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Described by Prince Charles as a ‘cathedral of industry’, the Victorian mill at Saltaire forms only part of the story of creativity, determination, and vision by a reserved but revered Yorkshire business man. Born in 1803, Titus Salt was the first of nine children born to Daniel and Grace, who had taken over the family chemist-cum corner shop. Titus was a bright student, and had early ambitions to become a doctor but could not cope with the sight of blood. Instead, his father sent him to learn about the wool trade and this proved to be the foundation for a very successful career.
When his father established ‘Daniel Salt & Son’ in 1824, Titus became the backbone of this prosperous wool buying and selling business. During the 1830s he expanded the business further by carrying out the spinning and weaving processes, experimenting with different raw materials. It was in 1836 that Titus first came across alpaca wool, and almost immediately decided that this was where he would make his fortune. Despite discouragement from family and friends, he made this South American commodity the basis of his textile empire, the cloth becoming even more fashionable when Queen Victoria began to wear alpaca dresses. Now, with an international network of agents, and five mills operating in Bradford, Titus Salt had become an extremely wealthy man.
But his success seemed only to highlight the generally poor working conditions in Britain, and more specifically in Bradford. Although the town was booming with industry, it was described as one of the filthiest towns in the world in the 1840s. Salt appeared to understand the possible repercussions these problems would have on society if left unresolved and, with his usual business acumen, he began to form a plan. When he purchased land in the Aire Valley it was the first stage in the evolution of one of the most famous model communities in Britain.
The first building to be completed was a vast Italianate-style mill, constructed in local Yorkshire stone, that would house the operations carried out at Salt’s five Bradford mills. Opening on 20th September 1853, the Mill signified not only a radical change of lifestyle for the workers, but for Salt himself – he had originally intended to retire at age 50 and take up farming! Over the next 25 years Saltaire became a complete ‘workers village’, with streets of uniform housing (all named after people who had influenced Salt’s life – royalty, architects, wife, children and grandchildren). He built schools, shops, churches, baths and wash houses, a new mill, a railway station, a hospital, and recreational facilities. The project was completed in May 1876, and Titus Salt died at the end of the year.
Within 15 years the business had collapsed, the Mill and village subsequently sold to a consortium. By 1986 Saltaire was a sorry sight to behold, many of the buildings were unsafe, the New Mill was totally derelict, all the housing was in private ownership, and there were plans to put an arterial road through the park. Miraculously, out of the gloom came hope. Firstly, a protection order was placed on the housing, and then Jonathan Silver bought the Mill. Over the next ten years the mill and the village were regenerated, buildings restored and refurbished, and Saltaire became renowned as a twentieth century stage for culture. The Bradford born artist, David Hockney, became involved with Saltaire when Jonathan Silver, a close friend, approached him with the idea of display galleries.
Now a World Heritage Site, the 25 acres of Saltaire appear little changed from the time it was first completed by Sir Titus Salt. The mill is now home to modern galleries and small retail outlets, but everything else in the village relates to the Victorian era.
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