Crisis At Saltaire

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 1-10, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

'Cease to dwell on days gone by
And brood over past history'.

(Isaiah 43, v 18.)

Saltaire Mills - Aerial View

On Friday, 18 April 1986, in the model village of Saltaire, a company representing a wide range of interests met to discuss the future of Salt's huge, empty mill. The seminar, which was organized by 'SAVE Britain's Heritage', included local politicians, administrators, architects, museum officers, educationalists, representatives of many societies, and members of the general public. Those with plans to turn the mill into yet another museum were dismissed by one speaker as 'nostalgia merchants'. The slogan clearly was 'Forward', but time was given to Dr Derek Linstrum to brood a little over the past and remind delegates of the origins of this palace of industry in the pleasant valley of the Aire.

1. Dr Linstrum's Address

The general history of Sir Titus Salt and Saltaire is so well known that I do not propose to deal with it in any detail. But it is worth recalling that by 1848, when he was installed as Mayor of Bradford, Salt was described as 'at the head of a vast establishment … as a reward for his industry, intelligence, and energy'. His development of alpaca from fibres previously believed unuseable had greatly increased his business since he set up on his own account in 1829. By the 1840s he owned five mills in Bradford. At the age of 45 he was at the height of his energetic career, shortly to become MP for Bradford. Nonconformist, Liberal, a great admirer of Cobden and Bright, he was the typical successful West Riding industrialist. Like his Halifax friends, Edward Akroyd and John Crossley, Salt showed considerable interest in improved workers' housing. In 1849 he was the first President of the Bradford Freehold Land Society which enabled 'a man in humble circumstances to acquire a piece of land, paying for it by monthly instalments, with the view to the ultimate erection of a dwelling in which to live'. Several streets of back-to-back housing in Bradford resulted from this activity. In 1850 Salt proposed the establishment of better housing, public parks, a town mission and provision for working class education, and within his own factories he experimented with methods of smoke reduction.

In 1847 Edward Akroyd had commissioned the design for the village around Copley Mill in the Calder valley, which seems to have been related to, if not directly inspired by, Disraeli's novel, Sybil: or the Two Nations.

"Deeply had Mr Trafford pondered on the influence of the employer on the health and content of his workpeople. He knew well that the domestic virtues are dependent on the existence of a home, and one of his first efforts had been to build a village where every family might be well lodged … In every street there was a well; behind the factory there were the public baths."

Above all was the vast form of the factory, with the spire of the Gothic church and the sparkling river forming a sylvan background.

There were, of course, two reasons for the commissioning of such a design. There was the practical requirement to keep a permanent pool of labour near the mills, coupled with the sensible belief that healthy and contented workers are more productive. This is not in any way to belittle the purely philanthropic aims of Akroyd, Crossley and Salt - they were genuine enough - but simply common sense. The almost contemporary publication of Sybil, as well as Coningsby, another Disraeli novel, in the previous year, with the inauguration of the West Riding industrial villages, cannot be coincidental. But who influenced whom? As Disraeli wrote elsewhere, 'The restless mind creates and observes at the same time', and he, Akroyd, Crossley and Salt certainly possessed restless minds.

When Disraeli wrote in Coningsby of a factory, 'formal and monotonous in its general character, although not without a certain beauty of proportion and an artistlike finish in its occasional masonry', he might have been describing what he had already seen in the north of England. But when he went on to describe the mill as close to 'a village of not inconsiderable size, and remarkable from the neatness and even picturesque character of the architecture, and the gay gardens that surrounded it', was this a remarkable presage of what was to be realised, or had there already been talk of the idea of building such villages in the West Riding? This village in Coningsby was a complete community, possessing a church 'in the best style of Christian architecture', a parsonage, a schoolhouse, and an Institute in which are a library, lecture room and reading room, and this settlement was not disturbed and polluted by the dark vapour of industrial towns. That might have been a description of Saltaire, and in 1850, six years after Coningsby had been published, Salt called on Lockwood and Mawson in their Bradford office to tell them that he intended to build a new mill near Shipley. Would they design it? Later Sir William Fairbairn was brought in as engineer. It is not quite clear how far the total concept of the complete village was established at this time; but it must have been discussed in general terms since Salt stressed that the mill had to be first built. This was obvious, since without it there was no reason for the village. Speed was an essential requirement, and there was a thought - certainly Salt's - of making use of a part of the dismantled Great Exhibition building as a weaving shed. But after inspection the notion was dismissed, and the construction of the great T-shaped mill went ahead quickly enough to be completed in 1853 and opened with a grand banquet for 3,500 in the laurel-wreathed combing shed.

It is interesting that Salt selected Lockwood and Mawson as his architects. He had previously approached another Bradford architect, George Knowles, but then he must have been introduced to the two newly-arrived men. They had just been given the prestigious commission for St George's Hall, and evidently Salt recognised that they were bringing a new architectural quality to Bradford. They must have been greatly encouraged to acquire a client who first talked about spending £30,000 or £40,000 on the mill, and then decided to increase this to £100,000 for a start. Lockwood was the designer in the partnership, and he had already built a number of sensitive neoclassical designs in Hull. He had been articled to P.F Robinson, and perhaps it is not difficult to see the influence of Robinson's published Designs for Ornamental Villas (1827) in some of the smaller buildings at Saltaire; but for the most part the details used are loosely Italian quattrocento, bold (not to say coarse at times). But I suggest that the details are not of great importance. What is more interesting is the general character of the whole village.

In the Akroyd villages, first at Copley and then at Akroydon, there was a conscious attempt to recreate the 'old English' style, 'approximating to the character of many old buildings in the neighbourhood'. In the later village Akroyd specifically referred to the 'domestic Gothic' as 'the original of the parish of Halifax, over which many old houses are scattered of the date of the Commonwealth, or shortly after, and retaining the best features of the Elizabethan domestic architecture'. It was not a popular decision, and the reluctant workers in Akroyd's mills complained that the style was 'antiquated, inconvenient, wanting in light, and not adapted to modem requirements'. Interestingly, such criticism was avoided by the choice of style (or almost the lack of style) in which the streets of housing at Saltaire were built.

The plan adopted for the village is axial and rigidly gridded, which might not have been expected to approximate in any way to a traditional Pennine community. But the slope on which Saltaire is built, together with the varied heights of the different blocks of housing, results in some perhaps unexpectedly picturesque compositions which are reminiscent of some in such places as Haworth and Heptonstall. Again, the total use of stone and the paucity of decorative details, together with the hipped roofs over the taller blocks, are much closer in general form and character to the Pennine vernacular than are the rather self-conscious "domestic Gothic" character of the Akroyd villages. The illusion is strongest in those streets where the stone setts are still serving as road surfaces, as in Albert Terrace down by the railway. The housing was built over a period and shows certain changes. The first terraces, named after members of the Salt family, are the most satisfactory and characteristic. Those of the late 1850s are plainer and cheaper, and the last, dating from the late 60s, are the most elaborate. But the universal use of stone imposes a unity on the whole town, which remained from first to last under the control of Salt himself and his chosen architects. The control extended to the banning of washing hanging across the streets. I have sometimes wondered what happened the day Nikolaus Pevsner visited Saltaire. Was it a wet and cold November afternoon? Did he have indigestion? Had Bradford been too much for him with its 'mean and muddled centre', which I am sure he would have preferred to what replaced it? Whatever the reason, he wrote a strangely unappreciative entry on Saltaire. The plan was grudgingly said to be 'not without interest', the housing 'monotonous', the architecture dismissed as 'Italianate trim', and the entrance to this Institute was thought to be 'a hideous, richly Baroque portal'. Is it? Were you aesthetically affronted after bravely encountering Thomas Milnes's lions called War and Peace? The only building which merited praise was the church, and even that praise was somehow diluted by reference to a 'circular tower on a stumpy base'.

Had he perhaps been reading J.S. Fletcher, whose A Picturesque History of Yorkshire, published in 1899, dismissed Saltaire, of which
"it is difficult to speak with any particular enthusiasm or appreciation … It is regarded by some people as the most wonderful place in Airedale and possibly in the world; and it is certainly worth a careful inspection if only for the sake of proving how very uninteresting and featureless a model village can be."

Thirty years later, Professor Adshead called it 'a thirty to the acre congested scheme of terrace houses, surrounded by a park and an extravagance of public buildings'.

What caused this lack of appreciation? Maybe the clue is in the Pevsner entry when he noted that 'after only one generation' the plan was 'made obsolete by such garden suburbs as Port Sunlight and Bourneville'. Fletcher's history was called 'a picturesque history'. Was Saltaire being criticised for not being something it was never intended to be? For not conforming to the concept of the Englishness of English Art? It is true that it looks back to traditional Yorkshire working communities rather than to the garden cities such as Bourneville in which 'the undulating nature of the land … is dotted with coppices and bosky dells, and through which a pretty winding stream runs'. But Saltaire is a traditional Yorkshire working community, or rather an interpretation of one, and the grandeur of the unspoilt Airedale in which it was set would have made Bourneville's coppices, dells and winding stream seem paltry by comparison. If the one is picturesque, perhaps the other is sublime. As the rather unctuous Rev. Robert Balgarnie wrote in his life of Sir Titus Salt, 'the eye takes in an extensive landscape of hill and dale, of wood and water … while beyond the hills there is a healthy moorland, stretching away towards Wharfedale'. The scale and grandeur of the site were so overwhelming that it was surely correct to take as a model for Saltaire those tightly built stone-constructed Pennine communities such as Haworth and Heptonstall, in which the only internal spaces were the churchyards, but from which could be seen views of 360 degrees of magnificent landscape. Originally there were open views in every direction from Saltaire.

But there were practical, as well as visual, reasons for the choice of site. Sir William Fairbairn praised it for
"its fitness for the economical working of a great manufacturing establishment. The estate is bounded by highways and railways which penetrate the very centre of the buildings, and is intersected both by canal and river. Abundance of water is obtained for the use of the steam-engines, and for the different processes of manufacture. By the distance of the mills from the smoke and cloudy atmosphere of a large town, unobstructed and good light may be secured, whilst, both by land and water, direct communication is gained for the importation of coal and all other raw produce on the one hand, and for the exportation and delivery of manufactured goods on the other."

In the total scheme, the progress of a millworker through life from the cradle to the grave is taken care of. As age advanced he or she moved up from the streets of housing into the Hospital or into the Almshouses, all completed in 1868. In the latter, intended for the aged and infirm of good moral character, there is much more decorative detail than in the houses, as well as a planted open space. Presumably there was more time to stand and stare in the evening of life, and besides this group provides the ornamental introduction to the village as approached along the main axis, Victoria Road.

The boys' and girls' schools are elaborately modelled on the road frontage with colonnades and pediments, and there is much use of Salt symbolism in Ts and the family anns. Again, one can see that the intention of the village plan is to illustrate that there is a natural movement from the schools on one side of the road to the Institute, completed in 1871. This was intended for serious self-education and recreation. It is the most monumental of the secular non-industrial buildings, with a central tower, the doorway which aroused Nikolaus Pevsner's dislike, and figures carved by Thomas Milnes which represent Art and Science.

Saltaire Congregational Church

Undoubtedly the finest of all the buildings is the Congregational Church which faces the mill and shares the axis of the main frontage. Whether it was placed there as a 'Sic transit gloria mundi' reminder on emerging from the palace of industry, the source of prosperity, or whether it was intended as a permanent thank-offering for divine favours is not recorded. But Lockwood and Mawson rose grandly to the occasion, both outside and inside. It was here that Salt chose his last resting place, building a mausoleum at the side of the church, which he would have seen whenever he left the mill. The one thing that he omitted to do was to build a house here for himself in his lifetime. He often talked about it, but never got round to it.

The first mill was not large enough, and the New Mill was completed in 1868, and three years later the l4-acre park in the valley was completed as the natural expansion of the village and the transition between the formal layout and the natural hillside and moorland which form a backdrop to the village, against which the tower of the church and the campanile towers of the mill stand out memorably. Cricket, croquet and archery, boating and bathing were encouraged but no drinking, and there were band performances during the summer months. Interestingly the statue of Salt, disfigured by graffiti, turns his back on his village and surveys the park and the farther landscape. This is the most picturesque part of the whole layout, in which there is an asymmetrical balancing of the great mill rising out of the water, and the church on top of a high bank.

Dr Linstrum then turned to the subject of conservation, through questions put to him by members of an international Summer School visiting Saltaire on a pleasant Sunday evening. They were all impressed by this unique, world-famous village, and asked what controls were placed upon it and what special benefits accrued to such a place. They learnt about Section 10 and Town Scheme Grants and that all the buildings were listed. They were relieved to hear that the threat posed by a motorway had now receded, and that all seemed well.

Dr Linstrum ended his address by saying that, as a result of proposals made during the course of the seminar, he hoped he would have more news when the next Summer School came to Saltaire.

2. Titus Salt of Bradford

At lunchtime delegates to the conference partook of what Victorians would have called a 'cold collation', but although there was no shortage of food the provision fell far short of 19th century celebratory standards. Those who 'dwelt on days gone by' may have recalled the banquet held on 20 September 1853, when upwards of 3,500 guests assembled in the huge combing shed (which was only half the size of the weaving shed), for a triple commemoration: the opening of Saltaire; Titus Salt's fiftieth birthday, and the coming of age of William, his eldest son.

The food mountain then consisted of:

4 hind quarters of beef 50 pigeon pies
40 chines of beef 50 dishes of roast chicken
120 legs of mutton 20 dishes of roast duck
100 dishes of lamb 30 brace of grouse
40 hams 30 brace of partridges
40 tongues 50 dishes of potted meat
320 plum puddings 100 dishes of tartlets
100 dishes of jellies  

This was followed by a mouth-watering array of dessert: pines, grapes, melons, peaches, nectarines, apricots … etc. It is estimated that two tons of meat and half a ton of potatoes were consumed, after which high praise and hearty thanks were bestowed upon the 'Lord of Saltaire', who had proved himself to be an excellent employer, a generous benefactor and an outstanding public servant.

The 2,440 workers, who had been brought from Bradford by special trains, were never likely to have food provided for them in such oriental profusion again. However, three years later there was another birthday celebration. On this occasion 3,000 'well paid, contented and happy operatives' were taken by train to the Salt mansion at Crow Nest, Lightcliffe, but the meal, albeit substantial, was not on quite the same scale as before. Later, Salt provided other entertainments almost as lavishly, notably at Methley Hall in 1859 and again at Crow Nest in 1873.

As Dr Linstrom had said in his address, the history of Sir Titus Salt and Saltaire is so well known that we need not go into great detail. But it is worth while reminding ourselves that Salt had established indissoluble connections with Bradford long before he moved his business away from the town into 'hamlet-dotted-Airedale'. He formed his own worsted manufacturing company in 1834 and his adventure with alpaca took practical shape two years later.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Bradford was declared pre-eminent in fabrics made from wool and cotton, and also in those made from alpaca and from mohair. Titus Salt, who clearly represented an aspect of the power and prestige of 'upstart Bradford', was awarded two medals for excellence in spinning and worsted fabrics. By this time, as the owner of five mills, he was the largest manufacturer in the town and one of its wealthiest men. Throughout its existence Saltaire maintained this close connection, becoming a symbol of Bradford's textile heritage.

In public life, too, Titus Salt was one of Bradford's foremost representatives: chief constable before the incorporation of the town in 1847; senior alderman for several years and Mayor between 1848 and 1849; a borough magistrate; Deputy Lieutenant for the West Riding; MP for Bradford from 1859 to 1861, and finally created baronet in 1869. Apart from a short residence at Methley, Titus Salt spent the whole of his adult life either in Bradford or within easy reach, at Crow Nest. His statue, now in Manningham Park, a little nearer Saltaire, was originally situated close to Bradford Town Hall.

When Titus Salt died on 29 December 1876 an important chapter in the history of Bradford came to an end. At about this time the mixed fancy goods for which the town had become famous went out of fashion, and the Bradford firms who produced worsted pieces had to face fierce competition from overseas manufacturers who were turning out more acceptable goods, and whose home markets were well protected by tariffs. In addition, the large integrated textile mill, of which Salt's was the finest local example, saw its existence increasingly threatened by the volume of semi-manufactured goods, yarns and tops, which the specialist combers and spinners could provide, and which found ready customers among the worsted piece manufacturers' foreign rivals.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of Salts and other firms in the Bradford district was that when the founder died the sons who inherited the business did not always inherit a full share of their father's commitment and loyalty to the working community he had created. Young men who had tasted public school life, and perhaps university education, were not likely to return easily to their roots. They were a different breed from Titus Salt and the self-made men of his generation. The Salt family represented an extreme example of this process of withdrawal from the business community to which they owed their prosperity. Indeed, by 1892, only one of the five sons, Edward, remained as an active member of the firm. Of the others, Titus had died in 1887; George was living comfortably in London; Herbert had been a gentleman farmer at Bell Busk for many years, and William Henry had retired to the life of the country gentleman in Leicestershire. The senior directorship was held by Charles Stead, who had first become a partner in 1856. In 1892, only sixteen years after Titus Salt's death, the firm, which like many others had been experiencing trading difficulties, was wound up, and the assets were sold to a consortium of Bradford businessmen who revived its fortunes.

3. Lustre Fabrics

Saltaire, in spite of all its vicissitudes, is still world famous, and as long as its buildings are cared for, will continue to be so. The product on which its fame was largely built, however, is often forgotten.

On 15 March 1986 the Bradford Museums mounted a display entitled 'Lustre Fabrics', whose manufacture from about 1840 to 1870 was almost a Bradford monopoly. Marketable alpaca cloth had been introduced in 1830, on a small scale, but it was not a success, and it was evident that fabrics made entirely from alpaca, or from alpaca and wool, lacked the beautiful sheen which gave the original fibre its peculiar quality. Furthermore alpaca was difficult to spin on existing machinery. Titus Salt's inventiveness solved the spinning problem, and then by using a cotton warp (in about 1836) he virtually started a new era in textiles. The quantity of alpaca exported from Peru rose from 5,700 lb in 1834 to 1,325,000 lb in 1840, most of it coming to West Riding mills. The major users, along with Salts, being G. & J. Turner of Great Horton, and Fosters of Queensbury.

It has been said that great artists create the taste by which they are to be enjoyed, and the same is true of great manufacturers. Titus Salt showed what he could do with alpaca, and others followed. When women saw what shades could be produced in these light, bright cloths a new fashion began. By the 1840s the new mixed fabrics, of which alpaca was only one, were being manufactured in a bewildering variety of delicate tones and deep tints. (In strange contradiction, black remained a firm favourite throughout the whole period.) Alpaca Orleans was the first of a succession of lustres, many with attractive foreign-sounding names. Mohair, from the angora goat, a fabric similar to alpaca, was also widely used by Salts and other worsted manufacturers.

There was some doubt about the permanence of the popularity of cotton warps, although silk warps were used too, and this encouraged a hope that the sensible British public would bring the new fashion to a speedy end by returning to its old love for all wool cloths. But for about forty years, from 1820, cotton was cheaper than wool, and people rather surprisingly expressed a preference for showy but less durable fabrics, a trend which is very evident today. Customers did not want to buy 'good' clothes which, before they wore out, were not fit to wear; but it is difficult to believe, with John James, that 'luxury in dress, as well as living, had begun to prevail among all classes'.

The wedding dress worn by Mary Ann Pickles, bride of William Edward Townend of Cullingworth, was put on display at the exhibition.1 This dress, made in about 1835, was always thought to be of silk, but it was discovered that the design of the fabric was very similar to a pattern in one of Titus Salt's original design books, which was also on display. Further examination showed that the material was indeed made from alpaca. All wool cloths were beyond the reach of the masses, and Bradford was then going off 'in the direction of cheapness and lightness' quantity, not quality. The fashion for crinolines increased the demand for lustre cloths, but towards the end of the 1860s women were turning once again to all wool worsteds. There is never one single reason for a boom or a slump, and this is no place to go into the complicated question of how the worsted industry was affected by what is sometimes called the 'Great Depression'. As already suggested, however, by the late 1860s Bradford manufacturers were faced with the prospect of changing from the 'old' mixed ladies' fabrics to all wool cloths, and it will come as no surprise to learn that Titus Salt is given the credit for introducing these new fabrics in 1868. Alpaca and mohair never quite fell out of favour: there was always likely to be a demand for umbrella alpaca cloth and linings, for example; but the buoyant days of the old 'Bradford trade', the cheap, bright lustres, would never return.

A Brighter Future?

As the Conference proceeded encouraging news came from speakers with personal knowledge of attempts to save threatened buildings. Marcus Binney, editor of Country Life, cited the example of Lowell in Massachusetts, America's first Urban National Park, where huge mills were being restored for use as housing.2 The same kind of thing was happening to warehouses along the Thames; and on the waterfront at Copenhagen a large 18th century grainstore had been converted into a luxury hotel. Niall Philips gave an account of the redevelopment of textile mills in the Stroud area, with which he was personally involved, and much nearer home, Ernest Hall, chainnan of Dean Clough Industrial Park Ltd., described an enterprise which has become nationally famous for the way in which it has breathed new life into a collection of old mills. But when all had had their say it was clear that no ready solution to Saltaire's problems had emerged, and it was decided to set up a working party to consider all the suggestions.

On 13 October 1986 the Bradford Telegraph & Argus reported, 'Brighter future for Saltaire'. As a consequence of a report prepared by the working party, Bradford Council was to ask a finn of consultants to explore a proposal to turn Salt's mill into a multi-purpose complex designed to regenerate the whole area. On 6 November the paper said that the possibility of transferring the National Indian Collection of ethnic art from the Victoria & Albert Museum to Saltaire was being discussed. A housing development was also being considered and textile finns might occupy other units. There had even been talk about using the canal as the site for a marina.

This is the kind of news that Dr Linstrum and all conservationists had been waiting for, but time is short, and all depends upon acquiring the premises from the present owners. The New Mill, below the river, has already suffered from vandalism, and as Ken Powell wrote in his introduction to the seminar,
"The future of Salt's mill looks bleak, and the prospect of its standing empty at the heart of the village is horrifying.
The prospect of that mighty heart lying still, and becoming steadily decrepit, is indeed too sad to contemplate."



1. Described as 'in ivory silk alpaca, with matching pelerine cape', in A Handbook of Costume, by Janet Arnold, 1973, p.253. (back)

2. It is interesting to note that Lowell was held up as an example to Bradford in 1845. Then it was Dr Wm. Scoresby, who, after a visit to the factories there, urged the mill girls of Bradford to model their behaviour on that of the girls of Lowell. (American factories and their Female Operatives, 1845). (back)

Dr Linstrum's address is by courtesy of the Yorkshire Post.

Books on Saltaire

R. Balgarnie, Sir Titus Salt, Baronet: His Life and its Lessons, 1878, reprinted Settle 1970.

W. Cudworth, Saltaire, Yorkshire, England, Saltaire 1895.

J. Reynolds, The Great Paternalist, Titus Salt and the Growth of Nineteenth Century Bradford, 1983.

There are also two excellent booklets:

Titus of Salts (ed. R.W. Suddards), Bradford1976.

Saltaire (City Trail No.2), by Jack Reynolds, Bradford Art Galleries & Museums, 1976, rev. ed. 1985.

© 1987, The Bradford Antiquary