleagues in the police that have been vital in telling the story. Remember sometimes these stories differ and a case of ‘Chinese whispers’ can occur over time and some of this information may be less than accurate – but we’ll never know for certain without corroboration from people who were there.
The building has seen operational use throughout both world wars and the Sheffield Gang wars during the 1920s. We’ve never been a prison and we only had four holding cells but it's said that during the gang wars as many as 16 people were ‘held’ in the cells here at any one time - it must have been a tight squeeze! With one bed, one blanket and one toilet I don’t think conditions would have been great.
As the introduction of the motor vehicle started to replace horses and horse-drawn vehicles, the need for stables on site was no longer needed. Plus, it was not really conducive to horses' wellbeing due to the lack of a paddock or surrounding land. The removal of the stables and widening of doorways saw a new era for the building's story, as the stable area become police workshops and the former fire brigade engine house and stables became the garage for the all-new police car fleet. Sadly at the same time the police removed some of the cobbled flooring and installed a large glass roof covering the cobbled courtyard.
The above photo is of PC AJ Snowling in c.1930 in one of the force's new police cars, leaving through the engine house doors on the front of the building.
At the start of World War II, with the threat of aerial bombing to the city, the decision was made to reinforce sections of the building including the cell roof - with cells two and three knocked together to provide a safe, secure location for Police Command. Additional internal doors were also installed between the cells and the workshop, providing a direct route to the newly built air raid shelters that occupied the former cellars of neighbouring properties. These shelters would have doubled up as an underground escape route from the building; a small section of these shelters still exists today.
The first floor of the building originally housed a large ‘dance hall’/recreation space, dining room and kitchen, and on the second floor 21 single bedrooms and one large open bathroom. During the building’s time as a police station the exact use of these second floor rooms is unknown. However when the museum moved into the building in the 1980s, some bedroom furniture was still located on this floor so it's possible that this area of the building had not changed much other than a few bedrooms being knocked into one larger room at some point, but why we may never know.
The first floor saw the once large dance hall area divided into two rooms with the removal of the sprung dance floor and bar. It is thought that one of these rooms became a large office for CID and traffic division, while the other was a dedicated control room for the city’s police force to handle 999 calls (which was introduced as the emergency telephone number in 1937). If only the walls could talk, eh? We had heard many anecdotes about the location of the control room but had no real evidence until, as we refurbished the building over the years, a vast number of original telephone cables were located in this area putting truth to rumours as to exactly which room was which.
That said, not much else is known about the police use of the building in the 1950s and 1960s and it’s here we’re really hoping to hear from retired police officers, to help us build up an accurate picture from their reminiscences and their stories. So, if you or a relative can help, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now here comes the confusion between two police stations and which building was which. In the early 1960s, with the rapidly developing police force, the increase in vehicles and equipment, and the requirement for addition cells in the city centre, the decision was made to expand the building. However with its historical value, slightly awkward position and adjoining buildings it simply was not possible to make the old combined station work efficiently anymore. That said, the location was perfect so plans were developed to build a new police station at West Bar just yards from the old one.
The new West Bar Police Station opened in 1965 just yards from the original combined station.
The choice to purchase another property next-door-but-one from the original building was made, creating what would also be known as West Bar Police Station and creating decades of local confusion about which building was the ‘real’ West Bar. On 16 July 1965 the new police station opened, marking the end of the road for our museum building as an operational service building after 65 years of proud rich history!
The new station provided a much larger workshop for vehicle maintenance, on-site parking and a vast amount of office space with its own tower office block and much more. This replacement building remained in use until 2011 when South Yorkshire Police re-shuffled departments and services and, with the nearby Snig Hill Police Station and HQ, the West Bar Station became redundant.
With the original police station now a museum and the replacement one a hotel, the mind truly boggles as to what Snig Hill will inevitably become with the passage of time!
Until next time,
Matt Wakefield, Museum CEO