Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Saltaire - Yorkshire - England

Salt's Mill on the River Aire
Saltaire - the name conjures up images of briny breezes and crashing waves so it was somewhat of a surprise to find that this small Yorkshire town is completely landlocked.  Not named for the sea, Saltaire takes it's name from both its founder, Titus Salt, and it's location on the banks of the River Aire. One morning, a couple of years ago, I took the half hour train trip from Leeds, to explore what is said to be one of the world's finest examples of 19th century industrial town planning. Saltaire gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001

Titus Salt was a highly successful 19th century mill owner in the heavily populated and polluted industrial town of Bradford.  Astute, civic minded and deeply religious he owned five large mills around the city making his fortune mainly from weaving the then little known alpaca wool into fine fabric. A philanthropic soul he grew increasingly concerned about the squalid and impoverished living conditions of his workers so decided to build a new town to house both his mill and his workers.  It was a completely purpose built, some would say, Utopian, town and provided every facility imaginable including a church, school, hospital, recreational hall, shops but no pub...definitely no pub!  Although not teetotal himself Titus had seen the havoc caused by drink in Bradford and insisted his workers did not drink in Saltaire. Today a trendy restaurant and bar on the main street takes a swipe at this paternalistic rule.  It is called "Don't Tell Titus"

The best place to start a tour of Saltaire is at the mill.  This colossal building, across the road from the railway station, looks more like a palace than an industrial building.  It is 545 feet long and six stories high and is now home to vast open plan galleries, shops and restaurants.  It also houses the largest collection of, local boy, David Hockney paintings in the world.  You can pick up a good quality print for 20 pounds.....or, if you're feeling flush, a 3000 pound Charles and R Eames chair from the Home Design Store.  If shopping is not your thing you can stop for a bite at the hugely popular Salt's Diner, (interior design by David Hockney) for bangers and mash, pizza or something a little more upmarket.  The Mill is a weekend destination of choice for the people of Leeds, York and Manchester so I suggest visiting on a weekday to avoid crowds. It would be easy to spend the whole day in the mill but don't.  Watch the short informative film in the Saltaire history gallery then head out into the town to see first hand the fruition of Titus Salt's vision.

Boarding houses provided for single workers
The carefully preserved town is laid out in a grid pattern with the streets all named after members of the royal family or Titus' own family, which included 11 children. Most of the original town remains as it was when he built it.  He provided every level of housing, from boarding houses for single men to grand houses for the company managers.  The history of Saltaire notes that workers were delighted with their accommodation which, no matter how humble, was a giant leap in quality from their previous homes in Bradford.  It is interesting to note that Titus did not live in the town himself but in a mansion high on a hill overlooking it to escape the grime and smoke from the giant mill chimneys.  There is a whole other story to tell about his home.  Maybe another time. 

The alms houses for the aged or infirm
Despite his paternalistic attitude, Titus genuinely cared for his workers.  he was keen that everyone receive a good education and provided good schooling for the mill workers' children and training courses for the adults.  He also provided alms houses for the aged and infirm.  The alm houses, in warm yorkshire stone, are pretty and, no doubt, desirable residences today. The terrace houses are still modest homes, backing on to tiny alley ways and some of the grander homes look, well, grand. The public buildings are solid and impressive.

Saltaire Club and Training Institute
 It is quite incredible to think that the whole town with its schools, churches, hospital , recreational club etc was built by one man to better provide for his workers. The facilities in the Saltaire Club and Institute were astonishing.  There was a reading room, a library, a laboratory, chess and draughts rooms, smoking room, billiards room, lecture theatres, schools of Art and Science, a gymnasium and a rifle drill room. No wonder Saltaire was held up as a beacon for industrial towns.  In return for all these facilities and the higher quality of life the workers were expected to toe the line.  Churches of several non conformist denominations were built and the workers and their families were expected to attend and mill managers watched over the town from watchtowers above their homes to ensure "all was well in the town". Over the years the mill's fortunes fluctuated, mainly as a result of world events it had no control of and in 1929, in order to avoid bankruptcy, the town's housing was sold off enabling the mill  to continue  trading until 1986.  After that the mill fell into disrepair and it was only through the vision of a local man, the late Jonathan Silver, that it was restored and reopened as the popular destination it now is.

I loved my stroll around Saltaire with its views across the Yorkshire countryside.  I ended my day at the local bakery for a cup of yorkshire tea and the local curd tart before catching the train back to Leeds.  Saltaire is a little known gem providing a fascinating insight into a, thankfully, bygone time when an employer could completely control his workers.  The people of Saltaire were just fortunate that their boss was Titus Salt.

Left: The manger's watchtower so he could make sure the locals were behaving