Tuesday, 19 July 2011

News - Box full of memories (Sheffield Police Box)

FOR generations it was a building to be respected and feared: misbehave in town, mothers told their children, and an old-fashioned bobby would take you there for an old-fashioned clip round the ear.

For younger Sheffielders, meanwhile, it is the strangely fascinating unit that looks like the Dr Who Tardis and offers, by association, the faint scent of mystery.

And for city centre ambassadors, it is the cramped little room where they sometimes sat and ate lunch.

This is the Surrey Street Police Box – the only remaining unit of its kind in Sheffield city centre and one of less than 300 thought to be left across the entire country.

Now, a campaign has been launched to keep this unique piece of South Yorkshire street furniture in tact for generations to come.

Hallamshire Historic Building Society have applied to English Heritage to have the building – once blue but now green – listed. It would mean it could not be knocked down or materially altered.

“I think losing the old box would be as bad as losing the vulcan from the Town Hall,” says Howard Greaves, vice-chairman of the HHBS, solemnly. “It is absolutely a piece of Sheffield history and, while there’s no suggestion there are any plans to get rid of it at the moment, having it listed would really ensure it was safe.

“It really harks back to another age and, with so much changing so quickly, we have to be on our guard against losing anything like this which symbolises our past. Of course there would be an outcry if there were plans to get rid of it. It would be like the Tinsley Towers all over again.”

The antique dealer of Abbeydale Road thinks for a moment.

“Well, perhaps not quite like that – you can’t see the police box from the motorway, can you? – but people wouldn’t be happy. It’s part of the city’s fabric.”

The box was once not so unusual, being one of about 120 dotted across Sheffield.

It was opened in 1928 by Chief Constable Percy J Sillitoe, a no-nonsense London hard man whose policy of using ‘reasonable force’ against known gang members was considered less than reasonable by said gang members but which nonetheless persuaded many of them to turn their back on their crooked way of life.

Sillitoe was credited with cleaning the city’s reputation and later went on to become director general of MI5. The box, meanwhile, remained in use until the 1960s, as a base where police officers could write reports and call the station.

A specially installed phone on the outside could be used by members of the public to call police free of charge, while a blue electric lamp on top was lit up by the central station when commanding officers wanted to attract the attention of beat bobbies.

The boxes were decommissioned in the 1960s but many remained standing in Sheffield with about seven left today.

The Surrey Street unit became a base for city centre ambassadors in 2009.

“When you go inside it’s like stepping back into the 1960s,” says Guy Biggin, supervisor for the ambassadors. “It’s only tiny but the furnishings haven’t changed since then so it does feel like you’ve gone back in time.”

Now all eyes are on English Heritage to preserve this little time capsule.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed for a positive conclusion but Dr Who knows?” says Howard. “We can only hope now we’ve made our argument.”

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