Bradford: a personal cultural geography

Place explored through a personal selection of the lives, novels, art, architecture, poetry and history inspired by England's industrial era.​

‘English Journey’, ‘Room at the Top’, ‘Hand on the Sun’, ‘Britain’s Lost Cities’...

Lister Mill chimney – acting as a sentinel on the horizon. Bradford is a Jigsaw of a city

Tong to Bingley

Bradford drew me like it drew tens of thousands before me.  Bradford, a city of promise and thwarted dreams, evident in its very fabric, its buildings and its landscape. Sweeping down the A650 from Tong to Bingley the promises and dreams can be glimpsed in neoclassical mills, gothic churches, corrugated iron, prefabricated shopping centres, hastily erected scaffolding, derelict and roofless buildings and, for ten years, ‘Bradford’s hole’. The essence of Bradford lies within striking distance of the A650. 

Sunlight picks out shades of brown, ochre and yellow from the Yorkshire stone, while variegated greens and purples peek out from the city’s parks and moors. To the North, the ‘Tops’ stand between Bradford and the Dales. To the South and West, Bradford is embraced by the Pennines. Bradford is a city forged from geology, industry, human ambition and folly. Bradford is a city that wears it successes, and its failures, proudly in architectural discord. Bradford is, in many ways, a jigsaw of a city, a testament, to industrial advance, decline, nascent renewal, incompetence, corruption, inertia, determination, and ambition. 

Bradford is a destination and point of departure. The city was destination for Joe Lambton, post war anti-hero of John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’. 

1. Jalib could look across to the Green Belt [Hand on the Sun]. 2. Little Germany. 3. Market Street opposite the Wool Exchange, once the site of the Swan Arcade. ‘The most complete building of its kind.’ [Margin Released] 4. Goitside, behind Westgate – Leon Uris ‘Trinity.’ 5. Lister Mill. 6. Cartwright Hall. 7. Salts Mill (David Hockney Gallery) 8. Park Road to ‘The Tops’ beyond Dick Hudsons to Spy Hill at 9.

Twenty years on from Lambton, Tariq Mehmood’s ‘Hand on the Sun’ opened with another angry young migrant, Jalib, looking out through the windows of the school assembly hall at wide eyed cows in the fields of the green belt and gently rolling hills around Tong Village, as he, like Joe Lambton before him, dreamt of a different world. The novel is a remarkable achievement, as Mehmood began writing from a top floor cell on the remand wing of Armley Jail, a young man who had not yet passed ‘O’ level English. ‘Hand on the Sun’ was written to ‘bear witness’ to the hostile culture Mehmood encountered at school and on Bradford’s streets in the 1970’s.

The central character in Tariq Mehmood’s ‘Hand on the Sun’, Jalib, from Pakistan, looked out across these fields from the school assembly hall at brown eyed cows. Today, these fields are populated by migrants from the southern hemisphere – who play rugby league

In the 1970’s, and the decade before, much of Bradford’s Victorian architecture was demolished and replaced by Modernist, not to say Brutalist nightmares. Some of these, such as those at Market Street and Foster Square scarcely made it into the 21st Century before being demolished themselves. At the time of writing, these replacements are waiting their replacement. Yet some of the buildings that remain tell a compelling story. A story of corrupt architects and politicians, freemasonry, financial collapse and failed leadership, culminating in the conviction of council officers, a former leader of the council, and imprisonment of  the architect, John Poulson.

Arndale House occupies the site of the once famous Swan Arcade, where Priestley worked as ‘one of the worst wool clerks that ever existed’. ‘I am an arcade man, and suspect that only some unsleeping evil principle, for ever at work among us English, prevents our having more of them….It (Swan Arcade) was on a grand scale…even now machines…may be clawing it down to spread glass-and-concrete monotony from Brasilia to Bradford…In 1879 it was saluted as “the most complete building in England”…it was a giant, five stories high’… [Margin Released. A writers’ reminiscences and reflection (1962)]

John Braine’s fictional Joe Lampton left Dufton to follow his dreams to Warley (Bradford) only to rail against monochrome post war austerity and suffocating class norms. Today many of the buildings he worked in, played in, fought in, have new ambitions, as art galleries, theatres, apartments, restaurants, enterprise centres and, more prosaically, carpet warehouses. Purpose is confused, social class distinctions blurred, but purpose and class still resonate in the grand aspirations that lay among the broken dreams of Bradford’s hidden glories. 

The Lister Mill Strike of a largely female workforce, ended in defeat in 1891. This mural on the edge of Little Germany commemorates the centenary of the Independent Labour Party inaugural conference organised from Peckover Street in 1893

J.B. Priestley, returning to Bradford in the 1930’s for his ‘English Journey’, found the  same monoculture encountered by Lambton in the 1950’s. Priestley mourned the passing influence of German and largely Jewish merchants who settled in the 1850’s, leaving 55 listed buildings reminiscent of Germany and Northern Europe. Little Germany remains, but Priestley felt immigrant influence had diminished and Bradford was the poorer for it. He looked back to the Bradford he knew before 1914 as the most provincial and yet at the same time, ‘the most cosmopolitan of cities’. Priestley was fortunate enough to see the rebirth of a multi-cultural city, through East European, West Indian, African, and south Asian immigration. 

Priestley returned to Bradford a number of times. The Yorkshire Film Achieve has a record of a visit he made in 1959, where he laments the threat to the Swann Arcade, where he worked before becoming a full time writer. Priestley predicted the arcade’s demolition, fearful of a ‘concrete monotony from Brasilia to Bradford’. 

Leaving the city centre, just beyond Lister Park, Lister Mill, has survived major restoration. Once, it was the biggest mill in the world. It was here a strike of, largely women, mill workers led to the formation of the  Independent Labour Party – an event commemorated on a mural in Little Germany . 

Forster Square has been demolished and rebuilt on previous occasions. Frank Bradshaw’s painting “The Changing Scene, Foster Square’ (1958/9?) is testament to this. [Cartwright Hall Archives – also available to view from *]

The incoherent nature of city centre architecture also reflects de-industrialisation, declining incomes and a city often overlooked in favour of wealthier neighbours. To quote from the title of Jim Greenhalf’s recent history of the city, ‘It’s a mean old scene’, but one that is fascinating in its complexity and intrigue. The title of his book is presented through a photograph of graffiti hand painted on a Yorkshire stone wall blackened by working mills. ‘It’s a mean old scene’ passed into Bradford folk lore. During one of the council’s ‘bouncing back’ phases the graffiti at the junction of Dirkhill Road and All Saints Road was removed, only to return weeks later with the hand painted repost ‘It’s STILL a mean old scene’. 

High Point: the abandoned Yorkshire Building Society offices on the edge of Goitside. Owen Hatherley described it as ‘utterly freakish, like the severed head of some Japanese giant robot.’

Bradford’s wealth attracted immigrants throughout the nineteenth century, including Irish labourers – many settling around Westgate. In Leon Uris’ ‘Trinity’ the central character, Conor Larkin, comes to Bradford as a Rugby League professional with the ‘Belfast Boilermakers’. They play a game in Bradford and Uris uses the Irish communities in ‘Boulton Road’, Wapping, and Goitside as a backdrop. The area of Goitside is now largely repurposed mills and warehouses, but on the edge at Longlands, the Irish community is still celebrated in the Harp of Erin. 

This earliest example of Social Housing on the edge of Goitside, dates from the first years of the twentieth century. Leon Uris used the Irish community who settled here as a back drop for scenes in his novel ‘Trinity’. ‘The Harp of Erin’ can be seen further along the street.
Lister Mill: the strike of 1891 gave birth to the Independent Labour Party. J.B. Priestley grew up within a half mile of here. He returned from the First World War to a re-union of old soldiers, a mixture of ‘wooolcombers and dyers’ labourers, warehousemen and woolsorters.’ [English Journey]

At the North West end of the A650 Salts Mill is an inspirational vision of what Bradford could be. Salts Mill was the dream of Titus Salt, who built it and the surrounding nineteenth century model village, and latterly of Jonathan Silver, who had the vision and energy to breath life into what had become a crumbling industrial remnant. 

‘The Tops’, above Bingley, where Joe Lambton in the 1959 book, ‘Room at the Top’, sought escape. Before then, in his youth, J. B. Priestley took this path ‘beyond Dick Hudson’s to Spy Hill, where he took inspiriation from the glistening, ever moving city below. In his later years, he returned in more melancholy mood. [On the Moors, 1932]

The Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath runs from Salts through Hurst Wood, parallel to the A650, and on to Bingley where John Braine worked in the library and created his angry young man. Joe Lambton paid for his ambition. Lambton was trapped, although he never suffocated, escaping to the ’tops’ of Baildon, Rombald, and Ilkley moors.  Priestley also escaped to these ‘tops’. As a young man he took the path ‘beyond Dick Hudsons’ to the ‘grand escape’, looking down on Bradford where ‘nothing was standing still’ and he saw the world glistening in the distance. 

Working at Swann Arcade, so close to the Wool Exchange, Bradford introduced Priestley to a wider world, a  world where he pursued his dreams. Mehmood wrote ‘Hand on the Sun’ to ‘tell the truth and re-shape the future’. Priestley chose to leave Bradford to do the same, Mehmood had little choice. 

Constant change is a Bradford reality and a Bradford strength. Bradford, city of thwarted ambition, engine of dreams, of missing parts and broken pieces. A jigsaw that can still inspire.

The Mughal gardens at Cartwright Hall in Lister Park. The park was home to the fantastical Bradford Exhibition of 1904, and Cartwright Hall is home to some of the paintings of Frank Johnson [Many of his Bradford paintings ‘Rawson Square’, ‘Westgate’ and ‘Forster Square’ can be viewed for free on *]

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