Leeds-List: The Best & Most Insightful Guide to Leeds

9 Historic Buildings That Have Been Repurposed As Museums

· Joseph Sheerin · Culture

Discover the region's storied past in these historic Yorkshire buildings.

Armley Mills Industrial Museum

We may take them for granted today, but each of these museums has played a vital role in Yorkshire’s history.

From hospitals to breweries, factories and mines, the museums where you can now discover Yorkshire’s history were once vital cogs in the wheels of local industry. And while the machines may have stopped running and the patients may have been moved elsewhere, the buildings themselves have been given a new lease of life as museums where you can learn all about the past.

Thwaite Mills

Thwaite Mills

Credit: Leeds Museums & Galleries

Thwaite Mills in Stourton is one of the only remaining examples of a fully working water-powered mill in the UK. Built in 1825, it’s almost completely intact – only the workers’ cottages are no longer there. In its lifetime, it was used to make lubricating oil, dyes and putty, as well as grinding chalk.

In 1975, the mill closed and the wheels stopped turning, but it wasn’t the end for the old landmark. Despite the fact that the site had no electricity until 1986 and had fallen into disrepair, it was restored and reopened as a museum in 1990 to show you how old water mills used to work. It’s got all the old machinery and the manager’s house is still there too, which is made up to be just as it was in the 1940s.

Thwaite Mills, Thwaite Lane, Stourton, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 1RP.

York Cold War Bunker

York Cold War Bunker

When the Cold War raged, it wasn’t just the USA that was afraid of a nuclear war with Russia – the UK acted too. The York Cold War Bunker was constructed in 1961 – it was one of about 30 nationwide, and if a bomb had gone off, it would have housed 60 volunteer members of the Royal Observer Corps who could collate details of the bombs and the radioactive fallout.

It was a base for the ROC until 1991, but thankfully they never had to use it for its real purpose. Today it’s the only one of those Cold War bunkers that’s still in its original operational condition. In 2006 it was opened to the public, so you can delve into the underground structure and see the fully equipped operational rooms, specialist computers from the 1980s, radio equipment, dormitories and generating plant. It’s also kitted-out with simulation computers that give you an idea of the damage a nuclear bomb could have caused.

York Cold War Bunker, Monument Close, York, North Yorkshire, YO24 4HT.

The Tetley

Simeon Barclay

Credit: Simeon Barclay

You may not think of beer as being integral to a city’s history, but ours is certainly entwined with Tetley’s. The brewery opened in the 1740s and became one of the biggest in the UK. The base for these operations was right here in Leeds, at the Tetley’s Headquarters, an art deco building that was built in 1931. This was the case until production was shifted to Wolverhampton, Doncaster and Hartlepool in 2011.

Two years later, the building was transformed into one of the most interesting art spaces in Leeds. It’s a gallery and a learning centre, with a bar and restaurant on the ground floor. The galleries specialise in contemporary art, but the building also acts as a platform for The Tetley Collection, preserving the heritage of the brewery throughout the site.

The Tetley, Hunslet Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 1JQ.

Bradford Industrial Museum

Bradford Industrial Museum

Credit: Neil Turner licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

Built in 1875 for worsted spinning by local industrialist John Moore, Mooreside Mills became one of the most important factories in Yorkshire. Up until 1970, it was a hub of textile manufacturing, both in the hands of Moore and W&J Whitehead, who had it last before it was bought by Bradford Council.

While there are many old mills and factories around Yorkshire that focus on the Industrial Revolution, the extent of the exhibits at Bradford Industrial Museum is quite revealing. The first floor shows off the process of textile manufacturing, such as combing, drawing, spinning and weaving. Meanwhile, downstairs there’s original 19th-century machinery, from wheels to engines, printing equipment and a huge collection of vintage transport.

Bradford Industrial Museum, Moorside Mills, Moorside Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD2 3HP.

National Coal Mining Museum

The National Coal Mining Museum

The site of the National Coal Mining Museum is unique because of its setting – Caphouse Colliery is one of the only mines shut down in the 1980s to have been repurposed inline with its history. Sunk in the late 18th century, Caphouse was one of a number of thriving pits in the region.

Today, as the National Coal Mining Museum, it will transport you to another time when Yorkshire industry was dominated by mining. They’ve preserved the conditions of the pits where thousands worked alongside the tools and machinery. There’s also the pithead baths, steam winding house, pit ponies and paddy trains, as well as a museum tracing the history of Caphouse and other mines around the country.

National Coal Mining Museum, Caphouse Colliery, New Road, Overton, West Yorkshire, WF4 4RH.

Thackray Medical Museum

Thackray Medical Museum

Credit: Vicky Matthers

Originally built in 1858, Thackray Medical Museum started life as the Leeds Union Workhouse. It once housed 758 paupers who worked for their board in a cold, unwelcoming environment. The Grade II-listed building was later transformed into the East Leeds War Hospital where they treated the troops during the First World War, but it was later renamed as St James’s.

By the 1990s it was deemed unfit for purpose and in 1997 it became Thackray Medical Museum. It makes use of the former workhouse and hospital to show off the history of medicine. The museum is home to over 47,000 different objects that track medical history from the Roman times to the present day, with cool exhibits like old instruments, preserved body parts, and even a replica of a Victorian slum.

Thackray Medical Museum, 141 Beckett Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS9 7LN.

Gibson Mill

Gibson Mill, Hardcastle Crags

Copyright thomasspilsbury licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

Gibson Mill made use of the town’s great natural resources to become an important cotton mill in the region. Built in 1800 as one of the first water-powered mills in the region, it stayed that way until the 1890s when it became an entertainment emporium with a cafe, dance hall and skating rink until 1945.

It reopened as a museum in 2005 – not only does it show how one of the early mills worked, but it also has a floor dedicated to its use in the first half of the 20th century. There’s a cafe and an old gramophone you can play, as well as a space dedicated to nearby attraction Hardcastle Crags. It shows off modern technology too, as the building is completely self-sufficient using only solar, water and wood energy.

Gibson Mill, Hardcastle Crags, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX7 7AP.

Brontë Parsonage

Bronte Parsonage Museum Haworth

Credit: Man Alive licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

It’s a simple house in the middle of the Yorkshire countryside, but the Brontë Parsonage is full of history. The famous Brontë family once lived here and their work took much of their literary inspiration from the local area.

They lived at the house nearly all of their lives and wrote all of their great works there – which is why it has been a museum to all things Brontë since 1893. Thanks to The Brontë Society it exhibits a host of works, letters, documents, objects and relics that give a unique insight into what their life was really like.

Brontë Parsonage, Church Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire, BD22 8DR.

Armley Mills

Armley Mills

There was a time during the Industrial Revolution when Armley Mills was the biggest woollen mill in the world – and for over 150 years, from its construction by Benjamin Gott in 1805 to its closure in 1969, it was one of the most important factories in the country.

It eventually fell victim to changes in technology and simply couldn’t compete, so 13 years after its closure, Leeds City Council reopened it as Leeds Industrial Museum, using its significant status to help show what it was like to work there. They have looms and machines that are still in working order, as well as the old locomotives that helped power the industry.

Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Canal Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS12 2QF.

Cover image copyright Leeds Museums & Galleries.