Joseph Bonomi’s Temple of Horus
By Bill Hartley
Travelling west out of Leeds railway station the traveller can see three towers close to the tracks. They bring a touch of the Italian renaissance to a Yorkshire city and are all that remains of the aptly named Tower Works. The largest dates back to the 1860s and was designed by the architect Thomas Shaw, modelled on Giotto’s Campanile in Florence. The smallest of the three is a copy of the Torre Dei Lamberti in Verona and the third, added in 1919, is thought to resemble a Tuscan tower house. Taken together they perfectly reflect the Victorian idea of making even the most functional structures look pleasing. The factory they served is long gone, leaving the towers like moorings without ships but they are still a striking part of the cityscape. Generally, wool barons didn’t adorn their mills since size alone was enough to make an impression, meaning the Tower Works was unusual in that respect. Even more remarkable though is a building hidden up a side street not far away.
The Bonomi’s were a family of architects who came from Italy. Joseph Bonomi senior (1739-1808) was best known as a country house designer, famous enough to get a passing mention in one of Jane Austen’s novels. He had two sons: Ignatius (1787-1870) who did a good deal of work in County Durham, ranging from buildings on the Stockton & Darlington Railway to the local prison; he is remembered as the first railway architect. The second son Joseph Bonomi junior (1796-1878) was an artist and an Egyptologist who went on an expedition there in 1824. He sketched many antiquities with great accuracy and subsequently the time spent in Egypt influenced his designs. Bonomi went on to undertake a few minor building commissions such as the entrance to Abrey Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, London but it was in Leeds that he was able to create something truly memorable.
The Towers overlook Holbeck which was once the heart of industrial Leeds. Originally a village which was subsequently absorbed by the city, it was formerly a centre of hand loom weaving. The presence of a water course, the ‘beck’ in Holbeck, led to industrialisation. At its height, the district had a population of more than 38,000 though now there are fewer than 4,000. Industrialisation left its legacy and there are 33 listed buildings lying within Holbeck’s 533 acres. The strangest and most impressive is tucked away down Marshall Street, named after the man who had the place built.
John Marshall (1765-1845) was a manufacturer of linen which being woven from flax wasn’t the type of product normally associated with Leeds. His business was to make him the first millionaire industrialist. During the years 1836-40 he had a new mill constructed in Holbeck and its opening was celebrated by a grand temperance tea for the 2,600 workers. The mill had unusual features some of which reflected the fact that Marshall was known to care about the welfare of his workers. Beneath the mill lies a maze of underground passages. Not only were the workshops located here but also baths for his employees and even a nursery; the company also provided medical services and a school. Marshall’s mill was a single storey building with 25 fire escapes. He would have been aware that in a fire multi storey mills were potential death traps.
For Marshall, the rise to a dominant position in the industry wasn’t easy. The huge mill was only built after years of experimentation. Marshall eventually discovered that the best way to weave flax was in humid conditions. To achieve this, a fan was installed to push steam heated air into the weaving shed, a place so vast that it was once known as the largest room in the world. The roof too must have been impressive with 60 conical glass skylights each rising to a height of 10 feet to capture maximum daylight. In order to maintain the atmosphere below at a steady 78f and in an early example of greening the roof was covered in turf. Water which drained off was captured and fed into the boilers. It was long thought to be an urban legend that sheep were allowed to graze on the roof until an archaeologist confirmed it was true. Sheep, it seems, can’t climb stairs and the world’s first hydraulic lift was devised to get the animals up there. Local legend also has it that the sheep were removed after one fell through a skylight and landed on a worker.
Today, Marshall’s mill lies empty and abandoned. Flax weaving ended there as long ago as 1886 and the place might perhaps be nothing more than a derelict building in a northern city with an interesting history. However, the real architectural wonder of Marshall’s Mill is to be found out front. Facing the street stands a building which was once the offices of the company completed a few years after the mill was opened. Marshall shared Joseph Bonomi’s interest in Egyptology and this led to the creation of what is now a grade one listed building. Unknown even to many who live in the city is what looks like an Egyptian temple, still soot blackened from its industrial heyday. Bonomi based his design on the temple of Horus at Edfu. It consists of 18 full height windows separated by 18 pillars. It is huge and imposing made more so by its mundane location. Turn the corner onto just another Leeds street and there it is. Even today in its shabby state the building hasn’t lost its ability to impress.
The Marshall family disposed of the site when the works closed. By then cotton goods were being preferred to linen and whilst the third generation of the family were happy to take the money created by John Marshall’s hard work they had little interest in the place. Since then it has been put to various uses. Typically plans for the preservation and reuse have seen some false starts. It was acquired by new owners last year so it remains to be seen if it will have a secure future. At present there is something melancholy about viewing this magnificent soot blackened building hidden down a side street in Leeds.