Thursday, 10 July 2014

Saltaire World Heritage Site

Salts Mill and the former Midland Railway
If only Sir Titus Salt, the worsted mogul of West Yorkshire, had succeeded in his attempt to transplant the Crystal Palace to his model industrial settlement of Saltaire, the greatest of all glasshouses might still be with us today and the great fire of Sydenham would never have happened. Although there is something to be said for exploring industrial heritage sites in the rain and gloom the much improved weather on our second visit to Saltaire was very welcome. There was time to tramp the compact network of residential streets (mostly named after the large number of Salt offspring) and admire the ambition and scale of Salt’s achievement in untypically balmy conditions. 

The offices at Salts Mill
New Mill of 1868 with Venetian campanile chimney
The alpaca and the Angora goat were major contributors to Salt’s fortunes. Salt’s engineers and technicians found ways to spin these intractable materials and supply a commercial advantage over his competitors. In 1848, near the end of a decade of industrial conflict, Salt was elected mayor of Bradford. A rising tide of labour unrest and environmental degradation brought the Chartists out on to the city streets and after a cholera epidemic killed over 400, Salt was one of the first of the mill-owners to realise that things had to change. In 1850 he began work on a plan to relocate the business to the clean air and bucolic surroundings of the Aire Valley alongside purpose built housing for the workforce. 

Victoria Road looking north with Victoria Hall tower on the right. The trees lining the road are due to be removed.
Looking east along Albert Terrace, Saltaire station and Salts Mill to the left and workers’ homes on the right.
Full implementation of the scheme would take over 20 years but by 1865 it was largely complete with over 400 dwellings, a large public park, a Congregational Church, a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a Mechanics’ Institute, a hospital, school and almshouses. The housing stock was mostly back-to back with more spacious dwellings reserved for high status employees. Salt’s Mill itself was strategically positioned between the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Midland Railway. The architectural design was the work of the Bradford-based partnership of Lockwood and Mawson who took full advantage of their client’s ambition to make a grand statement. The mill itself was a massive presence with as many as 4,000 employees at its peak and its six storeys were generously embellished with Italianate details. When a second mill (the New Mill) was added in 1868 the chimney was disguised as a Venetian campanile. 

Back alleys designed for deliveries of house coal.
Substantial two and three-storey housing in George Street as seen from Titus Street. Homeowners whose front doors don’t conform to the approved styles compatible with World Heritage Status may be served with enforcement notices.
The Salt family gradually lost their grip on Saltaire and by 1892 changing market conditions forced Salts Mill into receivership. The business was rescued and returned to profit under new ownership but the housing was sold off in 1933 and the Mill finally closed in 1986. Conversion to retail and exhibition space followed quickly after the Mill was acquired in 1987 by Bradford entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver. Designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 helped secure the future of Saltaire as a visitor destination. The formidable space in the New Mill is now occupied by Bradford District NHS. 

Victoria Hall, former Mechanics' Institute
Titus Salt Hospital
Victorian entrepreneurs were not universally given to enlightened paternalism but there were enough to make a difference. Some (especially Quakers) were motivated by their religious beliefs and others by the sort of self-interest that took account of the negative impact of social unrest on a favourable climate for business. As we come ever closer to regressing to Victorian levels of income inequality we cannot expect much in the way of mitigation from today’s generation of plutocrats, most of whom no longer produce tangible products but enrich themselves by the manipulation of capital and the avoidance of taxation. Even the self-interest argument falls on deaf ears when economic power lies in the hands of a callous trans-global minority whose lack of national allegiance has persuaded them that social unrest can never harm their interests. 

Tower of the Grade I listed United Reform Church

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