Built to last

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Deborah King visits Saltaire, built by wealthy industrialist Titus

Salt in 1853 to house his workers, and considered a Utopian village

It's a damp Tuesday and 40 pupils from Sydney Smith school in Hull are on a walking tour of a well-preserved village built for mill workers before the Industrial Revolution.

"As a village, Saltaire screams Victorian society, work and status, and has so much scope for study," says Maria Glot, the guide. "We can gear our walks to include the environment and conservation, art history and architecture, social structure, political history, geography and town planning."

Salts Mill, where 3,500 people worked, is impressive. Completed in 1853 by Sir Titus Salt, a wealthy industrialist, it was built to last and influenced by Italianate design, with one of its chimneys based on the bell tower of the Santa Maria Gloriosa church in Venice. At its peak it produced 18 miles of cloth each day and has been converted into galleries and shops.

The introductory talk takes place at the large congregational church, one of the most beautiful classical Roman churches of its day, where there are more inscriptions bearing Sir Titus's initials than there are crosses, to ensure his memory lived on. Although a Member of Parliament, he never made a speech, but his actions spoke louder than words when he built the village.

"He was the Bill Gates of his time," says Maria, as she hands each person a bookmark that highlights a member of the Victorian community.

My bookmark features John Riley Parfitt, who in 1871 was an eight-year-old Worsted spinner. He lived in relative comfort at 30 Caroline Street, above the grocer's shop, with his parents and eight siblings. "I'm able to use real people as the information is based on a census from this area," says Maria, who devised the bookmarks. "It's a good way of getting students involved."

As we begin the tour, the children discuss the names on their bookmarks and want to know if they were rich or poor. They can soon tell, as some houses are larger than others. The executive managers and overlookers, or supervisors, had large properties - the chief cashier had the biggest of all - to match the worker's status and adhere to the village's social structure.

Maria describes how some of our expressions today arise from the 19th-century mills, amid giggles from the pupils: "One of the menial positions at the mill was the slag, whose job it was to remove the fluff that settled on the machines."

Victorian life also highlights how important it is to recycle. In Saltaire, where even women's urine was used to fix the dye, there was little waste.

Food was carefully measured and, with no packaging and plastic bags, rubbish was kept to a minimum.

The tours are suitable for children of all ages. Recently, a group of five-year-olds turned up in Victorian outfits that their mothers had made, and 11-year-olds can relate to tales of Victorian life when they hear that, by the time they reached their age, most children were working full-time.

The wet weather hasn't dampened the spirits of the 15-year-old Hull pupils.

"The feedback was wonderful and the trip has acted as a stimulus for them to come back and see more of the village, perhaps with their friends or family," says Alan Larman, the English teacher. "And I was impressed with the way Maria captured the student's imagination."

www.saltaire.yorks.comtouristinfo; tel: 01274 433678. Adults pound;3, children (up to 12 years old) pound;2, minimum charge for a group of 12 or more, pound;40. New this year is the 'Life During World War II'

tour.Schools with further to travel can stay at the Ibis hotel: www.ibishotel.com

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