Kelham Island: How Sheffield's rundown industrial quarter became the coolest area of the city

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The announcement this month that Kelham Island is no longer on Historic England's 'At Risk' register felt like a milestone achieved.

Many Sheffielders may have been surprised to learn that this former industrial quarter was still considered to be under threat of falling into decay or dereliction, as it has undergone an incredible transformation in the past 20 years and is widely considered to be the coolest place to live, work and socialise in the city.

Summer drinkers outside Craft & Dough

Summer drinkers outside Craft & Dough

Historic England have removed it from the list after seven years because a small number of old buildings that were in a poor state of repair have now been brought back into use.

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They include Green Lane Works, a former steelworks, which now has residential, office and hospitality uses; the Ebenezer Sunday School, which has been turned into housing; Wharncliffe Works and Globe Works Rear Range, which are both now offices; and the former Williams Brothers workshop, which is now residential.

It means the one-time fulcrum of steel and cutlery production can finally consider its reinvention complete.

The Kelham Island story

Kelham Island

Kelham Island

Kelham Island is not a natural island - it's a man-made 'goit' on the River Don designed to feed the water wheels which powered the 19th-century workshops. By the 1980s, it was still primarily an industrial quarter, although its heyday was long past and many units were rundown. The Kelham Island Museum opened in 1982, the first seed of regeneration.

The first phase of development came in the late 1990s, when businesses such as Yellow Arch Studios and The Milestone pub moved in and Brooklyn Works, a former metal factory, became the first residential conversion.

By 2005, it was still to some extent a down-at-heel area, with the main attractions being some traditional pubs frequented by steelworkers and the Kelham Island Brewery, which had opened in 1990.

Ten years later, the property boom led to several more housing projects, including Kelham Mills, the Central Quay student accommodation, and the conversion of more industrial buildings into office space and apartments. Growth stagnated during the recession, and the third wave of regeneration has been spearheaded by the food and drink trade.

Joro - a restaurant inside a shipping container - is one of the most talked-about dining spots in Sheffield

Joro - a restaurant inside a shipping container - is one of the most talked-about dining spots in Sheffield

Independent businesses have arrived and thrived in the past decade, many of them with a strong appeal to the students and young professionals who live in the nearby flats. The area has also become a popular weekend destination for visitors to the city.

These tourists could be forgiven for mistaking their surroundings for the trendiest parts of east London - Kelham Island is home to craft breweries, vintage markets, food tours, a night-time street food festival, an independent food hall, beer and gin festivals, Christmas markets and cosy pubs.

There's Joro, a seasonal produce restaurant housed in a former shipping container which appears in the Good Food Guide and holds a Bib Gourmand from Michelin. Its reputation is spreading well beyond Sheffield and it is a magnet for those who love fine dining in an informal, relaxed setting.

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The Cutlery Works is the largest food hall in the north, and full of pop-ups by local independent brands.

Kelham Island Museum

Kelham Island Museum

Music studio Yellow Arch is where the Arctic Monkeys used to rehearse, and is also a popular gig and events venue.

Then there's Church, a bar opened by Bring Me The Horizon frontman Oliver Sykes inside the former Osborn Works. It's an arcade-style bar with a South American theme and retro gaming machines. Vegan street food is served by Make No Bones from the kitchen, and it's also a 220-capacity live music venue.

In 2018 came the finest feather in its cap so far - Kelham Island was named as the best place to live in the UK at the Urbanism Awards, which crowned its burgeoning reputation as an 'urban village'.

A culture of co-operation

Kelham Island's 'indies' look after each other in a way that large corporate businesses do not, knowing that success depends on mutual support.

Joe Goss, manager of coffee bar The Gatehouse, told the Sheffield Telegraph in 2018:-

"Its quite chaotic, and very interesting but in a good way. There is always something else opening in Kelham. The groups down here are aware not to tread on people's toes, we all do our own thing.

"Everyone has a niche, there are a dozen very different and very independent restaurants.

"You develop a nice working relationship with others and help each other out. For example with Fat Cat we share bouncers on busy weekends, and when they're busy or we are we bail each other out."

The Fat Cat's staff have spoken of their evolution from 'steelworkers' pub' to a destination which attracts a diverse and eclectic clientele.

The overwhelmingly male workforce from the nearby factories who would have popped in for a pint after their shift have been replaced by a young, mixed customer base who want innovative craft ale, cocktails and the latest drinks trends.

Bar and pub owners co-operate to ensure they don't duplicate on their beer offering and that all offer something different for visitors, who usually want to eat and drink at several venues.

The right combination of old and new

Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins from the University of Sheffield's department of archaeology has both a professional and personal interest in the renaissance of Kelham Island.

Since moving to the city in 2006, she has been able to observe regeneration gathering pace.

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"I think the fact that it was on the At Risk register for so long shows that it is seen as an important area that people identify with. It's part of the core heritage of Sheffield and the loss of that heritage was clearly a priority concern.

"A lot of good work has been done to address the loss of the historic environment, but that work is not finished. We need to keep thinking about retaining that heritage and continuing a dialogue with those who live and work there, and make sure that future repair and regeneration stays within the realm of what is important to people.

"There shouldn't be complacency now - Kelham Island is a source of pride and identity, and there have been such wide-ranging changes over the past 20 years.

"There is a very good combination of old and new. The Green Lane Works development is very interesting, and it does look quite different - it's not just another copy of Leeds or Manchester, it has its own original character."

'Little Prague'

Simon Wigglesworth-Baker, a sculptor, set up the Kelham Island Arts Collective in a studio in 2010, and moved into the Kelham Mills development around the same time. He now runs the Kelham Island and Neepsend Community Alliance.

He believes the removal of the quarter from Historic England's register is testament to the fact that there are simply no more derelict buildings left to restore.

"Regeneration is about far more than just architecture, but in terms of buildings we have run out of space! The last few have been snapped up now, there are not a lot of the older buildings left. It's now the light industrial units from the 1950s and 60s that are being replaced by newer buildings.

"The belief that industry here just disappeared is a myth - there is still light industry, that's never changed, but there has been an influx of people and the new bars and restaurants service them, as well as the creative and tech firms. "

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The growth of Kelham Island as a 'Saturday night destination' and an alternative to traditional party spots such as West Street has led to concerns that it may become rowdier and attract students, stag and hen groups - some residents have already started to refer to it as 'Little Prague'.

"It's a case of managing that development - we do get a few stags and hens now, which is inevitable when a place becomes popular, but they do bring in revenue."

Simon is keen to point out that although it is often referred to as an example of inner-city gentrification, Kelham Island is different to many other revitalised urban areas.

"Nobody has been displaced from here, as there hadn't been any social housing since the 1960s - it's all about incoming people.

"Kelham Island is a small part of a bigger picture. Sheffield is a very different city to Leeds and Manchester, it's more like a lot of small villages stuck together. Kelham Island is probably the most high-profile development, but there are other areas on the 'hipster trail' too."