Dark, satanic mills listed as world heritage sites

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The Independent Online

To William Blake they were an abomination: dark satanic mills.But yesterday, three groups of the great brick textile factories that powered Britain's industrial revolution were listed by the United Nations as world heritage sites.

What would the author of "Jerusalem" have made of it? The cotton mills of the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire and of New Lanark in Scotland, and the great woollen mill at Saltaire in Yorkshire, were at a stroke accorded the same cultural prestige as Venice, the Taj Mahal and the châteaux of the Loire.

The visionary poet and artist might have to accept, if he came back today, that time has softened the satanic edges of these remarkable buildings, and a post-modern world now views them with approval as the pioneering temples of industrialism, all of which spawned tightly knit communities. They certainly have a rough and robust beauty of their own.

The world heritage committee of Unesco, the UN's cultural organisation, agreed at a meeting in Finland to add the mills to its list after they were promoted as candidates with the backing of the British Government. (Hitherto Britain has had only two industrial world heritage sites, Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire and Blaenavon industrial landscape in Wales).

They now join the Devon and East Dorset coast, the so-called "Jurassic Coast" outstanding for its geology and its fossils, which was granted world heritage designation on Thursday. The Arts minister Baroness Blackstone said: "The sites are outstanding examples of our industrial heritage, illustrating the tremendous contribution Britain made to the industrialisation of the world during the 18th and 19th centuries."

The story began in Derbyshire, when Richard Arkwright set up shop at Cromford in the Derwent valley in 1771 with his spinning jenny, a revolutionary machine, powered by water, that could spin cotton.

This was the world's first modern factory, and it marked the industrial revolution's true beginning. The river Derwent, from its source in the Peak District to its confluence with the Trent south of Derby, powered successive generations of pioneer textile mills in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The story went a stage further in Lanarkshire, where in 1785 the Glasgow banker David Dale set up a series of cotton mills powered by the water of the Clyde. Dale's son-in-law, Robert Owen, who became manager in 1800, ran the mills with an enlightened hand, and under him New Lanark was to achieve lasting fame as a model community and a forerunner of the welfare state. New Lanark had the first infant school, a crèche, free medical care and comprehensive education, including evening classes. Leisure and recreation were not forgotten; there were concerts, dancing, music-making and pleasant landscaped areas for the benefit of the community. The village attracted international attention.

Half a century later, Saltaire, a model Victorian village built by the wool baron Sir Titus Salt for his workers on the river Aire near Bradford, was where the early industrial system reached its pinnacle. Developed from 1850, the village combined the integration of processes and transport and the use of steam power with the provision of housing and social amenities, all dignified by unified architectural treatment.

Regarded as the finest surviving example of a model textile mill village in the country, Saltaire has now become a centre for the arts and a desirable residential location.