Islington Mill - The story upto 2000

The Islington Mill that we now know as the creative epicentre of Greater Manchester has only really been like that for the last 20 years of the nearly 200 years of history of the building and area. In this first part of our collaboration we will be looking deeply into the cultural history of the area and the role that this building played in Salford’s history.

Islington Mill is a six-storey Georgian mill building located at 1 James Street.

The Mill was originally built for cotton spinning in 1823 by Leeds born architect David Bellhouse, who also famously worked on buildings like the Manchester Portico Library and the old Manchester Town Hall on King Street. Later on in its existence it did become a Doubling Mill, a more technical side of the cotton industry to do with combining of processes and products.

A year after the original construction of Islington Mill there was a large structural collapse which sadly saw a loss of young lives at that time. It did however make way to change the entire landscape of The Mill, with an inclusion of new structures. Over the years extensions of the original mill were added, a second mill, stables, a courtyard and an external engine house. By the early 20th Century The Mill was predominantly used for doubling rather than spinning.

We chatted with Greg Thorpe, the Islington Mill head of Communications who has been there for about 5 years to try and see what other information the inside sources have!

“We have really been looking at the place of The Mill in the surrounding culture of the city and what it was really like. It was truly a typical mill of that time that started life as a cotton mill that then became a doubling mill, but also it was integral to the life of the people around it. Something we are only realising right now is how live at that time was really one of poverty and real hardship. In some of Friedrich Engels’ writing he talks about the neighbourhood of Ordsall, which is our ward of Salford. He talks of it exemplifying a particular kind of industrial poverty and desperation, so the mills roots are firmly in that industrial area. We find ourselves really wanting to offer something that’s not about the relentless productivity, but about how can people have a life of fun and play? So it’s been interesting to see how we sit within the structure of the region.

We also have a Salford Archaeological team we are closely working with and we also have a heritage expert finding historical things for us to work with in the future, but all this will come out soon, so I don’t want to give away any spoilers!”

Hopefully we find out more about what happened in the late 19th and early 20th century through the heritage programme, but we do know that from the late sixties the mill had gone out of use. In 1996 the building was granted Grade II listing from the English Heritage, this was also the year that Bill Campbell came home. Greg told us more.

“Bill Campbell, originally from Manchester, studied in London and came back to Salford. He lived in the tower blocks across the road from the mill and noticed a ’TO LET’ sign up on the building. So he hired some space in the mill and built a textile and fashion design workshop, so there was already a kinship with history of the mill being in cotton and textiles.

He then began to share that space with other creatives and the mill went up for sale.

After 3 years of begging and borrowing Bill was in a position to buy the mill, which was an incredible feat, probably something you couldn’t do today. The terrain of the city was very different then, people weren’t buying mills to turn into flats and Salford was one of those neighbourhoods that developers hadn’t looked at yet. That was the beginning.”

More artists came in and really developed the space, the first exhibitions were in 1999 and not long after that Campbell started to buy more of the mill and convert it into studio space. Alongside the conversion of the engine room, Campbell created the Islington Mill Arts Club. The collective had a self described emphasis on experimentation, collaboration and cross-disciplinary artistic talent, a truly timeless but very 90’s Manchester ethos. In its own words, “The Mill is a non-hierarchical operational and decision making structure which places nurturing, supporting and inspiring creativity, especially new and emerging talent, at the heart of everything that it does.”

22 years after the establishment of Islington Mill, it is firmly rooted in the cultural and social calendar every single day in the lives of people in Greater Manchester. Our next story will look closely at how it has created this amazing legacy.

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