Drainspotting - A European Story, Made in Sheffield.

Story Natural
Calvin Payne

The development of the modern European city is often a story of political organisation and the flourishing of social and cultural institutions. This story is different, it looks under the pavements and roads of one such European city, Sheffield, to tell how industrialisation, urbanisation and new forms of local government emerged over the last two centuries. While the architecture of the city is often impressive, the hidden infrastructure of sewerage, and services such as power, fuel, and communication is what really makes a city function. Focussing on the unassuming covers such as manholes, drains and service portals, we tell a story of how a city developed, how its citizens were protected from disease and how a hidden network of pipes, culverts and wires connects us to each other. 'Drainspotting' is a pastime now taken seriously by academics but also one equally open to every citizen. This story shows us how anyone can understand the history of their street simply by looking down and thinking about what’s under their feet!

For centuries Sheffield has been England’s ‘Steel City’. Home to metallurgical innovations such as crucible steels and stainless steels, the skills and knowledge of its industries were known across Europe. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the city was occupied by large foundries employing whole communities. However, not all the objects made were from specialist steels or giant forgings, some were relatively small and insignificant. They were everyday items often overlooked yet they can be found on any street, in any city, across Europe. It is these ‘invisible objects’ that our story concerns. The streets of the city contain thousands of small pieces cast iron that tell stories of the development of the city in the 19th and early 20th century. These pieces of cast iron are portals to the city’s underground infrastructure for sanitation, transport, gas, electricity, and telephone services. Rarely noticed, these covers when analysed can be used to trace the early history of the city and to better understand its development. Some service covers are self-explanatory, although on occasions their purpose is no longer clear, having become lost in time and become a mystery. Embedded in the pavement and in the gutter, objects such as drain covers, manhole covers, utility company features, property markers, are frequent features on the street. They signal the presence of an underworld that lets the city function through the provision of water, fuel and power, and through the removal of sewerage and rain water. Sometimes these are dated, some have the maker’s name and address, whilst others have descriptions or identifying marks. Their presence testifies to the processes of urban development, a process that saw large populations congregate around new forms of material production and give rise to distinctive forms of culture and art that makes Sheffield, and indeed Europe, what it is today. Unlike documented or written histories of urban development which may concentrate on social, political or architectural aspects, the humble service covers tell a parallel and often undocumented history. They have endured for over a century and rest in their streets as modest and unpretentious historical documents that has, to date, attracted little interest from modern historians. A community of researchers in Sheffield has started to learn how to ‘read’ these peculiar documents and by doing so has begun to discover new historical information about the development of the modern city. The details contained on street features include very often the only date found on a street. They may also be the only description or contractor’s name on the street (or in the neighbourhood). They will highly likely be the only evidence remaining for previous services or service providers. The tale they tell is not only that of times gone by, such as horse transport or gas lighting, but also of political and social change. Whilst some features are found very rarely today, others from the 19th century can still be seen in their hundreds across the city. The sheer scale of development at the time means that many streets still contain their early, or even original, pavement features and installations. Objects are almost never found anywhere that doesn’t fit chronologically. The age of the street matches the features found along it. Sheffield Corporation (the local authority) once owned the gas, electricity, water, and public transport services, and the cast iron covers document this in detail, street by street, and over time. Changes in ownership, the names of new authorities are all written into the fabric of the street as phases of service covers are replaced or renewed. The subject ‘Drainspotting’ has been the subject of research by a small but active community since 2013 with their findings discussed and viewed over 50,000 times on a local history website. A short guide book to the subject was published as a result in November 2014. This formed the basis for a series of well attended Heritage Open Days ‘Drainspotting’ walks being held annually since 2016 and has proven to be one of the most well attended and reported Heritage Open Day nationally. Heritage Open Days walks have seen people notice things in their own city and neighbourhoods that they had never previously noticed or thought about. Heritage Open Days has taught people how to go about reading their own streets. Once introduced people find themselves looking for items of interest, sometimes literally outside their own front door. It has proven to be an infectious practice. Feedback shows that attendees are keen to tell others what they can now see clearly, something they have discovered for themselves after walking over these features for decades. A peculiar form of historical research, it sits between archaeology and document analysis. This is not the type of research that takes place in archives or libraries but instead by walking the streets. As a virtually unstudied field there are a growing and committed community keen to better understand their city. The trend towards development and modernisation of roads and pavements has meant that many important pieces of social history have been lost over the past few years, although the work of ‘Drainspotters’ in highlighting the significance of key pieces has saved some being replaced. It remains an unknown and hence under-valued historical resource, yet it is far from trivial. In one part of Sheffield, branded drain covers have revealed significant innovations in drainage at precisely the time that Sheffield experiences a series of Cholera epidemics - a disease that became indicative of dense urbanisation. The formation, by the Government, of the Local Board of Health in 1832, combined with the construction dates of the streets concerned, suggest there was awareness of the link between sanitation and cholera. Rare remnants of early sanitation measures survive from the mid 19thcentury in the form of gulley grates that may help to re-examine the story of Sheffield’s efforts to contain cholera outbreaks before it was fully understood that the disease was waterborne. The road surface and drainage improvements that were needed when the electric tramway came to the city in 1899 are another potential study. The dates 1898 and 1899 are still commonly found on road and pavement features in Sheffield. Recognising the value of this to date undervalued historical resource is a central aim of the Street Heritage Research Group. A research group initiated in Sheffield, but with an international remit to promote and valorise the types of street features that are known to characterise each and every European city.

European Dimension

The industrial development of Europe is one of common experience and learning. Processes and techniques discovered in one country are used in others. Workers in those industries have worked abroad sharing their skills and labour. Sheffield itself is twinned with Donetsk in the Ukraine to mark the shared industrial heritage and tradition of the two cities. In short, the heritage and development of Sheffield is also that of modern Europe. We would be delighted to make contact with similar projects in other European countries, or indeed be the inspiration for such projects through the European Heritage Days story telling.