A civic heritage museum for Bradford?

Post lockdown I have spent a good number of hours in the centre of Bradford with camera in hand as my Twitter account testifies (@jpdewhirst). Whilst Bradford is a hugely photogenic place and presents countless opportunities to indulge in photography, seeing at first hand the extent of urban decay has frankly been a depressing experience. Magnificent old buildings that hint of historic prosperity are now tired, rundown and in certain cases falling down. It is remarkable to find a street without foliage in the eaves if you look above the pavements.

For all the brave words this state of affairs is likely to get worse, an English Detroit perhaps? Given the state of retail activity in the UK, let alone Bradford, we will surely find more buildings becoming empty. And sat next to the city’s premier shopping centre and hotel is the wasteland that was once a mail sorting centre on Canal Road which has been a vacant brown site for a least a decade.

I can’t think of any quick fixes for BD1 but I believe that a solution for the Canal Road site could go some way to bring new life to the city. My suggestion is to develop a heritage park, the equivalent of a ‘Bradford Beamish’ with the following aims:

  • Safeguard historically significant small / medium buildings through relocation and rebuilding.
  • Provide for the possible relocation and relaunch of the Industrial Museum allowing its existing site to be sold for residential development.
  • Potentially unblock existing and future planning impasses that would allow development elsewhere in the district.
  • Develop a premium tourist attraction in central Bradford to attract footfall and external visitors.
  • Provide an educational resource to encourage interest and awareness about the city’s history.
  • Generate income through use of the site by film companies.
  • Possible opportunity to co-ordinate with the safeguarding of high-profile architectural assets in central Bradford.

In Bradford we have countless examples of familiar buildings falling into disrepair and becoming derelict with little prospect of being saved. These include historically significant buildings such as the Carnegie Library at Shipley, the former police station at Bavaria Place or the former Wapping Primary School.

The development of the Beamish resort – and indeed that of Gaythorpe Terrace at the Industrial Museum – has demonstrated that old buildings can be rescued and rebuilt. The site of the old Royal Mail sorting office provides a potential location to safeguard a selection of historic Bradford buildings. Obvious candidates are the examples given above of the Carnegie Library, the police station and the school. Add an old public house, a chapel and/or business premises and collectively you have buildings that once represented the history of everyday life in the city.

Relocation of the industrial museum to the site would complement the safeguarding of such buildings and allow it to become a combined civic heritage museum. The sale of the existing Eccleshill base could help finance the whole project. Whether the Moorside Mills complex could also be rebuilt in full is questionable but would be ideal.

The opportunity to relocate otherwise derelict buildings (ie Wapping Primary School) could also potentially unlock planning impasses by allowing the release of sites for development. Developers would then be required to fund reconstruction of old buildings.

A premium tourist attraction in central Bradford would complement the Odeon initiative in attracting visitors to the city centre, benefiting existing retail and hospitality businesses and allow Bradford to better position itself as a leisure destination. It could provide an educational resource not only for the district but also the region and the collection of buildings would surely be attractive to film companies.

Anyone walking through the centre of Bradford cannot fail to recognise the poor state of buildings. Take a moment to look at the upper storeys and you see the decay in all its glory. To this day people bemoan the loss of the former Swan Arcade but an even bigger architectural disaster is unfolding in Bradford. Within the next ten years buildings will probably have to be demolished due to the fact that they have become unsafe. Slowly but surely, historic assets will be lost.

Few suggestions have been offered as to how these city centre buildings can be rescued. The development of residential flats has simply failed to deliver and arguably there is already over-supply from dubious developers. The likelihood of retail development can also be discounted and few of the buildings have potential for office accommodation (of which there is already a surplus).

The development of a civic heritage park could be a way to co-ordinate the rescue of buildings as visitor attractions in themselves – for example the former bank premises on Hustlergate / Bank Street might even become a museum telling the story of business, commerce and banking in the city. By attracting footfall to the civic heritage park other initiatives could be encouraged that provided new life to the city centre. With the Peace Museum and the Police Museum already in BD1 you could link a number of such attractions and have real critical mass for tourists with a selection of central museums / galleries giving credence to Bradford’s claim to be a city of culture. (Maybe the Science Museum might return a few odd exhibits to Bradford?)

What to do with the vacant land next to the Midland Hotel is an issue but as I have outlined it could be a means to unlock a number of opportunities. There has been the suggestion of developing a green city park on the site which has its merits. My concern however is that it could detract from investment in Bradford’s existing parks (ie Peel Park, Lister Park or the woefully rundown Horton Park). Ultimately a city park is unlikely to attract external visitors and I doubt that it would have the same multiplier financial benefits of a civic heritage park. On the other hand it would not be as expensive to develop – therein the core issue is that a civic heritage park will require a major financial commitment.

As part of a regeneration strategy I believe that celebration of the city’s civic heritage has other benefits, specifically to encourage a shared identity for Bradfordians. There is much in the history of Bradford that can serve as inspiration for the future and yet the city’s past tends to be downplayed and overlooked. My argument is therefore that a civic heritage park would be a strategic regeneration activity that could be co-ordinated with other initiatives. It is more than a solution of what to do with a brownfield site.

I won’t even pretend that I have details or estimates of how much the project would cost. There is however a price of not doing anything.

For what it is worth, I believe that sport has a part to play in celebrating and encouraging a Bradford identity as well as offering health benefits – refer to what I have written on this subject from here. Given that the proposed RL museum at City Hall has fallen away I would also encourage the launch of a Bradford Sport Museum dedicated to the history of sport in the city across all codes and games, but that is another matter.

I have published this feature on my blog as a way of sharing the idea and if others can be persuaded of its merits, hopefully the concept can be taken further with an investigation of what it would entail and the likely cost. If it encourages people to think of other ideas then that’s great. What no-one in the city can afford is to believe that somehow things will get better as if written in the stars. I believe that it is time to be imaginative about the future of Bradford before it is too late and we discover that nothing can be done.

John Dewhirst

Twitter: @jpdewhirst

Thanks for visiting. This blog is principally about the history of Bradford City AFC and links to books I have written in the Bantamspast History Revisited series about the history of football and origins of professional sport in the district. The menu above allows provides links to ad hoc content about the history of Bradford and in particular the eternal saga of a through-railway link.