a leeds revolution

The Art Of Never Changing: how Northern Monk stood firm in Holbeck

July 05, 2019

The Art Of Never Changing: how Northern Monk stood firm in Holbeck

Exporting goods made in Holbeck to the rest of the world is nothing new. But it’s been a long time since these disregarded streets rumbled to the sound of revolution. There were strategic reasons why John Marshall chose this patch of undeveloped agricultural land on which to spark industrial reform on a worldwide scale in the late 18th century, and likewise the embryonic Northern Monk showed similar forethought in planting their roots in an area that would perfectly reflect an identity drenched in austere perseverance, northern-ness and toil.

But then, when a £1.5 million investment comes your way, and when you find yourselves exporting to 23 different countries worldwide, it would be easy to conclude that you have outgrown this place. That’s what happened in 2018 when Northern Monk’s ‘Northern Rising’ crowdfunding investment scheme reached its initial £500,000 target within three hours. Suddenly the scale of your vision changes. This was Northern Monk’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Wars to John Marshall; an opportunity for transformational change. And while Marshall subsequently expanded his empire right on his doorstep in Holbeck, so too did Northern Monk. Far from outgrowing their origins, they’ve cemented their roots even further; reacting to change by resolutely not changing.

“This is home for us, and I think it probably always will be,” says Sophie Lennon, HR Co-Ordinator and the warm and convivial Monk who heads up the organisation’s community work. “The more connections we make the more grounded we feel here.”

Investment at three times the expected level allowed Northern Monk to implement plans that were bookmarked, maybe not as ‘fanciful’, but certainly for a few years down the line. The opening of a second taproom in Manchester’s Northern Quarter may have sparked fears of rejection from the loyal brethren back in Leeds, but those were firmly settled when a new Holbeck headquarters was acquired on Sydenham Road, where eight new 10,000 litre fermentation vessels were commissioned to ensure Northern Monk could keep up with demand and deliver a prosperous future direct from LS11.

Cards on the table time, I’m an investor in the Northern Rising scheme, albeit only small, but I have an emotional investment in Northern Monk too, because it is brewing amazing beer and doing amazing things right on my doorstep. I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Refectory Tap Room since it opened in 2014, I’ve been to the Manchester equivalent, I’m a subscriber to the monthly Patrons Society beer box delivery and I’ve been to all three of the annual Hop City Festivals, which bring the best craft brewers from the UK and beyond to little old Holbeck. I’m a self-confessed fan boy, I’ve literally bought the t-shirt and it’s all happening about a mile from my house. But it’s not just about beer. If you don’t know your East Coast IPAs from your New England style pales or your triple-hopped from your kettle-soured, you can still appreciate the wholesome ethics and the inclusive intent.

I speak to Sophie in the ‘War Room’ at Northern Monk’s new HQ, a communal meeting room where plans are thrashed out and thinking is definitely out of the box, and just as this is far from any sense of conflict or hostility the room’s name might suggest, it sits adjacent to an open plan office where co-founders and directors Russell Bisset and Brian Dickson share everyday desk space with the rest of their valued team. There is a sense of comradeship, contentment and permanence but also an ambition that suggests even this new ‘home’ might soon be too small for them.

(The Old Flax Store in the context of John Marshall's surrounding ancillary buildings)

John Marshall expanded his complex of flax-spinning mills and ancillary buildings south of Water Lane in the early 1800s, mostly built on his success in showing foresight to exploit trading conditions during the wars with France. The building now called Marshall Court, on the corner of Water Lane and Marshall Street, was built in 1808 and is listed as Grade II* in part because it shows very early use of the cast-iron frame system of building, other buildings such as mechanics shops followed along Marshall Street until the u-shaped ‘Marshalls Mills’ complex of three adjoining mills was built between 1817 and 1830. This production growth led to a separate warehouse being built in 1838, three years before the Marshall expansion ended in grand fashion with the unveiling of Temple Mill in 1841.

This stand-alone warehouse is the Old Flax Store; a blunt, quadrangular three-storey building of little glamour, finesse or architectural merit; the original fourth storey has been removed and a flat roof dropped on top. However, as a building within the curtilage of the wider grade II* listed Marshalls Mill complex, any changes to the exterior had to be in keeping with the site. Like much of Holbeck and its neglected streets, it looked to the untrained eye, unremarkable and unloved, and had been for a long time, but there is a gift in spotting the exceptional in the unexceptional. 

“The Old Flax Store is such an important building for us,” Sophie continues “just with it being where our original brewery was and it feels like home for everyone. Our Manchester staff are always over here and we hold all our festivals and other events there. It was where we started and it’s such an incredible building that we’ll never leave that place. One of our original investors, self-made Bradford businessman David Seymour, worked closely with Russell and Brian in the early days, and played a part in our choosing that building. We just love the industrial feel of it and we love the story of the area. There’s a lot of heritage there and it ties in with our brand, which is about being industrious and hard-working and from the north, and it’s a great little building.”

Brewing of keg ales for the two refectory bars still takes place at the original Old Flax Store ground floor brewery, while roughly 60% of the company’s product is brewed and canned at Sydenham Road. A business with any sense of ambition could be criticised for restricting itself by staying connected to such humble beginnings, but flying in the face of custom, business norms and fat cat pomposity is integral to the brand and has been from day one. It’s all in the name.

“It’s a real northern thing,” Sophie boasts proudly “we just buckle down and we just get through it, we power through and I think it’s something that is in all media really, that people resonate with the north. But still, us having that really strong identity and connection with the north is something that people still attach with. We are growing in London, but most of our sales are north-based and further north into Scotland as well. We did the London Craft Beer Festival last year and it was amazing the reception compared to the year before when people were a bit ‘oh, who are you?’ But this year people knew who we were and were excited we were there, so for sure the brand is spreading down south as well.”

Expanding southwards is an inexorable road for Northern Monk, and you can’t stop progress. They can see that for themselves back in Holbeck. While they aim to project a progressive view of the north against a tidal wave of attention on arts and culture in the south, the Southbank Leeds development has started and promises to transform the streets that surround the Old Flax Store, and bring much-needed connectivity and vitality to an area that has had to contend with uniform bad press.

(True North: the temporary street art commissioned by Northern Monk and supported by CEG) 

As such, there is a mutual appreciation between organisations investing and innovating in Leeds. CEG worked with Northern Monk in commissioning the ‘True North’ mural on the wall of the derelict warehouse building on the Globe Square and Globe Point site, a striking collaborative piece accomplished by the amazing duo Nomad Clan and another street artist Tankpetrol. That was always going to be temporary street art, but another Northern Monk-commissioned and CEG-approved mural by graffiti artist Insa has appeared on the CEG-owned land on Water Lane beyond the railway viaduct, and background work is ongoing to ensure a cohesive relationship exists for two influential organisations who are becoming permanent bedfellows in the Holbeck area.

(The Insa street art commissioned by Northern Monk and approved by CEG)

As well as hosting public drop-in events on progress with their nearby Temple Works project in Northern Monk’s top floor Chapter Hall space, CEG’s open public consultation and collaboration with community groups has also been welcomed by an organisation who stand to benefit from the expected increase in footfall that Southbank will bring.

“We have a good relationship with CEG,” Sophie comments “we have a mutual friend in Holbeck Elderly Aid (HEA) and we work quite closely with them, they are a fantastic charity and CEG work with them as well, so events have come from that mutual connection. But we really believe in the area, and so for someone to come and invest in Holbeck is brilliant, and we are just really excited to get alongside that and support them in any way we can. What I know of CEG is that they do care about the area, they aren’t just interested in coming in and steamrolling what’s been there before and erasing the history of Holbeck, they want to build on that and use that to inform their decisions moving forward, which I think is really important. It’s a great way to make sure the people of Holbeck stay engaged throughout the process as well, which I’m really passionate about. So I don’t see anything that concerns me about the development and I certainly think it will be great for us, more people in the area is more people being aware of Northern Monk, so it’s always positive.”

One of the main aims of the CEG:Southbank development is to mend the ‘Holbeck Disconnect’ which has put both physical and psychological obstacles in between traditional Holbeck and the prosperous but seemingly untouchable sheen of Leeds city centre. Opening up safe pedestrian routes and accessible pathways across the Hol Beck and towards the ‘glamour’ of the Leeds waterfront, is all part of the grand plan for the Southbank development. This brings the city centre and Holbeck closer together and blurs the edges a little. However, while Northern Monk could have easily opened up a second tap room in Leeds city centre, they have resisted the temptation to cash in and have retained the ‘destination’ value of the Old Flax Store, staying true to their Holbeck heritage in the process.  

“We call our home ‘Holbeck’,” Sophie firmly states “it says ‘Holbeck’ on all our cans, so we very much identify ourselves as being in Holbeck, not the established Leeds city centre. And I think we see that in our custom as well, we’re very much a destination venue and people leave the city centre to come to us. There’s that feel of walking along past the canal and the beck and there is that disconnection with the city centre, we certainly feel that, and it’s great then to have people come out and it’s a bit of a hideaway, especially in the summer when people are out in the garden and it’s quite idyllic actually. So we don’t identify as being in the city centre.”

For their own part, Northern Monk have put plenty back into their local community, not only bringing people to the area as one the biggest success stories in Leeds and the UK brewing scene, but in fostering links with local organisations and acknowledging that they have the power to make their immediate and more expanded environment a much happier and healthier place.

“In terms of working with community groups we’ve made the project with HEA a priority this year,” Sophie continues “my main role is in HR but my background is in youth work and community development so it’s something that I’m personally really passionate about and I love the opportunity to do that. Working with HEA felt like a natural connection for us because they believe in partnerships that work for both sides, they don’t just want a financial handout, they want to find a project that works for both of us.”

This started with the ‘Humans of Holbeck’ fundraising calendar for 2019, a project that aimed to bring local people and their amazing stories to life, and inject some positivity into a much-disparaged, but staunchly proud community. Another calendar project is already underway for 2020.

“Also, there’s the glassware initiative,” Sophie adds “we just found that so many of our glasses were getting stolen, one of the downsides to having really nice glassware, it’s very easy to slip into your bag at the end of the night. So rather than trying to make a profit out of it ourselves we said ‘instead of stealing it, if you give £5 to charity instead you can take your glass then’ which has worked really well. I think we raised £600 for HEA in March, the first month that we did it, and it’s still ongoing. People are engaging with it differently so our thefts have gone down thankfully and 100% of that money is going to HEA. It’s stuff like that that works really well for community engagement, it’s not work intensive at all for us, we make a payment to them once a month. But it’s a great way of talking about the charity and the bars. In Manchester we give to the Mayor’s homelessness fund and that’s where the glassware income from there goes. And it’s just an easy win for both parties.”

(Outside the Northern Monk HQ on Sydenham Road, Holbeck)

Sophie is a typical example of how Northern Monk’s values are represented at every level of the organisation and, likewise, will always remain similarly and reassuringly grounded.

“I walk through Holbeck every day on my way to work and I love it. Through HEA I’ve got to know some of the local people, like Mary who was our cover star on the first calendar. She worked at Marshall’s Mill and met her husband there, and hearing some of the stories and the mischief she used to get up to with her girlfriends at work was brilliant. And that’s made the place seem so rich to me. Getting to know those people, I’m just building on those local relationships and that’s something that’s really important to me and my job here. I want our staff to feel connected to the area as well, because I think that improves how they interact with our site and our building and they care about the area as a whole, and that’s something we find really important.”

A recent spate of three separate attacks on women in Holbeck within 48 hours caused some mild but short-lived panic amongst the Northern Monk brethren, however. “I felt scared for the first time in Holbeck and it made me feel really cross,” Sophie bemoans “I’ve never felt like that before. We have quite a lot of female staff both here and at the bar, and they do move between sites and walk into town all the time. We had a fleeting moment of ‘is this where we want to be? If we’re going to continue to grow and base ourselves here we’re only going to bring more women to work in the area. So if it’s not safe, is that fair?’ But since then, a guy has been caught for the attacks and we were put in touch with the female policewoman for the area. Also, just to see the response here, particularly from the male members of staff, everyone really coming together saying ‘this is our home and we do feel safe here, and we’re going to continue to make sure everyone feels safe here’. Honestly we have such an incredible team here it was quite emotional to see that kind of response.”

Furthermore, developing the area, bringing more public realm, businesses opening later into the evenings, safe pedestrian routes, opening up access to the city centre and more organic footfall will all help to make the area more inclusive and welcoming. And there are plenty of local businesses with a similarly ‘open arms’ approach to Northern Monk.

“It’s a real positive when you meet people in Holbeck,” Sophie concludes, “you realise actually people do care about this area and they don’t want to let it fester. We do really believe in this area and we are really happy to be here. The ‘community’ is growing, very organically it is growing, the mutual feeling is ‘it is safe’ and it’s just one of those things that the negative stuff shouts the loudest unfortunately, and that’s the way it goes. But yes, Slung Low, HEA and Nick Lavani at Touchstone Support, there’s loads of incredible organisations and I’d love to see more cafes and bars and restaurants opening up here because that’s going to improve it and make it more safe, and we’re so excited about that. The core of our business is collaboration and that’s what we really believe in, and we welcome people to and from the area with open arms, and do everything we can to support them.”

With that kind of attitude it’s not hard to join the dots and realise that collaboration is everything, and that as long as there are people like Northern Monk around, there are strong, positive influences in Holbeck. Thankfully, there are plenty of others just like them working towards the same goal. And with the long term development of the South Bank finally starting, the rewards of staying loyal to your roots and resolutely not changing can be seen in how the environment will soon change around you, and for the better.