Written By Chris Young
This post was most recently updated on May 31st, 2018
Saltaire is one of the few relics of the Victorian age that tells a story about the working class that doesn’t end in destitution.
One of England’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, Saltaire is a perfectly preserved, purpose-built industrial village. Built by philanthropist Titus Salt in 1851, it has survived to the present day with its original urban plan intact, including the 1853 textile mill at its heart. 21st century tourists can time travel back to the Industrial Revolution and walk around one man’s utopian vision of what it could mean for England’s poor.
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A Time of Change
In Bradford, the change came like a tidal wave. At the start of the 19th century Bradford was a market town of less than 7,000 people. Surrounded by rolling green dales, the town was what we might now describe as a rural idyll where women’s work, like spinning wool and weaving, was done indoors.
Then Bradford exploded into Britain’s fastest growing industrial city. Hulking mills with towering chimneys that belched smoke out into the sky sprouted up everywhere and people travelled from all over Great Britain and beyond to get a piece of the action.
The action turned out to be back-breaking factory work in a heavily polluted city that quickly descended into the worst social squalour. By 1850 Bradford’s population had reached 103,000. The booming textile industry took no notice of the needs of its swelling labour force and Bradford itself became a deathtrap.
With no real sanitation system to speak of and no refuse collection, tiny, crowded housing developments comprised of squalid houses known as ‘back-to-backs’ became unbearable for many. A serious cholera outbreak in Bradford in 1849 made the unpleasant city a truly dangerous one. In the years leading up to the outbreak, the average age of death in Bradford was just 14 years and 2 months.
Hope for a Better Life
It was in this context that prominent textile manufacturer and industrialist Titus Salt put his plan to build a utopia into action. In 1853 Salt owned five mills in Bradford but, disturbed by the conditions his workers were enduring, he soon decided to move his entire enterprise to a new site: a beautiful plot of countryside just three miles outside Bradford.
Nestled in a valley alongside the River Aire, the new township had access to as much water as it needed. Just as importantly, it was close to the Leeds to Liverpool canal and the new Leeds to Skipton railway line.
Within the year, Salt’s Mill, a cavernous, steam-powered factory that needed 3,000 workers to work its 1,200 looms, was in operation. At first workers came in from Bradford on trains – but Salt wanted more than better working conditions for his staff. He wanted a better life.
Salt employed architects Lockwood and Mawsom to design the perfect village with plenty of two-storied houses, wash-houses and bath-houses – unheard of luxuries in Bradford’s slums. These were to be joined by a hospital, a library, a school, a park and a number of places where the workers could find entertainment, education and relaxation. Salt also built no less than 45 almhouses to care for the sick and those too old or ill to work.
An 1871 census revealed that Saltaire had a population of 4,300 and a housing stock of 824. For those who had lived through a cholera outbreak in the squalid conditions of Bradford, Saltaire was heaven.
Public buildings like the Congregational Church, Saltaire Club and Institute and Sunday Schools were built to a grand standard and located on the main thoroughfare through town. Saltaire Park too was designed with no expense spared and is located on the picturesque north side of the River Aire. Designed with a grid layout of long, straight streets, all major roads in Saltaire lead directly to its imposing centrepiece – Salt’s Mill, the place that made all of this possible.
The Dawn of Corporate Social Responsibility
Within Salt’s Mill, Saltaire’s workers continued the work that had made Titus Salt a giant in the textiles industry in the 1830s. Salt had revolutionised the manufacture of worsted cloth in Bradford by experimenting with Alpaca. His mixed fabric was both stiff and lustrous, perfect for creating the sculpted fashions of the time.
Thanks to Alpaca, Salt became one of the richest men in Yorkshire. He saw it as his social and religious duty to pass at least a little of his good fortune on to those who worked for him.
Salt’s philanthropy inspired other Victorian industrialists to follow suit. His care of his workers combined with his incredible wealth showed other businessmen it was possible to be both rich and socially conscious. Saltaire’s success helped shape development both at home and abroad. It directly influenced the Garden City movement that flourished in England’s 19th century, and in October 1872 the village was an important stop on the Japanese Government’s ‘Iwakura Mission’ tour of modern Britain.
Art and Boutiques
Today, Saltaire is a significant English heritage site. It is also a quaint Yorkshire village with just enough trendy eateries and sights to keep out-of-towners happy for a day or two. Over 150 years later, Salt’s Mill is still the centrepiece of the village. A working mill for more than 130 years, it finally ended production in 1987. When it closed, it had employed five generations of textile workers.
Bought by a private investor in 2001, Salt’s Mill was transformed into a multi-use building housing residential, commercial and arts businesses. Most interesting to visitors is the 1853 art gallery, which is made up of several rooms committed to the display of work by Bradford-born artist David Hockney. There are also a number of boutique shops selling books, clothes, antiques and homewares as well as restaurants and bars.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2001, Saltaire is now protected against development (though it reportedly struggles to contain 21st century traffic on its 19th century roads). It remains one of the few places in England where you can see a model industrial village perfectly preserved in real life. A visit there is like stepping into a rosier past: a slice of Victoriana without the looming threat of the poorhouse.