MUCH of the history I learned at school focused on the Industrial Revolution. From Abraham Darby’s iron smelting triumph to James Hargreaves and his Spinning Jenny, via the waterways and the Age of Steam, my textbooks were filled with the captains and glories of industry.

Growing up in Bradford, I was familiar with the wailing sirens of mills still chugging on in their final years. Before they became chic loft apartments, bustling bistros and sprawling art galleries, these vast stone empires with their enormous towers were functional, forbidding, cathedral-like in size and grandeur, and the skyline of our industrial landscape.

At school we learned how Bradford became the world’s leader in the wool trade, jewel of 19th century textile production. The hundreds of mills commonplace in our towns and villages brought great wealth to a district which, it was said, had more Victorian millionaires than anywhere else in Britain.

There is much to be proud of in this, and in the philanthropic deeds of men like Titus Salt and Samuel Cunliffe Lister.

And with that pride comes misty-eyed nostalgia for the mill siren and workers’ boots clattering through iron gates. We tend to romanticise our industrial heyday, and the noble workforce toiling to make it great. The reality, for thousands of men, women and children, was gruelling, dangerous, exhausting and monotonous labour for long hours in often appalling conditions, not to mention the squalid housing many lived in.

Wonder and Dread, an exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum, presents the darker side of our textile history. Striking artwork by German-born artist Alke Schmidt highlights the danger and hard graft of mill work, and she draws on incidents such as Bradford mill fires and a chimney collapse at Newlands Mill in Bowling in December, 1882, which killed 54 people, including child-workers. The youngest was eight-years-old.

Alke’s work also explores links between Britain’s 19th Century textile industry and cheap clothing made by low-paid workers in some countries today.

As curator Sonja Kielty says, although there is fond nostalgia for the mills once thriving and belching out smoke across Bradford, there was a stark human cost. “Mill buildings burned down almost every week,” she said, adding that nobody would actually want to work in these places. It was simply a matter of earning a living.

Like many people from West Yorkshire, most of my ancestors would have been mill-workers. My grandma worked in mills as a child and what she feared most was the deafening noise. Her daughters, my aunts, were also millgirls. One of them says they were the best years of her working life. “I made good friends there; those women taught me all about life,” she said. But her sister, a bright grammar school girl who could have gone to art college if she’d been born into a different class and time, resented being sent to work in a carpet mill.

When Drummond Mill burned down last year, some former workers were emotional as they reflected on memories of clocking on for shifts. But my friend said his late father, who spent most of his life in a mill, would’ve happily destroyed the place the day he retired.

Bradford’s mills and factories brought prosperity but, as Wonder and Dread reminds us, it came at a price.

Great strides were made in this city to improve employment and living conditions for millworkers, and maybe that is what we should be most proud of.

* MY job occasionally brings me into contact with inspiring people, not least those I met at last week's Dementia Friendly Awards, who are not just living with dementia, but living life to the full.

Fundraiser of the Year was Ted McDermott, whose “Songaminute Man” films - of him singing in the car with son Simon - are a social media hit, raising more than £130,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society. Ted got the biggest cheer of the ceremony when he burst into song as he received the award.

The Inspiring Individual award went to Wendy Mitchell, who is in the early stages of dementia and writes a wonderful blog, capturing her thoughts “before they are lost”. Both Wendy and Ted are reminders of the fragility and the joy of life.

* HEARING about a terrier rescued by firefighters from 20ft up a tree this week, after chasing a squirrel, reminded me of the time our cat was stranded on top of a telegraph pole.

I came home from school one day to find my mum on the pavement, shaking a tin of catfood as Ollie perched nervously on the pole, high above. Motorists were slowing down to gawp. With neither the RSPCA nor the fire service willing to assist, it wasn’t looking good for poor Ollie. Then a passing steeplejack - yes, really - appeared, with his ladder, and was the hero of the hour. Folk were made of strong stuff, in those pre-risk assessment days.