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These Historic Leeds Buildings Are in Danger of Disappearing

· James Tweddle · Discussion

If these walls could talk, they’d have plenty to say.

Temple Works

Leeds is home to a whole heap of incredible historic buildings, and they’re now in real danger of fading away…

Every year, more and more at-risk buildings in Leeds edge closer to total disrepair. Time is tight, and there’s a growing concern that Leeds could lose huge swathes of history to the ravages of time if more isn’t done. From ancient monuments to early grain mills, we’ve rounded up the five most important buildings for Leeds’ history and culture that must be saved, and quickly…

Temple Works

Temple Works

Credit: Matt Edgar


Temple Works has the most incredible history. This Grade I listed flax mill held the title of ‘the largest room in the world’ during the Industrial Revolution, and it also had the first ever hydraulic lift, which was used to transport sheep up to the garden roof to maintain the humidity in the building. Built between 1836 and 1840, the front was designed to resemble Egypt’s Temple of Horus, while the factory was based on Dendera’s Typhonium. The flax mill eventually became a regular textile mill in the late 1800s when the flax industry succumbed to the rise of cheap cotton. It later spent over 50 years as the northern office for Kay’s catalogue and was the biggest employer in South Leeds for an age before being taken over by the Barclays brothers.

That was when Temple Works began to fall into disrepair – it even partially collapsed in 2008. The cost to stabilise and refurbish the building was estimated by several experts to be upwards of £20 million, but nothing was actually happening. For several years, despite the increasingly poor condition, it was used as a cultural hub by arts group Temple.Works.Leeds and they wanted to turn it into a rival for Tate Modern, but in November 2015, Burberry put paid to that with their plans to move their manufacturing plant to Leeds. But once again, progress ground to a halt – the UK voted out and so did Burberry.

The site was eventually due to be put up for auction in December 2017, but one day before the auction, developers CEG stepped in and purchased it. They have a lot of work ahead of them. The masonry roof is barely held up by the rotting pipes underneath and it’s covered by a temporary surface. The current plan is to have the place watertight by the end of 2018, which is the least a building of such national importance deserves. There’s even talk of it becoming the centrepiece of the new South Bank development. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.


Stank Hall Barn

Stank Hall Barn

Credit: Friends of Stank Hall Barn

How far would you go to save a scheduled Ancient Monument, rumoured to have been built from the timber left over by Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta? That’s the question facing ‘the oldest site in Leeds’. The Grade II listed Stank Hall Barn dates back to 1420, and can be found just off Dewsbury Road between White Rose Shopping Centre and the railway line. Part of a wider complex, the site also includes the cavernous Stank Hall and fire-damaged New Hall – but has often just been offered up for sale alone.

Despite being derelict for decades, real action to protect the historic building wasn’t taken until 2013, when residents raised concerns that the barn was being vandalised. An investigation found some of the original slate roof tiles had been stolen, so temporary roof and fencing had to be hurriedly put in place to prevent any more damage to the rapidly decaying site. After a further five years of dereliction, the council put it up for sale in February 2018 and they’re meant to be assessing bids, but so far, nothing’s been announced.

It might sound like the breakthrough Stank Hall needs, but the site has actually been put up for sale several times in the past decade. Every time, the Friends of Stank Hall Barn have tried to agree a deal with the council to create a community space centre – but with no luck. If the latest round of bids proves unsuccessful, the scrutiny of the site’s undeniably crucial history will only magnify – especially as one of the city’s ‘Big Five’ most at-risk buildings.

Thorpe Hall

Thorpe Hall

Credit: Leeds Library and Information Service, Leodis.

Although there was a structure on the site as early as 1596, Thorpe Hall as we know it today actually dates back to 1735. A classic red brick building with sandstone dressings, it earned Grade II-listed status thanks to its historical importance. Despite the disrepair, it’s still possible to see the carved stone head on the ornate rainwater guttering marked M.P after the Hall’s owner and constructor – Medcalf Proctor. Not only was the house the seat of the Proctor’s, but also the residence of the Gascoigne family, owners of Lotherton Hall, as well as English politician Sir Arthur Ingram.

Like so many other grand buildings of its type, Thorpe Hall fell into severe disrepair during the 1900s, a process that was accelerated in the early 2000s through a lack of care and refurbishments. The roof had severe holes in it and the ceiling had collapsed in one room. By 2006, Leeds City Council had placed the property in their “at risk” group, and in 2009, their recommendation was that a change of owner was needed.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so in 2012, the council attempted to work with Thorpe Hall’s owner to try and find a different use for the building, with office space suggested – to no avail. Today, we’re as far from a solution as ever. The latest council report infuriatingly suggests the owner wants to make a ‘special circumstances’ case for development in the Green Belt to fund the Hall’s refurbishment. The idea that a building as historically important to the city as Thorpe Hall might be used as a lynch-pin to allow construction on protected land is ludicrous. If the money is there for development, why not restoration?

Abbey Mills

Abbey Mills

Credit: Kirkstall Valley Development Trust

Over in Kirkstall, one of Leeds’ most historically important buildings is crumbling before our eyes. Abbey Mills is a 30,000 square-foot Grade II-listed mill that dates back to the 16th century. Over the years, the mill buildings have held everything from corn to cloth. It was rebuilt from the ground up after a fire in 1797, but after the death of the textiles industry in Leeds, it was used less and less, so the mill eventually fell into the council’s hands in 1965.

Leeds City Council started a consultation with 1,000 Kirkstall residents in January 2006 about the mill’s future. Despite swathes of the site falling into disrepair, many ground floor buildings were still in use as light industrial units, which were relocated when they first attempted to sell it. Unfortunately, auditors KPMG later concluded that the financial information that started the consultation was ‘incorrect and potentially misleading’, although the industrial units had already gone. As such, the building was never sold, and many of the ground floor units never recovered.

The mill’s buildings have gradually become shabbier and shabbier. In 2017, the council has admitted that they were struggling to maintain them due to severe budget pressures, so they divided the site into two halves and offered it up for sale. With such iconic history wrapped up in the building, local organisation Kirkstall Valley Development Trust raised £40,000 in community shares to restore the site through partial occupation, but they’ve been hamstrung by the council’s insistence on keeping much of the finances classified. Eight developers have currently expressed an interest in also redeveloping the site, but nothing has been confirmed. For now, it’s stuck in limbo, but there’s now hope that it will be put back into use.

Bramham Biggin

Set within the wider Bramham Estate, The Biggin is a Grade II-listed manor house that dates back to the 17th century. It’s been home to a long list of historic families in the past – from the 12th Duke of Leeds D’Arcy Osbourne, to English Civil War general Sir Thomas Fairfax. Eventually, the buildings were leased out to schoolmaster Dr Benjamin Bentley Haigh to create Bramham College. The college itself was short-lived, due to a severe cholera outbreak and the death of Dr Haigh.

Once the college closed, the buildings were completely dismantled, stone by stone to repair the fire-damaged Bramham Park. Left behind was Biggin house as it originally stood, built from magnesium limestone ashlar under a stone slate roof. From that point onwards, it has gathered dust, except for occasionally being used as a filming location in period dramas like Lost in Austen. Over the past few decades, it’s fallen into disrepair, with widespread damp and crumbling architecture – but how was such an important landmark allowed to go to seed?

Bramham Biggin

Credit: Gordon Hatton licensed under Creative Commons for commercial use.

Like much of restoration work, it all comes down to money. Planning permission was originally granted back in 2006 to convert and extend the Biggin’s ground floor so the building could be turned into seven luxury apartments. Progress stalled, and permission was extended in May 2013, but still nothing came of it. Eventually, a cost survey worked out that at least £1 million would be needed just for the conversions, and that number rose to £1.4. million with renovations, which stopped the project cold. As of this moment, there doesn’t seem to be a way forward for the building, which is a shocking state of affairs for such a crucial and storied building. Further apartment ideas and use as a hotel have since been floated, but all to no avail. At the moment, heartbreakingly, it deteriorates a little more each day – with no end in sight.

What can the rest of us do to support the restoration of these buildings? Quite simply, make our voices heard, speak to your council representatives and keep the pressure on. It would be a travesty if Leeds were to lose parts of its earliest history to neglect, but that’s what is at stake here.

Cover image credit: Simon Cliff