There is something incredibly moving about standing in a vast space that once shook with the throbbing, whirring machinery playing a leading role in the world’s textile production for more than a century.

This was the heart of Worstedoplis, where a huge workforce of ordinary men and women from across the world came in droves to find work and a new start. By the time Drummonds Mill opened in the 1860s, Bradford was the world’s wool textile capital. By 1900 there were 350 mills here, their huge towers rising from the expanding urban landscape like rockets blasting smoke clouds of industry into the sky.

Sprawled across seven acres in Manningham, Drummonds Mill was one of the region’s largest employers and a pioneer of worsted coating. Thousands of millworkers poured through its great iron gates; generations of families worked there and marriages started life there. The mill eventually closed in 2002, but this week it has been reopened for an ambitious promenade production based on real-life stories of people who worked there.

The Mill – City Of Dreams is presented by Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, which has spent 18 months collating interviews with former millworkers.

The vision of talented writer/director Madani Younis, it’s a beautifully-staged, powerful production telling the story of how Bradford has been shaped by its industrial history and the people who made it happen. To complement the play, Freedom Studios are holding guided tours of the mill during the day. Families with children, and school parties, are urged to attend, and drama groups are invited to hold workshops there, by prior arrangement.

Parking at the foot of the enormous mill tower, we walked across the cobbles to the entrance, following 150 years of footsteps. Inside, the smell of wool grease lingered in the air and flickering shadows darted across walls.

Suddenly the drama unfolded, as a sharp-suited property man gathered us around a model of the mill complex, gushing about plans to transform it into a 21st century leisure village. Then the lights lowered and all was still, the jangling of a bunch of keys the only sound as Frank the caretaker wandered towards us.

In his 40 years at the mill, since starting as a jobber lad aged 14, Frank saw it go from boom to bust. “Come with me,” he said, and, like the ghosts of his memories, we shuffled behind him towards the deafening noise of busy looms in a huge, arena-like space.

In place of the looms stood lone figures, motionless until dramatic lighting and a haunting score brought to life the stories of three post-war migrant millworkers arriving in Bradford.

Here was a displaced Ukrainian man ripped from his family and sent to labour camps, a young Italian woman with limited English but a willingness to get her hands dirty, and an ambitious Pakistani engineering student, wondering how he can combine his shifts with his studies, and still find time to sleep.

Their compelling stories shed a human light on the mill’s diverse workforce, highlighting the struggle that Bradford’s Eastern European and Asian communities endured to find work, settle into an alien environment and retain their cultural identity.

In one scene, the rhythm of the looms turned weavers into dancers, and another was a lovely snapshot of Manningham’s Belle Vue studios, where migrant workers used ‘props’ such as a gold watch to pose for respectable-looking photographs to send back home.

We followed Frank across several floors, where the echoes of mill noises and workers’ chatter combined with startling lighting effects and assorted artefacts salvaged from the building to transform nooks and crannies into striking theatrical spaces.

As we snaked along a corridor, the awesome scale of the property became apparent; seemingly endless rows of offices suddenly lit up, revealing intriguing sculptures and photographs of the past.

The set has been created almost entirely from objects found in Drummonds Mill, including lengths of cloth for the costumes.

In the vast weaving shed, colourful threads were draped from beams as the three workers, now in their middle years with decades of mill life behind them, shared dreams and memories. Their words hung in the air, as the wind howled outside.

Performed by a terrific professional and community cast, this was a fascinating, exciting and incredibly moving journey through a remarkable building where the city’s industrial history and cultural heritage oozes through thick stone walls. It’s a journey I’ll never forget.


* Drummonds Mill is on Lumb Lane, Manningham, Bradford.

* The Mill – City Of Dreams, a 90-minute performance, runs until April 16, Tuesday to Saturday, at 8pm. For tickets, ring (01274) 432000.

* Sensible footwear and warm clothing is advised, as the audience follows the action on foot.

* Guided tours will be held on April 6 and 13 at 2pm. For more information, or if you have a disability or have difficulty walking or going upstairs, contact Aimi Walton on (01274) 730077.

* For more information, visit