Art project shining a light on Leeds’ history

PIC: Simon Hulme
PIC: Simon Hulme
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Leeds’ industrial heritage is being saved thanks to an art installation at Armley Mills. Neil Hudson reports

For those who worked in the textile mills which once dominated Leeds right up until the 1960s, there was nothing extraordinary about how they lived - to them it was just the norm. But half a century on and there are precious few people left who can give a first-hand account of what life was like in the days before health and safety had even been thought about.

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This Saturday, there will be a rare opportunity to meet and talk with some of the people who used to work at Armley Mills.

The event is part of an ongoing art installation (Memoria) at the site - now home to Leeds Industrial Museum - which aims to shed light on this oft-neglected piece of Leeds history.

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Babara Gorburn was one of those who worked at the mill and she has fond memories of the time she spent there.

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Now 80, she recalled how she met her late husband, Walter, there but her connections to the mill were wider than that.

“All my family worked there,” recalled Barbara, who left school at 15 and began working at the mill the following Monday.

“My father worked there and my mother, my sister, my cousins, my auntie, even my father-in-law. For me it was very much a family affair.”

She reminisced how on her first day of work, she took along her skipping rope and would play with it with friends during breaks.

“That’s how I met Walter. He would see my from the window and we got to know each other. I was 15 at the time and he was 24 and in the beginning I think my mother was a bit suspicious but everyone loved Walter and in the end we married a few years later.”

Barbara spent three years at the mill doing a variety of jobs, including sewing labels on and ‘whipping’ the edges of blankets to stop them fraying.

She added: “My husband worked there right until the end, in fact, he was one of the last people in there. When the mill finally closed and everyone had left, he stayed on to help dismantle some of the machinery.”

Jan Brown, 64, joined the mill at 17 and admitted it the was a way of life which now only existed on people’s memories.

Recently retired from education, the former history teacher was happy to take part in the project and said: “When the mill closed, no-one thought to document it or to preserve anything from the time, the number of records left are heart-breakingly tiny. The only place they live now is in people’s memories and let’s be honest, that generated are not going to be around for much longer.”

Jan, who worked at the mill for nine months in total, mainly as a telephone switchboard operator, recalls it being “big and noisy”.

“In some ways it’s a real shame because many of the people who worked at that time just don’t realise they have a story to tell but the reality is once they die, it’s gone forever. It’s not something people think about, to them it was just normal.

“I remember it being huge and noisy and there were always lots of people milling around. It was also the first time really that people from Asia began to work here in the mills.

“People don’t realise what it was like to work back then, there was no health and safety, few rules and regulations. I can also remember mice running across the floor, which wasn’t unusual - we would all scream and stand on our chairs and call for one of the men to come get it out.”

Of course, the mill itself had several cats attached to it and they too remained to the end, being fed by Walter, who was good friends with the owner of the mill.

Jan added: “I think it’s important to preserve things like this, otherwise they’re just gone and this was such a big part of the history of Leeds, so I am happy to be involved with it.”

Jan’s and Barbara’s stories form part of the exhibition, which runs until October. The pair were one of a number of former workers recruited by volunteers in the run up to the exhibition - that included a facebook campaign and a leaflet drop.

Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council and executive member for economy and culture, said: “This exhibition is a very moving and powerful concept - using art and light to unlock some of the untold stories behind our city’s fascinating industrial heritage. As we look ahead to our bid to be named European Capital of Culture 2023, it’s important that as part of that, we recognise and pay tribute to our past and the people who helped lay the foundations.”

Memoria: Memories of Light is an exhibition by artist David Bridges, which features a series of lit porcelain sculptures. Backed by Arts Council England, the project aims to unlock the creative potential of museums through collaborations with the visual arts.

David was inspired by Armley Mills after it was recommended to him. He explained: “We reached out to families and helped create an archive for Armley Mills.

“After a chance recommendation I visited Leeds Industrial Museum. I wondered about 
the people who worked here, and that became such a powerful draw that everything since has radiated out from that.”

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