*The Mill
Lister's Mill
Lister's Mill at Sunset photographed by Tim Smith
© Bradford Heritage Recording Unit
Lister's Mill and Victorian Bradford

When Samuel Cunliffe Lister was born in 1815, Bradford was a very different place to the city it is today. There were no proper water supplies or sewage systems, no public buildings, canals or railways and the majority of the population lived in the countryside around the city. Travel to London took 24 hours by coach. The nineteenth century saw enormous changes in all aspects of life. Cities developed, local governments were established and the pre-industrial rural way of life was lost for ever.

The textile industry transformed Bradford from a small rural town into a rich and famous city. Vast fortunes were made; jobs were plentiful and thousands moved to the city in search of work. Development was fast, but very painful to the majority of Bradford's citizens because most of its growth was unregulated. Public health suffered terribly. Most people were underpaid, overworked and living in slum housing. Widespread poverty and ill health was the result. Disease, spread by foul drinking water, overcrowding, open sewers, polluted air, rubbish lying rotting in the streets and a lack of washing and toilet facilities caused many early deaths. Scarlet fever, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, rickets, and measles were rife. In the middle of the nineteenth century, life expectancy in Bradford was just 18 years of age.

The existing local authorities in Bradford were unprepared for the growth of the city, and unable to respond quickly enough to its new demands. A new council was established which took control of the running of the city. One of its earliest priorities was to take control of the water supply and ensure that clean drinking water was available to residents. It also modernised the police and fire services, began to clear the slums and build underground sewers, light the streets and open public baths. It also improved pollution levels (the smoke and smog from the mill chimneys stifled the city), built a new general hospital and began to regularly collect and destroy rubbish. Libraries, markets, public buildings and open areas for recreation were built. Transport systems improved, thanks to the growth of the railways and the opening of a new horse-drawn tram service.

Bradford was officially made a city in 1897, by which time living and working conditions had drastically improved. It had taken the new council just fifty years to make Bradford a civilised city in which to live.

Bradford's textile industry dates back as far as the thirteenth century, but it was not until the nineteenth century that it became world famous. Yorkshire boasted plentiful supplies of iron ore, coal and soft water which was good for cleaning raw wool, and a coal seam which stretched as far as Nottingham provided the power that the industry needed. Sandstone, Bradford's local stone, provided excellent resource for the building of the mills, and the large population of West Yorkshire meant that a workforce could easily be recruited. More importantly perhaps, trade was enhanced by the marketing, organisational and business skills of a number of key individuals, and Samuel Cunliffe Lister was a key player amongst them.

The first steam engine was brought to Bradford in 1798, and put to work in a mill close to the city centre. All the processes involved in the production of cloth had been done by hand for many years but the industry mechanised quickly. The first steam-powered spinning mill opened in Bradford in 1800, and a brief twenty years later, 39 more were operating by steam. Weaving the thread was the next process to change. An estimated 14,000 handloom weavers were working in West Yorkshire in 1838, but within ten years, almost all had been either driven out of business or into the mills, to operate the new power looms.

The last process to be modernised was woolcombing. Raw wool has to be separated and straightened before it can be spun into yarn, and in the nineteenth century it was a hot, dirty and tiring job. Many attempts were made to build a machine which could comb wool mechanically, but none were successful until Samuel Cunliffe Lister came along, built the Lister Nip Comb, and revolutionised the industry.

People came from all over the world to buy cloth in Bradford. Foreign traders built offices in the city to oversee the export of the fabrics they purchased. Local industrialists and traders built mills and trading houses for their expanding businesses. Many new fabrics and machines used in the processing of wool were invented in the city and great fortunes were made by Victorian men. They, in turn, developed the city, building parks, houses and great halls. The fame, wealth and achievements of the mill owners were, and still are, legendary.

Lister's Mill (otherwise known as Manningham Mills), and its owner, Samuel Cunliffe Lister, were particularly well known in the district. Founded in 1838, the business eventually made Lister one of the city's most famous fathers, a multi-millionaire and the provider of thousands of jobs in the city. Lister's Mill changed the identity of the region, its skyline and its economy. Lister himself epitomised Victorian enterprise; and he worked on a grand scale.

The original Manningham Mills were destroyed by fire in 1871, 33 years after Lister began trading. When the new Manningham Mills opened, they were the largest and most imposing textile building in the north of England. They remain a dominant feature of the skyline, even today. Designed by local architects in an Italianate style and with a chimney reaching 250 feet into the air, the new buildings covered a vast area. The new mills were a fitting home for the Lister empire, which by 1871 had acquired several other mills in the north of England and a colliery (Manningham Mills alone used 50,000 tons of coal per year!). At its height, Lister's employed over 11,000 people, and was a major exporter, with two thirds of all its production going overseas.

Lister built the largest silk factory in Europe and was the most important textile inventor of his time. Although he was known as the 'King of Velvet', his business was diverse, and over the many years it traded, produced an enormous range of fabrics. Crepes and chiffons were produced for ladies' fashions; military uniform and parachute fabrics were made during the wars and synthetic fabrics such as Crimplene and Terylene were manufactured. As early as 1889 Lister had become world famous for the production of silks, imitation sealskin and mohair plush, although he was probably best known for his velvets. The company supplied more than 1,000 yards to Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of George V in 1911, and as late as 1976 supplied the velvet for the curtains in the White House in Washington.

The tremendous growth which characterised the Victorian era changed the face of the British manufacturing industry for ever. Today, although Bradford's confident buildings remain, most stand empty, and Lister's Mill is amongst them. There have been many schemes proposed for the redevelopment of the site, but its sheer size is its main hindrance. The total floor space available amounts to 27 acres and its South Shed is a quarter of a mile long. Lister's continued trading until recently, but its heyday has long since passed.

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