Chris Holland meets the scions of a wool family who are developing their former mill to provide a springboard for local enterprises

RECESSION, declining trade and the loss of a major tenant means that 2008 could be described in that famous phrase as an "annus horribilis" for businessmen cousins John and William Gaunt.

It was the year they ended production of fine worsted cloth by Edwin Woodhouse & Co at Farsley's Sunny Bank Mills after 180 years.

Weaving there dated from 1829 when 31 local clothiers, including the cousins' ancestor John Gaunt, founded the Farsley Club Mill. The family has had connections with the mil throughout its history.

John and William are grandsons of William C "Billy" Gaunt,

a colossus of the Bradford wool trade, who ran his businesses from an office in Swan Arcade, buying Sunny Bank Mills in 1917. He was ruined by the Wall Street crash of 1929 and it was not until1943 that Alfred Gaunt regained ownership.

As trade declined in the modern era, John and William decided to end textile production and sold the business to Bulmer & Lumb in Huddersfield, leaving them with a ten acre site and a big new challenge.

This was compounded by fact that Yorkshire Television moved out of a key building where it had filmed Emmerdale and later Heartbeat for 20 years.

John said: "We had a long tradition of making some of the world's best worsted cloth but trade had become extremely difficult, compounded by an economic recession.

"We decided to grasp the nettle and end textile production to focus on preserving the future of Sunny Bank Mills.

"Getting used to the silence after all the noise took a long time.

but we didn't lose our jobs and knew what we wanted to achieve."

William added: "The key was to preserve as much as we could.

After the trauma of exiting textiles and making a fantastic team of people redundant through no fault of their own, we wanted to ensure that it remained a place of employment for local people.

"We quickly realised that we knew nothing about property development but knew there was a need to make Sunny Bank Mills an enterprise hub, both as a new business venture and to help Farsley, which was becoming a dormitory village.

"We are intensely aware of the history of this site and this spurs us on to create something fitting and durable, which both honours its heritage and secures its future."

The Gaunts assembled a team of professional advisers, including Horsforth architects Kilmartin Plowman & Partners and property consultants Dove Haigh Phillips.

This helped them develop their vision of a £25 million redevelopment of the Sunny Bank Mills site which John and William hope will house firms employing at least 600 people , around the same as in the mill's textile heyday.

It took a year or so to strip the mill of its textile machinery and regeneration proper began in 2010.

John said: "We identified key buildings that are visible so it was clear to local people that something positive was happening at the site. This included the 1912 mill that YTV had occupied and the Sandsgate Building.

"It was essential to demonstrate to the community, councillors and planners that we wanted to make a positive contribution to the economy through regeneration .

" Our vision is to develop the mills into a sustainable operation at the heart of the community through reclaiming its place as a centre for employment through high quality inspirational workspace and offices."

Buildings which were once filled with the clatter of weaving looms were gutted and windows, roofs and floors replaced along with services.

The £2 million makeover of the 1912 mill was completed in 2011, creating units of up to 14,900 sq ft.

Since they embarked on the venture John and William have signed up around 70 tenants employing some 300 people.

They have worked closely with planning officers from Leeds City Council to develop a masterplan for Sunny Bank Mills which was approved in April last year.

To date, around £5 million has been invested at the site which is about 20 per cent complete. Future work will include demolishing uneconomic buildings or those that are in the wrong place to make way for new premises and reconfigure the site.

William said: " We take a very open approach about what we are doing and want to do. In textiles, we worked in a hostile environment which makes you defensive .

"The fact that companies didn't talk to one another was one of the reasons for their downfall.

"But now we are happy to discuss our plans with anyone who is interested, including councillors, planners, tenants and the local community and they respect that. .

"Some property developers may say that's naive but it's our style and we believe it will help make the whole community and the local economy stronger."

Because of the high level of investment being made at the site, the Gaunts focus on offering medium to long-term tenancies. The average tenants are five-strong businesses occupying around 800-900 sq ft.

Tenants include marketing and creative agencies, consulting engineers, photographers, joiners and builders, a beautician, upholsterers, cable technology, furniture makers, graphic design and textile design and a children’s play gym.

The mill also provides creative space, including a gallery and events areas, and a tea room and bistro.,

"The first batch of tenants are approaching the end of their leases and we are delighted that the vast majority are staying and some are taking more space as they expand their businesses,

"Those who do leave do so mainly due to business failure rather than dissatisfaction with the location" said William.

John revealed that soon after the mill closed they were approached to sell the site to a major retailer but never seriously considered what would have been a lucrative offer.

"We had no difficulty in rejecting the approach. William and I have shared a strong vision for what we want to achieve here right from the start and that is to create a real community

at Sunny Bank Mills providing a sustainable future through getting the right blend of tenants," he said.

The cousins are confident that their project has already proved itself as a viable scheme which can go from from strength to strength.

"While we do not directly create jobs, the mill is becoming a hub for enterprise and a catalyst for employment through our tenants.

"It has also become a hub for creativity and the arts in this area and with the gallery and events space we can offer, people are starting to use the mill again as a community facility," said William.

He has also created an archive of the mill's textile operations in a 4,000 sq ft area. The collection includes more than 300 books containing thousands of textile cuttings; over 60,000 lengths of fabric, around 8,000 fabric designs, 5,000 wool dyeing recipe cards,100 leather bound ledgers and cash books,historic weaving looms and a range of photographs and memorabilia

The archive opens the first .Wednesday of each month between 10am and 12 noon or by appointment.

Sunny Bank Mills featured as a case study in Historic England’s report Engines of Prosperity which looked at how old buildings can be brought back to life.

But the cousins are anxious that Sunny Bank Mills is not viewed as a heritage centre.

John said: " While proud of our textile heritage, rather than look back we are building on it to encourage the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit that drove the mill forward over 180 years.

"This project is about creating a vibrant future for our business and all our partners," he said.

William added: " One of our forebears once said that if the mill was losing money then no-one should feel obliged to carry on. It was nice having that knowledge when it came to exiting textiles on our watch.

" I believe John and I have handled a tricky situation fairly well, from ending textile production to taking the business to the next stage and one that we can hand on to future generations.That's our aspiration."