As we head towards Halloween and eyes turn towards all things ghostly and ghoulish, it seems the perfect time to answer a question we are regularly asked at the museum… is the building really haunted? Whether you believe in ghosts or not, our historic home can certainly feel very eerie at night or when it's empty.
It is true that this spooky station could tell some amazing stories. The building's walls house over a century of history, characters and events, from the sad souls who spent time in the building’s police cells to the service men and women who lived and worked here when it was a fire, police and ambulance station. Who's to say that some of them didn't stick around?
Certainly those of us who work at the museum have all heard the odd unexplained noise - from footsteps to eerie whistling - and experienced the occasional strange sensation as we've walked around our building. Visitors to the museum have also sometimes reported ghostly encounters. For example, some years ago a local artist was painting a mural in the museum and had a lengthy conversation with a man about his work. When the artist turned to put down his brush the man promptly vanished; and the museum later proved to be completely empty. The artist never returned and the mural remained unfinished.
It has also been said that locals can sometimes see a ghostly shadow, apparently wearing a sailor’s style uniform, in the watchtower on the top of our building. Sailor's uniform? In a fire station? This is where some of these supposedly spooky stories can be confusing. Having a vast archive can be very helpful in unravelling these random questions.
So was the building ever used by the military? Not in the way you would have thought but, in the early 1900s, the police firemen based at the West Bar station were provided with navy uniforms rather than the standard fire department issue ones. A photo in our collection shows a crew standing in the cobbled yard of the building in just such a uniform. Maybe it's one of them who's allegedly been spotted?
'My pocket has just been pulled' is another occurrence that has been reported. This could be a playful youngster; the presence of two young children has been said to haunt the upper floors of the former station. Again, why children in a fire station? The upper floors of the building were originally accommodation for single men but the first floor, housing the station's dance hall, regularly hosted the families of serving men. All ages would come together for a meal and entertainment so the sight of children running around the building was a norm.
From one extreme to another... While on the upper floors families and children enjoyed a cooked meal and entertainment, on the lower floors it was a case of bread and water, petty criminals and murders! This is where the police cells were housed. What a true mix of emotions our building would have been at times. When you stop and think about it, who you are and what you are did not matter in the cells; men, women and children would have been held here in the West Bar cells for up to two weeks!
During the Sheffield Gang Wars in the 1920s, it was said that due to the rise in crime the four cells here at West Bar could have held up to 16 people in each cell - men, women and children, both young and old.
Two characters are said to haunt the cells; one robust, well-built police officer guarding the cells and those in them, and one criminal said to dominate the cells and anyone who enters them.
With so many spooky stories it's not surprising we're a favourite 'haunt' for professional paranormal investigators, ghost hunting groups and scientific investigators. For many years the museum has been available to hire for ghost hunts, all exploring and discovering in their own ways. Some believers and some none.
It's not just our building that has a long and diverse history. Take a step further back in time and imagine what hides beneath. The area of West Bar that houses the museum was once home to one of the city's workhouses. The area was known and referred to as ‘The West End’ of Sheffield - home to a vast number of pubs and playhouses, crime was high and it really would have been the hustle and bustle of the town. Not many of these historic buildings still exist and a large number of them were destroyed by major fires or during the Sheffield Blitz. So our home really is a special place.
2020 has been a very difficult year for us all and sadly many of the paranormal investigations planned for this year have been postponed. Our ghosts have been left alone for a lot of the time but will they still be here waiting for their return? Our team have been using the past few months to renovate some areas of the building, revealing some of the building's hidden features - and maybe even a few more ghouls?
Like I sai, you can believe it or not but until you have spent the night investigating the building, can you really be sure?...
Matthew Wakefield, Chief Executive