Chris Blackhurst talks to a multi-millionaire with a mission to help others
Father cotton mill-worker
Educated at Bolton Municipal Secondary School and Royal Manchester College of Music
Won Royal Patron's Prize for Composition
After National Service, exchanged music for t'mill- "When I walked in I experienced a profound sense of excitement"
Led buy-out of Mountain Mills, took on "ambitious young boy", Tony Clegg
Hall and Clegg took over Leigh Mills, much bigger quoted company. When textiles slumped launched Mountleigh, property development company
Mountleigh successful but Hall, wanting "something different"; resigned
Launched Halifax Dean Clough venture to create "practical utopia" for businessmen, artists and local people
Dean Clough a triumph, also Hall's return to music
Plays for Halle, Northern Philharmonia and BBC; begins recording complete works of Chopin.
To meet Ernest Hall you have to go to Dean Clough. That is where he is based and can be reached on the phone and that was the greeting of the car driver at Wakefield station. "Dean Clough?" he asked, as though meeting a famous soccer player off the London train.
Most people have never heard of Dean Clough, let alone been there. Come to that, not many people have heard of Ernest Hall either, which is a tremendous pity. Because if every town had a Dean Clough or a Hall, Britain would be a far better place in which to live and work. Unfortunately, they don't. Only Halifax, the Yorkshire town of traditionally grim image and the inspiration for Blake's "dark Satanic mills" when he wrote Jerusalem in the last century, is so blessed. Located on the edge of the town centre, Dean Clough used to be the Crossley Carpets factory. Sixteen enormous mill buildings made it the largest carpet factory in Europe and at its peak it provided employment for over 5,000 people. In 1982, Crossley Carpets closed down and the buildings left derelict. A year later, Hall retired from Mountleigh, the property group he founded, and bought them.
To sceptics it looked as though Hall, a multi-millionaire, was planning yet another fast-back property development. But instead of flattening the mills, Hall set about upgrading them. More than that, he began to talk in terms of fulfilling a long-held ambition to create "a practical utopia" in Halifax.
Over the next few years he ploughed undisclosed millions of pounds of his own money into the site, now renamed Dean Clough, the local name for the immediate surrounding area, in big proud letters on the building nearest the main road.
An art gallery, restaurant, pub, gymnasium and nursery were added and all the time Hall stuck faithfully to the old mill buildings' exteriors. When it came to attracting tenants, more eyebrows were raised. Large operators like the Halifax Building Society, Sun Alliance, and HM Customs and Excise were natural occupiers of Dean Clough's high-grade premises as were medium-sized businesses like Suma, the national wholefood distributor, and Afax Films, a polythene shrink-wrap maker. But Hall also turned the buildings over to small businesses and one-man bands - some of whom were not charged rent at all or were only asked to pay what they could afford.
Any remaining suspicions that Dean Clough was to be a money-grabbing venture disappeared entirely when large chunks of the buildings' 1.25 million sq ft of space were devoted to cultural and educational bodies. As well as housing 20 painters, sculptors and print-makers, Dean Clough is also home to Compass Theatre, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust Studio, the Design Dimension Education Trust (the teaching arm of the Design Museum in London), the local BBC radio studio, a small business advice centre, language laboratories and a high-teach industry school.
To complete the vision of "a practical utopia" Hall installed garages, secretarial and printing firms, hairdressers, postal companies, press officers, travel agents, cleaners, photographers and graphic designers. What was once a place, says Hall, "built during the Industrial Revolution and powered by the belief that most people can think but only a few can give orders" is now dedicated to people working for themselves and each other. Where once there was just one employer there are now 200.
A run-down carpet factory providing employment for a few hundred people when it closed, has been transformed into a top class, living, breathing space for over 3,000. Feted by politicians from all sides and the Prince of Wales - who has taken a keen interest through his Business in the Community programme - Dean Clough puts similar attempts at urban regeneration in the shade. Hall stands comparison with previous great entrepreneurs turned benefactors, men like Robert Owen, Viscount Leverhulme, the Cadburys, and Richard Arkwright.
Fired by Hall's example, Halifax's civic buildings have been cleaned up, new industries have moved in and the town has undergone a remarkable cultural boom. Again, Hall has had a hand in it. Northern Ballet has relocated from Manchester (he sits on the Arts Council) and Eureka, an interactive £10-million children's museum (he is one of its trustees and driving force), will open shortly. Hall himself is an outstanding pianist, having taught himself to play despite opposition from his working-class parents. A contemporary of John Ogdon at the Royal Manchester College of Music he, too, could have pursued a concert career.
Home for Hall is a medieval manor house in West Yorkshire. It has a special significance. As a boy in Bolton, Lancashire, he used to visit a timber-beamed house on the edge of town and dreamed of owning something similar. With Hall, everything is about dreams and attaining the impossible. Everybody can do it, he says, provided they are given the right tools and encouragement.
After all, as he loves to point out, he is living proof of just how far a child from the back streets of Bolton can come. With his manor house, antique furniture, modern art and taste for snappy clothes, it is easy to forget where he stated. He was born in 1930 to parents who themselves were working in a cotton mill by the age of 11. The memory of seeing his father standing shoeless in the suffocating heat of the spinning room, wearing just a pair of trousers, and looking terribly thin, haunts him still. As does his father's face when he had to tell his wife and children that he was on the scrapheap as one of the '30s unemployed.
"I hate the word deprived - it's so over-used - but there's no doubt we were deprived, both physically and financially," says Hall. One of his enduring themes is that out of bad comes good. Appalling hardship did have its upside: his parents and their friends never complained or turned to outsiders for help. They just got on with it, always in the firm belief that things would improve. "They had no sense except that the future would be brighter - their optimism was something I inherited."
The "simple understanding that to believe something is possible is to make it possible" is he claims what makes him tick. "For me", he says simplistically, "the greater the negative is, the potentially greater is the positive." The eternal optimist was only eight when he arrived at the turning-point in his life. During a visit to a relative's house he started tinkering with the piano. He reached for a copy of Smallwood's Tutor, the standard DIY lesson manual, and began to study it. By the time he left, he could play "very haltingly", Bluebells of Scotland.
His life was transformed. Eight years later, after an unhappy education - he passed the 11-Plus only to find himself the only working-class boy in the grammar school - he was in heaven: he won a place at music college. "It was like entering paradise. I was with people I could identify with. From being an isolated individual in a hostile environment I was suddenly accepted."
In 1951, he won the Royal Patron's Prize for Composition and his future as a concert pianist seemed assured but, not prepared to teach music to supplement his playing, he chose to sacrifice what cold have been a brilliant career. Two years of clerical work in the Army for National Service followed. To his amazement, he enjoyed it. When his time was up, he got a job as a junior office manager at Mountain Mills, a small woollen company in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. His family, who did not understand his love for "fancy music", was delighted. Suddenly, Hall had something he could talk to them about.
To his professed amazement again, Hall loved the work. Mountain was a small firm with only four people in the office. After a few months, he had learned how to do everything. Within three years, he was managing director. Then, in 1957, Mountain was taken over by Francis Sumners. Hall borrowed £5,000 to buy some Sumners shares and accepted an offer to join the board.
Four years later, he made his break. He bought out Mountain Mills and asked a young assistant in Sumners' office - Tony Clegg - to join him. They struck up an immediate rapport. Their strategy was to cut out the middle man by encouraging boutiques in Carnaby Street to order their woollen garments direct from Mountain. Hall oversaw design and sales; Clegg was the production man. When the '60s fashion boom faded, they moved out of wool into linen and cotton. When those failed, they made a much more dramatic switch. Like Mountain, Leigh Mills, its publicly-quoted neighbour, was rich in property but poor in textile profits. Their solution was simple: merge the two, sell off the production and develop the properties.
Mountleigh, a star of the late '70s and '80s, was born. Hall was chairman but it was the younger, junior man who got the spotlight. Increasingly, as it grew in size and prominence - first from developing industrial parks and shopping centres, then from takeovers - the company became referred to as "Tony Clegg's Mountleigh." It is a description that still rankles. "Mountleigh was my creation," declares Hall. In 1983, with Clegg intent on growing the business still further, his partner, who was "not interested in creating enormous empires," left. He kept some shares and sold the rest.
Clegg became involved in the hopelessly over-ambitious bid for Storehouse, the store group, one of the low spots of the late '80s City takeover frenzy. Crisis after crisis followed. Hall is still friendly with Clegg and finds it difficult to apportion blame. "Mountleigh was a message for our time. It would have been bankrupt by now if it the Storehouse bid had gone ahead," he says. And he adds, with a shrug: "If I'd stayed with Tony Clegg the company would not have gone the way it did. Tony was into the big project, big approach. I was more cautious."
Mountleigh investors' loss was Halifax residents' gain. His departure gave him "the opportunity to do what I was most interested in, putting together the conditions in which people will believe in themselves." A passionate believer in arts education - he sent the four children by his first marriage to Dartington, the arts college in Devon (he has a fifth child by his second marriage) - he was increasingly fascinated by what education could offer business. He was also keen to do something with his oldest son, Jeremy who was 21. "It was a case of if I don't change now, I never will," Hall says.
He had driven past the Crossley factory many times but never been in. This time, seeing it up for sale and being able, he says, to "put my hands on a few million quid" - he refuses to discuss what he is worth or how much he made from Mountleigh - he bought it. He is no longer interested in his former world, except to look at the Mountleigh share price ("I will make a notional loss this year"), and professes to "laughing at the thought of people with yachts and private jets. The only things that impress me are the ability to write, act and play a musical instrument, especially the piano." Material success, he maintains, "has nothing going for it. There is nothing to admire about it."
Although not a socialist - "I find it difficult to find a party that expresses my point of view" - he does subscribe to a society where the rich support the disadvantaged. "The problem with the Labour Party is that it does not recognise that helping people means ultimately putting them above their problems." People, he maintains, should be encouraged to find their own way out, not be led by the hand. "I can't agree with the belief that the only person entitled to help the community must be democratically elected. Working here shows just what can be done."
There are times when Hall talks with what is almost pulpit-thumping missionary fervour. "Human beings need to develop qualities to elevate them above machines. The needs of industry are not the wants of industry. It wants robots but needs radical thinkers who can give it a new life, a new sense of direction. We need a new culture, new thinking."
As to his own life's work, it is nowhere near complete. To his great joy he has finally made it in his first choice of career, playing with the Halle and English Northern Philharmonia, and recording concerts for the BBC, plus - a mammoth task - the complete works of Chopin. Meanwhile, there are still large areas of Dean Clough to develop, the children's museum to help with, the Arts Council to sit on and the regional art board to chair. "I want everyone to feel better for knowing me," he says. Coming from someone else such grand words would raise a laugh; from Hall, they deserve to be taken seriously.