Being Young in Bradford: Ian Beesley

Ian Beesley’s a familar name in these parts,  as he’s worked with us on many occasions and on many different projects.

However he’s also a Bradford lad, and agreed to contribute to our ‘Being Young in Bradford’ series of blogs too.

It’s a fascinating read.  And look at the end for his soundtrack too.

He writes:

Growing up in Bradford in the 1970s

I was 16 in 1970. I saw the film “Woodstock” at the Odeon decided to grow my hair long and become a hippy.

Colour photo Ian Beesley dressed in 'hippy' style clothing. Patched blue denim jeans, white cheesecloth shirt, long hair (with headband across forehead), long beaded jewellery. Pictured in a garden making the 'peace' sign with his right hand. He also has a blue batik material shoulder bag.

It was a phase that did not last long Bradfordians are tolerant, but have sharp tongues; the drizzle of the Pennines is no substitute for Californian sunshine. I abandoned the beads and headbands but kept the long hair.

B&W photo, head and shoulders of Ian, dressed in dark clothes with long wavy hair.

Working at the mill

I didn’t do very well at school and left in 1972 with one A level. There was no shortage of unskilled work in Bradford; many of the traditional heavy industries were still creaking along. I got work in a mill, Associated Weavers Dudley Hill; I hated it, the noise, the shifts, and the boredom of repetitive manual labour. Health and safety wasn’t paramount, I remember sitting in the canteen looking at workers with mutilated hands and missing fingers.

Ian sitting in the work canteen, next to am older man. Ian is in dark black jumper with long hair, the other worker is in a white shirt and light coloured cardigan, holding a newspaper. Table in view in foreground

The wages were good. I could afford tickets to nearly every rock concert at St Georges Hall and Bradford University. I went nearly every Saturday night to the University to see a band, whilst Leeds University could attract the big bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones, Bradford was really good at attracting up and coming bands.

He had his finger cut off

I left Associated Weavers after the man I was working with got his index finger chopped off, he was rushed to hospital whilst the rest of us scurried around trying to find his missing digit, one of the mill cats found it before us and ran off.That was it for me. The following week I got a job at Monkmans foundry in Manchester foundry, that didn’t last long, I liked working there, but wasn’t strong enough, after a week I was dismissed.

The sewage works

The labour exchange then offered me two opportunities: apprentice gravedigger at Undercliffe Cemetery or a labourer at Esholt sewage works.

I opted for grave digging and went for an interview but was told I wasn’t strong enough. The next day I started work at Esholt sewage works, I was there for best part of a year, I worked in the gardens, then the boiler cleaning gang and finally the railway gang.

black and white photograph. Ian is posed (still with shoulder length hair) in front of a train, standing on a board straddling the rail cutting. It's inside a big train shed


It changed my life, I enjoyed working there, many of the men I worked with kept telling me not to waste my life there ‘find what you want to do, get an education’. They knew through the bitter experience of lost opportunity that education was a way out of unskilled low paid labour.  I liked photography, bought my first camera and began to photograph my work colleagues, with their encouragement and support I applied to Bradford Art College and in September 1974 joined the foundation course.

black and white photograph, Ian sat in an armchair to the side of a window - he is mostly in shadow, face visible.


Art College

The Art College was vibrant, informal, chaotic, exciting, inspiring.

There was a wealth of artists teaching there and a carousel of visiting speakers.  Champion Jack Dupree,  one of the last blues piano players was a regular visitor, he would sit in one of the studios at a piano sipping whisky, telling stories about his life and teaching anyone who wanted the rudiments of blues/barrelhouse piano.

Pitied for coming from Bradford

At the end of the year I went to Bournemouth & Poole College of Art. The contrast between Bradford and Bournemouth could not have been greater. I didn’t think I had an accent until then; nobody had ever called me working class, I was pitied for coming from Bradford.

It was the first time I had really rubbed up against the class system and seen the true divide that existed (sadly still does) between the north and the south.

The experience made me fiercely proud of where I was from. Bradford was in a steep decline in the 70s but it had then, as it does now, a uniqueness, vibrancy, warmth and resilience that many other cities lack.


Ian, like our other contributors offered up a soundtrack – Ian has picked Artists that he saw at St Georges Hall ,the University of Bradford or Bradford Art College

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