Day by day this Grade II listed house falls into disrepair despite long-running plans to turn it into a residential development. If its crumbling walls could talk they might reveal long forgotten conversations between partying aristocrats, famous actors and even Royalty.
The early years
Firbeck Hall was built in 1594 by William West, a lawyer of Moorgate Hall, Rotherham and Steward to the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury and to the Manor of Sheffield at the time of Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment. West wrote a legal book called Symbolaeographia and was succeeded by his son William.
William’s son John West died in 1638, leaving a sister and co-heir, Elizabeth, who married Lord Darcy, son of Michael Darcy and Margaret Wentworth. She went on to marry a second time, marrying Sir Francis Fane, who inherited Firbeck after her death.
It remained with the West’s until 1669 before being sold to William Woolhouse. He sold it to Jonathan Stanyforth in 1676 and passed through several generations before being sold to Henry Gally Knight, a Barrister-at-Law, in 1800. He was son of the Rev. Henry Gally, Chaplain in Ordinary to George II, distinguished among the literati of his day, who married Elizabeth, only sister and heir of Ralph Knight of Langold. The Gallys were a refugee family which sought asylum in England on the revocation of the Edict of nantes.
On Henry’s death in 1808 the estates at Firbeck and Langold Park were left to his only son, also called Henry Gally Knight (1786-1846). Henry Gally Knight Jr was elected as M.P. for Nottinghamshire in 1835. In the literary world he gained considerable reputation, and published, on his return from travelling in Greece and Syria, a volume of poems under the title Eastern Sketches. He married Henrietta, youngest daughter and co-heir of Anthony Hardolph Eyre, of Grove Park, but did not have any children. After his death Firbeck was willed to Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold Firbeck Hall to Frances Harriett Miles – nee Jebb – in 1853. Upon her death the Firbeck estates formed the Miles Trust which was inherited by Sydney Gladwin Jebb in 1898 on the death of his uncle, the Rev. Henry Gladwin Jebb.
Sydney Gladwyn Jebb was a West Riding J.P. and wealthy landowner. He was the son of Captain Joshua Gladwyn Jebb of Barnby Moor House, Nottinghamshire. In his later years he lived with his wife, Rose, at Caring House near Maidstone. Attempts to sell the house in 1909 failed and the house subsequently rented out. During the Great War it became the base for Belgian refugees.
One cold November morning in 1924 the house suffered a serious fire. The occupant at the time was Mr Albert Orlando Peech, chairman of a large steel manufacturing company, Messrs. Steel, Peech & Tozer, of Sheffield. He was renting the house and awoke to find flames coming from the servants’ quarters. When it was realised that the fire had obtained too strong a hold the valuable oil paintings and furniture in the mansion were removed to the park outside. Despite the attendance of fire engines from Rotherham, Doncaster and Worksop the central portion of the hall was gutted. Most of the roof collapsed bringing with it a shower of molten lead.
The Jebb family severed links with Firbeck Hall in May 1934. There had been plans to sell the house at auction in Worksop. However, a few weeks earlier an approach had been made by Mr Cyril Nicholson, a stock broker from Sheffield, to purchase the whole of the 1,500 acre estate. In addition to the house there were six farms, 14 small holdings and a number of cottages. It was reported that he intended to retain the estate as it was but nobody could have anticipated the plans he had in store.
Firbeck Hall Club
“The club which will be opened sometime next month is the only one of its kind in the north of England. There is nothing to compare with it near London.” Mr Santos Casini, Sheffield Independent, 8 March 1935.
Firbeck Hall will forever be remembered for the celebrated period between 1935 and 1939. Although Cyril Nicholson had bought the estate he had secretly been making plans with two business associates. These were Lord Feilding, eldest son of the 9th Earl of Denbigh, and Mr Santos Casani, a famous dancer of the Casani Club in London. Between them they turned the old family house into the Firbeck Hall Club. The hall retained its outward appearance but its old interiors were, by modern standards, inexplicably destroyed. The old panelled walls gave way to brightly covered walls and the interior rooms were covered almost entirely with mirrors. The fashionable art deco style was created by Robert Hawkwell of the Sheffield architect firm of Hadfield Hawkwell Davidson. The total cost was £80,000 with actual alterations alone to the building costing £45,000. With the fire damage it took almost a year to complete.
The inside was a triumph, winning acclaim from specialist journals including Architecture Illustrated, which published pictures of the hall’s la mode zebra prints, sweeping plaster work and streamlined ocean liner-esque fittings.
“Where once there were darkly-panelled rooms there are now dance halls with maple floors, cocktail bars with stainless steel furniture, dining rooms upholstered with its latest Zebra pattern coverings, grill rooms and billiard rooms.”
Furniture for Firbeck Hall was provided by a well-known firm of local furnishers, James and William Hastings Ltd, of Bridegate in Rotherham. They supplied all the special tables for the grill room and restaurant, and also a quantity of special coffee and cocktail tables made to the design of the Finish architect, Alvar Aalto.
Ellis Pearson and Co were employed to provide the mirrors which ran the full length of the dining room walls. Cut into them were sporting scenes depicting the activities of the club. In the grill room they created windows with silhouette figures. These, with large mirrors in the ballroom, ballroom lounge and bars were regarded as ‘the finest glass work executed in the British Isles’.
Of significance was the state-of-the-art lighting system installed by Kenneth Friese-Greene. The ballroom was illuminated by concealed lighting in the cornice providing an even, soft light throughout the room. A control on the band platform changed the lighting from white to a rotary colour-changing dimmer driven by an electric motor. The glass panels in the ceiling of the dining room, reception hall were all lit by concealed floodlights.
In the grounds and park there was a new 100 ft outdoor heated swimming pool (constructed by B. Powell and Son of Sheffield) as well as tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course designed by celebrity golfer John S.F. Morrison. The championship-standard squash courts were described as being comparable to those at the Bath Club.
Most significant was the new aerodrome, designed by the famous airman Captain Tom Campbell Black, joint winner of the Mildenhall-Melbourne Air Race in 1935, where the rich and famous, including the Prince of Wales (on his royal Dragon aircraft) and Amy Johnson, flew in.
A first-hand account of Firbeck was given in 2000, by former club-goer Luke Seymour, a director of estate agent Henry Spencer and Sons of Sheffield, who recalled events in the Sheffield Star:
“Evening parties were very popular – and dangerous in the pool. “John Bowett – who had never dived in his life before – and Ted Tylden-Wright both dived off the high board in their morning suits after a Bowett wedding.”
Noel Wade wrote in 2000:-
“The ground floor featured a mirrored walled ballroom with a maple wood floor and a lighting system that changed the colour and tone of the room. Also on the ground floor was the clubs main restaurant with its London West End chef and maitre d’hotel, the kitchen had the capacity to provide over 400 table d’hote dinners. The lounges had furnishings covered in a zebra stripe material that was complimented by the distinct patterned mirrors gracing the lounge walls. The Cocktail bar became a popular place to socialise and sample one of the latest American cocktail recipes flamboyantly the Cocktail barman. On the second floor was located a smaller grillroom that had a reputation for serving the best of English breakfasts and steaks, a card room that became the scene of regular high stake games and a smaller ballroom with reception areas that could accommodate small private functions. In addition there were a number of bedrooms, furnished in an older more traditional style.Adjoiniug the Hall was the Dormey House, which over looked the 18 hole putting green and contained twelve bedrooms furnished to a very high standard of comfort in the latest of 1930’s designs.”
Colonel W. Elwy-Jones, whose work at the Piccadilly Hotel had made him one of the best known figures in London, was appointed the Managing Director. He told reporters: “In these days of flying, when you can fly from London to Sheffield in an hour, distance really means nothing. I intend to make the club the last word in social amenities. There has always been criticism of cooking in the provinces and I intend to alter this by supplying as good food as any to be found in the West End.” Shortly afterwards he appointed a new Catering Manager known by one name only, Emil, who had previously worked at the Savoy and the Adelphi and also joined Firbeck from the Picadilly Hotel.
The club was so sought after that even Vogue published an entire Firbeck supplement featuring beautiful 1930s-clad women posing throughout the club’s vast grounds. Within a few months the Firbeck Club had 700 members with Life Membership fees ranging between three to seven guineas. One disreputable member turned out to to be Mr Leslie Francis Collier who managed to pass himself off as the Earl of Macduff. Leaving a trail of deception he obtained money and left a trail of debt throughout Britain. His charade ended after flying into Firbeck from Scotland and someone recognised that he wasn’t actually the real Earl of MacDuff. The police were called and he was arrested.
Such was the increasing reputation of the club, that the BBC also transmitted its weekly Saturday show “Late Night Dance Music” with Henry Hall, Carroll Gibbons and Charlie Kunz from Firbeck. The club was fitted throughout with Dynatron receiving and amplifying apparatus for diffusing radio, gramophone records, speech and band music.
In 1938 the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer wrote: “Firbeck Hall is an erstwhile stately home of England, which has saved itself by becoming a country club. Just across the way Sandbeck Hall (Park) seems to frown sternly on these goings-on. Sandbeck is still a ‘Stately Home’ within the meaning of Mr Noel Coward’s act.” It was a golden period for Firbeck Hall but proved to be short-lived when gaieties were halted with the devastating outbreak of World War Two.
At first there were no immediate threats to the club and Cyril Nicholson generously offered hospital beds at Firbeck Hall. These were still early days but it was soon apparent that the house would be pressed into full-time service. The writing was on the wall but Nicholson, Feilding (by now deceased) and Elwy-Jones had already turned their attention elsewhere a few years earlier. Between them they had bought the Grand Hotel in Sheffield and, by the time the war started, this large Edwardian building had been refurbished to retain its title as the city’s finest hotel.
Gone with the glamour and war intervenes
Firbeck Hall was taken over by the Sheffield Joint Hospitals Board and the dwindling country club shunted into the nearby Lake House. It became an annexe of the Sheffield Royal Infirmary for the duration while the aerodrome was converted into RAF Firbeck, comprising four squadrons from 1940 to 1944. The dream had died and in 1943 Cyril Nicholson put Firbeck Hall up for sale. There were no takers for the estate and it would take until 1945 for the Miners’ Welfare Commission to acquire it as a rehabilitation centre.
Speaking about the acquisition Mr J.A. Hall, the Yorkshire Miners’ President and a member of the commission, said: “It would be a fitting counterpart to the Scottish miners’ rehabilitation centre at Gleneagles, and an establishment for Yorkshire miners to be proud of. Every care would be taken during adaptation to preserve the architectural outlines of the historic mansion.” The purchase price was £30,000 and extensions and alterations were soon underway including the enclosure of the open-air swimming pool. By the time it opened in 1946 there was room for 70 patients within the old house.
In 1984 it transferred to the Trent Regional Health Authority as a convalescence home for industrial injuries but this eventually closed in 1990. 27-years-later, Firbeck Hall remains derelict, eerily lost and in the most precarious condition. It was bought by successive owners in 1996 and 2010 before being bought by Ashley Wildsmith in 2014. He plans a residential development for the country house with plans drawn up by architects Building Link Design from Doncaster.
Firbeck, South Yorkshire, S81 8JR