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Memories of Armley Mills
Did you know that Armley Mills was a working textiles factory right up to 1970 –
and employed workers from all over the world?
We look back to Armley Mill before it became a museum and hear from
someone who remembers that time vividly.
Chris Sharp, Assistant Community Curator
at Leeds Industrial Museum, digs into the archives
Tucked behind Cardigan Fields, just across the river Aire from Kirkstall Road, you’ll find the impressive collection of buildings that make up Armley Mills - once the largest woollen mill in the world, and now home to Leeds Industrial Museum.
Since opening in 1982, the museum has attempted to represent as many different aspects of local industry as possible through our collections, including railways, engineering, printing, tailoring, mining - and of course textile production and the woollen industry.
We often like to tell people that Armley Mills was “once the largest woollen mill in the world”. And with good reason: it is a fact that Armley and Leeds can be proud of, and which illustrates the city’s place in international industrial history. But it also needs mentioning that this was when the current buildings were still brand-spanking new, over 200 years ago under owner Benjamin Gott. This was around 1806, at a time when the industrial revolution was really picking up speed and factories were getting larger all of the time. Exactly how long Armley Mills was the largest woollen mill in the world is unclear to me, but I do suspect it was not for very long!
Second Word War
Armley Mills employed an increasingly international workforce
Referring to these early days of Armley Mills so often, complete with the innovative gas lighting and Gott nostalgia and Georgian England, does present some problems in visualising the more recent history of the site.
Younger museum visitors are often surprised to hear that the mill only stopped producing wool cloth as a commercial factory around 1970, and that during the years between the Second World War and then it remained an important local employer with a diverse and dedicated workforce. This was during the time when the mill was owned and run by the company of Bentley and Tempest. Fortunately, we do have some information from people who knew the mill well at this time, including a connection to the Tempest family itself who had been involved with the mills since the late nineteenth century.
At the time of the mill’s closure, Ernest Tempest was the managing director. Ernest’s son Geoffrey Tempest was the director, and his daughter Lis Tempest had officially joined the company in 1966, learning the practical processes whilst gaining qualifications at Dewsbury & Batley Technical College.
It is through the generosity of Lis Tempest and through the work of Hannah Kemp (a previous curator at the museum) that we have some fascinating insights into this twilight period for the mill. Lis and Hannah worked with artist David Bridges in 2015 on a project looking at the history of the mill, and it is from that research that we have these memories and photographs.
By speaking to people with a real connection to the working life of the mill we can learn about so much more than just the processes that happened there and what was produced, including the people who made the mill what it was. One of the processes undertaken at Armley Mills was ‘carding’ the wool. By the Twentieth Century this was essentially an automated process combing sheep’s wool into ‘slubbing’, a material ready to spin into wool thread, and which involved heavy, skilled work. Lis remembers some of the employees who did the job of carding:
“Wally looked after all the carding sets. His team were predominantly men from Jamaica and the West Indies - and several of them played in a fantastic steel band. My father and I were very much into this music and we had a long-term vision to clear the land in front of the mill and near the weir - to make a more conducive environment with benches and grass and trees for staff and families to enjoy and celebrate milestones.”
Ernest Tempest (left) and Geoffrey Tempest (right), c 1970. Lis Tempest’s Grandfather and Father.
The steel band Lis mentions sometimes practiced during their breaks on this area of land, now the museum picnic area, complete with benches and grass and trees. There’s even the occasional celebration too! It is nice to think that in some ways the museum carries on with more than just the industrial heritage of the site, but also the cultural and community aspects that were always so important as well.
This same area had other uses during the Bentley and Tempest years – notably during the Second World War when it was given over to growing vegetables for the local community. During the war, and seemingly for some time afterwards, animals were also kept here. Ernest was a big fan of pigs and also kept geese. His favourite goose was called Priscilla. She would allow Ernest to pick her up and carry her around; she was later installed as a ‘guard dog’. Unfortunately, Priscilla bit the postman and ripped his trousers, which Ernest had to pay to replace.
Following the Second Word War Armley Mills employed an increasingly international workforce.
Lis recalls: “In the 1950s my father, Geoffrey was one of the first in West Yorkshire to recruit workers from the likes of India and Pakistan. Several staff also came to the UK in the early 1950s to escape communist rule in places like Estonia, Lithuania. Tedic was one, along with Rudy. Many workers also came from Poland and Yugoslavia.”
Ernest Tempest (centre) with Wally Gorbun (right) and “Derek” (left) circa 1970
Many different languages were spoken at the mill, often between people for whom English would be a second, third, or even fourth language. Sign-language and drawing were sometimes used to communicate, although Geoffrey picked up a smattering of other languages. Lis remembers a man called Sam from Pakistan who worked in the warping department and at the time didn’t speak much English. Lis worked closely with him, and recalls helping him learn English as well as sharing culture and food:
“There was Sam in Warping - who enjoyed singing songs, which occasionally drove me to despair when trying to work with him! Sam was keen to learn more English. On several occasions during Muslim festivals, I was treated to very sweet delicacies... and I mean SWEET!”
Food offers another fascinating insight into life at the mill, to be found through Lis’s memories of employees using the boiler room to keep their meals warm until lunchtime. Lis remembers that they smelt amazing. During the miners’ strike staff were allowed to bring their casserole pots to warm on the boiler for family dinners. Lis was amazed to see so many nestled into the space:
“When the boiler was coal/coke operated many of the Indian and Pakistani workers brought aromatic cook pots and chapattis to work and left them on top to warm up for their lunches. During a 3-month-long miners’ strike the mill remained lovely and warm with plenty of heat from the boiler to cook casseroles and stews for the evening meal. Judging by the number of pots and dishes, I reckoned the Mill boiler heat was feeding just more than our staff and families - probably several local streets!”
Another process at Armley Mills was weaving: turning the spun thread into cloth. By the 1960s Armley Mills had an important contract making electric blankets for Dutch company Philips, for which the weavers at the mill made a specialised woollen cloth. Lis was able to shed more light on the people who worked in this department too:
“The weavers were all female and generally local; from Milford Place, Armley and Kirkstall. They had to be within a 15-minute walk or a short bus ride from the site. Few could afford the cost of more lengthy transportation. Several were the breadwinners for their family. Most were in their 40s or 50s, and each was responsible for around 4 looms each.”
There are still the remains of a long-disused footbridge leading from Milford Place to the rear of Armley Mills. Unlike today when visitors approach the museum from Canal Road, the employees of Bentley and Tempest would have crossed the river Aire at this bridge and started their day’s work at the clocking-in shed situated at the bottom of the mill’s mighty chimney.
Ernest Tempest (far left) in the grounds at Armley Mills and with Kirkstall Power Station in the
Having a mill in Armley came with consequences, not least the pollution of the local river. Lis explains:
“Over a number of decades, the River Aire became one of many rivers in the UK to be seriously polluted. This impacted on fish and bird life. I recollect by the mid-1950s people were taking an interest in monitoring various sections of the river.”
For the Mill this meant a good look at the tanks dealing with waste effluent from the scouring and milling department. This area had a very distinctive smell, but how to describe it accurately fails me!
Lis recalls a particular day with her father when a magical visitor offered signs that the Aire was becoming less polluted:
“Around 1969 there had been a very heavy series of rainfalls in Yorkshire and in turn this created the usual problem of lots of waste and debris making it to the Mill. One of the main concerns was large boughs and branches of trees becoming trapped under the mill waterway. So, one day my father and I went to investigate and assess what action may be required. The day was quite clear, with a bluish sky and some sunshine. We were standing on the concrete platform at the base of the mill - it stretches from one side of the mill to the other.
There was quite a lot of wood to shift which would involve some teamwork, namely: my father, Wally, Tony and me. Suddenly, a wisp of something blue whisked close by. This caught me by surprise. My father suggested we stand very still and quiet. Then, a magnificent kingfisher started swooping over the river in front of us. Sometimes it skimmed the water and then went to a small tree nearby which was leaning from the bank over the side of the river. My father was very pleased to see Mr Kingfisher, advising me this was a very good sign. It meant the river was becoming clean enough to support fish for bird life. A few weeks later my father was pleased to announce Mr Kingfisher was with a Mrs Kingfisher. Nest building was developing at a good rate in the tree we first observed him use as a viewing platform over the river bank. Then the little ones arrived, and so established a serious kingfisher family at the Mill. The birds became an intrigue and a source of interest to many of the staff.”
There are still Kingfishers at the mill delighting visitors and staff alike, and it is nice to think that they might be the descendants of the Mr and Mrs Kingfisher who Lis mentions!
It is through these personal moments that we can appreciate the mill as more than a mere factory and recognise it as full of humanity, with a special place in the hearts and memories of the people who made it what it is. We are always looking to improve our shared knowledge of the mill and its place in local people’s memories, so please get in touch if you would like to share what Armley Mills means to you.
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