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The Leadmill says it’s fighting for the ‘soul of Sheffield’. Its original founders disagree
‘All these rumours are doing nobody any good’
By Victoria Munro
When Chris Andrews first heard about the Save The Leadmill campaign, he tells me he “laughed his head off”. Andrews — one of the original founders of the iconic venue — hasn’t laid eyes on Phil Mills, the venue’s current boss, since the late 1980s but it’s clear the intervening decades have done little to diminish his feelings. Not only does he hope Mills loses The Leadmill, he tells me, “I hope it bankrupts him in the process. I hope he’s left with nothing.”
If you’ve seen any of the campaign, a fight The Leadmill’s management insists is nothing less than a “battle for the soul of Sheffield”, Andrews’ words might sound jarring. How could he, as a self-described citizen of the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire”, delight in seeing a Sheffield institution wrested out of local control by its landlord, a wealthy London entrepreneur?
But among those who played an essential part in creating The Leadmill, his position is, while arguably more extreme, not all that unique. Adrian Vinken, The Leadmill’s director throughout the 1980s, told me he hopes the new owners “won’t mess up the feel of the place,” but otherwise “all power to them”. They are “only going to do what has been happening for the last 30 years,” Vinken says. Martin Bedford, the man who designed almost all of The Leadmill’s event posters until 1992, says he doesn’t go to the venue anymore, despite working with bands that play there, because it’s simply too painful. “It’s had a bad taste in its mouth, for quite a long time, for quite a few people.”
And then there’s Marcus O’Hagan, the community architect who donated all of his time and energy to help turn The Leadmill from a disused flour mill to an iconic venue, which entailed a financial sacrifice for him and his family. I can’t speak to him — he died some years ago, still furious about what happened to the institution, his son David tells me.
The Leadmill’s fight to retain control of its building has captured the hearts and minds of many — a battle of a plucky local independent versus a London landlord. But a growing contingent of those who remember a much earlier outrage have decided they will stay silent no longer. “The fact Phil’s started this huge campaign… making out he’s some sort of victim in all this, I think it’s scandalous really,” David O’Hagan tells me, “He’s just pushed it more and more and I think people have had enough.”
Everyone I speak to for this story loves what the building represents and some of them devoted years of their lives to it. Some even used to call Mills a friend. But there are several who feel, as Andrews argues, that The Leadmill’s much-vilified landlord isn’t doing anything worse to Mills than what he already did to the people of Sheffield.
The tug of war that could tear The Leadmill apart
The facts have become increasingly muddy of late so, before I venture further into the swamp, let me explain how the venue got into its current trouble. An institution called The Leadmill has existed on Leadmill Road since 1980, while a private company called The Leadmill Ltd has held the lease since 1994. The Leadmill Ltd has never owned the building, it simply leased it from a series of landlords, and the latest lease came to its natural end in March of this year.
The building itself changed hands most recently in 2016, when it was sold for £600,000 to a company owned by Dominic Madden, also the owner of Electric Group, which runs three venues in London, Bristol and Newcastle. In March last year, Madden told The Leadmill company he would not be renewing their lease, sparking a massive public response. More than 46,000 people signed a petition calling on the government to suspend the section of the Landlord and Tenant Act being used to evict The Leadmill Ltd. (The government declined to do so.)
Madden says his intention has always been to run a venue in the building himself. The Leadmill Ltd, for their part, have refused to go quietly — not only are they still in the building months after they were supposed to leave, they are selling tickets for a gig booked for 11th December 2024.
Madden clearly hopes to run a venue called The Leadmill, but The Leadmill Ltd have made it clear they have no intention of giving up the name. If Electric Group succeeds, a spokesperson for the venue told me, “The Leadmill will no longer exist” — evidently the idea of continuing in a new location does not appeal. Furthermore, their website claims, this could “kickstart a race to the bottom of a corporate barrel” for Sheffield’s nightlife and culture.
While the battle will be fought in court early next year, there is a much bigger fight happening in Sheffield’s digital public square. Mills, the 71-year-old director, has “put 43 years into the place” and “feels, rightly, that it’s his life’s work,” tweeted Jon McClure, frontman of Sheffield-based band Reverend and the Makers, after meeting with him earlier this week.
What right has Madden and Electric Group to swoop in and profit from the fruits of that labour? It’s a powerful argument, especially to anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of their landlord — i.e, most people. Mark Mercer, who worked at The Leadmill from 1985 to 1998, tells me he thinks what’s happening now is “disgusting,” especially as someone whose small business has its own landlord. “The thought of that landlord taking over our business, I would be devastated,” he says, and it’s even worse for The Leadmill, which “is very much connected to that building”.
But for others, including some who say they signed that petition, there are serious questions nagging at them, questions Mills has repeatedly refused to answer. Mills’ chat with McClure of Reverend and the Makers appears to be the only audience he’s given to anyone outside of The Leadmill since the fight began, after repeatedly rejecting requests from both local and national media. Even McClure’s invitation to talk came only after he tweeted his discomfort that he and other musicians had “all gone out on a limb for Phil Mills” when “hardly anyone’s ever met him or owt”. People needed to hear Mills’ side of the story, he argued, “cos all these rumours are doing nobody any good”.
I personally first requested an interview with Mills on 25th July while on the phone to one of The Leadmill's more senior staff, who ended the conversation so coldly that I sent her an email later that day hoping to smooth things over. “I'm quite new to this job so there may be context that I'm missing,” I told her, “definitely didn't mean to offend!”
I’ve still never spoken to or received any response from Mills; those who know him tell me I never will. Even Madden claims he has never had a single word from him directly, despite showing me letters he alleges he sent prior to issuing the eviction notice in March last year. “It would be good to meet you, discuss the current condition of the building and your aspirations for the future of the venue beyond the expiry of the lease,” reads one letter, dated October 2021. He says it was never answered by the man in charge.
The Leadmill has declined to answer a number of questions I asked, or let me interview Mills or anyone else at the company. But, if I couldn’t get answers from them, I was going to ask everyone else.
Built for the people, by the people
Before The Leadmill was The Leadmill, it began as a dream in the mind of a man named John Redfearn, who first discussed his plans with Andrews, his long-time friend, while they were in prison together on a marijuana charge. In Andrews’ words, they were two “classic 60s freaks” who dreamed of creating a non-profit community arts centre unlike most others in the UK — “not for middle-class or rich people, but for working-class people”.
Redfearn eventually selected the building and enlisted Andrews to help gather a team of volunteers, who spent months cleaning it up enough for a couple of one-off events in 1980. It was not difficult to get people interested in the idea of what The Leadmill could be. At the time, with the city’s industries in sharp decline, people were desperate for a ray of hope. “It was a nightmare,” Andrews tells me, “it was an unemployed city.”
However, a significant stumbling block stood between Redfearn, Andrews and making their dream a reality. Back then, getting a licence meant appearing before a magistrate, who would likely not look kindly on two hippies with big dreams and recent criminal convictions. They needed someone respectable to act as their frontman.
Enter Vinken, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. While Redfearn and Andrews lived in a squat in Havelock Square and often woke up to rats running across their sleeping bags, he lived in a normal apartment. Where they had long hair, he had short hair. “And he could refrain from having a joint hanging out of his mouth at inopportune moments,” Andrews says.
After the one-off events proved a success, two years of hard physical labour and a “phenomenal community effort” began, a bid to make the disused building “so beautiful” that the reluctant magistrate would feel compelled to grant them a liquor licence. As Andrews puts it, “The Leadmill was built by the unemployed skilled men of Sheffield, training unemployed kids in brick-laying, plumbing, electricity, plastering. It was all funded by the city council, South Yorkshire County Council and, in the end, even Maggie Thatcher gave us money as well.”
The volunteers powering the project were mostly a quirky bunch. Take, for example, Jeff Harrison, the resident electrician — resident in a literal sense. Harrison, who wired the place up with second-hand fittings scavenged from the old Royal Hospital, lived under the stage of the derelict building with his dog Rizla. Bedford remembers he “used to go round licking his fingers and touching the wires hanging out and, if he fell over, that one was live”.
Most agree that Mills, a TV repairman who knew the words to every Bob Dylan song, was not there from the start but joined the project in the early days. Even Andrews concedes he worked hard. “He was a pair of hands and he was there, even when it was cold and freezing in winter, and we always needed all the hands we could get.” However, Andrews says he insisted on keeping Mills out of the co-op that originally led the project; he felt the other man was too self-interested to work cooperatively. “I’m an old hippie, I can feel people’s vibes, and his were fucking awful,” Andrews says.
Before long, however, it became clear that if they continued to make decisions collectively, wasting hours “discussing the colour of toilet paper,” The Leadmill would die before it ever really started. By 1981, Vinken had successfully argued for the existence of a board, which consisted of three people: himself, Andrews and Mills.
The Leadmill had its grand re-opening, having convinced the magistrate and secured its licence, in 1982. Its early days were, I’m told, euphoric. The building was open to the public throughout the day, incredibly popular with children and had multiple floors of studio, office and rehearsal space offered to artists of all kinds, either for free or for cheap rents. Redfearn’s vision, he tells me, had been “all about creative energy” — exciting new projects and fruitful collaborations formed “just by people meeting at The Leadmill and having time to talk to each other.”
The 1980s Leadmill had everything. It had a resident theatre company, it had a resident dance company. It had a Friday night cabaret show — loaned puppets by the team that created Spitting Image — and a well-respected jazz programme. It had a women-only performance night, Sheffield Women Performers Club, which acted as an information hub for feminist campaigning. There was a cafe, fondly remembered by many, with tables that hung from the ceiling and swung back and forth. There was even a short-lived whole foods shop.
Martyn Bailey, who attended frequently in that decade, remembers it as a “revolutionary” community centre, offering workshops for the unemployed, disabled and other marginalised groups. Something that particularly stood out to him was that it was one of the first night-time venues in Sheffield to respond to the AIDS crisis by offering free condoms. “Lots of pubs and clubs were reluctant, because they thought it would reflect negatively on their client base, but The Leadmill didn’t have that attitude.”
And, of course, there was the money-maker, the thing that kept all other plates spinning: the gigs and club nights. “Pulp did their first gig at The Leadmill when they were schoolkids because they used to rehearse there,” Andews remembers, alongside other bands. Some said it was the best-attended arts centre in the country and, in 1988, it received a visit from Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Prior to that point, the original co-op had formally become a charity: The Leadmill Association. Because of how much money Sheffield Council had invested, its councillors and officers had a strong presence on the board of trustees and they were keen to see the Leadmill magic repeated elsewhere in the city. Depending on who you believe, this desire may have been the charity’s downfall.
Vinken stepped down as director at the end of the 1980s, having been headhunted to lead the Theatre Royal Plymouth. In the years before his departure, the Leadmill charity had agreed to restore two more of Sheffield’s disused industrial buildings, with the help of hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money from various sources. One was Scotia Works just next door, intended to eventually act as an extension of the Leadmill building. The other was Globe Works in Neepsend, which became office spaces and which some argue helped kickstart the regeneration of Kelham Island. The idea seems to have been that both projects would eventually pour profits back into the charity.
When Vinken left, tenants had already moved into the offices at Globe Works and building work on Scotia Works was nearly complete. It just “needed somebody to grab it by the scruff of the neck and project manage it through,” he says. Interestingly, his opinion at the time seems to have been that Mills was perhaps not the best person for the job. Vinken tells me he advised the board of trustees that his role as director should be advertised and competed for, although his advice was not heeded. “With the benefit of hindsight… the board was quite weak.”
According to those who remember it, Mills taking over marked a change. Rob Noble, who worked for the resident theatre company Compass, recalls The Leadmill suddenly “seemed to lose a lot of its heart” and seemed to want to become a more “money-making endeavour”. The charity’s relationship with Sheffield Council soured, to the point where the council withdrew from the board and withdrew all financial support in just a few years. Yorkshire and Humberside Arts, which at one point was giving the organisation an annual grant of £75,000, also withdrew support, stating the charity failed to meet previously agreed conditions, such as showing them its annual accounts.
Any activities that didn’t make a profit were “drastically reduced,” Noble says, while those renting cheap space were “suddenly unwelcome” and evicted “in a fairly ruthless and not at all charitable way”. Even Bedford, who had defined The Leadmill’s visual brand for years, found himself under immense pressure to leave and eventually quit the building in 1992. When asked to comment on this account of the period via The Leadmill Ltd, Mills declined to respond.
This period also marked a change, those who were close to him claim, in Mills. Neil Sissons, artistic director of Compass, says he and Mills had got on very well for years and he considered him “a gentle, nice guy”. But, once he had control of The Leadmill, “there was an unexpected ruthlessness to him I just had not seen in his character before.” Their friendship soon ended.
Within only a few years, The Leadmill went from an organisation that had seemed to be in unstoppable ascent — visited by royals and lauded for its innovations — to one on the brink of financial ruin. In the end, Scotia Works would be handed back to the council, who finished its restoration, while Globe Works was sold to Velocity Estates. In 1994, The Leadmill Association charity went into voluntary liquidation. In a move that attracted a lot of suspicion and outrage, its lease, nightclub business and all associated assets were sold to a company that had recently been renamed The Leadmill Ltd. One of the directors of this company was Mills, who had recently resigned from the charity.
A new Leadmill is born
The Leadmill lease and business was sold for £25,000 — about £50,000 in today’s money. Many years later, in 1997, a letter sent by the Charity Commission to former local MP Bill Mitchie stated that, after looking into the sale, they had concluded it was “probably at an undervalue, since no value was ascribed to the charity’s ‘business’”. However, they had decided there was not enough of a case to justify taking action.
Reading newspaper articles from this period, it’s clear the people of Sheffield were taken aback. As a Star article from 25th May 1993 puts it, “some £450,000 of public cash was pumped into the Leadmill building.” How could it so slickly be turned into a private company? Vinken says it felt wrong “that something built on the back of community goodwill and public endeavour would end up in the hands of people privately, to make a profit for themselves”.
As a long-term employee, Mark Mercer was present for the period when The Leadmill transitioned from charity to private company. He’s heard the story that Mills “took it over, paid hardly anything for it and profiteered” but he doesn’t believe it. The Globe Works project was, he recalls, a serious drain on the charity’s finances, “a bit of a leech, if you like”. It was the “opinion of a number of people” that the whole thing was in danger of collapse. By purchasing the more profitable arm, Mills merely “took The Leadmill as it was prior to Globe Works and tried to stabilise it,” saving “a hell of a lot of jobs” in the process.
But then, the counter-argument goes, Globe Works didn’t seem to be struggling prior to Vinken’s departure. How did everything so abruptly start to crumble? One factor is likely the decline in property values during the early 1990s, which meant the value of the Globe Works building plummeted. Another is the fact that The Leadmill lost significant financial support from public bodies after Mills took over, for reasons that seem to me a little unclear. Back in 1994, Jim Byrne of Yorkshire and Humberside Arts told the Star he felt The Leadmill’s new management “had a deliberate policy of losing funds from bodies like us in order to follow their own path”.
Redfearn leans a little closer to the more charitable point of view. The Globe Works project was, in his opinion, always a mistake; he feels certain that Mills did genuinely rescue The Leadmill. Mills, he tells me, even sold his Stratocaster guitar to save it, although, on reflection, he adds: “He told me that once… true or not true, I have no idea.”
However, after Mills bought the lease, the changes that had been occurring at The Leadmill grew even more pronounced. “One of two things happened,” Redfearn says: either activities that were not profitable were ousted to give The Leadmill a sustainable financial future or they were ousted so Mills could make heaps of money. “I would like to think he ousted things, in the initial stages, to secure the venue, but I’m not sure about that.” Certainly, those close to The Leadmill at the time felt it could have afforded to keep some of its more worthy activities going, given how profitable it quickly became.
Indeed, given The Leadmill’s claims that Electric Group will lead a “corporate race to the bottom”, it’s interesting to hear those who loved the venue complain about how corporate it became under Mills. When Redfearn visited The Leadmill a few years ago, for the first time in 40 years, he was shocked. “Apart from the legend, it’s just another nightclub.” Bedford describes it as just another business, “which shuffles people in, tips them upside down until all the cash falls out and then on to the next lot”.
In the eyes of many who loved the original institution, such as Bailey, it’s somewhat hypocritical for the current management to complain about Electric Group trying to profit from their legacy. “The current management of The Leadmill are trading on its history but they didn’t build that history,” Bailey told me, “so it’s up for sale along with everything else.” He doesn’t think Electric Group is “particularly interested in destroying its reputation or its heritage,” and he definitely welcomes their stated plans to refurbish the green room. “It’s the sort of place where you wipe your feet on the way out.” Maybe, some people suggest, Madden could even be good for The Leadmill.
The challenger to The Leadmill throne
In terms of willingness to talk to the press, the contrast between Mills and Madden is striking. Less than a day after requesting an interview with Madden, I am in possession of his personal phone number and he is eager to meet, whenever suits me. “I would cancel everything to speak to you,” he assures me.
The Leadmill campaign has flung a lot of unpleasant accusations Madden’s way but certainly at least one of their claims is true: he is a very posh man from London. He’s drunk champagne in the garden at Number 10 — to celebrate his sister, who worked for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, running the London Marathon — and he mentions a well-known celebrity friend. While he’s keen to point out that he “did the venue thing” in the early 2000s, rather than pursuing career paths that would have proved more lucrative, his is certainly not a rags-to-riches story.
But the idea, he insists, that a venue in the Leadmill building with him at the helm would suddenly become something like the O2 academy is laughable. A major reason for why he wanted to buy The Leadmill in the first place is because the touring acts that play it are the same ones that tend to book his other venues in Bristol and Newcastle. “The programming will practically be exactly the same,” he insists.
As for The Leadmill’s staff, who say they are terrified of losing their jobs, he is clear that — as is the case in his Bristol and Newcastle venues — his Sheffield venue would be run by a local team, so it could benefit from their local knowledge. “That’s why all the venues I own are very successful, we strike a balance between having national touring acts and local bands.” He feels staff have been told “this evil person from London is coming and he’s going to sack you all,” when actually he has no interest in “going around putting people on the street.”
In Madden’s eyes, he and Mills are two business owners who, seven years ago, were presented with the same opportunity: the chance to buy the building. The guide price was £500,000 and Madden paid £600,000. He says he was told by the former landlord, a property developer based in Manchester, that The Leadmill Ltd previously made an offer of £150,000, although he can’t produce evidence of this claim. When I ring up someone from said developer, the man on the phone says it might have been a verbal offer, rather than “a formal thing,” but adds that it “certainly sounds like something Phil would do”. The Leadmill Ltd refused to answer my questions on this point, or indeed any specific questions I put to them, beyond providing a short statement on their position.
Whatever amount they offered — and perhaps they made no offer at all — everyone I speak to agrees The Leadmill definitely had the money to buy the place if they wished. The annual accounts of The Leadmill Holdings Ltd — a company of which Mills is the sole director, which holds more than 75% of the shares in The Leadmill Ltd — show it had net assets in excess of £1.8m at the time of the sale.
As Madden sees it, Mills simply made a bad call and is furious because this doesn’t mesh with his view of himself as a smart businessman. “Which he is, but in this case he’s not been that smart, and his reaction to this fact is to get Jarvis Cocker to call me a cunt on Twitter.” (Jarvis Cocker does not appear to have a Twitter account and I could not find record of him publicly calling Madden a cunt, although he has supported The Leadmill’s campaign.) If Mills actually loves The Leadmill so much, he suggests, surely he’d rather see it continue under the Electric Group than disappear entirely?
But, if Madden hopes that Mills will eventually give in, those who have met the man say he’s going to be disappointed. Neil Midgley, who worked at The Leadmill in the late 1990s and put on events there until 2013, says he’s a fan of their current programme, but not a huge fan of Mills, who he characterises as “desperate to win”.
Mills is stubborn, Midgley adds, to an extreme degree. He claims that when the council first painted double yellow lines outside The Leadmill, Mills simply carried on parking there “because he had got in his head that he should be able to”. This sometimes led to him receiving two or three parking tickets in a single day. “They piled up on his windscreen.” While Midgley couldn’t offer proof of this story and The Leadmill Ltd refused to respond to a request for comment on it, it was backed up by another person familiar with Mills at the time.
However, Midgley also confirmed one of the main theories people had offered me for why Mills refuses to speak publicly, one I previously dismissed as laughable: he’s very shy. He claims Mills didn’t even attend The Leadmill’s 30th anniversary event. It seems contradictory for a man with such an iron streak through his personality, who I’m told never compromises, to suffer from social anxiety. But Phil’s former friend Sissons concurred. “He was more of a background presence,” he recalls. “He never struck me as a leader.”
Then again, Mills is clearly not the man he was in the 1980s, back when Sissons called him a friend. Even Redfearn, who last saw him a few years ago, says he was surprised how much he had changed. “He had become quite hard, there was something nagging him,” he remembers, possibly the start of the tussle with Electric Group. He can’t really understand why Mills is refusing to let go. “I would like to think it’s more than him trying to protect the golden goose.”
There is one person who could probably understand perfectly what Mills is going through right now — ironically because Mills put him through an eerily similar torment. O’Hagan, the architect without whom the venue could never have existed, spent a full decade after the sale of The Leadmill in 1993 trying furiously to fight it. He wrote myriad letters to the Charity Commission calling on them to reverse the sale and reform the charity. In fact he wrote letters to anyone that would listen and, more frequently, to people that wouldn’t.
Scrawled on the back of two slips of paper among the reams of O’Hagan’s documents about the sale of The Leadmill, I can see a handwritten list of phone calls made between 16th December 1994 and 11th November 1996. He calculated that he had spent 15 hours over two and a half years — six hours per year and 30 minutes a month — on the phone to the Charity Commission. Vinken tells me he eventually had to stop picking up the phone to his old friend because he couldn’t take it anymore. “He was like a cracked record.”
Maybe Redfearn, Andrews and the other hippies who dreamed up The Leadmill were right to believe in vibes, energy and, in Andrews’ words, “the universe and beyond”. Though O’Hagan’s son David says his dad would have taken no comfort at all from revenge, the universe has nonetheless delivered the perfect one. O’Hagan died in 2016, the same year Madden bought The Leadmill building out from under the feet of Phil Mills.
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