Where there's a mill...

Jeremy Sutcliffe

... there's a way through a Victorian village that stands as an enduring monument to 19th-century paternalism. Jeremy Sutcliffe visits the world heritage site at Saltaire

In 1861, Timothy Binns, a wool-comber, lived at number 13 Shirley Street, Saltaire, along with his wife and 11 children. Ten years later, three of his children had left home, but one of his daughters had married and remained, along with her husband and child.

It might sound like squalor, 12 people sharing a three-bedroom terrace, but life for the Binnses was comparatively easy. Eight family members were employed in the local mill, giving them a respectable weekly income of pound;5 a week, more than enough to pay the modest rent in one of the newly-built village's larger houses.

Timothy Binns was a respected man, a trustee of the Methodist Sunday school. Social reformers of his day would have been proud to shake hands with him. They believed good houses produced good people. Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, summed up this view in a public lecture in 1859 when he observed: "You may breed a pig in a sty, ladies and gentlemen, and make a learned pig, but you cannot breed a man in a sty and make a learned man of him."

By the standards of the day, Binns certainly had it good. The street he lived in was broad and open at either end to ensure plenty of light and ventilation. The house had good sanitation, with its own back-yard and outdoor lavatory, which was regularly cleared. What's more, he worked in a model mill for an enlightened employer, using newly developed machinery that made wool-combing, traditionally an impoverished and tedious trade, much easier. Nice work if you could get it.

Contrast this with the conditions of Bradford hand wool-combers, revealed in an 1845 survey, who typically lived and worked in just two rooms shared by eight to 12 people. Others were reported to be living in dank, overcrowded cellars that often flooded when it rained. Men and women were frequently obliged to sleep up to five in a bed.

In the 1840s, Bradford was the boom town of the industrial revolution.

Between 1801 and 1851, its population soared from 13,624 to 103,778, with people flocking there from the countryside to work in the hundreds of worsted mills that sprang up with the mechanisation of the woollen industry. Compared with the peasant economy, wages were comparatively good, but living conditions for many were atrocious. The Bradford canal was an open sewer and the town's other waterway, the Beck, was known as "River Stink". Soot poured from hundreds of mill chimneys; typhoid, tuberculosis and smallpox were rife, and in 1849 a cholera epidemic killed 426 people.

Life expectancy was barely 20 years and infant mortality among the worst in Britain.

Timothy Binns would probably have put his health and good fortune down to hard work and a firm belief in God and Methodism. But, living just four miles from the slums and smog of Bradford, he would also have been thankful to his employer and landlord, Sir Titus Salt. The story of how he came to build the model community of Saltaire on a greenfield site at a beauty spot beside the river Aire, is one of the most remarkable stories of industrial Britain. Like Binns, Salt was a non-conformist, a devoutly religious man who made a fortune in the Bradford wool trade. He became the most successful of the many entrepreneurs who rushed to take advantage of the new mass market for cloth made possible by mechanisation.

Salt built his success on the use of exotic yarns - notably alpaca produced from the llamas of Peru - to produce luxury fabrics that became a huge hit with the women of early Victorian Britain and America. By the late 1840s, Salt owned at least five mills in Bradford, and in 1848 he served as the town's mayor.

These were tumultuous times, with revolution in the air at home and abroad.

Bradford became a centre for the Chartist movement, its ranks swelled by disaffected factory workers and hand loom-weavers, whose livelihoods were threatened by the new technologies. During Salt's year in mayoral office, soldiers were deployed on the streets after a Chartist "army" threatened to take over the town.

But if Salt was one of the masters, a capitalist who made huge profits, he was also a humane man. Himself a radical (in later life he served briefly as a Liberal MP), he pressed his fellow mill owners to introduce reforms, with limited success. In frustration, he turned to his own model solution: Saltaire. The first phase of his grand project was completed with the opening of a vast new mill in 1853 which, for the first time, brought the industrial processes of combing wool into yarn, spinning the yarn and then weaving it on massive power looms, under one roof. This was no mere social experiment: if Salt wanted to do good, he also wanted to make money.

It is easy to imagine the impact the mill made at its opening, on Salt's 50th birthday, 151 years ago. Unlike many other mills of its period, it was built to last, designed on neo-Italianate principles with a vast mill chimney based on the campanile of the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. In its heyday it employed more than 3,000 people and was Europe's largest factory. Now sand-blasted clean of more than a century of industrial grime and back to its original honey-coloured Yorkshire stone, it remains a massively impressive statement of industrial strength and confidence.

Opposite the mill's entrance in Victoria Road, Saltaire's main thoroughfare, is the Congregational church (now the United Reformed church), the first public building to be completed in the village (in 1859), at the then huge cost of pound;16,000. The two buildings form the central features of Salt's community, showing the importance of his Congregationalist faith and his belief in trade.

From this vantage point you can walk the few yards down to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, beside the river Aire. Opened in 1816, the canal brought alpaca from South America to Salt's mill and exported the finished cloth to the emerging markets in the United States and Europe. A footbridge across the Aire takes you into Robert's Park, created by Salt for his workers, where a fine statue of the man himself overlooks the village.

From the Congregational church, follow the Saltaire trail around the village (a guidebook is available from the tourist information centre in Victoria Road). Built in stages between 1853 and 1871, the village eventually housed 4,000-5,000 people in 824 houses. Most of the adult population and children over the age of eight worked in Salt's mill, and part of the pleasure of wandering the village streets is identifying the subtle distinctions between the factory hands, overseers and managers, and matching the street names with the various members of Sir Titus's family.

In Albert Road, built during the final phase in 1868 for the mill's executives, original residents included the minister of the Congregational church, the registrar of births, deaths and marriages - and two teachers.

The village's public buildings demonstrate Salt's commitment to improving the lives of his employees and their families. Children attended the school (now part of Shipley college) full-time until the age of eight, and half-time from eight to 14 (the rest of the day they worked in the mill).

The Saltaire Institute provided workers with adult education, a library, a billiard room, gymnasium, art rooms and a lecture hall. The needs of the village's sick and infirm were also catered for, with a hospital and, conveniently opposite, in Victoria Road, some fine almshouses, complete with stone plaques (eerily, like gravestones) listing some of the early residents.

Significantly, there was no public house in the village. Though no tea-totaller, Salt viewed public houses with suspicion, potential meeting-places for trouble-makers and Chartists. In truth, though, his workers didn't have far to go for a drink in the many pubs in nearby Shipley and Bingley. Perhaps it is this that gave rise to the legend of the four magnificent stone lions in Victoria Square, which, come midnight, are said to climb down from their plinths and go down to the river for a drink.

Though Salt was undoubtedly a paternalist who continued to support the employment of children in his mill, he was a genuine reformer who was hugely respected, if not necessarily loved, by his employees and tenants.

More than 100,000 people were said to have lined the funeral route after his death in 1876, aged 73. Among them, very likely, was Timothy Binns.

Such is Salt's legacy that his mill and village have become a focus for regeneration in the Aire valley, a centre for cutting-edge digital technology as well as a honeypot for tourists. It also houses Europe's largest permanent exhibition of works by David Hockney, one of Bradford's most famous sons. Recently, Saltaire was declared a Unesco world heritage site, ranking it alongside the pyramids and Stonehenge in its historic importance. Like those great monuments, the story of Saltaire is set to hold a fascination for many generations to come.

www.saltsmill.org.uk; www.thisisbradford.co.uk

bradford__districtleisuresaltaire.html; www.visitsaltaire.com;

www.bradfordtimeline.freeserve.co.uk index.html


Guided tours for schools, colleges, universities and adult education groups are provided on request by Saltaire Tourist Information Centre (details below). Guides include former teachers, actors and local historians; children and adults are each given a bookmark with details of a real-life Victorian resident and the house they lived in the village. A 16-page education pack is available from the centre on request. Schools should pre-book visits.

Saltaire Tourist Information Centre, 2 Victoria Road, Saltaire BD18 3LA, tel: 01274 774464. Open Monday-Sunday 10am-5 pm.

Don't miss

* Three floors of Salt's 1853 mill have been turned into an exhibition, shopping and eating space. The central focus is a permanent exhibition of more than 300 drawings, etchings, lithographs, paintings and photo-montages by David Hockney.

* One of the quirks of Saltaire is the Glen narrow-gauge cable railway, or tramway, still open to the public at weekends and most bank holidays.

* Completed in 1816, the Leeds-Liverpool canal connected West Yorkshire with Britain's principle seaport and is one of the reasons Salt sited his mill at Saltaire. A two-mile walk along the towpath to Bingley culminates in one of the wonders of 18th-century engineering at Five Rise locks, where water rises 60-feet in a picturesque staircase, built in 1774. A waterbus also runs between Saltaire and Bingley at weekends and holidays.

Forthcoming events

Saltaire festival, September 10-19. This is set to become an annual event following the successful festival last year, held to mark the bicentenary of Sir Titus Salt's birth.

Getting there

By road: Off the A650 between Bradford and Keighley. Car parking available.

By rail: Saltaire station is in the heart of the village, with frequent services from Bradford, Leeds, Skipton and Keighley.

Anything else like it?

* Port Sunlight Village, Wirrall: www.portsunlightvillage.com

* Joseph Rowntree's garden village of New Earswick, York: www.jrf.org.ukhousingandcare newearswick

* New Lanark, South Lanarkshire: www.newlanark.orgindex2.shtml

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Jeremy Sutcliffe

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