A Very Different World: Nelson Street and Caledonia Street, Bradford


Describing Bradford’s past in general terms is not too difficult but establishing how a particular area reached its present state is far more challenging. It is clear from an 1800 map that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century the southern parts of the present city were rural, with fields and scattered farm buildings. Many farm workers, or their families, would have undertaken hand-loom weaving as an additional source of income. Wealthy land owners might live in large houses, Royds Hall and Bolling Hall being examples, and the the lords of the various manors would have water powered corn mills and the rights over mineral resources. I haven’t studied mining in south Bradford in detail but coal had almost certainly been exploited on a small scale since medieval times.

By the late eighteenth century the technology of smelting iron with coke, rather than charcoal, permitted the establishment of blast furnaces at Bowling and Low Moor. This must have been a huge stimulus to local coal and ironstone mining. By the time of the first OS map (1852) the whole area was covered by both working and disused collieries, and crossed by mineral ways supplying Bowling Iron Works with ironstone and coking coal. At the same time it was seen by manufacturers to be more profitable to bring textile workers together in mills; within twenty years steam powered spinning and weaving were also being adopted. Foundries sprang up to supply the machinery, and dye houses to treat the cloth produced. In the period 1800-40 large scale building of industrial premises took place which in turn stimulated quarries and brick works. Bradford became a borough in 1846 and the railways reached south Bradford in 1850-55. ‘Worstedopolis’ was probably at its peak in the 1870s but there was a slow decline in the twentieth century. Many of the mills have been demolished although some have been adapted to residential and other uses. Is any of the older Bradford recognisable today?

If you walk up the side of the rail and bus hub called Bradford Interchange you can turn right along Croft Street. This thoroughfare now crosses the rail tracks at a high level giving a view of the routes to Halifax and Leeds shown in the first image. Note the second bridge and the little white triangle on the right of centre of that bridge. If the date were 1800 you would be suspended in mid-air of course but the view would be of green fields, dry stone walls, and the occasional glimpse of the Bowling Beck. At this date the beck would still be pure and sparkling but within a few years a local textile dyeing industry was established with an almost insatiable desire for water. The consequent effluent would come to pollute the beck to a degree which was remarkable even by Bradford standards. Until quite recently at the end of the Croft Street raised section you would have seen Portland and Britannia Mills but things are very different now.


In 1850 Britannia Mills was operated by a very famous textile manufacturer, Christopher Waud, who worked with mohair and alpaca fibres. The road you can see here, which is running parallel to the railway tracks, is now called Nelson Street. It has been present in some form or other since the 1840s. Today if you turn 180º you can see more of Nelson Street running straight into the city centre. At the end is the City Hall now partially shrouded because of conservation work.


I want you, in imagination at least, to turn again and walk past the demolition site where the workers have sadly barred public access to a truly massive heap of bricks. Health and Safety has once again triumphed over the pressing needs of brick collectors. Walk forwards past the remains of Portland Street and the new Police HQ.


According to the 1850 Ibbotson’s Directory of Bradford in Portland Street Henry Farrand once dealt here in ‘fruit, eggs and herrings’. The ‘silver darlings’ was caught by the million in the North Sea and, cleaned and salted, formed an important food item for the poor. In Nelson Street near the Police station there is a metal cover in the road. From the noise of rushing water that emerges I can be quite confident that this conceals an access point to the now culverted Bowling Beck. The Friends of Bradford Becks are slowly bringing the hidden waterways back into the public consciousness and have an excellent website devoted to this end.


The next left turn is Caledonia Street. This road now crosses the railway tracks by means of the bridge you could see from Croft Street. Below the bridge in Gordon Street you can see, from the position of the street light at the extreme right, that the carriageway is high above you. Bizarrely the wall of a pre-existing building has been incorporated into the bridge abutment. You can easily find three blocked windows.


Caledonia Street existed as early as 1854, when an inquest was disturbed that no barrier existed to stop folk trespassing onto the railway tracks. In 1859 a huge thunderstorm flooded the street, and indeed the whole of central Bradford. At Britannia Mills flood water came a yard up the walls doing ‘irreparable damage’. In Caledonia Street horses belonging to a corn miller were ‘inundated up to their necks’. Residents of Caledonia Street were not from the top draw, as can been seen by their frequent appearances in the borough court. Crimes such as drunkenness, insulting behaviour, ‘drunk & riotous’, robbing a pawnbroker, and ‘stealing from a cloths’ line’ are punished. Remarkably in February 1873 John Jowitt, warp dresser, was given three months for ‘deserting a wife and family’. The problem seemed to be that the family had consequently to be supported at public expense, and the authorities didn’t like it. How things have changed.

No bridge appears in the 1861 borough map and no building exists which would explain the above appearance. In 1871 there is still no bridge present but premises now line the road of which the image shows the last trace. In the 1895 map the bridge has been constructed so clearly in the period 1871-95 there was a major street reorganisation in this area. Remarkably the Caledonia Street Bridge was originally proposed by anonymous letters to the Bradford Observer in October 1869 and May 1871. The corporation and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company discussed this change in 1873 prior to an Act of Parliament. In 1875 the company was reported to be planning to proceed to tender for the work, but there at present the evidence trail stops. A number of developments must have been undertaken around this time. After Croft Street a short tunnel used to take lines under Bedford Street and Chandos Street. These were both swept away when the lines were opened up. Caledonia Street was extended over the tracks to provide access as we have discussed. Roads previously called Queens Cut and Cross Street were renamed Nelson Street. The view from the Caledonia Street bridge is interesting. The ‘white triangle’ seen earlier is the Mill Lane Junction signal box.


The lines off to the left are the Leeds line and the train pictured is on its way to Halifax. The Leeds loop once enclosed Pearson & Sons brick works. The signal box is also clearly visible at the junction of Nelson Street with Mill Lane.


The stone piers to the right of the box once supported another railway line connected, with many others, to a coal depot nearby. The difference in height meant that there was no access from the main line at this point. The lines were loops that joined the Halifax line further from Bradford. This is where Nelson Street now ends at a junction with Mill Lane. I shall conclude with two old maps of the area taken from the Local Studies Library reserve collection. The gas works circle on the extreme right of plan 2 is just missing from the left of plan 1. The irregular dotted line marks the course of the Bowling Beck.

New Doc 3_1

New Doc 3_3

The plans are probably from the late 1840s and presumably just precede the construction of the railway. Portland Street and Britannia Mills are visible and we have walked up Queens Cut and Cross Street, now renamed as Nelson Street. On the right of the first plan Queen’s Street is yet to be extended to form Caledonia Street. The course of the Bowling Beck is plotted and its rather irregular course seems to include a visible section.

At the origin of the old Nelson Street near the town centre the beck is certainly open. This may have lent interest to those standing at the back of the Turk’s Head Inn. The effluent from Bowling Dye Works would have ensured that if patrons did stand on the edge of the beck they would have had no cause to linger. If the Inn sold its own brew it is to be hoped that they had access to some less deadly source of water. Actually ‘inn’ may have been a euphemism. The Turk’s Head appears in the Bradford Observer from time to time after 1840 but it is always described as a ‘beer shop’. Later in that year its owner, John Smith, was denied a licence at the Brewster sessions. But the Turk’s Head was open again in 1845 when Squire Auty, constable of Horton, got into very hot water by attending a supper there and, having noticed card playing, did nothing to stop it. It was a very different world.

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