Leeds Mills: Making the most of our mill heritage

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Trouble at Mill: Leeds’s industrial heritage is in danger of being lost to the ravages of time but Sebastian Oake finds out it can be saved with a little imagination and money

Jenna Richardson is gazing up at Hunslet Mills, next to the River Aire in Leeds.

The chartered building surveyor, who is a leading figure in Leeds Civic Trust, says: “It’s not necessarily the architectural detail that makes it special, it’s the sheer vastness of what’s before us.”

Hunslet Mills were built during 1838-40 as one of the last of the great flax spinning mills that helped to establish Leeds as an industrial giant and Yorkshire as the textiles centre of the world.

This past glory is not evident now. Hunslet Mills, or rather what’s left of them, are an empty shell. Despite being a listed building, the complex is in poor condition and on the Heritage at Risk Register compiled by English Heritage. Together with the also derelict Victoria Mills next door, the site is now owned by property developers but no development has taken place and you begin to wonder if these icons of the Industrial Revolution have been forgotten and left to crumble.

Leeds Civic Trust has been working with English Heritage and Leeds City Council to survey historical buildings just like this, assessing their condition and whether they are at risk of decay or even collapse.

“I find older buildings much more interesting,” Jenna Richardson says. “Modern buildings have a sense of purpose but they’re not built to the same decorative standard, so they’re not as nice to look at. It’s important we preserve our heritage for future generations.

“The worst thing for a derelict building is water ingress. Once water gets in, it leads to damage and the whole thing could become structurally unsafe. If the building can be kept watertight, then it should remain stable.”

Hunslet and Victoria Mills are not alone in their predicament as apparently neglected reminders of the textiles heyday. Nearby in Holbeck is Temple Mill, one of Yorkshire’s most significant industrial buildings. An unusual single storey mill, it was built in Egyptian revivalist style with the 1843 counting house a copy of the Temple of Horus at Edfu. It represented the zenith of John Marshall’s legendary flax and linen empire.

You can’t see so much of it today, however, because part of the front is shored up with scaffolding and covered with protective sheeting. Corrosion of metal tie-bars has led to some internal collapse and it’s not safe to go onto the main floor area.

Leeds Civic Trust is also concerned at the condition of the First White Cloth Hall, built on Kirkgate in 1711 for the sale of undyed cloth. It is derelict and some emergency demolition had to be carried out four years ago.

Meanwhile, English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register mentions Low Mills at Keighley, Waterloo Mill at Silsden, Westwood Mills at Linthwaite near Huddersfield and even parts of the visually stunning Manningham Mills in Bradford.

It’s Yorkshire’s textile heritage crumbling but where should the blame for that be put? Tammy Whitaker is director of planning and conservation for English Heritage in Yorkshire. She explains that local authorities can serve an urgent works notice on owners who don’t maintain listed buildings, forcing them to carry out repairs but she also understands the difficulties being faced.

“With their sound construction and big floor space, mills are great for re-use,” she says. “There’s no reason why they can’t be adapted to modern uses but the recession has not made it viable for developers to take things forward. In the meantime, we try to negotiate with owners to do the right thing, even if it means just making mills wind and watertight and mothballing them until conditions are right for redevelopment.”

Also blaming the recession is Nigel Grizzard, chief executive of Our Northern Mills, an organisation that seeks to kick-start regeneration by advising, encouraging and even cajoling. Sitting in the café area of the old Bradford Wool Exchange, now a bookshop, he says: “Regenerating a mill is harder than it seems. Up until 2008 things were happening but then regeneration stopped. In a lot of cases, old mills were destined for apartments but then suddenly there weren’t the people to buy them and work ground to a halt. It’s all about demand.

“We need to get confidence back and the finance on track.” He sounds a cautious note of optimism: “There is talk about things possibly beginning to happen now. I get the feeling things are coming back but places like Bradford are at the back of the queue.”

Nigel Grizzard says some mills will inevitably be lost. “There are perhaps hundreds of mills in Yorkshire that are underused, disused or derelict. It would be wonderful to regenerate them all but we can’t. It’s a case of picking and choosing.”

But good regeneration schemes of former textile buildings have been completed. “The Bradford Wool Exchange was empty for years and years,” says Nigel. “When I came north in 1976, it was a forgotten building. But then it began to be used for an antiques market. Bradford Festival used it. Then Waterstone’s came along and said ‘How about a bookshop?’ Now look at it – it’s a fantastic building.”

Another bright example – Nigel calls it “the jewel of the North” – is Victoria Mills at Shipley, now a new-and-old development of 400 sought-after apartments.

In particular though, Nigel points to Dean Clough Mills in Halifax and Salt’s Mill at Saltaire, where regeneration has turned the old mills into something quite special. “So why did Dean Clough work?” he says, his voice taking on an edge of emphasis. “I’ll tell you. Ernest Hall and Jonathan Silver bought the complex for comparatively little and they had a vision. It’s a lot to do with real personality in the people who take up the challenge.” After Dean Clough, Jonathan Silver went on, of course, to turn Salt’s into another success story.

As well as imagination, courage and belief, turning a mill from an empty, decaying space into something that works needs money.

“The cost of buying an old mill is not actually large,” explains Nigel Grizzard. “A huge one in Halifax went for £150,000 at auction recently. The real cost is in the restoration.”

That might help to explain why some schemes have stalled and why some developers seem reluctant to take the plunge and start work in the first place.

Hunslet and Victoria Mills in Leeds have planning permission for conversion to apartments but joint developers Caddick Developments and Evans Property Group have yet to set that in motion.

Phil Ward, Team Leader for Conservation at Leeds City Council, says: “There are long standing issues here. The site is relatively isolated from the commercial centre of Leeds and also I don’t think there’s confidence that it’s a viable scheme.

“And Temple Mill has its own particular problems. It too is on the edge of things and it wouldn’t suit residential or office conversion. It needs a different use that’s yet to be identified.

“It takes years, if not decades, to save buildings like this and it all depends on the ebb and flow of the economy. Also, political will is needed – you need to get everyone facing the same way. If it was easy, it would have been done earlier.”

Back on the banks of the River Aire in Leeds, Jenna Richardson from Leeds Civic Trust is convinced Hunslet Mill would make a good spot to live. After all, a seemingly successful residential development by Miller Homes is just yards away.

“This place is crying out for apartments,” she says. “We’re coming out of the recession now. Time will soon show if the developers are going to do anything.”

Visit www.leedscivictrust.org.uk and www.ournorthernmills.org.uk for more information.

Leeds Civic Hall golden owl. Picture: Ian Heszelgrave

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