Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind the companies, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we look at how a small mill in the heart of Brontë Country became a successful chain of soft furnishing stores.
Situated at the convergence of two streams in Stanbury, near Haworth; there has been a mill at Ponden for many centuries. The original building was probably a corn mill. In 1791, the Lancastrian Heaton family, who lived at nearby Ponden Hall, built a cotton mill. In 1898, it was taken over by Robert Sunderland & Son, who started producing worsted materials.
It is the ill luck of another Lancastrian, Barry Brookfield originally of Bolton, who plays the biggest part in Ponden Mill’s success. After leaving art school with an interest in shops and window design, he worked through a number of different occupations. His first was as a shop junior for the Co-op, but the management didn’t allow him to serve customers. His next was in a shoe shop where he learned his sales skills, often selling socks and polish to go with the shoes.
When he realised that shop work was low paid, he took a job in a mill where he learned all about textiles. He continued to change careers and had stints of being an RAF dog handler, shop fittings salesman, and a job selling toiletries. It was in this role that he noticed the quantity of goods which market traders could sell and decided that this was the career for him. Brookfield kept his job with the chemist, but started selling towel seconds at Leigh market on Saturdays. He continued trading unsuccessfully on various markets before all his stock was flooded by heavy rain. Being the enterprising type, he sold his stock cheap by advertising it as being flood damaged, which resulted in his best trading day ever.
Now that Brookfield had found the secret to great sales, he settled for a stall on Skipton market. The market trader moved into a farmhouse in Grassington, storing his goods in the barn. However, disaster struck again – his stock became infested with mites and had to be burnt. This mis-fortune prompted him to look for a permanent place to trade. In 1973, he made his move into Brontë country, selling quilts at Ashworth Mill in Haworth. However, after a year, he left here because he had failed to secure the lease. It was then that he purchased Ponden Mill for just £15,000 – half the asking price.
Over the next decade, he transformed the mill into a tourist attraction with a licensed restaurant, craft demonstrations in weaving, potting and clog-making, along with a shop selling duvets and other soft furnishings. By 1985, he had also purchased Darley Mill in Nidderdale. Over the next twenty years, Brookfield went on to build a chain of 132 high street shops.
In 2005, the entrepeneur sold the £50million chain to the Marston Mills Group owned by Blackpool Tower Boss, Trevor Hemmings. That company went into administration in 2007, leading to Ponden Mill almost going the same way.
Luckily The Ponden Home Group, as it became known were bought by the Edinburgh Woollen Mill (Group) Ltd, and still has over 120 stores trading under the Ponden name.
As part of this change, the original Mill store at Stanbury closed down in late- 2008 and stood derelict until 2014, when plans were made to convert it into an activity centre, campsite and cafe. This opened in Spring 2015 and has recently welcomed its first customers. Further development of the site at the time of writing is ongoing, preserving a part of Yorkshire’s retail history in the process.
In the next post in this series, we will look at the kitchen manufacturers, Magnet.
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