William Blake’s poem that questions whether there is any truth to the legends that Jesus Christ once came to England refers to England’s dark Satanic mills, and though there are conflicting interpretations, many take the literal option that this refers to the fruits of the industrial revolution.
Bradford was a fertile ground for the mills to take root, being ideally situated to access stone to build the mills, coal to power them, and the soft water of the Pennines to wash and dye the textiles produced there. There were over 50 built here.
The mills needed a workforce, and in the first half of the 19th Century the town’s population is said to have grown from 6000 to over 100,000 with a reliance on immigrants that continued for another century after that. The work was hard, the hours were long and the environment was hazardous. Children as young as five worked alongside the adults.
Home was no refuge. Without housing regulations many lived in unsanitary slums. Whole families might share a damp cellar room. An epidemic of cholera claimed over four hundred lives. Dark and Satanic? It’s easy to reach that conclusion.
Enter Sir Titus Salt. Builder and owner of Salts Mill which on completion in 1853 was the largest industrial building in the world, but also a philanthropist who build the adjacent Saltaire village (a conflation of his surname and the name of the nearby river) to house his workers in what were then exemplary conditions. As well as the housing there were washhouses, a school, a hospital, almshouses and an institute for public meetings, concerts and education. It incorporated a library, a gym and a scientific laboratory.
Titus, it seems, cared for the minds and bodies of his workers, and their souls too. My favourite structure there is the Congregational Church which could accommodate 600 worshippers, though rarely Titus as he and his family often worshipped elsewhere. He did return to take his place in the family mausoleum which stands to one side of the church looking a little like an ostentatious afterthought. Salt was a devout Christian himself and many believe this to be the driving force behind his enterprise.
Others see a more selfish motive; he was looking after a critical asset of his business and their productivity. Perhaps this is why Saltaire is a rarity in being an English village without a pub (and check out the name of the licensed restaurant that is now at the heart of the village)
And then there’s a third option. Self aggrandisement. If he wasn’t out to impress, why adopt an Italianate architectural style in the embellishment of many of the buildings (the chimney of the New Mill building being a direct copy of a Venetian campanile for example)? Would Victorian millworkers really appreciate the cultural reference? At one stage the mill, village and park all bore his name (though a subsequent owner imposed his surname on the park). Perhaps Titus just lacked imagination.
Whatever his motivation he has left us a village that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and even the mill has found a modern use. Converted into smaller units it features, warehousing, specialist retailers and galleries. It’s the perfect place to exhibit the output of a more modern Bradfordian son of note.
So Saint or Sinner, Control-Freak or Egotist?
Or maybe a soupçon of each.
Just a pinch?
Rest in peace Titus.