The rise and fall of Wool City

THE history of the Bradford textile industry from the Edwardian age to the Millennium is traced in a new book. Tony Phillips looks back on those early days

Picture the scene one hundred years ago when there were more than 300 textile mills operating in Bradford. With smoke and dirt belching from a forest of pencil-straight chimneys, Blake's vision of dark, satanic mills is easily imagined.

But step inside those factory gates and from the noise and clatter within witness the honest toil and sweat of proud Bradfordians whose productive energy helped to create the world's leading wool-trading centre.

In the industry's heyday during that era, it was estimated there were a quarter of million men and women working in the mills of West Riding, with 70,000 of those jobs centred on Bradford.

Today, the number has dwindled to a few thousand and Bradford is perhaps better known for the flavours of its curry houses than the cut of its cloth.

As the city strives for a more prosperous tomorrow, with an architect's vision of an inner city lake and canal-side developments, a new book, Wool City, by journalist Mark Keighley is a reminder of the industrial foundations that brought Bradford fame and fortune – and the challenges that lie ahead.

Keighley, a former editor of the trade journal Wool Record, is well qualified as a chronicler of this fascinating story, having reported on the industry for most of his working life. Four years were spent researching the subject, interrupted only by the sad and sudden death of his wife Hazel, to whom the book is dedicated.

Bradford's connections with wool go back to the 14th century, with its first mill at Leaventhorpe being mentioned in the will of the Earl of Lincoln in 1311 but it was in the latter years of the 19th century that the revolution gathered pace.

The old mill by the stream was replaced by suburban and inner city operations on a scale previously unheard of – industrial cathedrals such as Salts Mill and Lister's Mill in Manningham rising as vast monuments to their owners' business acumen and entrepreneurship. A Londoner, viewing Saltaire for the first time, was reported to have exclaimed: "What would the Plantagenets say could they come back to life to see trade inhabiting places far more stately than those of kings!"

In other parts of Bradford, there were similar businesses built on a grand scale. The combing works of Isaac Holden & Sons, for example, were capable of handling the wool of a mind-boggling eight million sheep, while Lister & Co operated the largest silk factory in Europe.

Men like Sir Titus Salt – it was said he could make 1,000 before most men had breakfast – Samuel Cunliffe Lister (Lord Masham), John Foster and Jospeh Dawson were pioneers in every sense. Dawson on a visit to Nepal in the 1890s (no business-class flights in those days) was the first to see the commercial possibilities of the Tibetan goat hair used in the Kashmir shawl. By the early 1900s, his company had perfected a mechanical system of de-hairing the raw material, giving Dawson's a commanding lead over competitors until the 1930s.

In the book, Dawson is pictured at the wheel of the first car to be seen in Bradford in 1896 – a notable publicity coup, as he was at the time out canvassing for votes in the Bradford municipal elections.

These leaders of industry may have been hard-nosed businessmen seeking profits and prestige, but many were also imbued with a sense of civic pride and duty that has left its mark on the social fabric of the city.

Sir Henry Whitehead, for instance, who died in 1928, had started work at the age of 15 before rising to become chairman of Salts. He left 100,000 to local charities (a vast sum in today's values), while Lord Masham gave 40,000 towards the construction of Cartwright Hall, the city's art museum.

Another significant benefactor was Sir James Hill, who when elected Mayor in 1908, devoted his year of office to raising 100,000 towards a new Royal Infirmary, personally donating 30,000. The Infirmary was opened in 1936, four months after his death, at a cost of 500,000, mostly raised by public donations which would equate to an astonishing 18m today.

But what about the workers? The lives of so many families were inextricably linked with the industry, with countless sons and daughters following their parents into the mills, and while this paternalistic tradition was fostered by the owners, times were

often tough.

The book recalls a speech made in 1909 by FW Jowett, the Independent Labour MP for West Bradford, on the plight of the jobless. Pointing out that two million people in Britain had incomes of not more than 1 a week, he explained that, in Bradford, wool combers did not earn more than 16 shillings a week. "The consequence was that a man found it impossible to maintain his family in decency and comfort." Despite such hardships, the generosity of spirit and respect shown by the workers to the owners was demonstrated on Christmas Eve of that year when the 3,000 employees at Salts Mill presented the head of the firm, James Roberts, with an illuminated address enclosed in a golden casket on news of his elevation to a baronetcy.

As the book explains: "Sir James said he and Lady Roberts had considered the most suitable way to express their appreciation, and it was their intention to give all those who had any connection with Saltaire Mill a pension of five shillings a week on reaching the age of 65." Typically, the presentation ceremony ended with the singing of the National Anthem.

Fires and accidents were a constant threat to production – between April and June 1913, Bradford Fire Brigade dealt with more than 30 major blazes – and in those early days industrial strife bubbled under the surface, particularly during the dark days of the Depression.

One chapter refers to the "Red Flag" being sung in Thornton Road during an eight-week strike in 1930 sparked by a recommended nine per cent cut in pay following a court of inquiry conducted by the Rt Hon HP Macmillan (later Prime Minister) into wool-textile wages and the pressures faced by the industry from imports. Interestingly, it would be another 56 years before there was another industry-wide strike.

Like many other industries of that time, conditions at work were sometimes dangerous and there were often casualties. However, in 1908, a major disaster was narrowly averted when a large part of the sixth floor collapsed at Ira Ickringill's mill in Legrams Lane and crashed into the basement. Miraculously, the accident happened during the firm's lunch break when only half a dozen girls were in the building. Five were slightly hurt but one worker died after being trapped in the wreckage.

Of greater health concern was the danger of anthrax – "the dark figure on the warehouse stairs and the unexpected obituary in the evening newspaper" – caused by the deadly spores found on imported wool from Russia, Asia, South Africa and Persia. Between 1900 and 1945, 925 cases of anthrax arising from contact with wool or hair were reported to the Factory Inspectorate, with 146 proving fatal. The book pays tribute to the work of Dr Frederick Eurich, whose family came from Germany to Bradford in 1875. Eurich devoted more than 20 years ridding the industry of its most terrifying disease, through a system of disinfection that he discovered.

Casualties on a far greater scale were inflicted during the two World Wars, with many textile workers among the Bradford Pals who fell at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

But while the soldiers fought in the trenches, the industry at home was working flat out to supply the front – by 1917, for instance, Bradford was producing 250,000 yards of khaki uniform a week.

The memories of the terrible sacrifices made in the First World War are movingly reported through the words of Vera Smith, who recorded her memories in a book, All Muck and Nettles. Vera worked at the Broad Lane Mills, Laisterdyke, of John Speight Son and Co in the 1930s. She wrote of Remembrance Day: "At school we had assembly in the hall and two minutes' silence, but it was not until I started work that I realised how much this act of remembrance meant to people. I did not really know what to expect at Speight's on November 11. At 10.55 the buzzer would sound in the mill. We had to stop what we were doing, stay quite still, bow our heads and remain so until the buzzer sounded again at 11.00. It was a very moving experience and one I have never forgotten. This busy mill with all the looms making a fantastic amount of noise, then the buzzer sounded and everything stopped, the looms, the weavers, the menders, everyone. Most women in the mending room had lost husbands, brothers or friends in the war. All had their heads bent and many were in tears."

All too soon Britain would once again be defending itself, but a similar picture emerges from the Second World War, where by the middle of October 1939, the industry was given the task of making Army greatcoats in numbers equal to 25 years' supply under normal conditions. The output at Lister & Co, where more than 10,000 miles of military fabric and cord were produced with only half the normal workforce, speaks volumes of Bradford's war effort.

Unfortunately, the last 60 years chronicled in the book is a record of steady decline, of increasing competition from overseas, factory closures and job losses on a major scale.

But as Mark Keighley told the Yorkshire Post: "It is a sad story when you look back at the industry in its heyday but it's not a totally unhappy one. The numbers may have dwindled but there are still companies in Bradford and the surrounding district producing some of the finest textile products in the world. In recent years, there has even been a minor renaissance but the wool industry is now very much a niche market."

And what of the future? Perhaps one should reach into the past to find the answer – to the official opening of Cartwright Memorial Hall on April 13, 1904 by Lord Masham. He told the gathering that he pictured Cartwright Hall as: "The place where the Asiatic of the future might come in search of the inventor of the power loom," adding: "I have a very strong impression that the East will overcome the West in coming years, and that instead of our clothing the East they will want to clothe us."

Wool City by Mark Keighley is published by G Whitaker & Co, priced 30. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or online at Postage and packing costs 2.75.

Do you have memories or photographs of working in a Yorkshire mill? We would like to hear from you for our new Lives & Times section in the Magazine which we are launching in the New Year. Please write to Michael Hickling, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF. Or email