When you think of visiting Yorkshire, you probably imagine striding through the Dales or pottering through the streets of York. But Yorkshire’s history has a darker side – one of “dark satanic mills”, at once the original driving force of the massive growth of Yorkshire’s towns and cities in the industrial revolution, and also scenes of terrible deprivation and exploitation. Mills are interesting for many reasons, including their importance for social history and architecture. Unfortunately many of these valuable buildings have been demolished to make way for modernity, but we are fortunate to have some left, and they have been put to brilliant use. In this post I will mention a few of my favourites.
Lister Mills – Bradford
Mills had (and still have) an unfortunate habit of burning down. In the past this was usually due to faulty machinery or human error, more recent fires are sadly often the result of arson. When Manningham Mills in Bradford was destroyed by fire, wealthy mill-owner and entrepreneur Samuel Cunliffe Lister rebuilt it as Lister Mills in 1871. Cunliffe Lister was aspirational, and the new mills were built as a statement of his wealth and success. Still to this day, the enormous complex and famous chimney towers over Manningham, and are a key part of the Bradford skyline. At their peak, Lister Mills employed around 5000 people and the complex covered 27 acres of floorspace. The building and tower were designed to be of architectural merit, as well as practical, utilising an Italianate style which must have been hugely impressive at the time for visitors and employees.
An unintended consequence of Samuel Cunliffe Lister’s hard-nosed approach to business was the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 in Bradford. On the 16th of December 1890 some of the workers went on strike, protesting against wage cuts. Following widespread unrest in the city, the Trade Unions grew in strength and numbers, and new unions were formed. The first Independent Labour councillor was elected in Manningham in 1891, and the ILP was a precursor of today’s Labour party.
Samuel Cunliffe Lister went on to leave Lister Park to the people of Bradford, and paid for Cartwright Hall to be built in the park as an art gallery. As with most of the multi-millionaire Victorian industrialists of the day, he believed that with wealth came some responsibility for his workers (and to leave a lasting legacy for his family).
Lister Mills has been at the heart of the regeneration of Manningham, as part of a multi-million pound project to convert the empty buildings (the mills closed in 1990) into contemporary apartments and office space.
Salt’s Mill, Saltaire
One of the most famous and successful Yorkshire mill conversions, Saltaire and its vast mill complex was the brainchild of Sir Titus Salt, an eminent Victorian of the first degree. Sir Titus was a textile magnate who made his fortune by discovering a way of transforming alpaca wool into a wearable, luxurious fabric. His mill at Saltaire produced reams of the stuff, employing 3000 workers and making Sir Titus, his wife and their eleven children one of the wealthiest families in the north of England by the mid 1800s. Sir Titus was a congregationalist Christian, and his drive to succeed financially was balanced by a desire to improve the working conditions of his employees. As a result, he built not only the state of the art mill at Saltaire, but the entire village around it, including a hospital, churches and bathhouses.
Like Lister Mills, Salt’s Mill was built in an Italianate style, a style continued throughout the village. In 1987, the mill was bought by Jonathan Silver, a dynamo of a man who had previously been involved in the development of Dean Clough Mills in Halifax. Jonathan was passionate about art, and was friendly with David Hockney. The grand plan was to house a collection of Hockney’s work in Salt’s Mill, and that is exactly what happened. Salt’s Mill is now a thriving place, with a permanent display of Hockney’s work, shops, a diner and space for businesses. The Mill is still owned and managed by the Silver family, after Jonathan Silver’s untimely death in 1997.
As a result of its unique architectural and social history, in 2001 Saltaire was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Dean Clough, Halifax
Size matters when it comes to mill buildings, and Dean Clough is enormous. Covering around 22 acres, the site is a range of huge buildings which at one point was the largest carpet factory in the world. The family at the heart of Dean Clough was the Crossleys, who expanded the mill complex in the middle of the 1800’s after the death of founder John Crossley. The Crossley brothers, John junior, Joseph and Francis developed the company across two sites – Dean Clough and Kidderminster, in the Midlands.
Every Victorian industrialist worth their salt would strive to leave a lasting legacy in their hometown and the Crossley’s were no exception. Each of the brothers built themselves a mansion, two of which are now public parks. Francis Crossley gave the People’s Park to the town of Halifax, and between them the brothers built almshouses for the poor of the town, an orphanage, a chunk of the town centre, churches, bath houses, and donated land for the town hall.