Ex-Firths carpets workers and residents of Bailiff Bridge participated in a series of focus groups to talk about what it was like to work at Firths Carpets and to reside either in or near to Bailiff Bridge both before and after the closure and demolition of Clifton Mill in 2002. They have also engaged in ‘walk and talk’ interviews – showing me around the town to talk about their memories and to discuss their ideas about how they see the town post-demolition. Where they can find them people brought photographs of working life at Firths and of the social culture (sports clubs – archery, bowling, football, days out, and night-life events, the ‘Hawaiian’ evening) that (formally T.F. Firth and later Firths) provided. There are very fond memories of Firths as a paternalistic, generous employer, a company which ‘looked after’ people. The company is remembered as largely self-sufficient: it had two water dams, a mechanics’ shop and a fire brigade! During the years when Firths was productive people have sensuous memories of the town – the siren that indicated workers would spill out of the street at the end of the day and fill the pavements, the smell of wool which pervaded the air in the village for example. Ex-workers say that the company was a community - people looked out for each other and pulled together to do a good job for Firths. People were also fiercely proud of the high quality of the carpets they produced – Wilton and Axminster woven carpets that were internationally renowned for their fine quality. Royalty visited the company, as did Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s. Largely people enjoyed their work, but there were times when the work became monotonous; people told stories of ‘having a laugh’ and playing pranks in the weavers’ sheds. People also told stories of shared experiences – like the flood of 1968 when the mechanics workshop – right at the corner of the cross-road in Clifton Mill was flooded out. There was also the times when the woman taking the wages across the park (all in cash packets) was robbed, allegedly by the chauffeur. Many of the photographs we show document a thriving Mill town, with shops, a post office, a church and a local school and a productive connected workforce, fastened to a strong sense of community.
Later years at Firths were remembered with more regret. When Firths was taken over by Readicut and later by Interface the paternalism of the old firm and its ethos died away. Today, for those who took me around the town, the predominant feeling is one of sadness and loss – of the purpose and pride of carpet production, of the loss of a local community that was once based on people making carpets (things are closing: there is no pub, the ‘Punch Bowl’ is now a pest control centre; Ebenezer church has recently closed; one respondent said that she felt that the town feels ‘haunted by loss’). Walking around the town one is struck by the sound of traffic; of people going somewhere else and passing through rather than coming to Bailiff Bridge for a purpose. The ‘hole’ where the Mill used to be is a site of particular sadness for the people of the study: ‘that’s history gone’ said one respondent. And it isn’t just the Mill that has disappeared, new housing is built over the canteen, the weaving sheds and the old dam by Clifton House has been tarmacked over. For others there has been a sense of coming to terms with the end of Firths; being realistic about the future means an acceptance of global market forces and external competition. Several came to witness the demolition (some with tears in their eyes), only to find a number of other people standing behind them experiencing similar strong emotions. And many of them documented the demolition of the building in December 2002 – photographs the exhibition also features.