Entrepreneurship through the centuries: Marshall’s Mill

March 13 2020

The current redevelopment of the South Bank of Leeds can leave no doubt that the area is “up and coming”. However, it is not the first time that the area of Holbeck has been subject to a flurry of development and activity. The area is known as one of the main hotbeds of the industrial revolution, beginning in the mid 18th century and really coming to fruition by the arrival of the 19th century.

There are still many examples standing in the area to this day, including industrialist John Marshall’s six-storey imposing mill building, Marshall’s Mill, that has been painstakingly restored to provide office space to a thriving digital and creative community. The site of engineer Matthew Murray’s Round Foundry has also recently been unearthed, with many of its auxiliary buildings still standing and restored as part of the Marshall’s Mill estate. Perhaps visually famous of all is Temple Works, built-in 1836 and at the time was the world’s largest single-roomed building.

Though the historical architecture is stunning, what is really interesting is the stories of the great entrepreneurs behind them and how this entrepreneurial spirit still filters through to businesses in the area to this day.

John Marshall, son of a linen-draper, showed great foresight upon hearing of the first-ever flax spinning machine being patented and hastening to secure rights to make copies. This set Marshall down the path of becoming one of the great entrepreneurs and industrialists of the time, constructing Marshall’s Mill in 1791 and going on to employ over 2000 people and running over 5000 spindles, where just a generation before the cotton spinning industry was a home trade run out of individual weavers cottages. Marshall was renowned at the time for his liberal treatment of employees, including access to training and development, as he saw that employee productivity greatly stemmed from employee wellbeing.

This is mirrored today in the business community that is positioned within Marshall’s Mill. Organisations such as Motive8 and MediaCom amongst others are committed creating a positive working environment for staff. The building itself also provides support services and activities to assist staff in the mill to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing. Rapid growth, such as Marshall experienced in the late 18th century, can also be seen by the need for tenants currently in the mill to expand into further space, as is evidenced by True North Productions’ recent expansion to increase its production base by 50% ahead of the Channel 4 move to Leeds.

Another famous industrialist of the time with an entrepreneurial spirit is Matthew Murray. Originally a blacksmith and then journeyman mechanic in Darlington, Murray was employed by John Marshall to help improve his copies of the very recently patented first-ever flax spinning machine. This enabled Murray, who was extremely successful in this endeavour, went on to set up a firm of engineers with partners, first setting up shop on Water Lane and going on to design and build the Round Foundry next door to Marshall’s Mill.

Murray’s work under Marshall, and then his success in striking out on his own and creating a fantastically successful company, is echoed through time in the start-up businesses that are incubated in the Round Foundry Media Centre (which is now part of the Marshall’s Mill estate) that then take the leap to grow, often returning to take space in the larger Marshall’s Mill building.

Murray’s innovation in developing mill equipment and steam engines is also reflected in the innovation of the creative and digital businesses based on the estate to this day. Organisations such as Publish Interactive, who have created proprietary software for market research that is game-changing in the industry and Tall, who create award-winning and innovative websites and digital content, are all leading in their industries through innovation and development of technologies.

It is hard to say if it is the area itself that somehow has an effect to drive entrepreneurship, or if the legacy of Murray and Marshall and other extremely savvy business people from that period still influence the entrepreneurs of today, almost 250 years later. What is evident is that Marshall’s Mill and other restored industrial buildings on the South Bank have a rich heritage that is hard to find elsewhere, and current tenants are certainly working hard to fill the shoes of previous owners.