Aizlewood's Mill: It's our Birthday
16th July 2018
Aizlewood’s Mill: A Success Story
Aizlewood’s Mill was designed by William Flockton for John Aizlewood and built in 1861 on the site of the former nursery gardens of Sheffield Castle and alongside Sheffield’s first railway, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire which carried grain from the cornfields of Lincolnshire. The railway passed across the Wicker Arches into an extensive railway yard and interchange on the land just outside the window.
The grain was offloaded from the train and passed along an elevated walkway directly to the top floor of the building where the milling process began, using the boards that are now part of the reception desk as floorboards at one point.
The name Aizlewood came from the Aizlewood family, notably John Aizlewood who was a Rotherham miller and one of Sheffield’s most significant businessmen and citizens of his time, including holding the position of Sheffield City Councillor for 17 years.
Just 3 years into the life of the Mill came the dreadful 1864 Sheffield Flood. The flood waters passed straight through the building and it was lucky that no lives were lost here, despite at least one fatality in the pub next door, which was also in existence at the time.
Very little is known of the life of Aizlewood’s Mill during the Victorian era. The successful family were very private and Sheffield Archives has few references to happpenings here. We have been made aware of the use of child labour to keep the tall chimney clean and hard working conditions but little else.
Surviving employees tell tales of standing on the roof of Aizlewood’s Mill during the Second World War as a look-out for fires across Sheffield and also of a fire in the Mill itself during the early 1950s where the firemen had to be led by Alan Eyre to the source of the fire by staff as the building layout was so complex.
There are also many differing tales of the use of the paternoster which is now displayed in the stairwell. We were originally told it was a sack lift but I have met people that have ridden on it, known as the ‘man-lift’. The most detailed story is that a passenger would grab a handle and rest a foot on the footplate (now all missing) and travel up, forcing open a trapdoor above with the plate protecting the knuckles. The trapdoor would fall closed under their feet and they would step deftly sideways to clear before the next passenger broke through.
In 1962 the Aizlewood family sold the building to Associated British Foods who continued processing grain until 1969 when the building was sold again to Harrogate-based farmers and food merchants George Morrell & Sons.
Whilst in the custody of George Morrell and Sons the building went through what can only be described as a very ugly period. Covered with cladding and unmaintained, there are very few images to be found. Eventually in 1985, following years of neglect the Mill became described as derelict. Windows smashed, part of the roof missing and many sunken floors. George Morrell and Sons were in receivership and the building was in danger of demolition as an unsafe structure.
The most recent chapter in the history of Aizlewood’s Mill starts in 1985 as Mike Bower, organiser for Sheffield Co-operative Development Group passed the building on his way to work every day. He knew that the derelict building had great potential so when the ‘For Sale’ signs went up he started to formulate the idea of revitalising the building as managed workspace to help support and incubate new co-operative organisations and provide a focal point for both new and existing co-operatives to fund common resources and support and flourish together.
The Group made enquiries with the vendor and were invited to make a bid for the property. As this Mill was in such a poor condition – derelict and infested with not just pigeons but mice, rats and feral cats they offered just £1. Even that bid was considered greater that the building’s worth at the time.
The offer was verbally accepted but the vendors were in no rush to proceed with the sale as there was no enthusiasm to rush at the thought of collecting just one pound.
I took nearly two years to complete the sale as the time was taken up securing funding to restore the building. Traditional sources of funding were unavailable as the building would require more finance that it was worth so the hunt was on for more unusual funding streams. Mike Powell, another SCDG worker uncovered a grant scheme for which we met the requirements from the European Regional Development Fund. This money, along with funds from English Heritage, Sheffield City Council and a £1 million commercial loan were secured and the project could proceed.
In the closing weeks of negotiation the concept nearly came to an end when a rival bid of £19,000 was made to the vendors who therefore considered withdrawing their support of our offer. Mike Bower stuck to his guns insisting that our agreement to buy the Mill for £1 should still be honoured and so the vendors decided on a contract race. Agreements would be made up for both parties and the first to sign would win the day.
Mike Bower cleverly persuaded David Rhodes, the estate agent working on our behalf, to race to Leeds with him to collect the papers, check them over and sign there and then. That ingenious idea won the race and the building was secured.
The original intention was for members of the Group to develop the building themselves in true DIY fashion and indeed working parties were organised and some skips were delivered to start clearing the site. However almost immediately this plan was halted due to the discovery of large quantities of different forms of asbestos and some pretty toxic pigeon feed that still remained in one hopper.
Time was pressing as the EDRF finance had a deadline within which it must be spent so Shepherds Construction and Tatlow Stancer Architects were engaged to develop and manage the construction and the building was finally finished at the very end of 1989.
Our first tenants were Sheffield Co-operative Development Group themselves, along with Traffic- Systems Co-operative. Both organisations were so keen to move in that our first ‘accident at work’ involved someone on the unfinished stairs as they would not wait for the lift. Indeed the receptionist’s first day at work involved sitting at a desk behind a plastic sheet to replace the door that was not even fitted.
The early years of Aizlewood’s Mill as managed workspace were quite difficult. The concept of managed workspace was not widely known in the early 1990s and it was hard to persuade small businesses to leave their existing premises to move into shared space.
The economy was very slow and there was a shortage of new start-up businesses.
However, a determination to succeed and a slight change of focus to attract more commercial businesses and less industrial ones saw an increase in income and stability for the Mill.
Aizlewood’s Mill today is a real success story. There are 58 units ranging from 151 sq ft, suitable for 1-2 people to the largest unit which is 2238 sq ft and can accommodate over 30 workers. We have maintained occupancy levels no less than 78% during the depth of the recent recession due to the acceptance of so many of our tenants that they are thriving here in no small part to the accommodating nature of the Management team and Reception Staff who help, support and understand their needs. http://www.aizlewoodsmill.co.uk/