The Museum today is at a very exciting time as a Museum, opening new exhibitions with local partners like Hainsworth, community spaces like MillSpace and being in the early stages of introducing hydro power via an Archimedes Screw.
Looking back at the Museum as a working mill though is a far different story, steeped in the City’s history. Once the largest woollen mill in the world, Armley Mills tells the story of Leeds' rich industrial heritage through both it's own history and the collections, exhibitions and galleries in the Museum today.
The earliest record of Armley Mills dates from the middle of the sixteenth century when local clothier Richard Booth leased 'Armley Millnes' from Henry Saville. A document of 1707 provides the first description of the mills. 'That Fulling Mill in Armley... containing two wheels and four stocks... also the water corn mill and all the fulling mills... containing one wheel and two stocks'. By 1788 Armley was equipped with five waterwheels powering eighteen fulling stocks.
Fulling is one of the final processes in cloth production. It involves pounding the cloth with large hammers in pits filled with a mixture of water, urine and 'fullers earth', causing the fibres to mat together or 'felt'. There are still fulling hammers in place in the Mill to view today.
In 1788 Armley Mills was bought by Colonel Thomas Lloyd, a Leeds cloth merchant who had prospered, who turned it into the world's largest woollen mill.
Although Colonel Lloyd re-built Armley Mills in 1788 he did not personally run the Mills. Instead they were leased to brother Israel and John Burrows and the pair lived in two newly built semi-detached houses above the Leeds and Liverpool canal.
The Mill Manager’s house still exists today. Much of which has been turned into office space but a section still remains that you can visit, highlighting the differences in lifestyle between a wealthy mill manager and a working class family.
In 1804 Benjamin Gott agreed to buy Armley Mills from Colonel Lloyd, but in November 1805 the mill was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Gott re-built the mill from fireproof materials, using brick and iron wherever possible. It is Gott's mill which survives largely intact to this day. Gott was a major figure in the history of Leeds and the wool industry in general. He was active in local politics, becoming Mayor in 1799 and was also a leading and enthusiastic patron of the arts.
Armley Mills prospered under Gott's management, exporting its wares to North and South America, Europe and the Far East. Gott became one of the largest employers in Britain, as well as one of the most wealthy. He died in 1840 and his sons John and William took over the business. They introduced the first steam engine to Armley Mills in 1850 to supplement, not replace, the waterwheels which continued operating into the 1860s.
Decline and Closure
In 1907 the woollen clothing manufacturers Bentley and Tempest, who had been one of several tenants, became the sole occupiers of Armley Mills. Ironically one of the firm's founders, Steward Tempest, had begun his working life at Armley as a 'half timer' at the age of 6 in the 1840s.
Like many other textile mills, Armley could not cope with the combination of the loss of markets as the British Empire split up, the increase in competition from abroad and the increasing use of man made fibres.
In 1971 the mill finally closed as a business and, in recognition of its historic importance was bought by Leeds City Council, re-opening in 1982 as Leeds Industrial Museum.