James Roberts was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to be the owner of Salts Mill and Saltaire. Born on 30 September 1848 at Lane Ends, Oakworth, his father was a weaver who later became a small tenant farmer in the Haworth area. Aged 11yrs. James began working part time at the spinning mill of Wm Greenwood Jnr. in Oxenhope, becoming a full-time spinner at age 14yrs. In 1873 he married Elizabeth Foster of Harden, at which time he was mill manager at the firm of J&W Hodgson in Bradford. James and Elizabeth were to have a family of seven children, four boys and three girls. James then set himself up in business as a wool merchant and topmaker in partnership with his nephew, Joe Feather. The firm prospered – in part due to James’ knowledge of supplies of wool in Russia and his business contacts there.
When the firm of Sir Titus Salt, Bart, Sons & Co Ltd applied to be voluntarily wound up, in 1892, James Roberts was part of a four-man consortium who purchased the firm and the village of Saltaire in 1893. The other 3 men forming the consortium were all well known in the Bradford business community. They were Isaac Smith, John Maddocks and John Rhodes. Smith and Maddocks, who were textile industrialists, resigned within 5 years of joint ownership and James became managing director of the company. John Rhodes, a colliery owner with no expertise in the textile business, resigned from the business a few years later. James Roberts then had sole ownership of the mill and the company began to significantly increase profits. The future of the Salts business and Saltaire had been safeguarded.
By this point all prior creditors had been paid in full and new boilers, steam engines and machinery were installed. An employee pension scheme was introduced and production at the mill was back to its highest capacity. A new multi-storey spinning block was erected on the north side of the canal and additions were made to the adjacent dyeing and finishing areas. The extension to Salts Mill increased its size by around one third. His great success in business and his preservation of Saltaire led to James Roberts being awarded a baronetcy in 1909 and he became Sir James Roberts, First Baronet of Milner Field (Milner Field being a large country house built for Titus Salt Junior, nearby in Gilstead)
The Advent of World War One created significant trading difficulties. The war made it difficult to maintain the workforce at the mill, as more and more men of working age were called upon to serve in the war effort. In addition, there were severe restrictions on trade with Europe and Russia. Nevertheless, Sir James encouraged the purchase of War Loan Stock by his employees through personally paying off the final instalment. Housing rents were maintained in Saltaire at the same level as when the houses had been built 60 years before and rents were not collected, and arrears not accrued when the mill was on short time. The income of families was maintained where the bread-winner was on active service. Despite these challenges the business continued to succeed. As his success in business and personal wealth increased Sir James made many benevolent gestures. He had planned for his sons to follow him into the business, but by the end of WW1 only one son remained alive, who, owing to injuries received in the war, was unable to join the firm.
In 1918, with old age approaching and being in ill health, Sir James sold the mill and village of Saltaire. At the sale of the mill, in 1918, generous gifts to the employees were made, estimated to amount to between twenty and thirty thousand pounds. When sold by Sir James, the mill, which had been threatened with liquidation when it was purchased, was in a healthy and thriving condition, employing 4,000 people, compared to 3,000 in the period 1853 to 1893. Amongst the many generous acts relating to Salts Mill and Saltaire made by Sir James Roberts was the commissioning of the Statue of Sir Titus Salt for ‘Saltaire Park’ (although he left no statue or memorial for himself). He had not only greatly increased the mill’s production capacity but had ensured that Saltaire and its workers and residents were very well cared for. His legacy was not just confined to Salts Mill and Saltaire.
In 1910, he provided scholarships for students to study at Bradford Grammar School and he purchased a large property in Harrogate for Barnardo’s to care for children. In 1916, Sir James gifted a sum of £10,000 to Leeds University for the creation of a professorship in the study of the Russian language and literature; in 1920, he ‘gifted’ Saltaire Park to Bradford Council to hold all its facilities in trust for the community and maintain this (merely asking for it to be renamed Roberts Park in memory of his second son, Bertram Foster Roberts); in 1928 Sir James, purchased the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, at a cost of £3,000 for the Bronte Society, for use as a museum. He also later provided £1,500 for the renovation of the parsonage.
He spent his final years at Fairlight Hall, on the south coast of England, where he passed away on 31st December 1935 aged 87.
An admirer of Sir Titus Salt but modest about his own achievements Sir James Roberts’ legacy is profound and deserves to be remembered and understood much more than it tends to be in the locality.