"A forest of chimneys!"
Over the last thirty years the Huddersfield landscape has changed dramatically. Most of the mills which were such an important feature of the town have now disappeared, but we've been finding out about one man's efforts to record what's been lost.
Bradley Mills, Huddersfield
West Yorkshire historian Alan Brooke believes the change to the landscape in and around Huddersfield over the last 30 years has been dramatic: "You'd look out over the valleys around Huddersfield and it used to be a forest of chimneys but it's all gone. A lot of the massive mills have disappeared. The best impression you can get of what Huddersfield was like is to look at Firth Street and the mill buildings that have been retained there for the university, and a lot of the valleys around Huddersfield were just choc-a-bloc with mills."
Alan pulls out an aerial photo which more than demonstrates his point. However, for the last 25 years after realising that mills were not only closing but being demolished, Alan has been building up a unique photographic and documentary survey. He's brought a long a thick file which contains images - including his own photos, old postcards and other illustrations- of 368 mills in the Huddersfield district south of the River Calder and including the Holme, Colne, Fenay and Upper Dearne valleys.
And that's not all. Alan believes every mill has its own story: "For every mill I've got a biography of the mill based on newspaper reports and other documents. Some people look at mills and say they look like Gothic cathedrals and that they are all the same. They might have superficial similarities in architecture but they are all pretty unique in the way they've evolved and their impact on local society."
Alan with images of 368 mills...
Perhaps it's not surprising that Alan has felt the need to embark on such a survey - after all, he's lived in the shadow of a mill for most of his life. He says: "My father used to be a boilerman and watchman and he used to take me into the mill when I was very little, in the evenings and at weekends, so I probably felt it was a magical place and mills have a sort of aura about them. As I've grown older I've become aware of just how important our area was to the industrial revolution and so I thought with it being lost so quickly it needed recording."
Alan's academic background is in archaeology so the sudden realisation that he knew more about the Middle East than the industrial archaeology of the Huddersfield district also helped him decide to embark on his survey. He says: "I'd worked in the pit before I went to university so I had some understanding of industry and then when I returned to the area after university I was hit by the speed with which it was all disappearing. It needed a serious effort to record it all."
Even the building where we meet Alan has its place in the history of Huddersfield's textile industry. Now used by KRAFT (Kirklees Refugees and Friends Together) St Thomas' School in Longroyd Bridge was built by the Starkey Brothers opposite their mill in memory of Thomas Starkey who died in a cholera epidemic. Alan points out that this was the biggest mill complex in Huddersfield: "It's difficult now to realise how large the mill was and what a presence it had on the landscape." Now all we have are photos and memories.
Demolished! Starkeys, Huddersfield's biggest mill
Asked if he has a favourite mill building, Alan says it has to be Steps Mill in Magdale: "I've done quite a work on that and I inherited some photos from my grandparents...The chimney was only demolished a decade ago and it was the highest brick chimney in the Holme Valley at the time."
Recently Alan has also been doing some research into the history of handloom weaving around Huddersfield and has come up with some surprising information: "This area was one of the last where handloom weaving was practised, right up to the First World War and in odd pockets even later than that. There were people in Skelmanthorpe still hand-weaving up to the 1930s as an occupation and (some of them) carried on after World War Two just as a sideline. Apart from the Western Isles of Scotland our area is unique because hand weaving went on for so long."
Long after most of the textile industry had moved into the mills some weaving was still carried out by weavers in their own homes. Alan explains: "In Skelmanthorpe right up to the First World War it was still the main occupation for many people. They were often employed by large firms as outworkers very much as previous generations had been." And the area was famous for the quality of its cloth production - "fancy cloths which were beautifully designed and often incorporated different material like silk and worsted."
Silent and scrapped!
But if the handloom weaving industry reached its twilight years much later here than it did elsewhere, then Alan believes we've also experienced the twilight years of the mills that replaced it. And it wasn't just the mills: "There were hundreds of dyeworks as well...There were also the other subsidiary industries like chemicals and engineering. All these have gone and even where there are engineering works left they are all highly mechanised and only employ a few people compared to what they used to do."
Alan believes that it's not just the landscape that has seen dramatic change in the last thirty years: "If you go back to the early 1970s in many ways the way of life then had more in common with the previous century than it does with today...Mining and, to a large extent the textile industr were difficult and dirty jobs and they destroyed people's health but it's not just nostalgia to say they did engender some sort of solidarity among most people and sadly that's all been lost as well. Both with the pits and the mills there was a whole culture around them which has been lost. It wasn't just the workers that were influenced by it, the whole community was involved and a whole way of life has been lost and a whole language gone."
And now it's over to you! Whether you worked there or not, share your memories of West Yorkshire's lost mills with Memoryshare and find out what others are saying...
...and remember you'll be doing your bit to build the BBC Memoryshare archive of hundreds of memories from across the UK since 1900 until the present day!
[Photos of Bradley and Starkey Mills courtesy of Alan Brooke]
last updated: 03/12/07