Bradford and District Mills – a continuous contribution to cultural growth and diversity

Photograph of merchants on the main floor of the Wool Exchange, Bradford 1954.
(C.H. Wood, Bradford Museums and Galleries)

By the 1850s it’s estimated that Bradford processed two thirds of the country’s wool production and was generally known as the wool capital of the world. People sought work in Bradford as local rural employment declined but eventually they came from all parts of the world. In 1974, Bradford became a metropolitan district and absorbed other areas such as Keighley that had also experienced early economic and population growth due to its textile trade and related engineering industries.

Despite this propitious beginning and rapid production and success, the District’s textile industry has declined over the years and now the local economy relies on a diversity of industries and technologies. Nevertheless, much of the industrial landscape remains but far from being predominantly the “dark satanic mills” of dereliction and waste, today very many of the old mills have been re-purposed in unique and creative ways so that they can continue to contribute to the social, economic and cultural development of the District. Today we see mills playing a role in pioneering digital technology, film, performance art and culture and they will be an essential consideration in the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda for the District.

Architectural innovation and majesty

Fabric Huge by Mark Keighley

The early mill owners built grand houses that we still admire such as Heathcote, Ilkley (John Thomas Hemingway, Richardsons’ wool merchants);  Cliffe Castle, Keighley (Butterfield family, worsted manufacturers and merchants), Eastwood House, Keighley (William Sugden, worsted spinner);  Lady Royde Hall, Bradford (Henry Illingworth, worsted spinner, manufacturer). However, they also built their mills on a grand scale too, continuing to use the best architects around. Amongst the most splendid mill examples still standing today are Lister’s (Manningham) Mills, Bradford built by Samuel Cunliffe Lister to replace the original Manningham Mills, destroyed by fire in 1871. Built in the Italianate style of Victorian architecture (listed Grade II), the architects were a local firm, Andrews & Pepper who went on to design many fine buildings in Bradford. For all architect details, please see:  Salt’s Mills built by Sir Titus Salt and designed by Bradford’s Town Hall architects Lockwood & Mawson,  is also now Grade II listed and in it floor size at the time was the largest industrial building in the world. It has been described as an Italianate palace as the architecture is after the 15thcentury Italianate style;  Dalton Mills , Keighley (Grade II listed 1134129 ) was built for J. and J. Craven, worsted spinners and manufacturers the complex originally consisted of 3 ornate mills in an eclectic classical style (minarets style towers included) round a small courtyard, Tower Mill, Genappe Mill and New Mill. They were designed by William Sugden of Leek, Staffordshire who also built the Secular Hall in Leicester  All these mills can be examined in more detail individually on the English Heritage Listed Buildings web site:

As well as this grand architecture, mill owners built houses for workers, public buildings such as Institutes, offices and warehouses, some similarly ornate such as in Saltaire Model village and Little Germany in Bradford.  In the last century, mills themselves that were structurally still sound began to be refurbished to produce flats and apartments. These were also popular because of their location near scenic waterways, such as in Saltaire at Victoria Mills and in Bingley. Another of Bradford’s main developments is that of Lister’s Mill. Once the largest silk factory in the world, the Grade II listed buildings have now been converted by Urban Splash into apartments, penthouses and commercial units. The following site shows the transformation with excellent photographs:

Conditioning House, Bradford, is another large and prestigious building development and won the UK Property Award for best residential development in Yorkshire 2018/19. Smaller mills all over the District have also been converted such as Hewenden Mill, Haworth, and others such as Baildon Mills are in the pipeline, so maintaining Bradford’s unique industrial architecture.

Technical Education

The Great Exhibition of 1851 exposed weaknesses in Britain’s manufacturing and industrial educational policy and pinpointed deficiencies in technical drawing skills of students going into industry and manufacturing. Subsequently, the Department of Science and Art was created to raise standards, together with the National Art Training Schools of South Kensington to provide specialist instruction in drawing, designing and modelling. A system of national scholarships was also established. In the late 19th century, students of Keighley Mechanics’ Institute particularly benefited and won many scholarships, encouraged by Swire Smith of Fleece Mills. He travelled through Europe examining different educational methods and skills, gave lectures, served on the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1880) and contributed papers to the Technical Education Bill (Technical Instruction Act 1889) and its committee. He received a knighthood in 1898. Keighley Local Studies library holds his archive and a collection of pamphlets.

Digital Technology

Salts Mill, small industrial unit, sculptor, Andrew Orlowski, who came to England during 1980 after studying at the famous Academy of Sculpture, in Poland. (BHRU, Bradford Museums and Galleries)

The repurposed Salt’s Mill played a role in training and employment when it opened new units for crafts but also in new technologies when it gave space to Pace Electronics, a British company pioneering digital technology for satellite receiving equipment. Today the mill houses the Advanced Digital Institute (ADI).

Into the future, Bradford’s mills are set to play an important role in developing the use of drone technology and smart city management. Dalton Mills, Keighley has already been noted in the report findings of the first phase of the pioneering “Flying High” programme. Bradford is one of only five areas designated “drone cities” for this leading project for the drone industry. For details follow the following links:  (page 56 for Bradford District)

Immigration and Diversity

Illingworth, Morris PLC. Employee of the spinning mill on Thornton Road, Bradford.
(BHRU, Bradford Museums and Galleries)

Since the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s population has been on the move to find work as rural employment became scarcer. Bradford District witnessed large Irish migrations and the use of orphans from as far away as London to be employed in the textile trade. The German worsted merchants built Little Germany warehouse area and also became cultural philanthropists, supporting buildings such as St George’s Hall. The composer Frederic Delius and the painter William Rothenstein came from such families in Bradford. After World War 2,  Displaced Persons were given European Volunteer Worker status and recruited to work in the mills in the Bradford District. By 1987, there was upwards of 10,000 people of Austrian, Italian, Baltic and Eastern European origin living in Bradford, many working in textiles and its related industries (Wool City by Mark Keighley, G. Whitaker & Co. Ltd., 2007, p.143). The largest recent migration, however, was that from the new Commonwealth and Pakistan. Most of the new Commonwealth workers became employed in textiles as well as public transport and the Health Service, making valuable contributions to the local economy and its diverse cultural development. In the late 1960s, textile firms relied so much on workers from India and Pakistan for combing and spinning processes that without them it is recorded that textile production and profit would have seriously faltered. (See also Textile Voices edited by Olive Howarth, BHRU 1989 and Here To Stay, Bradford’s South Asian Communities, BHRU 1994)

Arts, Culture and Heritage

The move to re-purpose rather than demolish mills, championed by such schemes as the Prince’s Regeneration Through Heritage initiative has led to some becoming social, retail but also performance art and cultural hubs.

Aerial view of Salt’s Mill, 1973 (Bradford Museums and Galleries)

Amongst the first in the country, and the most outstanding in Bradford, is Salt’s Mill whose wide ranging contribution has led to Saltaire village becoming recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The original vision of entrepreneur Jonathan Silver (1949-1997) as a retail and leisure scheme, Salt’s Mill became a major cultural centre as it was progressed from Bradford Festival productions in the mill to the exclusive 1853 Hockney Gallery in the former spinning mill. Today it still houses the largest continuous exhibition of art works by the world famous English artist, David Hockney. You will also find there today a large book shop, antiques centre, craft and outdoor retail, cafes and restaurants and the Early Music Shop, (See Salt & Silver A Story of Hope by Jim Greenhalf, Bradford Libraries, 1998) Other mills have also been adapted to the benefit of the local community and encouragement of the Arts.  Dalton Mill complex in Keighley, has also been refurbished in part and now has an arts centre and thriving Business Park. Melbourne Mills opposite Dalton, and like Salt’s Mill, has also contributed to the long tradition and progressive link between mills, music and Yorkshire bands. In the mid-19th Century this consisted of one of the first Yorkshire mill brass bands, Black Dyke Mills band being created, today there are pop and rock bands using recording and rehearsal studios as launched by “Jam on Top”. The mill also houses a radio station.

Examples of smaller conversions also include Antiques at the Mill, Cullingworth; Ponden Mill B & B, Stanbury and Albion Mills business centre, Greengates.

Film and Television

Because of their impressive and historic architecture, and it has to be said because of some dereliction, Dalton Mill in Keighley and Saltaire’s mills and village have frequently been used as film locations. Dalton Mill most recently was filmed for the popular television series Peaky Blinders.

Dalton Mills, Keighley (Keighley Local Studies)

This availability of impressive film locations has contributed to Bradford marking its tenth anniversary in 2019 as the world’s first UNESCO City of Film and helped it to highlight how Bradford is leading the way in film literacy with a programme that is regarded as one of the best of its kind in the UK, promoting new ways of learning in primary schools (Emma Clayton, T&A, 12 Feb 2019 pp. 2-3).  Bradford has now launched a unique FilmMakers 25 project to spot and nurture talent and to teach skills of film making to students across the District.

It’s good to see that Bradford District’s mills not only continue to contribute to the local economy but now also to the District’s cultural development and progress, with a key role to play in the development of some of the most advanced technology in the world. The regeneration of textile mills in the area is now a key part of the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda. This is a fine testimony to Bradford District’s diversity and spirit of hard work and enterprise as Bradford now makes its bid for the title of UK City of Culture 2025.

Bradford and Keighley Local Studies Libraries hold a wealth of books and archive records and resources if you would like to find out more about mills and the textile industry. Bradford is also fortunate to have its own Industrial Museum that hosts regular widely acclaimed exhibitions.

Gina Birdsall, Keighley Local Studies

Belle Vue Studio collection: a unique collection based in Bradford’s Museums and Galleries. The studio became a popular destination in the 1950s for those coming to work in Bradford from other parts of the world. Digitisation of the photos is almost complete:

See also Bradford Museums Photo Archives:

Bradford’s Oral History collection is housed in Bradford Local Studies Library. It consists of 800 tape recorded interviews with local people’s memories including subject areas such as textiles, health, war, immigration to Bradford.

Other useful sites:  traditional and modern mills’ repository of records and photographs  online illustrated guide to Britain’s industrial history

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