The new futures being shaped for West Riding's historic textile mills

Yorkshire’s mills are an integral part of the county’s history and heritage. Some have been brilliantly regenerated but what does the future hold for others? Sebastian Oake reports.

Just over four years ago, smoke from a burning mill billowed across Bradford. Drummond Mill on Lumb Lane had stood there for more than 150 years but the fire destroyed it and this monument to Yorkshire’s industrial history ended up having to be bulldozed.

Several other former, often disused, textile mills have also burned. Craig Broadwith, historic places advisor for Yorkshire at Historic England, says: “If a mill is empty, rough sleepers get in and try to keep themselves warm or children explore and start playing with matches. Before they know it, the mill can be on fire.”

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Craig Broadwith at the Conditioning House in Bradford.Craig Broadwith at the Conditioning House in Bradford.
Craig Broadwith at the Conditioning House in Bradford.
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“There have been several reports of mills going up in smoke and the fire service has said it had to have been a deliberate act because investigators found evidence of several seats of fire. Who set those separate fires and why?”

Elsewhere mills have simply succumbed to decay. In Keighley, Low Mill is now in a dilapidated state. So too are Old Lane Mill in Halifax, Newsome Mills in Huddersfield, Bank Bottom Mill at Marsden and several old mills in Bradford.

“If buildings are not looked after with the roof maintained, water can get in and structures begin to rot, leading to an unstable building,” says Craig. “The local authority can tell the owner to make it safe but the owner might come back and say the only way forward is demolition.”

Many would say the loss of any historical mill is another body blow to heritage. “Mills helped to build communities and many people will have grandparents or ancestors who worked in them.”

Gibson Mill near Hebden Bridge.Gibson Mill near Hebden Bridge.
Gibson Mill near Hebden Bridge.
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Any personal links to history that textile mills provide can be only enlarged by the sheer scale of many mills – they can literally shape the skyline – and also often their architectural splendour.

“Mill chimneys are like church spires,” says Craig. “They help to define places. They are part of landmarks that mean a great deal to the people around them.”

Martin Hamilton, Director of Leeds Civic Trust agrees. “Old textile mills are physical markers of the progress of places like Leeds as an international textiles powerhouse. They act as a reminder of the city’s past.”

Sadly, a quarter of Yorkshire’s old mills are under threat today. A recent survey by Historic England recorded 917 surviving mills in Yorkshire with 237 of them classed as vacant or underused and at risk from fire damage or dereliction.

Tower Works in Leeds, which has been redeveloped.Tower Works in Leeds, which has been redeveloped.
Tower Works in Leeds, which has been redeveloped.
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Many of them are listed buildings. Most of them are in Kirklees, Bradford, Leeds and Calderdale. Historic England describes the situation as concerning.

Today, of course, there are other major concerns impacting on us, not least coronavirus and climate change, but many would say the historical fabric of the West Riding matters, too.

The British textile industry, of course, no longer leads the world and is unlikely to ever need any more than a fairly modest fraction of the remaining stock of mills. So new uses must be found, and Historic England points out there is one use that is crying out for more space.

“There is a huge need to create more homes,” says Craig. “New houses are simply not being developed in the numbers they need to be. Mills have large floor areas and are usually close to facilities. Many people would be happy to live there.”

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Leeds Civic Trust is comfortable with the idea of former iconic industrial space becoming housing. Martin says: “We have to be realistic about our mills – their original use may not be practical in the 21st century, but if alternative uses such as housing ensure their survival, this must be a positive.”

According to Historic England’s calculations, the vacant or underused mill buildings in Yorkshire could provide up to 11,540 dwellings. And if the outside space around them all is built on too, that figure could rise to more than 19,400. It seems a very significant number.

If that is the case, what has been stopping things? Craig says: “The upfront costs of redevelopment can be daunting and we have to bear in mind that mill owners are not necessarily developers. Even established property developers can be resistant to taking on a mill building with all its complexity.

"Sometimes it’s just not economic to convert – it depends on local land values. Historic England has been trying to find ways of bringing in public investment to help make things happen.”

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That public investment may now become harder to find but something to celebrate is that some mills have been very successfully converted to apartments, among them Victoria Mills at Shipley, now part of a new-and-old development of 400 sought-after apartments.

At Bradford’s gigantic Manningham Mills – once the silk factory of Samuel Cunliffe Lister and the largest of its kind in the world – the company Urban Splash converted two mill buildings to housing but was then caught by the economic downturn that began in 2008. Recently things were beginning to show promise again. “There is an awful lot of potential to develop further there,” notes Craig.

And two flagship projects, one in Leeds and one in Bradford, have been giving hope that development for housing could once more be on the move. The imposing Hunslet Mills by the side of the River Aire in Leeds were built as perhaps the last of the great flax spinning concerns of the city. They have stood empty for 40 years, but, together with the neighbouring Victoria Mills, are now in line to become a complex of 330 apartments.

JM Construction has already created 94 units in three mill buildings and they are fully occupied. The conversion of the dominant east range of Hunslet Mills, creating penthouse suites with views along the river, will be the final triumph of regeneration here.

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Across in Bradford, the handsome Conditioning House, built as a wool testing centre in 1902, also faces a bright future. Priestley Homes is converting it to 152 loft-style apartments, together with office space, a gymnasium and a café.

Naturally old mills are suitable for many uses. “They are actually very flexible with their large open-plan format,” says Craig.

One classic example of bold reinvention is presented by Salt’s Mill at Saltaire, a World Heritage Site. It was built in the early 1850s as an integrated worsted mill on a massive scale for the legendary Titus Salt, wool baron, social visionary and philanthropist.

It is now a David Hockney art gallery, shopping centre, and eatery complex created through the hard work and vision of the Silver family. And its success is surely matched in Halifax by Dean Clough Mills, once the world’s largest carpet factory and now occupied by galleries, shops, gyms, a theatre and a hotel.

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Other beacons of imagination shine out across Yorkshire. Belle Vue Mills in Skipton now house Craven District Council, Bowling Green Mills in Bingley are home to Damart, and Gibson Mill near Hebden Bridge is a National Trust visitor centre and a showcase of sustainable technology.

In Leeds, Armley Mills are now a museum telling the story of the Yorkshire textiles revolution, while Marshall’s Mills are offices. Firth Street Mills and Larchfield Mills in Huddersfield have become part of the university there, while out at Linthwaite, Titanic Mill is now an eco-spa.

But, as Historic England’s figures show all too clearly, there are many other mills still desperate for a new purpose. Even in today’s challenging environment, brave new uses must be found for them before it is too late and they do literally become part of history.

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