Peering into the Life of a 19th-Century Mill Worker in Saltaire, Yorkshire

Whenever I discover something about one of my English ancestors, I wonder, “What was it like for them?” and begin to imagine the streets and houses of their time and place. To find out more about life as a Victorian-era worker in a woolen mill, my family and I came to Saltaire, near Bradford in Yorkshire.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Saltaire is almost unchanged since the 1870s. What you see is what was there when it was an operating mill town.
  • You can explore the mill, church, Roberts Park, the streets of Saltaire and the shops at your leisure.
  • It’s a pleasant day out, or a stop on your way to Haworth, home of the Brontes, about 10 miles away.
  • David Hockney’s art is on display in Salt’s Mill.
  • Good for: history buffs, people researching their own mill worker ancestors, Hockney fans.

By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution had done its worst to England’s north. The “dark Satanic mills” polluted the air and water, making the intensely overcrowded towns even more deadly for the people there.

Massive buff-coloured factory with allotment gardens in front

Salt’s Mill is the reason Saltaire was created (Photo credit: Jill Browne)

In 1840s Bradford, the air was toxic thanks to so many mills spewing smoke into such a small area. Cholera was no stranger. The life expectancy was barely over 20. It was an intolerable situation for the workers, but they had nowhere else to go.

Enter the Victorian paternal philanthropists: a few wealthy industrialists who spent their own money to improve their workers’ lot. One was Titus Salt, former mayor of Bradford, who built a whole new mill and a town to go with it. Although he ruled it strictly, life in Saltaire (Salt’s village on the River Aire) was a life and not a life sentence.

Salt’s Mill is magnificent: a massive buff-coloured four-storey building with neat rows of large windows on each level and Italian-style campaniles for chimneys. Once the largest factory in Europe, perhaps the world, the mill opened in 1853. The town of Saltaire followed over the next decade.

Tours of Saltaire with Salt’s Walks

It’s been 50 years or more since the mill stopped making woolen fabrics. The old jobs like “loom operator,” “carder,” and “overseer in Salt’s Mill” have disappeared.

We’re staying in one of the original workers’ houses for the weekend. Now we tourists can make that daily walk from home to mill.

Saltaire is a World Heritage Site now because it’s an intact, original village, a perfect example of its type. People continue to live and work here today, doing modern jobs in the old buildings. It’s not a museum or a site constructed to demonstrate history.

A row of buff brick houses. The end one has a tower with a view in all directions from the top.

The Head of Security could watch all of Saltaire from the tower of his house. (Photo credit: Jill Browne)

By luck, we get to tag along on a “Salt’s Walk” group tour. Three costumed Saltairians of the past share their views of life in town. With a lot of good humour and a solid grasp of Saltaire’s history, the actor-guides leave no doubt about how things were. Follow the rules or pack your things, because “the Master” is firmly in charge of this town, and what he says goes. He does own it, after all.

Saltaire was Built to Fill the Workers’ Every Need

The history gallery inside Salt’s Mill documents the change from booming production to eventual decline and shutdown over about 100 years. By the 1980s, Salt’s Mill was another decaying industrial property on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Fortunately, the late entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, with the support of  his friend, artist David Hockney, rescued Salt’s Mill. It now houses specialty shops, galleries and cafes. Passionately dedicated community members have kept up the momentum of heritage preservation and development in the village.

We spend a few hours browsing the books, art, and antiques before heading upstairs to see Hockney’s bright paintings and new electronic creations.

Two bronze alpacas look placid against a green playing field.

There are tributes to the alpaca all over Saltaire because Titus Salt made a fortune from their wool. (Photo credit: Jill Browne)

I’m standing on the top floor of the mill looking out the gallery window. The view hasn’t changed.

I imagine a girl sweating away at some finger-crushing machine in the deafening factory, secretly lifting her eyes to the hills for a moment of peaceful salvation.

Religion was as much a part of Titus Salt’s vision as industry. Coming out the mill gate, the workers would see the elegant Italianate-style church. Designed by Lockwood & Mawson, the architects of Saltaire’s grid of terraced houses and Roman roads, it features a part circle of graceful columns supporting the portico, circular bell tower and dome above.

A street lined with buff brick houses in rows, the church dome and green hills in distance.

The dome of Saltaire’s church and the green Yorkshire hills across the River Aire (Photo credit: Jill Browne)

Over the course of the weekend, we explore the church inside and out. We cross the river to Roberts Park and have coffee and goodies at the friendly Half Moon Cafe. We peek into the elegant Victoria Hall, originally the Saltaire Institute, where famous people like Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and explorer David Livingstone gave public lectures.

Rank and Hierarchy Mattered

Although the residential streets look identical at first, we start to notice different sizes of houses. The higher your job, the bigger your house.

The head of security lived on the hill above most of the others. The house still has a tower with windows on all sides, the better to watch for rule-breakers.

It’s a bit too much like the panopticon of Pentonville model prison for my liking. Woe betide the woman who hangs her laundry out to dry, or the man who dares drink the demon alcohol. If you’re late for work, you lose the day’s pay. Take a bath once a week at the public bath house. Individually the rules seem harmless enough, but in our tour, Mrs. Ellin Dooley (played by local historian Maria Glot) confessed to the occasional longing to kick over the traces.

Paternalism Had a Purpose

Although paternalism has gone out of style, in its day it was the salvation of hundreds of Saltaire families. On Titus Salt’s funeral day in January 1877, it’s estimated that 100,000 people lined the route out of respect and affection.

Today we can look at the town, with its straight lines, its opportunities for education, work, and self-improvement, and its adherence to all of Titus Salt’s rules, and think upon what Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Practicalities

  • Easily reached by train from Leeds. Leeds is well connected to London by rail.
  • Salt’s Mill is built on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, accessible to canal boats.
  • Saltaire is a living, working town, not a museum. Walking is the best way to see it.
  • Ask at Visitor Information for the details of Salt’s Tours. If you get the chance to take one with costumed guides, don’t miss it.
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Comments

  1. Jill Browne says

    Thank you, Karin-Marijke, glad you enjoyed it. I was looking forward to visiting Saltaire for a few years, so was thrilled to finally make it.

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  2. says

    This is lovely, Jill. I wish I could find some historical information to help me fill in the gaps on the lives of children who worked in Salt’s Mill and went to school there . . . but you do a great job on the area.

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    • says

      Marlene, Thank you so much for your kind comment. If you do manage to fill in the gaps, I’m sure the stories would be quite interesting. I also wonder whether the life prospects of the Salt’s Mill children ended up being significantly better than those of their peers in Bradford. I would hope so.

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    • Sarah Whiteley says

      This was a lovely read, Jill! I am very pleased you had a good time on your trip. I am from Saltaire and I am extremely proud of its heritage and history. In primary school children learn about Saltaire when studying Victorians… to us it felt like a bit of a cop off! After all, there’s nothing special about walking down a street you walk down everyday when you are that age. It’s only when you get a bit older and can appreciate it that an everyday walk can mean so much more! I worked in a pub/restaurant that used to be the tramshed (it’s called The Old Tramshed funnily enough) and nothing brightened my day quite like meeting tourists from all over the world and sharing snippets of knowledge and interesting rumours! Mainly the one about the four lions which still entertain children to…

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