It may not seem sexy, but the industrial heritage of Yorkshire is a priceless link to the way we worked in the past, and according to the government’s conservation advisors, English Heritage, it is disappearing fast. Mark Holdstock has been finding out more
On a cliff-top, at the edge of the Cleveland coast are the remains of an industry that helped make Yorkshire rich. It also annoyed the Pope. Those remains are nothing more than brick outlines of buildings where the stench of urine masked the money to be made from a chemical called alum.
“At the end of the Middle Ages one of England’s greatest exports was woollen cloth,” says Alastair Oswald, a senior archaeological investigator for English Heritage in the Yorkshire and Humber region.
“Wool itself was such a good price, if you could export the woollen cloth that got you an even better price.
“Best price of all was if you could export dyed woollen cloth, but they had great problems in the late Middle Ages getting dye to stick to wool.
“Alum was a chemical which allowed the dye to stick to the wool.”
Yorkshire was rich in the oily shale from which alum could be made.
The only problem was that extraction of alum from that shale was a closely guarded secret.
“It was a Papal monopoly for many centuries,” says Alastair Oswald.
“The secret of producing alum was under lock and key, but legend has it that someone was smuggled out of Europe in the 16th century and brought with them the secret of alum production.
“They identified these natural oily shales which contain alum, alum sulphate, at various points on the Yorkshire coast, and also down in Dorset as well.
“It was an industry which lasted into the early years of the 19th century.”
The remnants are little more than the outline of the buildings where the ‘alum liquor’ was turned into crystals which were priceless for the textile industry.
In the final stages of production various alkalies were added to the mix as well as urine, brought in ships from London where it was in plentiful supply.
Mr Oswald says this could be very unpleasant for those working in and around these buildings.
“There are contemporary descriptions of these sites which described them as stinking horribly, and making the citizens retch. They weren’t pleasant places at all.”
The traces of that industry are soon to be lost forever, but Alastair Oswald isn’t too worried that the few brick outlines which remain are about to drop off a cliff edge.
“At one level we understand what they were for, we understand how they worked, we understand how the industry worked.
“The question is ‘we understand them, can we let them go and wave them goodbye?’ At a personal level I feel they still make a contribution to the rich tapestry of the English landscape, it’s sad to see them go.
“ But English Heritage and the Environment Agency have limited budgets and it’s impossible to do a Canute and pretend that coastal erosion is going to stop.”
Much more survives of the rest of the textile industry which used the alum – the huge mills that still dominate so much of Yorkshire, but many of these old mills present problems.
“Some of them are very big and that makes them a big problem,” says Trevor Mitchell the regional planning director for English Heritage.
“Some of them are in industrial areas which make them of low value, so regenerating them is a problem and for some building ‘types’ industry has left a legacy of contamination which adds to the cost of doing anything with them.”
He rejects the notion that these buildings aren’t “sexy”, he sees them as a valuable part of the social history of the region and the personal history of its people.
“They’re buildings they’ve grown up with. They’re buildings that their parents and grandparents have worked in, and they make Yorkshire what it is. They can look pretty dirty, and to a soft, Southern, aesthete’s eye they’re not very beautiful very often.
”But I think we’re well used in Yorkshire to appreciate the sublime awe of an industrial building.”
One of the best known of several monumental textile mills is Temple Mill in Holbeck Village close to Leeds City Centre. It was built by John Marshall, the son of a draper made good.
“An amazing tour de force,” enthuses Trevor Mitchell. “It’s got an amazing frontage of stone in the Egyptian style, with columns and palm leaves.
“But it was a one-off and because of that the engineering of the day wasn’t perhaps up to keeping the building up.”
Temple Mill won’t fall down, but it needs attention to the structure inside.
“There has been some collapse where structural tie-bars have broken. We’re worried about it, as are the owners.
“There needs to be a long-term solution that gives it back its strength. The owners have done some repairs to the bits that have collapsed, but there’s no agreed solution as to how to tie the whole building back together.”
Part of the historical significance of Temple Mill lies with some rather unexpected residents who once lived here. Sheep.
“It’s a very deep building and it has roof strips to allow light in. One of the big issues of these buildings is what’s called ‘thermal expansion’.
“The roof was covered in soil and turf to absorb the heat of the sun and stop the building expanding and contracting as much as it would have otherwise done. The history books tell us they had sheep on the top keeping the roof grazed.”
Another big industry was steel and metal in South Yorkshire.
Here the problems and the challenges are different to textile relics and in some ways greater.
This is the case not so much at the works where the steel was made as in the smaller factories where it was fashioned into everyday objects.
“The metal trades were smaller businesses, and they spent less money on ‘start up’ so the buildings that the metal trade put up in Sheffield were fairly minimal,” says Trevor Mitchell.
“They put up just enough to keep the wind and water out, and give someone somewhere to work.”
One of the metal working buildings that most concerns Trevor Mitchell, and English Heritage, is in the centre of Sheffield.
“Leah’s Yard is a really good example,” he says. “They tended to be built around courtyards, they tended to be inward-facing, partly for security, and partly because you could guarantee the daylight within your courtyard.
“This place fell out of use about 20 years ago or more, when Mr Leah sold out to Spear and Jackson. The problem with it is that it has had no use for 20 years and this part of town has been up for re-development for over a decade.
“It’s almost that concept of ‘planning blight’. Everything’s waiting for what might happen.”
The building was in fact home to more of a collection of companies, most of whom were tenants of the man who gave his name to the yard.
“In 1902 as well as Mr Leah, there were 14 other occupiers, mostly making cutlery or handles.
“But there was a sign-writer and a silver ferrule maker, which I think is a point that you put on a shooting stick.”
The complex is grade two-star listed, which means it’s in the top eight per cent of all historic buildings.
Sheffield City Council is planning to use compulsory purchase powers to make Leah’s Yard a part of a wider development scheme in the city centre.
But as Trevor Mitchell points out, the state of the economy has made a lot of conservation projects harder
“Industrial buildings aren’t immediately appealing and in an economic downturn, if there is any development activity, people do the easiest stuff first.
“So difficult locations and difficult buildings tend to be at the back of the queue.
“Around South Yorkshire there are probably two or three dozen like Leah’s Yard, but there are only a handful that are as good.”
English Heritage will release precise figures this week.
It will detail the scale of the problem across the country.
Trevor Mitchell says it is important that these buildings, those which can be, are saved, not out of sentiment, but because of the part they played in people’s lives.
“The historic industries of the region defined the lives of previous generations. The buildings and landscapes that survive provide a vivid and strong connection to the lives of our predecessors, forming part of our personal, family and regional histories.”
English Heritage publishes its Industrial Heritage at Risk campaign on Tuesday. For more information visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/heritage-at-risk