Dark Satanic Mills

The Redwood blog
Published:  16 September, 2013
Mike Redwood

In London last week I visited the famous Tate Britain Art Gallery to view an exhibition of paintings by LS Lowry. Lowry lived from 1887 until 1976 and devoted his life to painting the England of the Industrial Revolution. For forty years he mostly painted the urban landscape of Lancashire in northern England, particularly around Manchester and Salford. 

Back in 1921 the Manchester Guardian wrote of his painting that “he emphasises violently everything that industrialism has done to make the aspect of Lancashire more forbidding than most other places…His Lancashire is grey, with vast rectangular mills towering over diminutive houses. If there is an open space, it is of trodden earth, as grey as the rest of the landscape.”

He kept painting through until the 1960s with some magnificent large scenes done during the 1950s. John Berger wrote about Lowry in the New Society Magazine in 1966 “these painting s are about what has been happening to the British Economy since 1918, and their logic implies the collapse still to come.”

Just looking at these pictures makes it clear that in much of the so called developed world it was not so much a rush to cheap labour overseas that caused the hollowing out of manufacturing but the continued reliance on “obsolete industrial plants” and a lack of capital investment in building and machinery. Some elements of what then existed we now nostalgically looks back on as craftsmanship but surely no one hankers after the squalor and poor working conditions of that time and the immense environmental degradation involved.

Most of the Lancashire Mills are textile or heavy industry, but most tanneries were just the same. Starting in the 1970s I reckon I have worked in about nine like this and through senior roles at Barrow Hepburn, Irish Leathers, Booths and Pittards oversaw many more. Just think of Richardson’s in Newcastle, Wades and Turneys in Nottingham, Hodgsons in Beverley and Pavlova Leather in Abingdon. I was involved in closing many of them and two, in Nottingham, were my total responsibility. Each and everyone was tragic as livelihoods were lost and lives disrupted. Yet how did our industry after decades of being prosperous still want to produce leather in buildings built in the 19th century where leather had to travel miles between operations on uncovered roadways or with groaning elevators in spaces where fork lift trucks could not get access or hardly move? Truth be said neither our buildings nor our thinking had really progressed.

Why so few managed to move to new modern premises is hard to imagine. The land they would have been vacating was valuable town centre property and short of the space needed to resolve waste water issues. A few companies did build new plants and generally those lead among the few survivors.

Former Richardson's Tannery in Newcastle

Another problem stems from these old plants hanging on so long – and not just in the UK. I have seen the same in the US and many European countries such as The Netherlands. That is that for many people today this is the image of the leather industry that they add to the many negative comments about tanning being a polluting business using so-called toxic chemicals. If only we had been quicker in tidying up our act an entirely different image would pervade the world and counter the nonsense. I started work in tanneries wearing big clogs and overalls and when I became “management” I was issued with a white coat and wellingtons boots. These were really needed. Yet in the early 1970s I moved overseas and ran a brand new tannery in El Salvador where customers and visitors could walk the plant quite safely in regular clothing without concern. It was quite amazing to move from the old British mills that were so difficult to keep clean and outrageously expensive to maintain to a simple large open plan layout where production flowed and distances between machines were tiny.

So there is a lesson for us all here that we must not shy away from modernisation, and if we choose to live in the past it will eventually catch us up and damages us in many ways. That does not mean that tradition and traditional methods are a bad thing: they have their place. Yet keeping tradition going in the way it is done in the pits in Fez and Marrakesh makes no sense at all. Simple adjustments could remove most of the health and safety issues for the workers and smell for the tourists. And what they continue to do certainly damages the “brand” leather. That is not tradition; it is irresponsible.

Mike Redwood

mike@mikeredwood.com

Lowry exhibition
comments powered by Disqus