Saltaire village

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Titus Salt was a wealthy industrialist who owned several wool mills in West Yorkshire and was the second Mayor of Bradford. He is most famous as the founder in 1853 of the “model” community of Saltaire, which was built to house the workers from his mill built on the banks of the River Aire. Clearly not a modest man, the name of the village is made up of his name “Salt” and “Aire” (after the river).

During the early 1800’s Bradford, like all of the northern English Industrial cities expanded rapidly. One of the consequences was that the thousands of workers who had migrated to the city from the country had to live in some horrendous, crowded and insanitary housing. Salt had originally owned several mills in the Bradford area. When he consolidated his operations in a state of the art mill out in what was then the countryside a few miles away from the city, he decided to have good quality housing provided with water and sanitation constructed that he could rent to his employees.  He built a school for the workers’ children of the workers, alms-houses for the elderly. and provided recreational facilities including  parks, allotments and a Mechanics Institute, which had a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and a gymnasium. However, there weren’t any pubs – Salt was a committed Congregational Christian who saw alcohol as the root of many problems.

The Mill and Village are still standing (although no longer out in the country having being absorbed by the Bradford conurbation) and in December 2001, Saltaire was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

A year after the mill closed in February 1986, it was bought by local boy made good, Jonathan Silver, who renovated it and converted it into industrial and commercial premises. After he died of cancer in 1997 the enterprise was continued by his family and today the mill, together with the village are a popular tourist attraction.  We decided to visit last week, mainly because we wanted to have a look at the large collection of works by David Hockney that are displayed in the “1853 Gallery” on the ground floor of the mill and the temporary exhibition of recent works by Hockney, “25 Trees and other Pictures” on the top floor.

After we’d finished looking around the mill and the exhibitions (I’ll return to this in a future post) and had something to eat in the “Diner” we decided to see what there was to see in the village.

The village is built on a hill to the south of the mill and set out in a grid. The streets are all named after members of Salt’s family and royalty. The houses are all solidly built of good quality stone, but there was a marked difference between the houses in different streets. Those furthest away from the main thoroughfare (Victoria Road) were very small and plain compared to the larger, more ornate houses on the streets nearer to the main road. These had arched above windows and doors on the ground floor and had small front gardens.

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Saltaire wasn’t a classless society. The different types of houses were for different classes of employees.

We were intrigued by a number of 3 storey buildings located at the end and in the middle of a number of the terraced streets.

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A sneaky look at a book on sale in the Mill later on revealed that these boarding houses, probably for single men and temporary workers.

A notable landmark is a larger house at the top end of the village which has a look out tower.

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Salt used to employ someone to keep an eye on the village from the tower. A precursor of the modern closed circuit TV cameras that have sprouted everywhere in our towns and cities. One of things they used to look out for was people hanging their washing out on a Sunday.

The public buildings, including the Mechanics Institute (now the Victoria Hall) were build in a neo-classical style very typical of the period. There are some Gothic touches too, such as the pinnacles on the corner towers.

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The School, which faces the Mechanics Institute is also neo-Classical in style with it’s Ionic columns.

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There’s a very grand church at the bottom of the village, close to the canal, facing the main entrance to the Mill. It’s built in an Italianate style, quite rare for northern England.

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Even the mill itself is built in a highly decorated Italianate style. The chimney of the mill extension, that was built across the canal from the original building, even has it’s chimney disguised as a campanile based on the church tower of Santa Maia Gloriosa in Venice

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It must have been much more pleasant for working people to live in Saltaire than in the slums of nearby Bradford. The houses were much better quality, were sanitary and the environment, away from the worst of the pollution of the city, must have been much healthier.

I have to wonder, though, at Salt’s motivation. The information on the village stresses his strong Christian beliefs, and, no doubt, that was an underlying factor. Salt was no Utopian Socialist like Robert Owen who was associated with the model community at New Lanark in Scotland. I find it hard to believe that any successful Victorian Industrialist really cared that much about his workers. His Christianity may have been one reason, but there were many other Christian factory owners who generally didn’t give two hoots about the living conditions of their employees. Labour in Victorian times was cheap and plentiful. If a worker died, there were plenty others to replace him (or her). Perhaps Salt realised that a healthy, educated workforce would be more reliable and better workers. Perhaps he didn’t want to lose their skills or move on to other employers taking his manufacturing secrets with them. Perhaps the village was a way of attracting the best workers.  I’m sure there must have been some advantage for Salt. It’s something that warrants further research, I think

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2 thoughts on “Saltaire village

  1. Pingback: Port Sunlight « Down by the Dougie

  2. Pingback: Hockney’s 25 Trees and other pictures at Salt’s Mill « Down by the Dougie

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