Story by Graham Jones | Photos courtesy of Picture Sheffield
As we celebrate the centenary of the end of the First World War, let’s not forget the massive suffering of the troops of all sides and that of the millions of civilians whose lives were lost or threatened as a result of this barbaric war.
Our neighbourhood has a proud and continuing history of taking in refugees from war zones and other human and natural catastrophes. From 1914 over 250,000 refugees from the war zones in Belgium came to the UK. 3,000 of them came to Sheffield. A reception centre was set up in the workhouse/ military hospital at Fir Vale, in the grounds of the current Northern General Hospital. Local people and churches donated food, clothing and other items to help to make the refugees’ lives a little less spartan. One couple had seen their house burned down in Belgium. The husband had been taken prisoner by the Germans, while his wife made her way to Ostend. The man had got away from the Germans and by complete chance bumped into his wife at Ostend from where they travelled to Sheffield.
Over 90% of the Belgians went home after the war and their presence has largely been forgotten. Perhaps their most enduring legacy is Hercule Poirot, a fictional detective based on a Belgian refugee in Torquay, created by Agatha Christie in 1920.
Accommodation was found for many refugees in 1916 in the form of “munition huts” near Petre Street, Tyler Street and Tinsley. The Sheffield Yearbook of 1917 anticipated that these huts would house up to 7,000. There were several streets (with numbers rather than names) of such huts which each contained six dwellings. The refugees largely went to work in the booming munitions industry in the Don Valley.
After the war the huts were used to alleviate the housing shortage for local working people. Perhaps not quite “homes fit for heroes” but they had three bedrooms, a living room and kitchen.
According to Hansard (11th May 1927): The number of huts and tenants on each estate is as follows: Tyler Street 366, Petre Street 187, and Tinsley 167, making a total of 720. The average number of occupants per hut is probably about four or five, and the average rent charged is about 8s. per week, inclusive of rates and water.
There was a strong sense of local community in the Tyler Street huts and they even had their own “corner shop”, a fish and chip shop and a community hall for social events. Local entrepreneurs included a coal man/ coach operator, an ice cream seller and an (illegal) bookies’ runner.
In 1939, with the advent of the Second World War, the huts were considered a fire risk and so they were burnt down!