Today Bishops’ House is located between the suburbs of Meersbrook and Norton Lees. Now in Sheffield, these places were once part of the Derbyshire countryside. Meersbrook refers to the boundary line marked by the Mears Brook (‘meer’ being old English for boundary). This was the boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, later becoming the boundary between Derbyshire and Yorkshire.
Before Victorian times Meersbrook was an area of fields leading down to the Meers Brooke rather than a settlement as such. When Bishops’ House was built people would have said the building was in Norton Lees. Norton Lees means ‘forest clearing in Norton’, with ‘Ley’ (also spelled ‘lee’ or ‘lea’) being old english for a forest clearing and ‘Norton’ meaning ‘northern settlement’. A number of Sheffield’s suburbs are similarly named, such as Heeley, Totley, Tinsley, Wadsley and Walkley.
Today Norton Lees is a suburb of similar size to the neighbouring village of Norton, but the place was little more than a cluster of buildings when Bishops’ House was built. Norton, Norton Lees and Meersbrook were all once part of the much larger area of Norton Parish, which also contained Heeley, Little London, Smithy Wood and Woodseats, as well as Bradway, Greenhill, Jordanthorpe and Hemsworth. Norton Parish became the principal area in the north of England for making sickles and scythes in the sixteenth century, and the tradition continued well into Victorian times.
Hover over the maps below to move the slider and compare the area in about 1800 with today’s map. (This rewards looking at on a larger device.. on a mobile device try tilting to landscape mode and pinch to zoom)
Below is a sequence of maps, with explanations below, showing how much the area has changed. Click the arrows to cycle through.
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.
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. By 1750 it may have exceeded 12,000 while that of the parish as a whole has been estimated at 20,000.
At the end of the eighteenth century England was a country of about eight and a half million people, at war with Napoleon Bonaparte, and George III was on the throne. Sheffield at the time was still a small town, probably no more than 1,500 m across and with only 46,000 in the Parish of whom nearly 31,500 lived in Sheffield Township and about 35,000 living in the urban, built up area. But the Industrial Revolution had begun with the invention of Crucible Steel and Sheffield Plate. The population slowly increased to 111,000 by 1841, after which there was a much sharper increase to 185,000 by 1861. The next village in towards Sheffield from Norton Lees, Heeley, had a similar slow increase in population until the middle of the 19th century, after which there was a dramatic rise. Norton Lees, by contrast, was always a small isolated rural community whose population remained broadly static at around 100, not reflecting the massive changes from the rural landscape of centuries, divided by fields and a few areas of woodland with here and there a few small scattered communities, to increasing urbanisation and industrialisation.
Apart from Bishops’ House, few other early buildings survive. The grandest house in the local area was Norton Hall, built in 1815 by Samuel Shore, and Meersbrook Hall, built in 1759 for local businessman Benjamin Roebuck.