Triangle Mill Sisters: hostel life for West Yorkshire textile workers 1920 to 1970

Cotton and wool processing mills were abundant in the beautiful Calder valley in the last century. The demand for women’s low paid labour was so great that employers recruited from all over the UK and often housed relocated workers in special hostels. This collective out-of-hours life is an unexplored aspect of British industrial history. The Triangle Mill Sisters exhibition is the first time, seemingly, that hostel women’s personal experiences have been revealed.

William Morris and Sons had a worsted wool fibre processing factory (demolished in 1987) at Triangle, next to the mill owner’s house, Stansfield Grange. In 1921 the Morris family vacated their home to create a hostel for 100 women to service their factories at Triangle and Sowerby Bridge.

‘We shared everything.’ says Vera F. ‘We were sisters, not friends – sisters.’ Many married and settled locally. Hundreds became godparents and ‘aunties’ to each others’ children and remained life-long friends.

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Forty ex-hostel women attending the exhibition’s opening event

Bruce Fitzgerald photographer

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BBC ‘Look North’ cameras filming the opening lunch party

Ruth Beazley photographer

I conceived the twenty-six-panel exhibition three years ago when Ted Fenton of Sowerby Bridge happened to show me 200 photographs he had collected informally. Ted was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and had access to the hostel while he was courting one of the hostel women, whom he subsequently married in the 1950s. I subsequently used many of these images in my multimedia art work. Inspired by story fragments, I then undertook seven oral interviews and further archive research to find voices of women for each decade of the fifty-year period.

The exhibition generated a lot of interest and a range of funding and support from bodies such as the Community Foundation for Calderdale, Accent Housing Group (who now own the ex-hostel) and Calderdale libraries. Audiences of many hundreds have attended the touring exhibition and slide show. The exhibition is currently circulating Calderdale libraries and slide show talks are being presented to local organisations such as the Ripponden History Society and Halifax Rotary club.

Morris’s mills managers targeted the north east of England to recruit their workers. Out-of-work coal mining families needed income and Morris’s needed ‘hands’. Anxious parents felt happier if their daughters, some as young as fourteen years old, were looked after in a safe ‘home-from-home’, and mill owners could control their labour force better if they were housed in an attractive well-supported community.

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Hostel women posing for studio portrait photos. These were exchanged as Christmas gifts

Donated Photographs 

Two types of photos narrate the stories. To demonstrate their new-found independence many young women had their portraits taken at Gledhill’s photographic studio in Halifax. These images, carefully staged, represent the economic migrants as composed fashionable and successful young women. In contrast, dozens of informal snapshots, mostly taken by Ted and the subjects themselves, offer a less guarded picture. These show vividly the women’s exuberance and energy, sunbathing in the gardens, on holiday at Butlins, Filey and Blackpool, taking part in charity events, dancing and drinking in local milk-bars and dance halls, and getting married.

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Hostel women enjoying their leisure c1950

Photographs from Ted Fenton’s collection

In popular memory now Morris’s hostel was full of music, song and dance. Jean S sang at a local club on Friday nights. And, in 1940s, the young women put on a variety act which went round mills in Bingley and Bradford. Vera F wrote poems and Mary M did the sewing. She described one dress, inspired by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that ‘everybody [who could get into it] wore.’ For the exhibition I used recycled materials, as in the original, to reproduce the dress.

Like nurses in a nurse’s home, many of the hostel women were the object of class prejudice, sexual disapproval, scandal stories and rivalry. Local peoples’ stories augment the women’s own versions of themselves in the exhibition panels.

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Hostel women working in Morris’ s Mill c 1950

Photographs from Ted Fenton’s collection 

The ‘sisters’ grapevine sprang into action last year. Those who contributed delighted in a sunny lunch party on their old lawn. And forty more ‘sisters’ attended the opening event and tea party. There they told their stories again and again and were feted by hundreds of local people who still remember ‘the hostel girls’.

Triangle Mill Sisters, the exhibition, is displayed at Elland library, West Yorkshire, until the end of May 2015. It will go to other Calderdale venues such as Halifax, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden later in the year.

Venues wishing to enquire about the exhibition should contact ruth.beazley@btopenworld.com. 01422 823110 A web-based resource is projected.

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Two digital prints merging images of hostel women from the past

into present day ex-industrial settings

Ruth Beazley photographer

Ruth Beazley (c) May 2015

Ruth Beazley is an artist and reminiscence collector living in a small Pennine village near Halifax. Her most recent exhibition describes the life of mill workers who lived in a women’s hostel at Triangle, Sowerby Bridge, during the final 50 years of the woollen textile industry in West Yorkshire.