When it was first built Bishops’ House followed a traditional medieval plan. Builders at the time preferred to construct buildings only one room wide to make it easier to erect the roof. The reason for this was because the oak beams used to span across the building; the Tie beams and Floor Beams, were usually cut from one whole log which was often about 6 m (20 ft) long. The longest Tie Beam from the First Phase of Bishops’ House is 6.2 m (20 ft 4 ins.) long, though (see above) there were some much longer timbers.
An investigation which began in 2011 has given us a new and more accurate history of Bishops’ House and we can now place many more of the events in the building’s history into a chronological sequence. As you might expect from a building of this age, it is a complicated story of construction, demolition and continuous alteration.
What you will find here is an interpretation, based on evidence found so far, of the building that we see standing today. It should be noted that there is a body of well informed opinion that an earlier medieval hall probably once stood in the position of the hall we see today, and that this earlier hall would have predated the 1554 cross wing. Phase One, as referred to in this text, should be considered as Phase One in the construction of the Bishops’ House we see today. We are open to the possibility, and continue to search of evidence for, an earlier structure.
The timber to build the first phase of Bishops’ House was felled in 1553 and the building erected in 1554. In its original form it was built as a post built structure surviving as a rectangle 8.1 m N-S by 5.2 m E-W and 7.0 m high. Six vertical timbers or posts formed this rectangle, two at the N and two in the middle 4.2 m from the N end, and two at the S end, 4.1 m from the middle.
The lack of an external door in the part of the Phase One building might seem to suggest that this building was originally a three bay structure, cut down to two bays when the Phase Three structure was built (see below). If this missing bay was the same length as the other two then the original building would have been about 12.0 m long. The external door may have been in the E facing wall of this bay to give access to the lane. Using this estimate, the floor area of the building would have been around 125.13 m2 which compares very favourably with Victorian and modern terraced housing locally.
However, the consensus amongst architectural historians is now that the Phase One building would have been a two bay structure and that whilst the original occupants would therefore have lived in cramped conditions by today’s standards, that is to be expected. If this is so, the original door must have been elsewhere, again probably on the east wall and now perhaps reduced to a window, or even on the west wall and re-used as a connecting door when the Phase Two structure was built. In this interpretation, the building would have provided 83.42 m2 of accommodation on both floors. It has also been suggested that the upper floor was added at some time after the initial construction.
In the northern of the two surviving bays there is good evidence of a steep ladder-type staircase to communicate between floors. We assume that it was blocked up and covered over when the much grander staircase was built with the third phase.
What survives of this structure has two windows at the south gable end. The two ground floor windows have been inserted with the wall cladding, though they may represent the site of original windows. An upstairs window in the W wall is a later insert. Apart from the tiny stone cruciform window, there is no trace of a window in the E wall. So we must assume that in order for the building to have adequate illumination there would have been a window or windows in the destroyed bay. The wills of John and Agnes Blythe and also of William Blythe mention artifacts associated with a fireplace so (assuming they lived in the house) it is a safe assumption that one existed in the north bay, perhaps as now, at the gable end. Even without that evidence the building would have had some form of heating.
Though we can never be sure that he lived there, the first of the Blythe family contemporary with the construction of the building was John Blythe (unknown – 1581). He was born in Norton Lees and married a woman called Agnes in 1569. They had five children; William (unknown – 1619), Ann who married Christopher Barten in 1574, Elizabeth who was buried in 1559, John and Richard who married Ann Hickson in 1580.
The next generation is represented by John’s son, William Blythe (unknown – 1619). He married Ann Gill in 1569, Effame Brown after 1596 and Joan Bright in 1617. Despite his three marriages he left only one heir, his illegitimate son John Blythe.
Fig 1– Bishops’ House Phase One. In this and all other diagrams F = Fireplace, D = Door and W = Window. North is always at the top.
The timber to build the second phase of Bishops’ House was felled in 1579 and the building erected in 1580 as a king post truss timber framed building with its long axis aligned E-W. This building is 11.1 metres long (East-West), 6.5 metres wide (North-South) and 7.2 to 7.5 metres high. It consists of two bays. The East Bay is 5.1 metres long and the West Bay is 5.0 metres long. The pitch of the roof, about 41o, tells us that it would have been tiled, as with the original structure, though whether the current tiles are five hundred years old is impossible to tell. It is certainly likely that over the centuries many, if not all would have been replaced. The additional floor area provided would have been 76.16 m2 giving a total of 201.29 m2 if we follow the original interpretation of the Phase One building. In the revised interpretation, the combined floor area was 159.58 m2.
In its original form the building would have been a simple structure; a hall with no upper floor, or perhaps just a small one at one end, accessed by a ladder and used for storage. There is no evidence from the posts that they were ever jointed half way up across the bays to take floor beams and support an upper floor.
It appears that the flagstone floor would have been laid down at this time. Buildings of this type often did not have a fireplace and chimney. Fireplaces and chimneys did, of course, exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but tended to belong to higher-status dwellings. It is far more likely that the building would have been heated by a central fire, constrained by a low barrier of stones.
Internal wooden partitions would have divided the building into rooms. Unfortunately any traces of these partitions now lie within the wall cladding that divides the building.
Also at this time a door would have been cut from the original building to connect with the new building. This is the door which connects the Parlour to the Hall.
Window glass would have been an expensive luxury and it is likely that the original building had wooden shutters which would have slid horizontally in grooves on the side of the window frame, or oiled fabric instead of glass. The windows were also used to let out smoke from the fire and tallow (animal fat) candles. Window glass wasn’t in common use in ordinary houses until the late 1500s. The current window panes were dated using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to between 1820 and 1860. Was this the first window glass used in the house? We’ll never know. The house would have been lit by natural lighting supplemented by candles.
The generations of the Blythe family contemporary with this phase of the building were William Blythe (unknown – 1631) who married Frances Vesey, Ellen Alvey and Alice Bates. He had one child with Frances, William Blythe (1608 – 1665) and two children with Ellen Alvey, Richard, baptised in 1613 and Sara baptised in 1615.
William’s will mentions a mill on the Meers Brook, the Blythe Wheel, which may have been used in the scythe industry. The mill is first mentioned in his will, dated 1631 and its last usage seems to have been about 1739 or 1740.
Fig 2 – Bishops’ House Phase Two 1580
We discussed earlier the possibility that the 1554 Crosswing was a three bay structure but that the balance of opinion amongst experts in this field prefers the idea of an original two bay structure. On this revised interpretation, phase three consists simply of a the stone structure being abutted to the earlier structure, rather than demolition and then replacement. This rectangular extension was 4.1 m (North-South) by 7.0 m (East-West) and 7.2 to 7.6 m high. It has substantial walls; the North wall is 0.9 m thick, the West wall is 0.5 to 0.6 m thick and the East wall is 0.55 to 0.65 m thick. The walls are constructed from Coal Measures sandstone, presumably quarried locally. The South West, North West and North East corners of this structure are defined by large dressed blocks of stone called quoins. A large proportion, some 37% of the area, was taken up by the inclusion of a grand wooden staircase with splat balusters typical of the first half of the 17th century. A stone staircase leads down to a cellar, whose flagstone floor is 2.0 metres below ground level. The cellar includes a well and, rather curiously, two fine windows of dressed stone, one of which still retains a small amount of its glass. This implies that the ground level, at least in the seventeenth century, was lower, at least around these windows. Although the cellar is not mentioned until the 1665 will, it is part of the alterations which give every appearance of belonging to one structure, built at the same time. Hence it probably dates to c. 1630.
The phase three construction added 71.76 m2 on three floors including the cellar. This brought the available floor space to 231.34 m2 (83.42 m2 remaining Phase One plus 76.16 m2 Phase Two plus 71.76 m2 Phase Three).
If there had been a small upper floor to the Phase Two building, it would have been removed at this time. The walls of the Phase One and Two structures were clad in courses of stone up to first floor height and capped, on the outside, with a row of slates.
The purpose of this reinforcement was to take the weight of a substantial oak framed floor. Tree ring dating of six of the floorboards removed during the 1970s renovations produced a date of 1600-1642 for this floor.
This tallies with other evidence. Sequencing the timbers has shown that the entrance door to the main staircase has cut through the original 1580 structure and the lintel for the frame of this door now supports the sawn-off post at the East of the middle bay of the original structure. The surviving upper part of this post can be seen on the first floor.
The thick wall cladding also appears to have been extended to form a new wall separating the Hall from the Lesser Parlour. This helped support the framed floor. A chimney was inserted here and also at the southeast corner of the Phase One building.
Inserting the cladding reduced the floor space on the ground floor of the Phase Two building from 76.16 m2 to 60.77 m2. However, the new upper floor provided an additional 66.15 m2 so that the total floor space within the Phase Two building became 126.92 m2.
The total floor area of Bishops’ House was now 282.10 m2 (83.42 m2 Phase One plus 126.92 m2 Phase Two plus 71.76 m2 Phase Three).
A record from 1846 mentions several oak panels. One survives in the main Hall, with the carving WB 1627. A photograph of a carved oak overmantel which originally surrounded the fireplace in the Parlour is carved with WB 1655. The splat balusters of the staircase are typical of the first half of the seventeenth century.
All this leads us to suppose that the additions and alterations were undertaken by William Blythe (1608-1665), who inherited the house in 1620 from his uncle, yet another William Blythe, as there was no legitimate heir. He married Elizabeth Bright in 1628 and they had three children: Ellen baptised in 1629, Alice and Sarah baptised in 1634. Elizabeth died in 1637 and he then married Maria Clarke. They had six children: Joseph and Richard, both baptised in 1637, Comforta baptised in 1638, Sara baptised in 1641, Anna baptised in 1642 and William baptised in 1645 (see the following section for details on this William Blythe). William Blythe was Commander (Captain and Colonel) in the Parliamentary Army and was ordered in 1646 by the Long Parliament to destroy Sheffield Castle, which he did. He obtained a full pardon from Charles II. William was buried in 1665 in Dronfield where an old slab in the Church porch commemorates his death. Bishops’ House is mentioned in his will.
Fig 3 – Bishops’ House Phase Three c. 1630
Post 1630 alterations
After construction of the Phase Three building, Bishops’ House substantially took on its modern form. However, there were many later alterations. It is possible to show that most of these alterations took place in four groups and to suggest possible dates of installation and removal or replacement.
The staircase connecting the ground and upper floors of the Phase One building was boarded over. It is likely that this alteration was also broadly contemporary with the building of the Third Phase structure and its staircase as the new and much grander staircase is very close to the earlier one and would have replaced it.
A door was cut through the east wall of the Phase One building at upper floor level to give access to the new floor inserted to the Phase Two building.
A door was cut through the stone cladding on the east wall of the Phase Two building.
A door was cut through the cladding on the north wall of the Phase Two building.
A door was cut through the south wall of the Chamber above the Hall to give access to the ground via an external staircase.
Two more Blythe generations, the last, date from after the time of the third phase of the building.
William Blythe (1645-1708), the son of William Blythe (1608-1665) was baptised in Norton. He married Maria Waine (father’s surname Clarke). He was granted a special licence by King Charles II to celebrate divine worship in his own home. He was buried at Dronfield. William and Maria had three children: Samuel baptised in 1673, Nathaniel baptised in 1675 and Hephzibah baptised in 1671. She was buried in 1678.
Samuel Blythe (1673-1735) was the son and heir of William Blythe (1645-1708) and was a dissenting minister. He married Mary Sanderson and they had seven children:
Mary who married William Turner in 1731, Ann who was buried in 1730, Elizabeth who was buried in 1725, John who was buried in 1720; two more sons Benjamin and John and an unknown child who became an apothecary.
When Samuel died his widow Mary made a will renouncing her interest in her husband’s estate in favour of her son Benjamin. Samuel junior moved to Birmingham and Benjamin moved to Derby and the house was sold. It is likely that the house and fields were let to tenant farmers.
Rooms mentioned in the Blythe will
Before moving on to the families who owned and occupied Bishops’ House after the Blythes, it is worth pausing and looking at the rooms mentioned in the Blythe wills. The room names do not always match but the most important rooms seem to retain the same name. Some of the headings clearly refer to adjoining structures.
William Blythe 1620
William Blythe 1631
William Blythe 1665
William Blythe 1675
The Great Parlour
The Great Parlour
The chamber over the parlour
The chamber over the Great Parlour
The little parler in the fold side
The middle chamber
The little parlour
The chamber over the house
The chamber over the house
The chamber over the Hall
The upper chamber (clearly a bedroom from the furniture)
The chamber over the kitchen (clearly a bedroom from the furniture)
The bed chamber
The kitchen chamber
The servants’ parlour
The corn chamber over the bakehouse
The old barn
The old corn chamber
The new chamber
The new chamber
The pass chamber
The store chamber
The gate chamber
The far chamber
The porch chamber
The meal chamber
Fig 4 – Bishops’ House post c.1630
Mid/late eighteenth century – early nineteenth century alterations
There is a gap in our records after 1735. We know that the House passed out of ownership of the Blythe family. It is probable that the land was bought by Benjamin Roebuck in 1759 when he bought the Meersbrook Estate, which he later sold to Samuel Shore Senior in 1778. Meersbrook Hall was built by Benjamin Roebuck in 1759 and we can assume that his family lived there and not at Bishops’ House which would have been two centuries old by then and lacking in the modern amenities that the new owners wanted. So it is probable that the House was modified and let out to other tenant farmers for about four decades before the Wilde brothers (see below) occupied it. By 1779 the land on which Bishops’ House stands, and the adjacent fields was in the ownership of Samuel Shore and son. By 1817 the owner is recorded as Samuel Shore senior.
The next group of alterations seem to reflect this.
The door cut through the cladding of the east wall of the Phase Two building was blocked up and a narrow staircase was inserted next to it, in the north east corner.
A wooden partition wall was placed in the Hall and the room above the Hall and with the new staircase this had the effect of dividing the House for the use of two families of tenant farmers.
A window was inserted in the north wall of the Chamber above the Hall to provide additional light to the east part of the divided Chamber.
The first of the tenant farmers that we know about are the Wilde brothers, George, born in 1754 and Thomas born in 1756. With their families they were living here and farming the land from at least 1779. George and his wife Sarah had eleven children: Anne baptised in 1779, Sarah baptised in 1781, George baptised in 1784 and who was buried in 1815, Joseph baptised in 1785, William baptised in 1787, Martha baptised in 1788, Edward baptised in 1790, Henry baptised in 1792, Ellis baptised in 1793, Frances baptised in 1796 and Aaron baptised in 1799.
Thomas and his wife, also called Sarah had seven children: Thomas baptised in 1785 and who was buried in 1853, Mary baptised in 1787 and buried in 1790, Hannah baptised in 1789, Anne baptised in 1790, John baptised in 1791 and buried in 1829, James baptised in 1793 and Ruth baptised in 1796.
George Wilde died in 1815 aged 61and his brother Thomas died in 1816 aged 59. The two Sarahs died in 1831 and 1834.
The new owners of Bishops’ House were the Shore family. The first generation contemporary with the ownership of the land and the House was Samuel Shore (1761-1836) and his wife Urith Offley (1761-1826). They had three sons: Offley (1760-1767), Samuel, baptised in 1761and Bohun baptised in 1763.
Samuel married Harriet and they had four children: Sydney baptised in 1790, Elizabeth Maria baptised in 1793, Octavia buried in 1807 and Offley born in 1797.
Offley married Eliza Brewin (1794-1834) in 1823. There is only a record of one child, Harriet Frances buried in 1829 aged 11 months.
Offley Shore had joined the Parker Shore bank in 1818, aged 21 on the retirement of his great uncle William, brother of John and a founding partner. His own father Samuel Shore was one of a line of entrepreneurs. His grandfather had married Urith Offley, heiress to the Norton estate which he eventually inherited when his father died in 1836. When the Parker Shore bank collapsed, and the Shore family fortune with it, in 1843, the Meersbrook Estate was sold.
After the Wildes, the next family of tenant farmers living at Bishops’ House were the Whites.
Joseph White was born about 1794 in Heeley, Yorkshire and was a dairy farmer. About 1820 he married Saley Whittington, born about 1791 in Greenhill, Derbyshire, the daughter of a prominent farmer who farmed at the grange of Mosborough Hall and they lived in Sponden, Derbyshire, where their first son, James was born in 1821. In 1822 they had another son, Thomas who died in 1832.
By 1833 Joseph White was farming in Norton Lees, though we do not know if the family lived at Bishops’ House.
By 1841 the family were living in Bishops’ House and farming about 40 acres on land between the house and the Meers Brook. Joseph’s wife Saley died in September 1843, aged 52.
Their son James married Jane Mitchell in April 1844. She had been born in Greenhill in 1816. James and Jane White had several children: a daughter Saley born in 1846, a son Thomas born in 1847, a daughter Jane Hannah
born in 1848, a daughter Ella born in 1849, a son James born in 1851, a son William born in 1854, a daughter Elizabeth Sykes born in 1856 and a son Joseph Lindsey born in 1861.
Joseph White died in March 1869 aged 75.
James White’s wife Jane died in September 1875. Most of his children moved out and by 1881 he was farming with just his sons James and Joseph Lindsey. By 1891 Bishops’ House had been taken over for the use of the park gardeners and James White was living in a neighbouring building, possibly in the row of three cottages to the east of Bishops’ House, with his daughter Jane and granddaughter Winifred. He was still recorded as a farmer in 1891 and 1893.
Later alterations about 1886
In 1886 Sheffield Corporation bought up the land of the old Meersbrook estate and it opened as Meersbrook Park in September 1887.
To judge from photographs of the period, Sheffield Corporation set about tidying up the land and doing a few modifications to Bishops’ House. The chimney central to the Phase Two building and the one at the south east corner of the Phase One building, built out of brick, were replaced by stone chimneys. The bargeboards on the south facing gable wall of the Phase One building were replaced.
A sketch of the Parlour in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent from 1885 shows the entire room with wood panelling. A similar sketch from the same newspaper from 1890 shows that this had all been removed except for some panelling below the gable window. The 1890 report says that the House ‘has come into possession of the Corporation’ and ‘has been restored and put into a safe condition’.
When the last of the farmers, James White left, he was replaced by a succession of gardeners and park keepers who maintained the park.
The first of these, living in the east part of the House was James Cheetham. He was born in 1865 in Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire. His wife Kate was born in 1867 in Waleswood, Yorkshire. They had three daughters, Elizabeth E Cheetham born in 1891, Sarah Cheetham born in 1893 and Gertrude born in 1900; and two sons Albert H Cheetham born in 1896 and Arthur born in 1898. All the children were born in Norton, Derbyshire. From around 1886 they lived at Bishops’ House where he was employed as a park gardener and domestic servant, until 1902. After that he left to work in Hillsborough Park some time before 1901.
Harry Ryalls and his family lived at the west end of the house. He was born in 1858 in Sheffield, Yorkshire. His wife Lucy was born in 1863 in Sheffield, Yorkshire. Their son John W Ryalls was born in 1892 and daughter Charlotte E Ryalls was born in 1894, both of Norton, Derbyshire. From around 1886 they lived at Bishops’ House where he was employed as a park gardener. Harry Ryalls died in March 1929 aged 71. After his death his widow remained in Bishops’ House for a short time.
We have less information about the later park keepers and gardeners. This is a summary of their occupation and names:
1886-1929 Harry Ryalls & family.
1886- 1902 James Henry Cheetham & family
1905-1906 Thomas Carter
1907-1927 Charles William Chester
1929-1944 James Stanley Hogg
1931-1940 Harold Scott
1942-1944 John Henry Hallas
1948- Clifford Hitchin
1948-1951 George Frederick Allen
1959-1961 Thomas Lloyd
1959-1966 George Wattam and family
1959-1973 Peter Gill and family
Later alterations 1974-6 and after
The west part of Bishops’ House was boarded up in 1966 and the east side in 1974 when the last of the park keepers, the Gill family, left. Between 1974 and 1976 Sheffield City Council removed many of the later alterations, restoring most of the original features for public display. The building opened as a museum in July 1976.
The partition into two dwellings, inserted in the eighteenth century was removed.
The well in the cellar was capped and a pump inserted to take care of occasional flooding from the ground water.
The floor to the larder (currently the kitchen) and the store (currently the toilet) were made up to be level with the floor of the Lesser Parlour.
Insulating cladding was added beneath the roof tiles before they were replaced.
The uppermost timbers at the south gable end of the Phase One building were replaced.
Arnold A and Howard R (2017) Bishops’ House Norton Lees Lane, Norton Lees, Sheffield. Tree-Ring analysis of timbers. The Nottingham tree-ring dating laboratory.
Ball C, Crossley D, Fretwell N, Eds. (2006) Water power on the Sheffield Rivers. H Charlesworth & Co. Ltd. Wakefield. ISBN 978-0-9556644-0-3
Morgan R (1977) Dendrochronological dating of a Yorkshire timber building. Vernacular Architecture 8, 809-814.