Florence Arts Centre has long been associated with colour. The Red Men who entered the building to clean up after a shift down what became the last deep iron ore mine in western Europe were so named for the rusty red hue of their skin after working the haematite deposits. They would emerge clean-ish from the other end of the former shower block that, since 2011, has been an arts centre. Sections of copper pipework from the shower days still survives, but today the colour comes from the contemporary artwork of Grace Oni Smith working in one of its emerging artist studios and a display by students of West Lakes Academy; from the paint and art materials made in the building and the spring flowers beginning to emerge in the garden.

The old miners' shower-block was part of Florence No 2, one pithead among many that were part of west Cumbria’s iron orefield where world class haematite was mined in earnest from the middle of the 19th century.

The first shaft had been sunk in 1913 on a rich body of ore which proved to be the biggest found in the area. Exploiting it fully required a second shaft 200 metres to the north, although work didn't begin on Florence No 2 – the name Florence comes from the wife of the chairman of Millom Haematite Ore and Iron Company Limited – until 1945.


No 2’s lifespan was both short and erratic. It closed in 1968 just 21 years after opening in 1947 but was then bought by Beckermet Mines (part of the British Steel Corporation) which pumped out the water and reopened it, mining ore for Workington steel works. As part of a rationalisation process, it closed again in 1980 but then a number of redundant workers from the mine invested their redundancy payments in the pit and re-opened part of the underground workings as the Egremont Mining Company. Sellafield was a customer for a time taking the water that was pumped out for its cooling towers.

The shower block was initially leased to a heritage organisation that, in conjunction with Egremont Mine Company, ran trips down the mine, but they too stopped when it became too costly to pump the water out. The end of an era of ore mining in west Cumbria finally came to an end in 2009.

The mine workings including the winding shed, blacksmith and carpenter shops and the crushing mill are mostly derelict (though one is used by a modern fabricator) but they have at least survived as the only visible remains of an industry that once dominated the area with 200 mines.


While the history of the now grade II listed Florence pit No 2 does not run deep, its legacy extends further as industry and art interconnect.

The Egremont and Area Regeneration Partnership was registered in 2004 by founder Simon Walker, who is still chairman, as a peripatetic arts service, and in 2011 it moved into the centre. The Partnership secured Arts Council funding for projects including reintroducing the Greasy Pole attraction to Egremont Crab Fair; a ‘folk float’ museum in a converted milk float; and artist residences.

Florence Arts Centre became a multi-purpose venue that today offers a thriving programme of workshops, displays and participatory events. There is a café, shop, gallery, studios and an associated business that really does celebrate its industrial history.

Great British Life: Sue Mackay, director of Florence Arts Centre, EgremontSue Mackay, director of Florence Arts Centre, Egremont (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

A year ago the centre welcomed its first full-time director, Sue Mackay, whose own background straddles history and art. Her first job was as curator manager of Kettering Museum, in Northamptonshire, after which she retrained in teaching and, following the arrival of her own children, moved into museum education at Ripon Museums.

Sue’s first job in Cumbria was to redevelop Keswick Museum from 2014-2018 which earned her the role to redevelop the Thackray Museum of Medicine, in Leeds, home to the biggest medical collection between London and Edinburgh. She left as interim co-director to return to Cumbria and Florence Arts Centre. “It’s very exciting because I’ve moved into the arts from museums. Museum education is about being creative, but this is very much more and therefore exciting for me.

“A small place like this is no less of a big job in fact it's more difficult since there are so many elements – the shop, café, gallery, stage, studios, heritage project, micro business and garden – and all with a small staff and funded almost entirely by grants, although Simon is a great fundraiser.”

Great British Life: The cafe at Florence Arts CentreThe cafe at Florence Arts Centre (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

She adds: “We are refreshing the business plan to ensure we’ve got a good vision and a sustained and growing offer for visitors.

“As a centre we need to be making these links so those who are interested can make the connections between industry, history and art.”

The most tangible legacy of the mine came about after the first artist in residence, Mat Do, suggested making use of the iron ore deposits. Artists Jill Davis, Margie Foots, Jenni Payne and Liz Redmayne took on the idea. Florence Paintmakers now employs two part-time staff, Nikki Proctor and Dave Rogers.

The haematite ore deposits are within carboniferous limestone that surrounds the Lake District and are permo-triassic in age (290-205 million years ago). Although the demand for iron ore has fallen, it is still an important component in the manufacture of pigments for paints, dyes and cosmetics.

Great British Life: The shop at Florence Arts CentreThe shop at Florence Arts Centre (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

The Partnership acquired the stock left by the mine which is used in paint and other art materials, the most famous of which is Egremont Red pigment that is available in water colour and oil paints, chalk pastel and ink.

It has since been joined by others in a palette of nine paint and pastel colours made from pigment sourced from other Cumbrian mineral deposits including Honister Green, St Bees Yellow and Kirkby Grey.

“It’s the coming together of science and art in this participatory arts centre,” adds Sue. “The Heritage Craft Association, of which King Charles and Jay Blades are patrons, produces a red list of endangered crafts and pigment making went onto the list last year so we’re very proud to be supporting its survival here.”

The products are available in the centre shop, online and through retailers including Rheged, Cockermouth Art Shop, Lakeland Arts and Lowes Court Gallery in Cumbria, and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).

Great British Life: Laura Leaym lead garden volunteerLaura Leaym lead garden volunteer (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

“It’s not just 2D artists who are using it,” says Sue, “the pigments are used by potters too. We want to encourage ambassadors who can support us and it has led to some nice partnerships such as Honister Slate Mine which has provided us with plant labels and Burlington Quarries providing chippings for our garden.”

The success of the pigments has allowed investment in a new £2,500 grinder which means they can grind three times as much material.

“We have a remit to regenerate Egremont and the area and this site has been such an inspiration to artists, not only through the development and use of the pigments but also because it’s a fascinating place from the point of view of industrial architecture and social history,” says Sue.

It all comes together in a new project involving the local community. The creation of a new display – Florence Mine – reflects the history of the area in all its forms. “We have been working with local people and gave them space to come together and share their stories. After a few sessions they said they would like to display items and memories.

Great British Life: Volunteers are developing the garden at Florence Arts Centre Volunteers are developing the garden at Florence Arts Centre (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

“It’s open to anyone, but most so far are older people who worked in the mines, among them Gilbert Finlinson, who was mine manager of Egremont Mining Co,” says Sue.

“One of our strands of work is heritage and science. The display hopes to engage local people and prove to funders that investing in a permanent exhibition at the site would be worthwhile.”

The centre has received funding from Cumbria Community Foundation to be a creative warm spot this winter so that its welcome to people in fuel poverty – or anyone seeking social contact in a heated building – comes with an artist.

At the same time has come the development of a walking bus that brings people from the middle of Egremont to the centre on a 15-minute shortcut.

Great British Life: Volunteer Roy Bell at work in the gardenVolunteer Roy Bell at work in the garden (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

“That's part of the ‘wellbeing’ strand of our work,” adds Sue, “another, that we call ‘joy’, involves families. Last year we had 344 children across six days of the summer holidays doing fun, creative play. Before Christmas we had a Winter Warmer Celebration with lanterns and carols.

“Our role is to run a participatory arts centre because people want to do probably more than they want to see; they remember making things. We want to support people to develop their creativity at whatever level that may be.”

The third strand of work is ‘talent development’. “We have Arts Council funding for a youth programme which ranges from Doodlers Club to more intensive Arts Camps, and we’re involved in the producers’ programme with Rosehill Theatre.

“A big part of what we do is supporting local artists and co-creating. With additional funding from Sellafield we are able to offer two small but free studios for emerging artists where they can develop for up to three years. There is hardly anything like it in Cumbria and certainly not in the west.”

Talent development starts at any level and includes a programme of paid-for ‘MADE’ art and craft workshops. “Most of what we offer is free and because of the social and economic situation we are in it’s very difficult to charge, but we try to generate funds where we can and the workshops are an important part of that.

“We differentiate ourselves by small classes taught by quality artists and workshops that are connected somehow to our environment whether that's fabric dyeing, willow weaving or rag rug making using recycled cloth, and we try to get people to move on in their development,” says Sue.

The centre has some good artist connections: sculptor Jocelyn McGregor, who recently had an exhibition at Windermere Jetty Museum, is a former artist in residence; Anna Clough has had a contemporary sculpture exhibition at the centre; and Julia Parker made a film, Workington Red.

Great British Life: The centre hosts cinema screenings and other eventsThe centre hosts cinema screenings and other events (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

Participants can sign up for life drawing classes and art crit.

As well as paint maker demonstrations, the centre also operates monthly mine heritage tours, led by volunteer John Rickard to support income generation.

Its facilities are extensive. A short tour takes you from the shop and work by local makers through the main gallery space and onto the licensed performance space run by volunteers which hosts Friday Film Club for adults, Sunday secret cinema of family films, open mic nights and spoken word events, and is also an Arts Out West venue.

John helped set up the first open mic night too and helps run the bar and music as well as working in the garden. “It's a great venue with a nice atmosphere. There are always interesting things going on and we get some good live music here,” he says.

Great British Life: Pastels by Florence PrintmakersPastels by Florence Printmakers (Image: Sheenah Alcock)

Continuing through the building takes in the artist studios, the hub of Florence Paintmakers and past the kilns – which are available to hire – to the pottery studio.

Finally, the garden studio has access to an outdoor terrace and the garden which is tended by volunteers. “We try to bring the programme into the garden and the garden into our programming in the arts but we also link with wildlife and nature, such as planting dye plants in our raised beds.”

The garden also provides opportunities for local people working with Skills4You to produce benches and planters. Sellafield has also funded a new schools programme called a Sense of Place which will teach students about geology, engineering, art and the industrial and social history of the area.

Next steps might include creating a new entrance to the building and finding ways for it to become more sustainable, with investment potentially available from Borderlands funding.

Further on the education side the centre recently worked with Manchester School of Architecture which finds sites of interest it can use as redevelopment case studies for its students to work up ideas. On being given the brief of the Florence Mine they came up with ideas ranging from a subterranean festival site to a meditation centre. Undoubtedly blue sky thinking.

Florence Arts Centre is open on Fridays 11am-4pm and Saturdays and Sundays 11am-3pm. Entry is free. The Florence Mine heritage display is open now and will run until June 2. Everyone is welcome to join a Florence Mine celebration event on March 2 from 11am-4pm. Anyone with interesting items or stories about the Egremont area for the display is encouraged to contact the centre on 01946 824946.