Why do Factory Chimneys look like Italian Bell Towers?

by KathleenDuffy

Factory chimneys built during the Industrial Revolution were often designed to emulate the beauty of an Italian Renaissance bell tower. What motivated this trend?

So-called 'High Art' confronts us often where we may least expect it. The industrial heritage of the United Kingdom includes factory chimneys built during the Industrial Revolution and designed to emulate the beauty of an Italian Renaissance bell tower or campanile.

In his 1915 novel, 'Of Human Bondage', Somerset Maugham writes:

“In themselves there is nothing to choose between the Campanile of Giotto and a factory chimney. … beautiful things grow rich with the emotion that they have aroused in succeeding generations. That is why old things are more beautiful than modern.”

Maugham’s favourable comparison of a factory chimney with an Italian campanile – or bell tower – was no accidental observation. Many factory chimneys built during the Industrial Revolution were, indeed, deliberately modelled on the Italian campanile.

Most factory chimneys were stark and unembellished. After all, industrial chimneys were essentially practical, utilitarian structures. Their main function was firstly, to provide a draught for the combustion of fuel in the factory furnace and secondly, to get rid of poisonous smoke and fumes.

Yet these plain, uncompromising chimneys were marvels of engineering. Consideration had to be made as to foundation, structure, size and type of bricks (ordinary or fire-proof?), measurements, type of mortar, temperature inside the chimney shaft, stability and many other aspects of chimney construction.

However, some new factory owners who had made their wealth during the Industrial Revolution wanted to merge practicality with beauty. Travelling abroad, particularly to Italy, the new industrialists were impressed with the architecture of the Italian Renaissance.

They noted how the bell towers of Venice, Florence and Verona echoed the distinctive and striking shapes of factory chimneys in towns all over the north of England.

Venice by John Ruskin


They may also have been influenced by John Ruskin’s popular and influential books, Stones of Venice and The Lamp of Architecture.

Why Build Italianate Bell Tower Factory Chimneys?

Why bring Venice to Manchester?

The religious connotations of the Italian bell towers may have seemed far removed from the stark industrial landscapes of English mill towns. Yet the average Victorian mill owner was a deeply religious human being. With his belief that the work ethic was good for the saving of souls, the Italian bell tower would transplant very well from the warm Catholic South to the sometimes chilly Protestant North.

In addition, in a new spirit of Christian paternal philanthropy, many mill owners wanted to be seen to be looking after their workers from cradle to grave. They believed beauty would add to the happiness of the workforce and, at the same time, increase productivity. 


There was also the matter of status. The Italianate factory chimney gave much sought-after prestige to the new industrial entrepreneur. It spoke of foreign lands, Renaissance architecture with all its social and intellectual implications and, like a church tower, it reached upwards from industry to God.

Echoing the desire for the classical illusion, in his book Designs for Factory, Furnace and other Tall Chimneys, (1859) Robert Rawlinson, one of the first architects to design for industry, placed his stunning drawings of factory chimneys within classical romantic landscapes, with huntsmen and dogs, without a hint of smoke, grime or deprivation.

RAWLINSON, R. Designs for Factory Furnace and Other Tall Chimney Shafts
RAWLINSON, R. Designs for Factory Furnace and Other Tall Chimney Shafts

It was a lofty aspiration that philanthropic mill owners would strive for and, in some limited respects, achieve.

Where to See Italianate Factory Chimneys Today

 The beauty of the Italianate factory chimney and Italian-influenced industrial architecture in general, is very much appreciated today. These structures are now being rescued, cleaned, restored and regenerated, and some are open to visitors. Just three examples are:


Tower Works,  Holbeck, Leeds   

Tower Works, Holbeck, Leeds.Opened in 1864 by pin-maker, Colonel Thomas Harding, this factory has   three chimneys based on the bell towers of Florence, Verona and Tuscany.     


In September 2009 work started on site as part of a £19.8m investment from  Yorkshire Forward, a redevelopment agency.

This is a fabulous regeneration project in the North of England. You can read more about it, and see some stunning close up views of the towers by following this link.

Salts Mill,   Saltaire, Yorkshire

Italianate Chimney, Saltaire, Yorkshire

Built by Titus Salt, Salts Mill is based on an   Italian palace with two Italianate chimneys. The whole town of Saltaire  is a beautiful World Heritage Site. 

This mill has been regenerated and now houses a David Hockney Gallery, restaurants and numerous shops. 

Here is a website for Salts Mill. This is a very special place to visit.



Books About Saltaire

Saltaire: The Making of a Model Town

This ground-breaking study analyses the building of Saltaire, the famous model town in West Yorkshire. Now a World Heritage Site, it was designed to provide mill-workers housing...

View on Amazon

Salt & Saltaire (Images of England)

This book is part of the Images of England series, which uses old photographs and archived images to show the history of various local areas in England, through their streets, s...

View on Amazon

Saltaire (Through Time)

This wonderful new book by local author Malcolm Hitt and local historian Gary Firth, takes a comparative peep into how Titus Salt's model industrial village has changed since ac...

View on Amazon

The Wainhouse Tower, Halifax      

Wainhouse Tower, Halifax


Wainhouse Tower was built by dyeworks owner, J E Wainhouse. It isn't  a factory tower but an  Italianate folly with an interior staircase leading up to a viewing  balcony, 253 feet above ground. 

You can read more about the Wainhouse Tower on the council's website.

Could the North of England Become Tuscany?

It was a serious consideration...

It is hardly surprising that some architects, since the decline of the mining industry, have long wanted to turn industrial northern towns into copies of Tuscan hilltop villages. It would attract tourists and it’s not so far-fetched, as this Guardian article from 2002 suggests.

The soft, hilly landscape is similar, the people are open and friendly, and the Italian campanile-style chimneys have been in place for over a hundred years.

Granted, the weather might be a problem!




c. K Duffy


  • Of Human Bondage by Maugham  W.S. (Penguin, June 1969)
  • Modern Architecture  & Design an Alternative History by Risebero, Bill ( MIT Press, 1 Jan 1983)
  • Designs for Factory  Furnace and Other Tall Chimney Shafts by Rawlinson, R. [Weale 1858]      from an on line short synopsis of this book.
  • Holbeck Urban  Village website
  • Spinning the Web – Manchester Website about the rise of the factory.
  • Tall Chimney  Construction  by Brancroft M. Robert - at  the Internet Archive

Items Relating to England's Industrial Heritage

Available From E-Bay
Updated: 04/29/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 04/19/2013

Hello 2uesday - Yes, isn't Saltaire an amazing place. I usually go up there every year and stay in one of the workmen's cottages which you can rent. I remember it as a child before the town and the mill was renovated because, living in Leeds , we used to go past it on the little train now and then . I have an article on Saltaire which I am hoping to put up soon. I agree with you about the lilies - it's a very special place!

KathleenDuffy on 04/18/2013

Hi Brenda - My pleasure! :)

BrendaReeves on 04/18/2013

You learn something new everyday. Thanks for the article.

KathleenDuffy on 04/18/2013

So glad you enjoyed it Mira - yes, that book is amazing!

Mira on 04/18/2013

I enjoyed it, and was fascinated by that image and book of Rawlinson's -- great find!

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