Workers once came from all over the world to work in Lumb Lane. Now the defunct Bradford mill is being used to stage their stories
Lumb Lane was, for a long time, Bradford's most notorious address. Once the main kerb-crawling route through the city's red light district, the road was synonymous with race riots, sex workers and serial killers. It was here that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, committed his first murders. But today Lumb Lane is a peaceful, if slightly down-at-heel strip of mosques, mini-cab firms and grocery stores run by eastern Europeans.
Yet there are signs of life stirring in what was once the industrial heart of the area: the seven-acre James Drummond and Sons complex. Known locally as Lumb Lane mill, Drummonds opened in 1886 and soon became a yarn-producing powerhouse, providing employment for the entire region. The mill staggered on through the postwar period, mostly employing immigrants from Ireland, eastern Europe, Ukraine and Pakistan. But the gates finally closed in 2001, and they remained that way until a group of theatre-makers came along.
The Mill: City of Dreams is the fruit of their labours, an ambitious promenade event that will lead audiences through Drummonds' dark, abandoned spaces, discovering intimate, dramatic reconstructions of the lives of former workers. The script, which has been boiled down from hundreds of hours of interviews with residents and ex-mill-workers, is the brainchild of writer and director Madani Younis, of Bradford's Freedom Studios company, with guidance from Jonathan Holmes, a specialist in whopping site-specific events. In 2007, Holmes staged his play Fallujah, about the siege of the Iraqi city, in an old London brewery; two years later, his play Katrina recreated the aftermath of the hurricane in a five-storey warehouse on the South Bank.
The audience has an active part to play in The Mill: you enter via a smart sales suite, where a team of developers attempt to sell you a vision of the mill regenerated into luxury apartments. Yet instead of show flats, you find haunting vignettes of the mill's former life, played by a cast of professional actors augmented by a large chorus of local volunteers. Yet Drummonds is so vast that simply walking through the abandoned space is a drama in itself. Stripped of machinery, the weaving shed is a rust-stained expanse the size of a football pitch, its long corridors lined with offices and cubby holes. The architectural climax, though, is on the top floor: a barrel-shaped glasshouse lined with curving wooden struts. It's like standing in the ribcage of a giant whale. "This was the wool-sorting floor," says Younis. "It still stank of lanolin when we first came in." The workshop was freezing in winter and a furnace in summer, but sorting wool fibres had to be done in daylight.
Younis became intrigued by the fate of Bradford's redundant mills when he first moved to the area and discovered that the majority were either abandoned or being used as social centres and snooker halls. "The genesis of the play came from the snooker halls," he says. "These are unpoliced, unlicensed premises where young Asian males meet up to smoke cannabis freely. It struck me how these people had colonised the semi-derelict spaces that had once represented their parents' and grandparents' dreams."
We head across town to the Ukrainian social club, where a tea-dance for former mill-workers is in progress. The event has been arranged to reunite Drummonds employees, and thank those who were interviewed for the project. Latifa Bari recalls how she came to Bradford from Nairobi in the 1950s: "My father told me I was getting married and going to work in a place where the streets were covered in milk. He meant snow. When I arrived, I had nothing with me but a picture of the man I was to marry, and a bottle of aspirin, which I intended to take if I was unhappy. Fortunately, he was much more handsome than his photograph."
Zene Mozil was evacuated to Bradford from Poland when her parents were taken by the Nazis. "I preferred it to Poland, though you couldn't get garlic," she says. "Now every shop on the street is a Polish delicatessen."
While a student, Anne Selka used to work holiday shifts in the canteen without ever revealing to her co-workers that it was her grandfather, a Czech-born entrepreneur, who rescued Drummonds from bankruptcy in 1931. Though the mill never became particularly profitable under the Selkas, the family was respected by the workforce, as they resisted making redundancies until the business became impossible to sustain. Some workers have brought their redundancy notices. Selka tells them her father "wept blood over those letters. The day he realised he would have to start laying off the workforce was the darkest day of his life."
By the time the Selkas sold off the mill, Manningham, the once-respectable area where it is located, was in decline. "There were prostitutes lined up outside the factory gates," recalls 84-year-old Nellie Jowett, who worked in the mill with her five sisters. Kerb-crawlers used to proposition them, too.
For Holmes, the project felt close to home. "My family were originally shopkeepers from Manningham. A photograph of my great-uncle turned up in the archive. It made me realise that often the place you know least about is your own doorstep."
He found entering the mill for the first time unsettling. "You're struck by the sheer size of this empty mausoleum to the industrial age. Yet when you look closer, there are signs of more recent abandonment. Notices pinned to the walls giving mobile numbers remind you that the place remained active into the 21st century."
He mentions a handwritten sign found in the locker room after the last workers departed 10 years ago. "Due to unavoidable circumstances," it read, "the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off."