Bishops' House

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History

 

Welcome to this section of the website which deals with the history, structure and construction of Bishops’ House. My name is Ken Dash and my association with Bishops’ house began in March 2011 when I went to a heritage weekend. I suggested that I could do a proper plan and elevation of the building, something that appeared never to have been done. Colin Merrony and Dr Roger Doonan, both from the Archaeology Department of the University of Sheffield, who were involved in the heritage weekend agreed to this and the Archaeology Department lent me some survey equipment. I began in the autumn of that year.

I didn’t realise then how long it would take. I could only work while the House was open to the public at weekends and could only do the outside work in relatively dry weather. Once the ground floor plan was done, I produced a plan of the upper floor and the walls, roof and the cellar. I finally finished in 2014.

While this was going on I was learning about the history of the house and the people who had lived in it over the centuries, and began my own researches, especially into the later and often ignored families who had occupied the building from the late eighteenth century up to the time the last occupants moved out in 1974.

 This, then is a history of Bishops’ House, a building which has changed over the centuries with additions, demolitions and refurbishments. It is also the history of the many families who lived here, and part of the history of the small Derbyshire village of Norton Lees that is now part of the City of Sheffield.

It often seems to us that every time we think that we know as much as we can ever know, a few weeks later we find out something new and sometimes something totally unexpected. So although we now have a good understanding of the history of Bishops’ House and can now place many more of the events in the building’s history into a relatively firm chronological sequence there may be a few surprises still.

Many people worked to interpret and understand the history of Bishops’ House. Here are their names (in no special order of merit):

 Clairemarie Allen, Julie Anson, Neil Anson, Andy Bentham, Pauline Beswick, Kathryn Brown, Zach Brown, Joy Bullivant, Chris Connolly, Lucy Creighton, Dr Roger Doonan, Meg Green, Ann Hayes, Wes Hedge, Jeremy Hodgkinson, Peter Honeyman, Stanley R Jones, Colin Merrony, Sharon Mosey, Sarah Shepherd, James Thompson.

 When I began this survey I had no clear idea of how to progress or what I would find. John Brown, a retired architect, who was the first Chairperson of the Friends of Bishops’ House and I used to spend many hours walking around the building and studying and interpreting it. He suggested the recording system that I used for the timber beams and gave many hours of his time to review the interpretation of the building, even when he was ill. It was his clear guidance that led to our current understanding of the building.  John died in 2015 and we all miss him. Thank you John.

 

This part of the website will no doubt be a continually expanding one.  The first part is a short commentary written by local historian and expert on the Blythe family of Bishops' House, Joy Bullivant. 

  

Bishops House stands on land known once known as Colliteland that was given to the John de Blythe  by William Chaworth in 1377. The land which was later called Coltyard  was in continuous ownership by the Blythe Family till the property was sold by Samuel Blythe junior some time after the death of his father Samuel in 1737.    

Evidence suggests two Bishops,  John Blythe of Salisbury and Geoffrey Blythe Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry were born in a house on this land, but the present  house is thought to be of too modern a construction to be that house. 

click for a larger image

It is not certain when the house was first referred to as Bishops House as early documents simply call the land Coltyard.  A map by William Fairbanks in 1777 still labels the land Coltyard   A map included with conveyance documents prior to the sale of Meersbrook Estate  in 1886 is the earliest legal document at present found to call it  Bishops House,  and it is given as an address in the 1891 census. References to the Bishop connection can be found in books and articles as early as 1817 by  Samuel Lysons in his  Magna Brittanica but he did not give the legend much credence.

Documents  suggest that it was in Richard Blythe’s possession in 1500, brother to Geoffrey and John Blythe. Certainly later documents state that his son William was in possession of the land in Norton Lees in 1541. A John Blythe was in possession in 1546 after William’s death.  John, from other documents would appear to be a younger son of William. This John died in 1561 passing the land onto his son William and his smithy gear to his other son John. However a later document in 1572 had a  John as occupier and the land later passed to his son William.  It is probable that the other William died soon after his father. A document regarding an exchange of land between Godfrey Foljambe of Morehall and  John Parker of Norton Lees in 1583 directly names William Blythe as owner of the land called Coltyard.  A family heirloom of a Flanders Chest directly links this William to the first John Blythe.

The wills of various Blythes give an idea of when the additions to the house took place.  William Blythe’s will in 1631 has an inventory that lists 8 rooms and 3 outhouses, while Captain William Blythe’s  will inventory in 1665 lists 11 rooms and a cellar and 5 outhouses, and  William Blythe’s will of 1675 lists 12 rooms  plus a new house (hall) and new chamber above,  and 6 outhouses. The changes by Captain William Blythe would have to be after 1648 , when he took part in the demolition of Sheffield Castle and bought salvaged plaster and timber to build the new bed chamber and embellish other parts of the house.  Possibly the earliest change was in 1627, the date on the panelling in the hall, which also has the initials WB. However as the panelling was obviously taken from somewhere else and cut to fit the hall, we have no way of knowing if it was from older alterations or someone else’s house altogether.

Sometime after the death of Samuel Blythe in 1735 the house passed out of Blythe ownership and the house and fields were let out to tenant farmers.  It is probable that the land was bought by Benjamin Roebuck in 1757 when he bought Meersbrook Estate, which he later sold to Samuel Shore Senior in about 1783. Certainly Bishops House was in the Shore’s possession in 1805 as shown on a map of the time. At some time  during the tenancy the house was divided into 2 separate self contained dwellings.

Due to the collapse of the Shore family fortune, the Meersbrook Estate was sold. Some parts were sold to property developers and plans were drawn up to develop the whole of the Estate as housing leaving a small garden round Meersbrook Hall and knocking down Bishops House and other nearby buildings to make room for  new access roads for the housing estate. A mixture of public pressure, the need for more public parks and a place to put Ruskins Collection led to negotiations by Sheffield Corporation to buy the land including Bishops House. The asking price per acre was the highest price of any of the land bought as parks at the time, higher than Hillborough or Endcliffe Park. The high price  resulted in  the amount of  land  purchased being reduced, and the need to use some of the land to make new access roads, resulted is a much smaller public park than originally planned.  It is not known why Bishops House was included, but possibly this too was due to public pressure. Certainly the legend of the house was well known  at that time.

 

The Parks Authority continued to use Bishops House as a dwelling house, housing 2 separate families of park employees at a time. This was continued till the 1970s when the house was restored and turned into a museum opening in July 1976.  Originally the house was open to the public during the week from 10 a.m till 5 p.m from Wednesday to Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m-5 p.m. Spending cuts over the years have resulted in the present limited visiting times.

Joy Bullivant

 A short history of the area

 Bishops House was built in 1554, during the short but turbulent reign of Mary Tudor (1553 to 1558) and appears to be the last surviving building from that era in the tiny village of Norton Lees. Norton Lees was a village in the parish of Norton which included a large part of what is now southern Sheffield, and at the edges of the valleys cut by the Sheaf and its tributary the Meers Brook. Norton in the sixteenth century was the principal scythe making community in the North of England. These are a few brief notes about the area.

 The landscape

 Maps covering individual areas such as Woodseats, Heeley and Norton in the 1720s and 1740s show a completely rural area with the land divided into fields for agriculture and only the beginnings of any nucleated settlement.

A map of the parish of Heeley from 1796 and one of Norton from 1804-05 shows this rural landscape, divided by fields and a few areas of woodland with here and there a few small scattered communities. Before the modern street layout, Heeley was no more than a group of extended farms, divided into Heeley, Upper Heeley and Heeley Green. Norton Lees was a small community around Bishops House. There was more occupation where modern Gleadless lies and the beginnings of Woodseats. The major difference is that the modern Chesterfield Road was laid out in 1757 as a turnpike road from Sheffield to Chesterfield, replacing the old coach route from Sheffield to Derby which ran up from Heeley, through where Meersbrook Park now lies and out through Graves Park.

 An 1845map shows the landscape in the middle of the nineteenth century. Little has changed. A few field boundaries have moved and a few farm tracks have become minor roads. But things were about to change. The Midland Railway was driven through the Sheaf Valley, opening in 1870. Soon after that, in 1872, the first streets of modern Heeley were laid out and then the remainder of the familiar streets of Heeley slowly covered the agricultural land. Meersbrook Park opened in 1887 and by the 1890s the streets were covering the area bordering the new park. Heeley railway station was expanded from two to four platforms in September 1902. But most of the area was still rural and many of the fields that had been in use for hundreds of years were still farmed.

By the 1920s much of what we regard as Heeley, Norton, Meersbrook and Woodseats had been laid out as streets. Very little of the old rural landscape remained. In 1929 the three cottages next to Bishop’s House were demolished. Two big houses close to Bishops House, The Hollies and Thorpe House, were demolished by the early 1930s to make way for the Thorpe House estate, built in 1934.

During the Second World War Sheffield was bombed in December 1940, hundreds of bombs landing in our area. Many local people were homeless and Anns Road Church in Heeley helped to give temporary shelter.

With the building boom of the post war years more streets were laid out. But change wasn’t always one-way. The Meersbrook was culverted in the early 1960s and Heeley railway Station was closed in 1968. In 1977 four streets in Heeley were demolished to make way for the Heeley Bypass. As we know this was never built and instead Heeley City Farm has occupied the land since 1981. In 1988 Sainsbury’s Homebase was built on the old quarry site on Chesterfield Road. The old Heeley railway sidings, once occupied by Greshams Timber Yard, was built over as Heeley Retail Park.

Sheffield

 The earliest reference to Sheffield’s population that I have been able to find dates from 1571 when it was estimated at only 833 in the township with a total of 1,676 in the parish. By 1672 the township’s population had risen to 2,311 with 4,685 in the parish.

There were no accurate population statistics before 1801 when the first Census was held. However for Sheffield the enumerations carried out by ‘twenty four of the most sufficient inhabitants’ in 1615 and by a house to house survey in 1736, as well as estimates based on the poll tax returns of 1692, the parish registers and other sources allow us to go back another two hundred years, remembering that an absolute precision cannot be claimed. At the beginning of the 17th century the population of the parish of Sheffield – an extensive area including several villages and hamlets – was estimated at 3,000 of which perhaps 2,200 lived in the town itself. By the end of that century the population had risen to 5,000 of whom fewer than 3,500 lived in the town proper. By 1700 Sheffield was still little more than the largest of a group of villages clustering in the valleys of South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire. The survey of 1736 puts the population of the town at about 10,000 [9,695 on Gosling’s map and 10,120 according to Hunter]. By 1750 it may have exceeded 12,000 while that of the parish as a whole has been estimated at 20,000. At the beginning of the 19th century nearly 46,000 people were enumerated in the Parish of whom nearly 31,500 lived in Sheffield Township and about 35,000 may be estimated to have lived in the urban, built up area.’ But in Sheffield the Industrial Revolution had produced massive change and the population had risen to 135,000 by 1841 and to 220,000 by 1861.

Water mills

There are several water-driven mills along the Sheaf and one on the Meers Brook, in our area. Some of them provide evidence of the early industrialisation along the Sheaf valley.

Skargell or Bartin Wheel dates from 1631 and was marked as empty by 1850. The building date of Ecclesall Mill, also called Millhouses Corn Mill is unknown and it is first mentioned in 1529 and was still in working order after the Second World War. Moscar Wheel dates from the 15th century and is the oldest known wheel on the Sheaf, and in fact on all Sheffield’s rivers. It was noted as empty by 1891. New Mill or Norton Forge or Hammer Wheel has an uncertain origin date. In 1513 there is a record of a ‘New Milne’ leased to John Blythe of Norton for sixty years. It was recorded as empty in 1891. Smithy Wood or Cliffefield or Garlick Wheel dates from at least 1709 and seems to have gone out of use by 1849 with the collapse of the Parker Shore Bank. Little London Wheel was in use by 1720 and continued in use to the mid 1950s. Heeley Corn Mill was first recorded late in the 16th century and probably went out of use by the 1870s. The first record of Heeley Wheel is from 1581 and it was unoccupied by 1863. Heeley Tilt was occupied in 1747and may have been in use as late as 1896.

Along the Meers Brook, Blyth Mill or Blyth Wheel was recorded as early as 1650 with a final mention in 1739 or 1740.

The railway

Construction of the Midland railway into Sheffield began in 1864 following parliamentary approval, and over a thousand recently built houses on the approach to Sheffield were compulsorily purchased and then demolished. By August 1867 work on the Bradway Tunnel was progressing. Stations were built at Dronfield, Abbey Houses, Ecclesall and Heeley. The railway opened in February 1870. Heeley Station originally had two platforms. It was widened with four platforms replacing the original two between July and September 1902. The station stayed open for another six decades, finally closing in June 1968 following the Beeching cuts to the railway system. Today all that can be seen from Chesterfield Road is a weed choked and blocked entrance just south of Heeley Bridge. For railway enthusiasts some exact dates are:

Heeley Station was opened on 01/02/1870.

Heeley North Junction to Sheffield South Junction - Down Slow Line opened 04/05/1902. Up Slow Line opened 11/05/1902.

Heeley Up Main Line and platform replaced by new ones 27/07/1902.

Heeley Down Main Line and platform replaced by new ones 28/09/1902.

Heeley Carriage Sidings to Heeley North Junction up and down slow lines [up side] opened on 08/03/1903.

 

The trams

The first horse drawn trams ran from Lady’s Bridge to Attercliffe in 1873. The line from Moorhead to Nether Edge and Heeley opened in 1877. Tram sheds in Albert Road were opened in 1878. The last of the horse drawn tramcars ran in 1902. The last electric tram ran in October 1960.

 Heeley Bridge

 The plaque on Heeley Bridge says that the current bridge was built about 1869. There has been a river crossing at this same place, traceable on the 1904, 1896, 1863, 1855, 1835 and 1796 maps. However, some time after 1756 the road south from Sheffield is shown crossing the Sheaf some 50 to 60 m to the west and then continuing south across the bottom of the current Gleadless Road. Before that (i.e. before 1756) the Sheaf crossing was about where Well Road meets London Road.

Evidence for a river crossing at Heeley existing as early as 1650 comes from an edition of the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent dated Tues. 30/08/1864. On p 3 a correspondent quotes from the notes of his four times great grandfather Stephen Fox, who records repairs to the bridge between October and December 1650.

SOURCES

Stephen R Batty (1984) Rail Centres: Sheffield. ISBN 0 7110 1366 7

 John Gough (1986) The Midland Railway – A chronology. p 51 University of Leicester. ISBN 0 9511310 0 1. In the Local Studies Library, Sheffield.

 Howard Smith (2003) The Sheffield and Chesterfield to Derby Roads. West Bar Printing Services. ISBN 0-9521541-5-3

 J Edward Vickers (1992) A popular History of Sheffield p 56. Applebaum bookshop.

Ken Dash

 

Building Bishops' House

 

Although no documentary sources of the construction of Bishops’ House exist, enough is known about how timber-framed buildings were built to be able give a fairly accurate account of the sequence of construction.

Using oak

 In the sixteenth century timber was the main construction material for buildings in England, though stone was of course used where it was readily available and where it could be afforded. The sixteenth century saw England change from a small backwater country to a major European trading nation. With the rise in wealth came the demand for more elaborate buildings and Bishops’ House, in its modest way, reflects part of this change. The forests of England which for centuries had provided an inexhaustible supply of timber began, for the first time to be depleted, not only with the demand for domestic architecture, but also the demands of an increasingly large navy and merchant fleet.

Nonetheless, timber framed buildings were still the dominant form of building across the country until well into the 17th century when there was a great spread in the use of bricks, especially after the Reformation of 1660. The reason for this was the expense of utilising other forms of construction. There were few permanent quarries with most local ones being opened for a single major project. Brick and stone masons tended to congregate around major cities and their costs were prohibitive, even for the relatively wealthy.

Over 90% of timber-framed buildings were made of oak. This figure is not just an accident of survival as other species are preserved as well. Historical records show that oak was both the most expensive and the most commonly used tree. Of the other species found, elm is the most common, with ash and aspen most often found in medieval terraced houses and other homes of the relatively poor.

Even when stone and later, brick were readily available, timber-framed structures were still the dominant form of building across the country until well into the 1600s. Oak was a carefully managed timber resource in the forests of England. Because of the difficulties of transportation over poor roads hundreds of years ago, most buildings would have been constructed from locally sourced materials and we presume that Bishops’ House and the other buildings of the village of Norton Lees would have been built of timber from local woodland. Even now the small remnant of woodland at Gleadless Valley is no more than 1,300 m away. Two sources refer to this woodland in 1462 and 1583.

Despite the constant demand on oak forests, some substantial timbers were used in Bishops’ House, showing that well into the sixteenth century large mature oak trees were still being felled.

Seven of the longest measured beams at Bishops’ House are between 6 and 7 m long. The longest four beams measure over 7.5 m, over 8.2 m, 9.5 m and 11.0 m, showing that in the mid sixteenth century, much longer pieces of timber were sometimes available.

Felling the trees

Traditionally the trees would have been felled at the end of the autumn, perhaps November or December, and left to weather over the winter, but no longer. Green oak was workable with the iron saws and adzes available at the time but once its moisture content became too low the oak would have become too brittle. So by early the following year, perhaps January or February, the timber would have been sawn into the main beams and smaller timbers such as the braces and rafters.  By the Tudor period the growth of the tanning industry meant that it became profitable to fell the trees in the spring when the bark was easiest to remove and could be sold to the tanners to cover the cost of felling. We don’t know if this happened with the timbers for Bishops’ House.

Sawing and marking the timbers

 Timber-framed buildings were always prefabricated; the beams cut to size and the joints cut and fitted in the carpenter’s yard. The main beams would have been placed on trestle tables and moved to lie at a right angle before the mortice joint was cut. They would then have been marked with an ‘X’ with two parallel lines bordering it. Twelve of these levelling marks have been found at Bishops’ House. See Figs 1 and 2.

Other marks, usually scored with the flat end of a chisel, were used to indicate which of the timbers were to be jointed to which others and many of the beams preserve these marks; usually scribed as a series of modified Roman numerals but sometimes as C shaped marks with a different type of chisel. See Fig 3.

 

 

 

Fig 1 - Cutting the mortice and tenon joint and marking the timbers in the carpenter's yard

Fig 2 - Carpenter's levelling mark on one of the posts

Fig 3 - Carpenters' marks in Bishops' House

 

Assembling the building

We usually assume that the prepared beams would then have been brought to the site by horse and cart. Timber-framed buildings were usually built directly onto the ground surface, which was probably just roughly levelled. The frame; the part of the structure containing the posts, the floor beam, the tie beam, the king post and the principal rafters would have been fitted together while horizontal; holes being drilled to connect the beams and slightly tapered round wooden pegs driven into the holes to join the beams together. The finished frame would then be reared into position with pulleys and ropes and supported by temporary wooden supports, then jointed with the sill plate.

The lowermost level of horizontal beams, the sill plate, would have been supported on temporary blocks which would have been replaced after completion by inserting a low stone wall running around the building. The sill beams would have rested on this. This was a local tradition on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines. However we have no proof of this in Bishops’ House as the whole building was strengthened with a stone wall in the seventeenth century and all traces of earlier construction are now buried within this wall.

At Bishops’ House the main posts, wherever visible, have been placed on a pad of stones, sometimes called a stylobate. Their purpose would have been to make sure that when the horizontal timbers were jointed, that these were level and, of course, in keeping the posts off the ground, to avoid damp and rot. These stylobates often comprise several stones, presumably attempts to do some final adjustments to make sure that the horizontal beams they were attached to were truly horizontal. Measurements of some of the upper beams have shown that even after nearly five centuries they are level to within one or two centimetres over five metres.

The next frame would be similarly raised. They would then be joined by attaching the mid rails and wall plates. Once this was done the supports could be removed as the structure was now rigid. Purlins, rafters, braces and doors and windows were then added. Because it was often not possible to get straight timbers to run the length of a building, a scarf joint was sometimes used to link two timbers together in a line, and we can see this connecting the purlins at Bishops’ House.

The smaller timbers would have been slotted in with wooden pegs and the space between these filled with small pieces of wood called laths, or even with slates and plastered over. In 2011 when Sheffield City Council was repairing part of the wall we were able to photograph this rarely-seen part of the structure. See Figs 4, 5 and 6.

 

Fig 4 - Vertical posts, horizontal beams and angled braces held together by wooden pegs in Bishops' House

 

Fig 5 - A scarf joint pegged together to connect two sections of Purlin in the Chamber above the Hall