The Heads of Barbour : Hilden Mill

2 mins read

It is exactly four years (to the month) since the Hilden Mill finally stopped spinning and closed its door for good. The ambitious redevelopment to preserve the area is now beyond the planning stage with the site now slowly being cleared. According to local newspapers the cost of the redevelopment will  be around 100 million pounds but as some of the building are listed and thus will be preserved it will no doubt be money well spent.

It was only after an hour of meandering around the massive site that I discovered a number of the listed building feature windows and doors overlooked by a range of stunning carved busts (or keystone carved heads as they are called by the professionals). Initially I uncovered a single building with three keystone carved heads but once I realised their existence I quickly discovered they subtly appear on most of the old buildings on site.

Inspired by this mini discovery I have been carrying out a little bit of research into the area of keystones with carved heads and to be honest I haven’t really found very much out. (I hope I didn’t build a level of expectation there).  I have spoken to a few architects and town planners and the general consensus appears to be that the heads are a mix of mythological characters and perhaps the founding directors of the Mill (top image).

The oldest red bricked buildings tend to focus on Greek mythology, does anyone else think the above bust looks a little like Thor ? perhaps I am grasping here but I bet someone out there will be able to be more specific on the characters featured.

I think the most unusual set of heads appears on a very plain dorian style building. As you can see below the heads stand out large above the windows they adorn breaking the dull, reasonably plain solid walls.

The photograph below features the only of the Barbour keystones to include a date (1861). The building appears amazingly solid despite ivy pouring through every interior window and crack the wall.

This photo is a closeup of the slightly damaged head. The good news this building is listed and will preserved as part of the overall redevelopment. It will be interesting to revisit the site in a few years and see which heads have survived the revamp or perhaps even what new ones have been added.

It seems the inclusion of heads on the keystones of windows and doors is purely a decorative feature used in grand buildings during the 1800s. There is no doubt they are based on the architecture of the past but sadly there doesn’t appear to be any real documented evidence that the Barbour heads hold any historical significance.

As you walk around the Barbour site it is easy to see the company’s development represented by the changes in the architecture as new building were added. I have deliberately avoiding including building from the late twentieth century (or even twenty first) not just because they are particularly ugly buildings but also because adding a keystone carved head to the windows or doors seems to have been out of fashion.

Perhaps the creation of the ultimate carved heads in the form of Mount Rushmore taking from the 1920s through to thee 1940s ended any creative competition for sculptures?

More on Barbour Threads, Lisburn.

Photos from “Through the Mill”

David is a documentary and landscape photographer covering everything from dramatic long exposure landscape photography through to live music. David is a former Official Fujifilm X Photographer.


  1. The heads on the grey building is of the father and i think his 3 sons the rest i`m not sure about, i was told by an x-employee but don`t remember the rest.

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