One of Yorkshire’s most historic mills is being reinvented for a new era by the inheritors of a great tradition. Andrew Vine reports. Pictures by Mike Cowling.
FAMILY history matters to William and John Gaunt. Their lives are built on its heritage, and so is their business.
William and John are the inheritors of one of the proudest manufacturing traditions in Yorkshire, and of the imposing stone woollen mill that is a monument to it.
Weaving is in their blood, just as it was for five preceding generations of Gaunts, whose lives were bound up with the mill that is the family business, even though changing times forced them to leave textiles behind.
Running a mill in the 21st- century is a very different proposition than when the first Gaunt became involved in the 19th. But the mill has an unshakeable place in the family, and so William and John have embarked on a reinvention that will, they believe, once more make it a major centre of employment just as it was when Yorkshire sent textiles to the world.
Sunny Bank Mills, at Farsley, near Leeds holds a proud place in the story of how weaving helped build the county’s prosperity and shaped its landscape.
It stands at the heart of the village, a massive, solid reminder of what is now a bygone age, founded in 1829 with the involvement of the Gaunt family and continuing to produce worsteds of the highest quality until 2008.
Generations of mill workers passed through its gates, with employment peaking at 900 during World War One, later settling to about 400 during the prosperous years of the 1950s and 60s when William and John’s grandfather had restored its fortunes after ruin came knocking at his family’s door.
Foreign competition and declining overseas markets finally brought production to an end after almost 180 years, with the loss of 55 jobs, but now the mill is living again.
A multi-million pound renovation as offices is well under way, and companies are moving in. There are already 200 people working here, many in creative industries like photography and design, and once the revamp is complete, there could be as many as 500.
There is an art gallery here now, and soon there will be a restaurant and flats as the mill finds a new role at the heart of the village where it is a landmark.
Echoes of the past are everywhere. The old hoist is in place in the spinning shop, and the fittings of the old building including tables, benches and lampshades, have been recycled.
But it hasn’t been easy for William and John, the cousins who took over as joint managing directors from their fathers, Martin and David, and drew their family’s manufacturing of cloth to a close.
John, 38, said: “One of the great achievements of our fathers was being able to hand over an operating business to us, the next generation. It became apparent that it was a process of managing a declining market.”
Both cousins studied textiles at the University of Leeds before coming into the family business in the time-honoured way – working in every department and learning the skills before taking on managerial roles.
The world, though, was changing around them. Far Eastern markets were in decline and economic uncertainty in the Middle East in the wake of the first Gulf War in 1990 dealt the mill a blow from which it never recovered.
“It was some of the best cloth in the world,” said William, 47. “We had two years of agony deciding what to do. We weren’t selling enough cloth to sustain a mill.
“That was an agonising decision for John and I after so many generations of weaving, and we had to make that decision, that our family were probably best no longer in textile manufacturing and we had to break that to the workforce.”
John said: “If for me there was a moment when it all changed, it was walking from the directors’ office out into the factory to have to break the news to a group of workers who for several generations have had a job for life.”
Manufacturing stopped on May 2 2008. Within six months, Sunny Bank suffered another major blow.
For 20 years, Yorkshire Television had occupied part of the mill, using it as studios to film interiors for Emmerdale and Heartbeat. Now the company was moving out. And to further increase the pressure, plans for renovation were being drawn up at the bottom of an economic slump.
William and John, though, were determined that Sunny Bank should survive and have a new lease of life, and their family tradition was at the heart of the decision.
“We would have made more money for the family if we’d knocked it down,” said William. “We’re taking a long term view, and as a family we are very committed to the mill.
“One of the reasons we had to make the decision to exit textile manufacturing was that we wanted to protect the mill itself.
“We had a strong family link with the mill since its inception and we also strongly felt that a mill was a place of employment.”
John added: “Because we had that long history in Farsley, we didn’t want to walk away and we didn’t want to let anyone else have the fun of redeveloping the mill.”
William said: “It wasn’t derelict, but it was dilapidated. Every building we had to completely strip back, re-roof, put new windows in, and all that’s left is the four walls and the floors.
“You can see the mill beginning to live again, which it didn’t for three or four years after we shut down, it was the doldrum days of the recession.”
Some parts of the mill will not survive. The old weaving sheds are beyond salvation, and need to be demolished to open up the site, making it more accessible to the rest of Farsley.
The village is already coming in, visiting Sunny Bank’s archive, which is opened once a month and chronicles the mill’s history.
There is an example there of every piece of cloth produced, plus the technical data to go with each, so if somebody wanted to recreate the material, they could.
“The archive is complete, and it’s in its home,” said William.
The Gaunts built Sunny Bank into a powerhouse of the Yorkshire textile industry, and now they have given it a new lease of life. And there’s every chance that the family connection will continue into the future.
William said: “One of our aspirations when we reach retirement is that we’ll be handing over a regenerated site that our children can either be involved in or not, it’s entirely up to them.”
• Sunny Bank Mills can be found at www.sunnybankmills.co.uk