A Sheffield silver magnate and his castle

'We roll on our sofas, and drink wine, in perpetual security'

By Thomas McGrath

If you travel up Park Grange Road towards Arbourthorne, you’ll pass through an uninspiring modernist landscape framed by late-twentieth century housing and a tram line. It’s just one the many arteries which connect Sheffield’s city centre to its sprawling eastern estates. A drab, post-war three-bed terrace along here sold last year for £85,500. 

On the left-hand side of the road, a cute little lodge house hidden behind a bus shelter is one of only a few tangible reminders of the past. But the next bend takes me to another: the Queen’s Tower, Sheffield’s Victorian castle. It’s the castle I’ve been looking for. Because it’s the one sign that this area was once home to some of the wealthiest residents of Sheffield.

Much like the rest of the area, Queen’s Tower is a far cry from its mid-nineteenth century heyday. Caked under tarmac, the long sweeping driveway still exists, though I can get no further than the black metal fence and electronic gates; the first line of defence for any modern castle.

I do however get a glimpse of the back of the building. It's an odd mixture of Victorian romanticism and early-2000s utilitarianism, like a Disneyland castle which has been converted into a conference centre. On one side is the former house and stable block, complete with castellated turrets. On the left is the former walled garden with modern apartment blocks plonked inside.

The whole site was redeveloped in 2004 and Queen’s Tower itself was converted into flats. The once-commanding view over the Duke of Norfolk’s estate is now just a sea of apartments blocks and houses. But somewhere among the dense trees on the edge of the site are the stones of a much older castle. It is these ruins, a Scottish Queen and a Sheffield silver plate manufacturer, which tell us the tale of Queen’s Tower.

The Queen who lost her head

The story of Queen’s Tower starts several centuries before the Victorian castle was conceived, with Mary Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Mary lived in Sheffield for many years, although the connection was an unfortunate one. The Queen of Scotland, who had reigned since she was just 6 days old, was deposed in 1568 by the Scottish nobility in favour of her infant son, James (later James I of England). Mary fled to England and placed herself at the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. However, as a popular Catholic and great granddaughter of Henry VII, she posed too much of a threat to the English throne. So, Elizabeth had her imprisoned for 19 long years, which only came to an end when she was beheaded for her part in a failed plot to overthrow the English crown.

George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was entrusted as Mary’s jailer. Her prisons were essentially gilded cages, and Talbot moved Mary around various manor houses, including Sheffield Manor Lodge, located on the outskirts of the town. There Mary was supposedly housed in the same rooms which Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had stayed in back in 1530, when he was accused of treason. Rather fortunately, he died of natural causes on the journey back to London.

In the years after Mary’s death, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s lands were acquired by the Duke of Norfolk and the Lodge fell into decline. By 1706 it had been abandoned and partly demolished. But the people of Sheffield had found a good use for the remnants of Mary's prison. The population of the town had risen to around 5,000 by the start of the eighteenth century and the town was already synonymous with the manufacture of cutlery, second only to London. Brick by brick, stone by stone, the ruined manor house was further dismantled to build houses, workshops and barns. 

This practice continued into the early-nineteenth century, as well-remembered by one older man in 1844:

When I wur a boy, they used at nights to fetch the fine red bricks out of the tower, to fettle blade handles wi’, and now only four or five years sin’, they fetched mony a hundred cart loads of corner, and boulders, and all finest bits o’ millions, wi’ which as they tell me, some gentleman, down at Grange yonder, ha’ built a new Queen Mary’s tower – eh! Well!

‘A perfect gem’

By 1834, the perilous condition of the ruins of Sheffield Manor Lodge and its royal connection had firmly gripped the imagination of one Sheffield resident, Samuel Roberts (1762-1848). Roberts was a silver and plate manufacturer who initially joined his father’s business at 14 but went on to establish his own. As a man of moderation and habit, reputedly arriving to work at 6am every day, Roberts was able to expand both his wealth and influence.

In 1834, Roberts’ decision to construct a castellated mansion just over a mile from the ruins of Sheffield Manor Lodge bemused the people of Sheffield. Some called him an egotist for building his own castle; others thought it was just an eccentric folly. The castle was built to designs by the Doncaster-based architects Woodhead and Hirst, along with Matthew E. Hadfield, but for Roberts, this was more than just status-flexing; he saw it as his mission to preserve British history.

For decades, Roberts had a fascination with Mary and he had written extensively in her favour in an attempt to rehabilitate her public image. In homage to her, he named his new house “Queen’s Tower”. A few years later in 1839 he had Robert Marnock, the renowned gardener and designer of Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens, create a garden around the jewel in the crown of his new estate, Queen Mary’s window.

Unlike other residents of Sheffield, Roberts requested permission from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate agents to remove part of the wall and window of the ruins of Sheffield Manor Lodge, which he was certain that Mary had spent many hours gazing forlornly out of during her imprisonment. Did Mary actually use this window? Possibly. In the centuries since, there has been much debate about this. Regardless, Roberts ultimately did save part of the Lodge and the ruins were re-erected facing Queen’s Tower.

Architecturally, Queen’s Tower was both celebrated and derided. Around the time of its construction, it was regarded as a “a perfect gem […] by far the most exquisite, if not, indeed, the only recent specimen of the castellated style of building which the neighbourhood can boast.” The admiration was not to last. Within just 30 years of the glowing accolades, an unknown journalist wrote in the Sheffield Independent that the house was an “architectural abortion that we should do well to avoid”.

“A man who was too extraordinary to be forgotten”

While impressions of the architecture changed over time, the respect for Samuel Roberts and his family was only strengthened. As well as being an astute businessman, Roberts was keenly involved in the development of Sheffield and the lives of its poorest residents. He was a man of strong principles, and a vocal critic of war, capital punishment, the slave trade, absentee British landlords in Ireland, lotteries, drunkenness, and game laws. 

He fought passionately for the rights of the voiceless of Georgian and Victorian Britain. He was involved with the Boys’ Charity School in Sheffield, the Aged Female Society, and the Society for Bettering the Conditions of the Poor. Roberts’ opinions were also seen by some of his contemporaries as wildly fanciful and inappropriate, and today we can appreciate that some of his views were well-ahead of the time. 

For example, in the front matter of his 1836 volume on The Gypsies: Their Origin, Continuance and Destination, he urged his readers to have “a mind as free as possible from prejudice”. Such was his faith in his own words, or perhaps his doubt in the character of Britain’s politicians, that in 1846 he sent a copy of his new book, which discussed everything from slavery and the Poor Law to potato disease and Mary, Queen of Scots, to all 800 Honourable and Right Honourable Members of Parliament.

Roberts was not afraid to challenge politicians and lawmakers. As a founding member of the Society for Protecting and Befriending Climbing Boys (chimney sweeps) he was appalled that legislation was not properly enforced, and he spent years attempting to correct it. Legislation to regulate the industry had been enacted as early as 1788, which aimed to prevent boys younger than eight years old climbing chimneys. It was largely ignored. By the start of the nineteenth century, some boys were climbing flues which measured just seven inches squared. Ultimately, Roberts would not see proper enforcement of the legislation in his lifetime, which only came in 1875.

He was also a vehement opponent of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, also known as the New Poor Law. This revoked parish “relief” (funds) and replaced them with “indoor relief” i.e., the workhouse. The system was designed to save money and to create a uniform model to be used across the country. It punished the poorest members of society for becoming reliant on the state. 

The Victorian workhouse was essentially a prison, designed to dehumanise its “inmates”. Upon arrival people were separated by sex and age, so husbands and wives, parents and children, and siblings were all forcibly removed from each other. Workhouse uniforms were issued and, in an attempt to prevent lice, the heads of all inmates were shaved. The shaved heads and cropped hair acted as a mark of destitution, a visible symbol that those lucky enough to eventually leave the workhouse had been through the system. The wards were sparse and comfortless, and the inmates spent their days doing physical labour or menial tasks, such as picking apart old rope.

The 1834 Act appalled Roberts on many levels. He knew the urban poor of Sheffield and their needs and wants. When he was appointed as an overseer of the poor in 1800, he had caused quite the stir by actually visiting people living in deprivation, and getting to know them. He appreciated the benefits of the Old Poor Law system which had allowed families to remain together, in their own homes.

This opinion did not go unnoticed, and a supporter of the New Poor Law Act wrote a satirical piece in the Sheffield Independent in March 1838 which was “dedicated (not by permission) to Samuel Roberts, Esq.” The author, identified only by the initials IOTA, characterised Roberts as a “knight of the old poor law bill”. The author attempted to shame Roberts for his wealth and success, and questioned his motives for helping those in need:

Ah, Queen’s Tower! Beloved home! I now have thee in view. What do we care for the sufferings of the poor, only to keep them peaceable? We! I mean we aristocracy, for now I am one of them dwell in Queen’s Tower; we must not pay taxes; they, the poor, must pay all. And what care we for bad trade? We roll on our sofas, and drink wine, in perpetual security.

Roberts’ charitable legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by the folklore of Mary, Queen of Scots and with Queen’s Tower itself. Yet, there is a final twist to this tale: he never actually lived there. 

Instead, somewhat characteristically, he gave the house as a wedding present to his son and daughter-in-law in 1837. The family remained at Queen’s Tower until 1935 and in a strange mirroring of history, it was later acquired by the Duke of Norfolk, just like the original Sheffield Manor Lodge. 

Upon his death in 1848, Samuel Roberts was described as “a man who was too extraordinary to be forgotten”.