Salt’s Mill – A living village of World Heritage

Words: PHILLIPPA GREENWOOD Images : MARTINE O’CALLAGHAN
Words: PHILLIPPA GREENWOOD  Images: MARTINE O’CALLAGHAN

FIRE-spitting chimneys once choked the landscape across the north of England, and the area still harbours secrets from the heyday of those dark satanic mills.

Preserved buildings can hold an aura of iconic loneliness in the memory of textile workers who endured poverty, disease and overcrowded housing. But Sir Titus Salt’s mill is a breath of fresh air, standing boldly by the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the River Aire. His mill’s redundant chimney looms down from the sky like a public monument with a silent story that wants to be heard.

Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876) built an entire village for his mill workers. Neat rows of terraced houses line 22 streets, there’s a school, a hospital, two churches and a workers’ institute. The village of Saltaire is a testament to the philanthropic ideals Salt, and some of the most successful entrepreneurs of the canal era, passionately adhered to.

An ice cream boat on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
An ice cream boat on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Many Quakers such as the Cadbury family and other non-conformist church reformers such as Titus Salt proved by example that success in business could be built on fair trade. Saltaire was a place where weavers earned a modest wage working for the textile industry that dominated world markets.

Unlike some less ethical mill owners, Salt cared that his workers were able to maintain a certain standard of living, and so he provided his workers with a well-built home in his village.

The Industrial Revolution was bringing radical change, with migration of the workforce to new industries along the canals, and the new pecking order of social classes riled in rabid confusion. The houses in Saltaire must have seemed superior to houses other mill workers lived in, with reliable patterns of windows and doors offering security and comfort in a time of chaos. Salt aimed to nurture a community with one common cause – the mill.

The cobbled streets are still alive today, in a real village with private residents and tourists who tiptoe around. The village is a thriving example of living heritage, immaculately preserved with ordinary daily life carrying on. Little has changed on the surface, except the armies of wheelie bins that line the back alleyways for a throwaway culture that Saltaire’s original villagers wouldn’t 
have understood.

The village is a thriving example of living heritage.
The village is a thriving example of living heritage.

The mill has been converted into an art and shopping experience. It houses the largest permanent collection of David Hockney paintings and on separate floors there are books, jewellery and other temptations. The huge mill still echoes with the acoustics of a cathedral of the manufacturing industry, except that the bellow of looms has been replaced by background recordings of classical music. Bare bricks arch overhead and stone floors hold feet firm, leaving the imagination to picture the mill as it was. The stairs that lead through the levels are away from the fuss and, in their emptiness, they perhaps hold the real spirit of the people who once trudged up and down them in a day’s work.

Salt’s Mill once housed 1200 looms producing 30,000 yards of alpaca and other cloths every day. Steam-driven machinery needed 50 tons of coal per day and water was drawn from the River Aire through pipes that ran under the building and the canal.

Exploring the whole village today is a social, political and industrial commentary, but the odd thing about Saltaire is how soothing its ‘order’ is. The best way to end a good day out is with a pint of ale, and in Saltaire it’s an irreverent must. In his mission to provide good welfare for his workers, Titus Salt insisted that no pub should be allowed in his village. Over a hundred years after his death the Boathouse Inn was opened right next to his mill. A second pub then had the audacity to open in the tree-lined main street in the village. It is cheekily called ‘Don’t Tell Titus’.
Who would dare?

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