New light has descended on the mills that were once condemned as satanic. Martin Wainwright reports on a reappraised Victorian value.
Only 15 years ago the great redbrick cotton mills of Lancashire were dismissed by most of the county's town halls as useless, dirty lumps. Planners cast about for legal means of reducing them to rubble. Invariably lumbered with the adjectives "dark" and "satanic", the buildings were part of a past which councillors wanted to forget.
There were hundreds of the boxlike, uniform structures, six or more storeys high and each with a round-arched engine house, chimney and fanciful name in glazed brick - Athens, Majestic, Lilac - on a gothic or byzantine tower. In 1900 Oldham alone had 20 million working spindles - more than the entire capacity of the United States.
The mills had character, acres of floorspace and enormous structural strength. Light flooded in through the vast windows demanded by thrifty manufacturers determined to save on power. Green fields stretched away from most of them, and the Pennines rose grandly in the background. The smoke and the racket of looms, the two truly satanic features of the industry's past, had gone.
But not from the minds of local decision makers. Adjusting their blinkers to exclude all vision, Oldham's development and publicity committee got an estimate in 1977 for clearing 100 "unsightly old mills which handicap the town". For £2.6 million they almost made a bargain on a par with Esau's when he swapped his birthright for Jacob's soup. The chief estates officer suggested going to Parliament to seek legislation which would allow him to declare any mill unfit, like a housing slum.
Providentially, that same year the tide of opinion turned. Growing uproar from conservationists reached a peak with a "Satanic Mills" exhibition in London and an accompanying book from Save Britain's Heritage. Prince Charles, although yet to stick his "carbuncle" knife into modern architecture, began to pay amateur architectural visits to the Pennines. And, perhaps most influentially, managers and entrepreneurs started to look at the mills for what they actually were, rather than through the outdated lenses of George Orwell and William Blake.
When they arrived - Slumberland taking over the old Bee mill in Oldham and Sonoco setting up at Butterworth Hall alongside the M62 near Milnrow - they found one major predecessor which had quietly pioneered the way. As early as 1960 Ferranti took an interest in the colossal Cairo mill at Lees, on the Yorkshire and Lancashire border, built to spin Egyptian cotton in 1901. The building appeared a formidable undertaking when the company's digital systems division started to peer around in mid-winter. Snow had fallen through a broken roof section and built up three-foot drifts in the corridors leading to the main lift. Another floor was ankle deep in bobbins, left behind when textile production finally ended in 1958. The neighbouring Orme mill, almost as big, looked equally forlorn and the gaunt bulk of Orb and Athens, on nearby slopes, added to the sombre air of decline.
Gradually Ferranti advanced through its new bit of empire. The slender iron pillars were painted, a new entrance hall (Lancashire spinners were miserly about such non-earning luxuries) was built to welcome visitors in comfort. Today Cairo is a characterful, lively factory on the frontiers of modern computer production. And managers and staff credit it with other assets - in spite of their initial hesitations.
"I was sceptical when I first came," says Angus Mincher, the unit's director and general manager, a Scot who joined Ferranti five years ago from diesel engineering. "So was I," says David Brailsford, who took over quality management at Cairo last year. Kevin Davidson, manager of manufacturing operations, moved from shipbuilding to Ferranti and expected something big, noisy and dirty, like his shipyards. "It was a pleasant surprise," he says.