Frozen in time... landmarks from the heyday of industry fire up local feeling

Grimsby Ice factory
Grimsby Ice factory
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IN its heyday, Grimsby was the largest fishing port in the world and from its bustling docks fish was dispatched all over the country, kept fresh under a thick layer of ice supplied by the neighbouring Ice Factory on the waterfront.

At its peak, the factory produced more than 1,000 tonnes of ice a day, but now its hulking frame lies derelict, a broken reminder of better days.

The factory, which dates back to 1901, is a Grade II* listed building and, along with the historic dock area which surrounds it, has been described by English Heritage as “the most important representation of the industrial scale fishing trade in England.” But after suffering from years of decay, theft and vandalism it was placed on the Heritage at Risk register.

The factory closed in 1990, since when several attempts have tried, and failed, to get projects off the ground. But there is renewed hope that the latest campaign may just succeed. The Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust (GGIFT) was set up in July 2010, with the aim of devising a feasible plan to restore the building.

Since then interest has snowballed, with the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Prince’s Regeneration Trust offering support to the campaigners, who are waiting to hear back from architects and market research firms that have been invited to submit bids to carry out an options appraisal.

The local Trust has until the end of the month to find £2,500 needed to go towards a £10,000 options appraisal and has already raised almost £2,000, thanks to donations from local people and businesses.

The factory site is owned by Associated British Ports and if the campaigners can provide viable plans to transform the building and has funding in place, the company has agreed to begin negotiations over the potential transfer of ownership to the Trust.

There’s still a long way to go but Vicky Hartung, chairwoman of the Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust, believes they can help rejuvenate the old factory.

“People have been talking about doing something with the building for 20 years, but if it can be saved it could be a catalyst for regeneration not only of the docks, but of the town itself. It doesn’t have to be a standalone building it could be part of a wonderful marina, it doesn’t have to be a rat-infested disgrace.”

Hartung was raised in Grimsby and returned home after 40 years away to set up an art gallery there. Many people, though, regard the town as a cultural backwater and she agrees it has a bit of an image problem: “The town has an auditorium, which is more like an aircraft hangar, but it doesn’t have a theatre and it doesn’t have a dedicated public art gallery, so theatre companies don’t bring their plays here and the people are missing out.”

She would love to turn the site into what she calls a “Tate Grimsby”. “It’s such a huge building and to use it as a public space for the people of Grimsby and Cleethorpes would need some kind of subsidy and we don’t have any money for that. But if we could have an international arts centre, something like the Baltic in Gateshead, with conference space, a cinema and cafés, that could work.”

She looks at the impact The Hepworth has had on Wakefield and believes the Ice Factory could provide a similar focal point in Grimsby. “To have an art gallery would be a huge start in helping to sustain the rest of the building but we understand it has to be commercially viable and we are looking at a number of uses.””

She believes that redeveloping the factory could have a huge knock-on effect. “It could tie in with the coast and the Lincolnshire Wolds and make us a bigger tourist attraction. Grimsby usually gets laughed at but why can’t we change that perception? There are a lot of talented and creative people here but they need a reason to stay.””

The Trust has more than 100 paid up members and Hartung says there is growing support from locals. “Once we started we came across all sorts of people who used to work in the factory and people who had never contacted us before have been sending in cheques for £10 or £20, which shows that people want this to work.””

The Ice Factory was once part of the thriving fish docks area dubbed the Kasbah, so-called because of its warren of now-demolished streets, and has become a symbol of better days. “It’s important to people interested in the town’s industrial heritage because it’s the only surviving example of an ice factory from this period, with its machinery intact, in Europe.”

But it is about more than simply preserving an industrial relic.

“The factory is located in the East Marsh area which is the second or third most deprived ward in the country, but this used to be the thriving hub of the town and all the money that came off the docks was spent here.””

It is the dream of restoring a community feeling that inspires Hartung and her fellow campaigners.

“We had a workshop in February and a fish merchant came along who described what it was like in the 50s when the fishing industry was at its peak. Trawlermen would come off the boats and hire a taxi for a couple of days to drive them round the pubs. People had money, my mother had a dress shop on Freeman Street and there was an electrical shop that had TVs wired to be used in Iceland because the Icelandic fishermen would come off the boats and take them back home, everyone was making a good living.”

The hope now is that a thriving docks area could be a springboard to a brighter future in Grimsby. “There’s a lot of talk about the renewables industry coming to the area and the effect that will have. But life isn’t all about big multi-national companies making big profits. The Ice Factory project will also create jobs, and attract the kind of investment to the town which will improve the quality of life here in a permanent and tangible way.”

The campaign to save the Ice Factory reflects a growing interest in our industrial heritage and the realisation that once these buildings are gone they can’t be replaced. Salt’s Mill, in Saltaire, and Dean Clough, in Halifax, are prime examples of historic mills and factories that have had new life breathed into them. While in Sheffield, the preservation of Portland Works has been the focus of a campaign for the last three years. The Grade II-listed building is home to a thriving community of skilled craftspeople and artists who keep alive a 130-year tradition. But this was threatened when a planning application was submitted in 2009, that would have seen the building in Randall Street turned into flats and bedsits.

A campaign was then inspired by the building’s history as the birthplace of stainless steel, and a group was formed with the aim of keeping the Portland Works open and restoring it to former glories.

Last month, campaigners were celebrating after the landlord agreed to sell the building for £420,000, with an upfront payment of £260,000 by the end of June – which will give the campaign full ownership – and the remaining £160,000 to be paid in instalments over the next four years.

There are about 20 different organisations and small businesses based at the rundown former metalworks, including Stuart Mitchell, a bespoke cutler.

“There’s a colony of artists’ studios, rehearsal rooms, there are engineers, an engraver and the last independent silver plater in Sheffield. It’s such an important building for the whole city because of why it was built and when and the steel city connections.

“But for me personally, it was important because my entire working life has been spent at Portland Works,” he says.

“My family business used to be round the corner at Stag Works and I remember my dad collecting me from school when I was 10 years old and saying he had something momentous to show me, and he took me to the new workshop here.

“My customers love coming here, they love the history of the place and it’s important that we not only preserve the building, but that it’s used for what it was built for. We don’t want to sterilise the place, we want it to smell and feel like a place of work, we don’t want it to be a museum.”

For details on how to support the trust visit www.grimsbyice.co.uk. To invest in the Portland Works project, or to find out more, email info@portlandworks.co.uk