“One grows or dies. There is no third possibility”
- Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West.
How are the mighty fallen.
Consider this picture of Bradford in 1901, as painted by last week’s Cities Outlook report by the Centre for Cities, a registered charity which describes itself as a non-partisan “urban policy research unit” – independent think-tank, to you and me.
There are a lot of numbers but stick with it, because from the swirl of raw statistics emerges a thing of beauty, an almost utopian vision of a Bradford that is almost inconceivable to us today, lost as it is from living memory.
Bradford at the turn of the 20th century was a place where almost one in five (18.7 per cent) were employed in “higher wage occupations”. Property values were healthy – higher per capita than York, Bristol, Leeds and Swindon.
With a population of almost 280,000, Bradford was among the ten largest cities in England and Wales, and had experienced massive growth between 1891 and 1901. Unlike how the news was taken this week of higher-than-expected population growth, pointing to more economic migrants, more over-65s and a greater proportion of under-fives, back then a bigger population was taken as a sign of economic strength.
Bradford was also well down the list for “economic distress” – the sort of league table in which the district is a regular and unwelcome leader today. In 1901, there was just 1.2 per cent of the population claiming welfare benefits.
But by far the most telling statistic in the bunch is the figure for entrepreneurship. Taking as its base the number of Joint-Stock Companies in existence in 1901 – a JSC being “a corporation or partnership involving two or more individuals that owned shares of stock in the company” – the Cities Outlook report whips the silk handkerchief away from its most stunning big reveal. Bradford had the second highest number of new company registrations in the entire country, with 34.7 per 100,000 of population. Behind only Cardiff, and higher, even, than London, which came a poor third, and Manchester, fourth.
Relax, that’s almost the end of the statistics. But the horror story is only now about to begin. Because the Cities Outlook report is not just a cosy, misty-eyed view of what once was, it’s really a background document to how things are now. And the headline figure is this: forget 1901, because in 2011 Bradford had spectacularly fallen from grace. To, in fact, the second lowest ranking, the biggest change in fortunes over 110, years, with only Hastings having a worse time of it.
According to the rather clumsily-titled “Change In City Index”, Bradford has a table-propping decline of -55.3 per cent. Compare that with the top of the list, where places like Warrington have grown from a century ago by almost than 70 per cent.
In 1901 Bradford, by anyone’s reckoning, was – as the 20th century dawned, with all the opportunity, conflict and sheer history that would come with it – an industrial and social powerhouse. One of the biggest cities in the country, with a high proportion of top earners, strong house prices, low economic distress and a forging, drive-ahead entrepreneurial spirit.
So what, you might be wondering, happened?
Before we can discuss what went wrong, we need to know what went right, and that was simply wool. In 1901 Bradford was a globally-renowned name for textiles, an industry that powered Bradford’s fortunes and drew business in from across the world.
“They used to say there were more Rolls Royces in Bradford than anywhere else in the country.” That’s from John Lambert, the secretary of the Bradford Textile Society. He’s been involved in the wool trade since the 1960s: “About the same time the decline started,” he says. “Though I hope it wasn’t anything to do with me!”
At the time of the 1901 snapshot of Bradford presented in the Cities Outlook report, Bradford was the wool capital of the world, no arguments. Mr Lambert says: “That was in terms of not only trading in wool, but manufacture of wool products. Bradford was involved in the combing, scouring, spinning, weaving and dyeing of wool.”
Terminology that seems archaic and perhaps exotic to our modern ears, but the currency of the business world in 1901.
Wool was at the centre of Bradford, and Bradford was at the centre of the world. John Lambert: “They sent their wool from everywhere to be treated in Bradford. And a huge number of industries built up around wool, the textile firms manufacturing wool goods, the machines that were used in the wool industry were built here in Bradford, then the import and export side needed shipping companies and forwarding agents, there had to be transport companies to bring the wool in and get goods out to the docks. Everything revolved around wool.”
Bradford’s grip on the global textile trade was a vice-like one, though clothed in a woollen glove. And that made a lot of people very rich - you only need to look at grainy old photographs of Victorian and Edwardian Bradford, see the wool magnates promenading up and down Manningham Lane in their finery... finery made from wool scoured, combed, spun, dyed and woven right here in Bradford.
So it is unsurprising that the rest of the world wanted a piece of that action too. John Lambert says: “The decline really came in the post-War years. The main competition to Bradford in wool production and manufacture came from Japan and Italy. Other countries, such as Australia, established their own wool businesses – after all, it cost a lot less to produce your own wool at source rather than sending it across the world to Bradford.”
With the shift of wool production came a loosening of Bradford’s hold on associated businesses, such as the industrial manufacture of the machinery for the trade, and countries such as Germany and Italy began to become the dominant forces in the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr Paul Jennings of the University of Bradford has a special interest in the social and industrial history of Bradford, and has an old Shell tourist guide from 1970.
He says: “Even then Bradford was still beign sold as the wool capital of the world. In a sense the decline had begun as far back of the 1870s but there was a huge swathe of the 20th century when it was still regarded this way.
“But there’s no getting away from the fact that the decline of textiles and engineering in Bradford back then underpin the problems facing the district today.”
Changing fashions, as well, sounded the death knell of the wool industry. John Lambert says: “At one time everyone’s clothes were wool-based. Then with the rise of synthetic materials, people stopped dressing so formally, they didn’t wear suits all the time or woollen overcoats.”
These days, the wool business that was the lifeblood of Bradford a century ago is largely the preserve of the Far East, says Mr Lambert. “For the last ten years most of the world’s wool has been processed in China,” he says.
Those optimistic days of 1901, that golden age of entepreneurial spirit, major wealth and upward social swing, were built on a single industry that spread out to encompass the whole district. Being the secretary of the Bradford Textile Society, it would be perhaps asking a bit much to get John Lambert to agree that Bradford’s downfall was because it had all its eggs in one woollen basket, but he tentatively agrees on a personal level: “From someone who has lived in Bradford all his life, perhaps the city was a little slow to diversify once the writing was on the wall for the wool industry.”
Dr Jennings adds: “It wasn’t just the social and economic impact of the decline of industry; there are also the intangible, cultural things... a city’s sense of optimism and of going somewhere.
“Bradford’s decline echoed what was going in in smaller towns, such as the Lancashire mill towns, but because Bradford was large the decline was greater.”
The headline figure remains stark: since the days when Bradford wool ruled the world, there has been the second sharpest decline of any city in the country. But given the global renown in which Bradford was held a hundred or more years ago, it’s perhaps hardly surprising. The bigger you are, as they say, the much harder you fall.
email: david.barnett @telegraphandargus.co.uk twitter: @BarnettTandA