'This is the worst place in the world'

The strange and tragic story of Hyde Park flats

By Dan Hayes

“I wish I’d have brushed my hair,” says Anita Cutts, looking at a photo of herself taken more than 30 years ago. In the picture she’s gliding along one of Hyde Park's “streets in the sky” on roller boots. She’s carrying a bag full of newspapers and is followed a couple of steps behind by a younger girl, also on skates.

“I used to live in them roller boots,” she says. “My nan said I always had scabby knees.” Emma, the girl following her, always wanted to help, but Anita didn't really need the support. “It must have been the easiest paper round in the world,” she says. “Everyone had started moving off by then.”

The now famous shot was taken by documentary photographer Bill Stephenson in 1988, as part of a project to photograph the last residents of Hyde Park flats before the complex was emptied out. Some of the flats were converted into athlete accommodation for the World Student Games in 1991, while others were demolished.

The flats had been built just over two decades earlier — opened by the Queen Mother on June 23, 1966, on the same day as the University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower. Yet just over 20 years later residents were told they had to leave and by 1993 most of the flats had disappeared.

Just two parts of the original complex remain, rechristened Harold Lambert Court and Castle Court in the hope they would shed the image that eventually became associated with Hyde Park. These towers have since been clad and bear little resemblance to the brutalist blocks they were originally designed to be. But Block B — or the ‘big block’ as everyone called it — nestled behind Hyde Park’s smaller ramparts, disappeared completely.

“I remember seeing it on my first trip to Sheffield,” says Bill Stephenson. “I arrived at that roundabout and just thought: ‘wow, what is that?’ It looked like a castle at the top of the hill.”

When they were built in the mid-1960s, the flats were viewed as another part of the large-scale redevelopment of the area. Park Hill flats had opened in 1961 and were considered a great success, with Hyde Park seen as the next phase of the remaking of post-war Sheffield. But while Park Hill was certainly big, its sister building was even bigger. There were to be 1,313 flats at Hyde Park compared to the 996 in Park Hill. But the design of the two complexes — while similar — differed in one key way. 

10 Years of Housing in Sheffield, a book published by Sheffield City Council in 1962, says the “horizontality of Park Hill and the terraces is contrasted sharply with the accented verticality of the Hyde Park blocks.” “They are otherwise very similar in planning and construction to Park Hill,” it adds.

This is an architectural way of saying Hyde Park was much taller than Park Hill. But you didn’t need a book from the council to tell you that when your own two eyes could give you the same information for free. From Link Row at the bottom of the site to St John’s Garden at the top, the sheer size of Hyde Park was awe-inspiring. In photos taken from the city centre it looks like a medieval citadel, complete with bastions and central keep. 

John Boughton, a historian and chronicler of post-war social housing schemes in the UK, reckons it is the sheer scale of Hyde Park — particularly the 19-storey Block B — that may have made it seem more overpowering or even forbidding than Park Hill. He adds this may have meant it received more criticism than its sister building, and could have hastened its demise.

Anita was born on Ropery Row in Block D in 1974. She later moved to what she calls the “big block” and lived at 104 Chancel Row before moving to High Pavement when her mum remarried. She now lives in Beighton, but is still in touch with many people she knew from Hyde Park via a popular Facebook group. “They have a roll call on there sometimes,” she says. “People saying which row and flat number they used to live in.”

Her nan and grandad had moved into the flats in the 1960s, at her nan’s insistence. “My grandad didn't want to go but my nan eventually got her way,” she says. They had come from Parson Cross, and loved their new surroundings. There was a paper shop, a chemist and a draper. And there were also four pubs — one in each block — and a community centre, where Anita’s nan ran the tuck shop.

By the time Anita was growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s she says Hyde Park had a “bit of a reputation” — but still maintains that it was a brilliant community to live in. She remembers all the christenings and marriages that took place at St John’s Church, and the greyhound track off Manor Oaks Road, which would later become a park.

Fortunately, Anita is too young to remember what happened to Lisa Dean. In April 1979, the eight-year-old was playing underneath the big block when someone threw a television set off a balcony. Tragically, it hit her and killed her. Even years later, lines were still painted on the floor in front of the towers to denote where it was not safe to stand or play. The death had such a profound effect on the people who lived there at the time that when I started researching this piece, many people didn't want to speak to me. They presumed I was just another journalist intent on dragging up the community’s most painful trauma.

A Times article from June 1986 reported that items were thrown from terraces or balconies on an almost daily basis. One day it could be a television set, another it might be furniture or a piece of masonry. Sometimes it was just a wine bottle or a sack of rubbish. The article continued:

More than two-thirds of the 4,000 residents on the estate have asked to be moved to new homes. They say they want to leave because of the number of things being dropped from the flats, the burglaries, the muggings and the noise on the multi-layered terraces that tower like ramparts of a great concrete castle. “I think,” says Mick Broomhead, aged 17 and unemployed, “that this is the worst place in the world.” 

Ian Robertson moved into the flats in 1984. Sheffield City Council had assigned around 25 units to be used by students, with Ian and his two mates — nicknamed Red and Jez (Ian’s nickname was Ron) — spending the next three years on the next but top floor of the B Block. “It was quite luxurious,” he says. “It had been redecorated and had everything you needed — furniture, carpets, cooker — the only thing it didn’t come with was pots and pans which was lucky as that was all we had.”

The rent was fairly expensive but the fact that the flat came with a cleaner clinched the deal as far as Ron, Red and Jez were concerned. Their cleaner Carole lived on the floor above on the very top of the biggest block. These ‘penthouse’ flats were bigger than the others and according to Ian, were more reminiscent of something you might find in Kensington and Chelsea than working class Sheffield.

Ian remembers the three years he spent at Hyde Park fondly, but he acknowledges that the complex had a dark side to it as well. Burglaries were common, as were what he describes as arson attacks or “insurance jobs,” depending on who you believed. Most macabre of all, the sheer size of the big block attracted people who wanted to commit suicide, with people reportedly coming from “miles around.” Ian witnessed one man jump himself.

Nevertheless, living so near the pubs and clubs of the city centre, and having a place to carry on the party at afterwards, certainly had its advantages. Ian said they had all sorts of people coming back with them including Richard Hawley and his then band Treebound Story. “He used to sit in the corner, playing his guitar,” says Ian. “Nothing will come of that, we thought.” There were also moments of strange transcendence as well, such as when a hawk perched on Ian’s window ledge all summer, scanning the area below for prey.

“Some students got a bit of hassle but we didn’t have any trouble while we were there,” says Ian. “It’s easy to focus on the negative but it worked for us. It would be nice to read something positive about it for a change.” By the time the boys moved out in 1987, however, the writing was on the wall for Hyde Park. Bill Stephenson arrived the next year to take photos of the last residents, struggling to break the ice with people at first until he put his camera down and just started talking to them.

“I went there prepared to photograph people looking small and alienated against these huge crumbling concrete blocks,” he says. “If I would have found a community which hated Hyde Park it would have been easy to photograph that — but I didn’t.” Bill's wonderful photos instead evoke the vibrancy of Hyde Park, both in the people he captured and their typically bright 1980s clothes.

Asked why he thinks the flats were demolished, he believes there was a deliberate council policy to run them down, inspired by the anti-social housing ideology of the time. “I think they wanted to make it unviable so they could get rid of it,” he says. “By 1988 the building had been neglected for some time and the lifts were not serviced. They were also putting lots of unsuitable tenants and single men in there who tended towards unemployment and criminality.”

Despite this, Bill says he didn’t meet a single tenant in all the time he was there who wanted to be rehoused. But most people weren’t overtly political, and didn't think they had much choice other than to be kicked around. “There were all these rumours that it was sinking because there was a hole underneath it but the building certainly hadn’t reached its natural life,” he says. “I had jeans and pairs of shoes that were older than Hyde Park.”

Anita and her family were one of the last families to leave. Her stepdad was the caretaker and was still doing the job as everyone left. She remembers being excited to be moving to a house rather than a flat in nearby Norfolk Park, but says the majority of people there didn’t want to leave. “It was like a community coming to an end,” she says. “Everyone was scattered all over Sheffield.”

As well as the sheer scale of the building, John Boughton says there were construction flaws and design defects at Hyde Park which didn’t occur at Park Hill. Other sources talk of less effort made in the design and implementation of the Hyde Park scheme to foster community relations than in Park Hill.

But he adds that the reputation of the building could also be key. A “dominant critical narrative” would itself have been self-fulfilling to some extent, he says, making the estate less attractive to would-be tenants and harder to let. In the meantime, established residents might perceive things very differently. “All in all, Hyde Park was definitely Park Hill's unloved younger sibling,” he says.

There is no doubt that the tragedy that befell Lisa Dean would certainly have contributed to this narrative. But whatever the reason for Hyde Park’s demolition, for 25 years it dominated Sheffield’s skyline — and then it was gone. While Park Hill continues to be redeveloped, only a few barely recognisable parts of Hyde Park remain.

Bill Stephenson still seems shocked that a building that was so prominent in Sheffield was knocked down. He says its prime location, southern-facing aspect and glorious sunsets could have made it every bit as desirable as Park Hill is today. “For the people I photographed, it wasn't considered a failure, it was considered a success,” he says. “It was an astonishing building.”

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