« Fingers | Main | Aussie Rules »

Feather's Miscellany: Bradford

John Waddington-Feather tells of the rich cultural history of the city of Bradford.

Although I was born and brought up in a small industrial town, Keighley, some ten miles from the nearest city, Bradford, nonetheless Bradford greatly influenced my early life – and still does, though I now live in rural Shropshire 200 miles away near the county town of Shrewsbury, a very different town from Keighley and Bradford.

Shrewsbury is a medieval market town with many half-timbered buildings centuries old. It also has a superbly built west-end comprising classical regency buildings, and the whole lot is surrounded by a Norman wall stemming from a twelfth century castle. It was one of a chain of fortified towns, like Hereford and Chester, built along the Welsh border to stop incursions by hostile Welsh tribal leaders and later to act as a national border. It was and still is a commercial town.

Bradford, by contrast, grew rapidly in the nineteenth century as a product of the Industrial Revolution, when textile and engineering industries expanded across West Yorkshire. During that century a forest of mill chimneys and foundries sprung up in Bradford and the surrounding towns like Keighley. They inspired the “dark satanic mills” verse in William Blake’s popular hymn, “Jerusalem.” They also created their own hells for those working there. The workers were housed in slums surrounding their places of work. Even in the 1940s when I was walking home from school on a winter’s afternoon, as the foundries stoked up and the mill chimneys belched out dense smoke (not to mention the coal smoke from thousands of domestic chimneys) you could almost chew the air. And when the winter fogs descended the town became another Hades, dark, gloomy and sulphuric. Bradford was much the same.

They are very different places today since the passing of Clean Air Acts and the running down of industry. Many mills have been demolished but those which remain are now warehouses or offices; some have been converted into smart apartments. A handful remain producing the finest worsted cloth exported all over the world.

Bradford has always been a vibrant city, boasting patronage of the arts as well as science and technology. Its success has drawn immigrants for centuries and many still make their homes there. In the eighteenth century, French Hugenot refugees settled there and brought with them their skills of weaving fine cloth. In the nineteenth century, Jewish refugees from mainland Europe and German wool merchants made Bradford their home; indeed, so many Germans settled there that part of Bradford was called Little Germany. The composer, Delius’s father was one such German merchant.

European Jews and Germans benefited the city enormously for both groups brought with them wealth and both patronised the arts, especially music. Today, in 2008, Bradford has an internationally famous Choral Society, like its neighbour Huddersfield. The area is renowned for its choirs, bands and orchestras, but the visual arts are patronised, too, and the artist David Hockney was born and educated in Bradford. There is a permanent exhibition of his work in a huge converted mill at Saltaire within the boundaries of the city, which also houses many craft exhibits.

In the city centre is a statue of another of Bradford’s famous sons, J.B.Priestley, the twentieth century novelist, essayist and dramatist, and under his influence I made my own mark as a writer. The J.B.Priestley Society was established in the 1990s and flourishes. It has a lively annual programme of events connected with him: lectures and recitals in winter and walking his beloved Dales in summer. The Brontё Society also flourishes inside the city’s bounds at nearby moorland Haworth Parsonage, the home of the three nineteenth century Brontё sisters, famous for their novels and poetry and another major literary influence on my young life.

And I mustn’t forget Bradford’s theatres. West Yorkshire has a strong theatrical tradition, each city and town having its own Little or Civic Theatre. Bradford is no exception and boasts several dedicated amateur theatres within its bounds and a professional stage at the Alhambra Theatre, which produces everything from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, repertory theatre, pantomime each Christmas-time to classical ballet. As a youngster in the 1940s and ‘50s, I saw the lot. I ought to add that Bradford also houses the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

The twentieth century saw further influxes of refugees, beginning with Belgian refugees during World War One, then more Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. After the Second World War displaced people poured into Bradford from Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States; then in the 1950s and ‘60s from Hungary and Czechoslovakia after failed uprisings against Communism. These incomers still celebrate their National Days with song and dance in traditional costumes. More recently immigrants from India, the West Indies and Pakistan have settled in Bradford which boasts some fine temples and mosques.

So, Bradford is still a very cosmopolitan city, yet its suburbs have their own traditional ways of speech and customs; independent villages under the aegis of the city. It was in this cosmopolitan/parochial setting I grew up in Keighley, where church life was strong and where I was baptised and confirmed in the Anglican Diocese of Bradford by Bishop Blunt, who had a hand in the abdication of King Edward VIII. In my play “Garlic Lane” and in my romantic historical trilogy of “Chance Child” novels set in Keighley and Bradford, the church down Garlic Lane plays an important role in the lives of the leading characters.

After I went to Keighley Boys’ Grammar School at the age of eleven, Bradford really began to impact on me. Prior to my going to the Grammar School, Bradford had simply been place where I went shopping with my mother; a place which sent rugby and cricket teams to play against Keighley. But after 1944 I started to attend symphony concerts at Eastbrook Hall given by the Hallé Orchestra, founded by another German textile merchant this time in Manchester, Franz Hallé. These concerts opened a new dimension of music to me: orchestral, choral, instrumental and a whole range of classical music. When I attended the Hallé concerts, I sat behind the orchestra in cheap seats reserved for students. In the interval, Sir John Barbirolli invited us into his dressing room briefly to chat with us, asking us if we were enjoying the concert and which instruments we played. Then he’d usher us out while he changed, for he was wet-through with perspiration. He gave his all while conducting. I also saw Constant Lambert conduct his own music and heard world famous pianists like Solomon, Moira Lympany and Colin Horsley play. Later I attended the annual Christmas Carol Concerts directed by Sir David Wilcox, conducting the Bradford Choral Society and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at St George’s Hall.

About the same time I started to explore Bradford’s museums and art galleries. My home town had them, too, and was every bit as vibrant as Bradford in pursuing the arts. Looking back, I believe the whole region was going through a Golden Age when I was a boy and teenager. The wealth and drive of the Victorians were still evident, but there was none of the poverty and misery associated with the nineteenth century. In the 1920s and ‘30s vast areas of slums had been cleared throughout West Yorkshire and the workers were housed better and looked after, especially after the National Health Act of 1944. My generation had all the benefits of Victorian drive and wealth; none of its drawbacks.
Bradford had a classic cinema which I visited regularly in my teens. I saw post-war films made by directors like Orson Welles and Jacques Tatty, and by Polish and Hungarian producers. And at Bradford Town Hall as a young undergraduate I gave my first lecture to the Yorkshire Dialect Society on the subject of “Dry-stone Walling in Craven”, which I’d been researching for a B.A thesis.

Yes, Bradford played an important part in my growing up, as other Yorkshire cities did later: Leeds (where I went to university), Sheffield, Wakefield, Hull and York, the spiritual capital of Yorkshire; cities all within seventy miles of each other. And my second teaching post was at Salt Grammar School, now run by Bradford’s Education Dept. There I learned the basics of my profession and had ten very happy years of teaching, acting and singing between 1959 and 69.

My mentor, J. B. Priestley, funded a new library at Bradford University, which houses the works of many Yorkshire writers, including my own. It’s a satisfying feeling to know my novels, hymns, plays and essays are all archived there alongside Priestley’s works and those of fellow Yorkshire writers; housed in the city which inspired so much of my early life.

Further reading: “Aspects of Bradford” (1 & 2) edited by Bob Duckett, Wharncliffe Publishing. U.K. “Bradford – a history and guide” by Bob Duckett and John Waddington-Feather. Tempus Publishing, U.K

John Waddington-Feather’s work may be seen at www.waddysweb.freeuk.com


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.