BRADFORD is on the final shortlist of four in the competition to be UK City of Culture 2025! Responding to the recent announcement, Shanaz Gulzar, TV presenter, artist and chair of Bradford 2025 said: “This is fantastic news! We’re keeping the details of our entry tightly under wraps for now, as the competition heats up, but I can say that our bid is rooted in the heritage and character of the Bradford district, and will reveal the magic of its people, its ambition, its uniqueness and above all its potential.”

There is no point second-guessing the details of the bid, but every point in describing the heritage that makes Bradford special and uniquely qualified to become the next UK City of Culture.

l A city of contrasts: Bradford was defined by decades of amazingly high growth in the 19th century, from a small rural market town to one of the country’s most substantial industrial cities and the world’s centre of the wool trade. It was a place that depended entirely on immigration, first by families from rural England then thousands of Irish people fleeing the 1840s potato famine.

By 1850 Bradford was the wealthiest place outside London, but also the dirtiest and unhealthiest. A German visitor, George Weerth, described it memorably in 1846: ‘Every other factory town in England is a paradise in comparison to this hole...In Bradford, you think you have been lodged with the devil incarnate. If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford.’ The town was synonymous with pollution, disease, lack of sanitation and public squalor.

Yet 100 years later Bradford’s greatest writer, JB Priestley, was able to claim that ‘In those pre-1914 days Bradford was considered the most progressive place in the United Kingdom. I am prepared to bet that Bradford produced more well-known people - musicians, scientists, writers, performers and the like than any place, anything like its size in the whole kingdom.’

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: JB Priestley pictured in BradfordJB Priestley pictured in Bradford

l From squalor to culture: How was Bradford able to make such a transition? Very gradually the health hazards of Bradford were tackled, supported by a group of highly successful men - mill-owners such as Titus Salt, Samuel Lister and Isaac Holden who helped with investment in new public buildings and services. Regrettably, although female labour as mill-workers was instrumental in creating the wealth, very few women were able to make such contributions - a reflection of much lower expectations and fewer opportunities.

A small but influential German community (mainly Jewish) led by Jacob Behrens settled in Bradford from the 1850s and helped greatly in civic improvements up to the First World War. In 1854 St George’s Hall was opened, offering concerts to ordinary Bradfordians. In 1864 Prime Minister Lord Palmerston laid the foundation stone for the prestigious Wool Exchange, focal point for Bradford’s textile merchants. In 1873 Bradford acquired a new Town Hall that matched its commercial achievements. All three Victorian buildings still grace the city centre, as does the old commercial quarter of Little Germany, now in regular use for TV and film locations.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Concert hall constructed for the Bradford Exhibition in 1904Concert hall constructed for the Bradford Exhibition in 1904

Public spaces became important as breathing spaces for workers in overcrowded conditions. In 1853 Peel Park opened, the first of five substantial parks over the next 30 years. The shining glory was the 1904 opening of Cartwright Memorial Hall art gallery, in Lister Park, just before the six-month Bradford Exhibition was opened in the park by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Dignitaries at the opening of the 1904 exhibition Dignitaries at the opening of the 1904 exhibition

Up till 1850 the main route to fame and fortune was through the wool trade, but as Bradford’s political, cultural and social life developed other heroes emerged. St George’s Hall drew orchestral concerts, featuring the Halle Orchestra, choral concerts led by Bradford Festival Choral Society and its inspiring first director, William Jackson. Brass band music became popular, led by the Black Dyke Mills Band. Sons of eminent German Jewish families that settled in Bradford became famous men of culture including composer Frederick Delius, artist William Rothenstein, poet Humbert Wolfe and satirist Michael Wharton, writing as Peter Simple.

l Theatre in Bradford: The theatre thrived with several venues: the Empire Music Hall (Great Horton Road), the Palace Theatre (Manchester Road), Theatre Royal (Manningham Lane) and Prince’s Theatre (Little Horton Lane). In 1914 the Alhambra Theatre opened with an exotic, Moorish design and distinctive dome supported by Corinthian pillars, illuminated at night. Situated in a commanding position, it became the city’s premier place for entertainment. Its reputation was enhanced by annual pantomimes staged by its founder, impresario Francis Laidler, and appearances by almost every famous variety artiste of the day.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Theatre Royal on Manningham LaneTheatre Royal on Manningham Lane

The Civic Playhouse in Little Germany from its opening in 1935 provided for 50 years some of the best semi-professional theatre in the country. With JB Priestley its founder and president, it staged a range of productions; classics and ‘world premieres’, tragedy and comedy, English and foreign. When its director Esme Church opened in 1945 the Northern School of Drama, she developed local talent that grew into national reputations - the golden generation of Tony Richardson, David Giles, Edward Petherbridge, Bernard Hepton and Billie Whitelaw.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Bradford Civic opened in 1935Bradford Civic opened in 1935

l Martin’s next article looks at Bradford’s cultural giants and pioneers and its film heritage as the world’s first UNESCO City of Film.

Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford has a story for each day of the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s history. Available online and bookshops including Waterstones and Salts Mill.