Mystery of the unknown artist in concrete
Head south on London Road, and on the right, at the bend where Little Sheffield becomes Highfield, you’ll see one of Sheffield’s unsung treasures. It’s a quirky amalgam of the old and new: an unmistakeable 19th century building featuring some very 20th century artwork. It is No. 136, the former Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House, built in 1877 by noted Sheffield architects M. E. Hadfield & Son for local philanthropist Frederick Thorpe Mappin. The seven identical frieze panels are more mysterious; they date from 1967 and were put there by shopfitters, George Barlow & Sons, but the artist is unknown. If you don’t know them, go and look now, because this could be their last Christmas. A planning application has been made for demolition and replacement by flats, and it will go ahead – unless public and expert opinion can persuade the Council to refuse it.
The Highfield Cocoa and Coffee House was the first of its kind in Sheffield, and one of the first outside Liverpool, where Robert Lockhart began opening cocoa houses in 1875. They were an offshoot of the temperance movement, providing an alcohol-free and family-friendly alternative to the public house, with similar entertainments such as skittles and cards (but strictly no gambling). Unlike earlier temperance establishments they were run on a commercial basis and provided a return to investors.
Mappin was a philanthropist – from the same family as Mappin and Webb, he was instrumental in setting up the Sheffield Technical School and Universities, and his uncle John Newton Mappin funded the Mappin Art Gallery – but he was also a shrewd businessman. He built his cocoa house where it would attract workers from Heeley wanting breakfast on their way to their jobs in town, and close to where Portland Works and Stag Works were being built, assuring the lunchtime trade. The cocoa house was open from 5am to 11pm, and sold cocoa at a penny a pint.
Cocoa houses were a national success for about 30 years, but then more modern cafés familiar to us today were emerging. Business declined, and the cocoa house closed in 1908. It was used by Hibbert’s confectioners and then by a refrigerator company. George Barlow & Sons, shopfitters had premises nearby from early in the 20th century, and took the cocoa house as their showroom in the 1950s. They first decided to impress potential clients by updating the ground floor frontage with tiles, and then in 1967 they added the frieze panels.
These are a bit of an enigma. Who made them, and how? Perhaps someone out there knows the artist or recognises the style. Was the pattern carved in a wet medium, such as Faircrete? If anything is meant to be depicted, it seems largely industrial. There’s a rosette feature picked up from the 19th century terracotta detail, made to look a bit like a factory extractor fan. There may be some cocoa pods – or are they crucibles? If the latter, they are matched by part of a stylised crucible furnace. That might even be a bandsaw over to the right. As for those rough-textured linear features, could they represent that most Sheffieldish of by-products, crozzle?
This is an attractive building with an important place in social history, and the artwork adds a whole new layer of interest. Sheffield has not sufficiently valued its 20th century architecture and art, and here is another unregarded example that seems about to be lost for ever. You can help to stop this by objecting to the planning application (reference 22/03350/FUL) that would see it demolished and replaced with flats. Register and make your objection here.
Words: Robin Hughes
Photo: Sean Madner