skip to Main Content

Sir James Roberts, a very modest man, turned around the Salt Family business after its collapse and worked to preserve and honour Sir Titus Salt’s principles in sustaining Saltaire. Without his efforts, the Saltaire known and loved today may not have been preserved ‘almost intact’. His legacy was wider than that of sustaining and improving the textile business, the mill and the village and this account is an overdue tribute to him.

The purchase of Salts Mill and Saltaire

The Salt family and partners had had to place their business and the estate of Saltaire into voluntary administration in 1892. When a consortium of four Bradford business men purchased Salts Mill, the village of Saltaire and some holdings of land in and around the Shipley area making up the Salt Estate, they did not change the name of the company founded by Sir Titus Salt. It remained known and registered as Sir Titus Salt (Bart) Sons and Co. Ltd throughout the consortium years (1893-1902) and the years of sole ownership by James Roberts (1902-1918). The Yorkshire Post Newspaper’s report of the purchase of the business and the estate reported that Isaac Smith was to be chairman of the new board; John Maddocks was appointed to manage the manufacturing and merchandising for the company; James Roberts was to be responsible for supplying the raw materials for manufacture and John Rhodes (a wealthy colliery owner), the fourth director, was not recorded as having a specific role, though he was thought to be a significant financier.  Ultimately, it was to be James Roberts who was to play the most significant role in returning the company profitability and in safeguarding much of the philosophy that underpinned the foundation of Saltaire.

The early life of James Roberts

Sir James Roberts portrait
Sir James Roberts

James Roberts (1848 – 1935) was well established as a wool and top merchant at the time the consortium was formed and his success in this business made him an ideal candidate for enhancing the supply of the raw materials required by Salts Mill if it was to return to profitability.  After his insistence on some accounting changes for the firm during 1898, Smith and Maddocks sold their shares to Roberts and resigned as directors. Rhodes continued for another few years but played little part in the day to day management of the business and by the time he retired as a director in 1902, James Roberts’ son, Bertram Foster Roberts was an experienced director of the company.

His early life was not one of privilege and in fact his beginnings were very humble. He was born at Oak worth (Keighley) and was the eighth surviving child of James Roberts (senior) and his wife Jane (ne Hartley). His father was a weaver by trade who had initially lived and worked at Thornton in Craven, near Skipton and had probably been a hand weaver initially. The family had moved to Belle Isle in Haworth by 1861, as this was where James (senior) found work in the mills as a power loom weaver. Neither of James Roberts parents were literate and with a family of eleven surviving children – six daughters and five sons – they would have had little in the way of spare resources

As was common for the times, James commenced part time work at the age of eleven years, as a worsted spinner at Old Oxenhope Mill and this is confirmed by the 1861 census. James Roberts was to rise rapidly within the industry and, by the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Foster, of Harden near Bingley, in 1873, he was a mill manager. He was a manager for J & W Hodgson & Co., worsted spinners, Bradford in 1874. He then formed his own ‘wool and top merchant company’. Beginning at premises in Palmerston Buildings, Manor Row, Bradford, his company then built a warehouse, Colonial Buildings in Sunbridge Road Bradford around 1888 and soon achieved commercial success. James Roberts had become aware of vast flocks of merino sheep being reared in Russia and had recognised the opportunities to be gained from purchasing merino wool directly from there. He travelled to Russia frequently and to many other parts of the world to ensure that he could obtain wool at the best prices. His travels in Russia caused him to form a strong attachment to that country and he became fluent in the Russian language.

Owning and managing Salts Mill

Bertram Foster Roberts
Bertram Foster Roberts

At Salts Mill, James Roberts quickly began to feature in a more prominent role within the consortium, authorised to sell land from the estate in Baildon; acting as secretary to the board meetings; taking responsibility for commissioning repairs to the vital river bridge at Saltaire and selling land behind the Exhibition building. In 1897 Maddocks sold his shares in the company, followed by a similar sale of shares by Smith a few months later that year and in May 1898 James Roberts was appointed manager of the manufacturing and merchandising end of the Salt business. Rhodes remained a director for a little longer and In July 1898, Bertram Foster Roberts was appointed as a director to fill the vacancy left by Maddocks.  From 1898 the owners and managers for Salts Mill and Estate were now John Rhodes, James Roberts and his son Bertram Roberts and from August of that year, the minutes began to record matters that reflected the business of worsted manufacture to a greater degree than in the early years of the consortium. For example, decisions were made to purchase new spinning and wool washing machinery and there was a movement of debts to the new ‘profit and loss account’. What is very noteworthy from this point on in the company’s affairs is that the bank balances increased significantly, for the most part being between £80,000 to £130,000, a major difference to the bank balances of around £18,000 during the consortium years.

In July 1900, John Rhodes resigned as chairman of the company and James Roberts was appointed as chairman in his place that August. Prior to this, in September 1899 at a meeting where only James and Bertram were present, extensions and alterations to the wool warehouse were agreed.  The Mill continued to progress in profitability, recording a bank balance of £130,866 that year. John Rhodes had had little experience of textile manufacture and decided to resign as a director of the company and in January 1902, he transferred all his shares in the company to James Roberts. The consortium period was completely over and from this point on James Roberts, then aged 54 years, and his son, Bertram, with his wife Elizabeth became the sole owners and managers of Salts Mill and the Salt Estate which they were to safeguard for the next 16 years.

Social, political and public concerns

From the outset of his involvement in the Salt business, James Roberts enthusiastically engaged with the social life of Saltaire and was active in local political and public affairs. At various times he was a member of the Shipley Urban District Council, eventually chairing this, and was elected to the West Riding County Council and the local rivers board. He was president of the Shipley Textile Association, attended the House of Commons to explain Shipley’s opposition to incorporation with Bradford Council to a select committee and became a Justice of the Peace for West Yorkshire. He was a governor for the Salt Schools and became president of Shipley Golf Club and the Saltaire Cricket Club, presenting the cricket club with a new pavilion in 1914. He was a firm believer in the principles of free trade and was instrumental in the formation of the Bradford and District League Against Protection. For a time, he was also one of the joint owners of The Bradford Observer newspaper, but he declined an invitation to become the Liberal Candidate in local parliamentary elections in 1911. In the King’s birthday honours of 1909, he was created a Baronet and became Sir James Roberts, first Baronet of Milner Field (purchased from Catherine Salt) and he celebrated the occasion with giving his workers at the mill a week’s holiday with pay. His workers presented him with an illuminated address in a decorated silver gilt casket and Sir James also announced the creation of a pension scheme for those who had worked in the mill and were over 65 years of age.

Later years

Sir James Roberts had no doubt hoped that his remaining sons would succeed him in the Salt business, having lost his first son James William, known as Willy (b. in 1874) to Tuberculosis in 1898 aged 24 years. Bertram (Foster) Roberts born in 1876 was heavily involved by 1902 and looked likely to inherit his father’s business acumen and abilities. In 1903 Bertram married Eliza Gertrude Denby, the only daughter of Ellis Denby (later Sir Ellis Denby) of Wycliffe House, Shipley. The young couple took up residence at ‘The Knoll’ in Baildon, recently vacated by Bertram’s parents. Two daughters and two sons were born there between 1904 and 1909. Just 15 months after Bertram’s marriage, however another tragedy struck the Roberts family. In August 1904, during a family holiday in Ireland, James Roberts’ youngest son John Edward, known as Jack (b. 1893) was fishing off some rocks at Ramore Head, Portrush near a place known as ‘The Washtub’ when a witness heard a splash and turned around to see that the young man had been swept into the sea. He was 11 years old and a nearby fisherman named Joseph Fearon leapt into the sea to save him, but the weight of the boy and the power of the sea defeated him, and Jack was drowned.

The Kilnsey Estate Wharfedale today
The Kilnsey Estate Wharfedale today

Bertram had taken on greater responsibilities for managing Salts Mill during these years and his father, who was approaching his sixties, was happy to leave some of the day to day business of running the mill in Bertram’s capable hands. Bertram began to look for a more substantial residence for himself and his growing family and in 1911 he purchased the 3,200-acre Kilnsey Estate in nearby Wharfedale. The Kilnsey Estate Wharfedale today. It is interesting that descendants of Bertram still reside at Kilnsey and manage a visitor attraction and fishing lakes on the site. Everything seemed set for Bertram and the last remaining brother, Joseph Henry, known as Harry, to continue to build on their father’s success. This was not to be the case. In 1910 Bertram had begun to suffer from back pain. He was diagnosed as having symptoms of ‘serous neuritis’ (possibly inflammation of the spinal fluid) and his health began to deteriorate. In November 1911 he suffered a complete breakdown and after a short rally, he died on 11 January 1912 aged 36 years

Bertram Roberts, like his father, had had a prominent role in local public and political affairs, having a seat on the Shipley Education Committee; working as a Salt Schools governor; elected as a member of the Governing Board of Bradford Royal Infirmary and a president of the Shipley Board of Health and his future had seemed very bright. His funeral took place on 16 January 1912 and his body was laid to rest in Nab Wood Cemetery, Shipley, close to the grave of Willy, his older brother. Sir James Roberts was later (1920) to re-name Saltaire Park as Roberts Park in his honour and there is a small plaque situated on the coach road entrance to the park that commemorates him. Only one son remained, Harry Roberts, born in 1887, had been appointed a director of Salts Mill on September 17, 1908, at the age of 21 years, after a period as a departmental manager in the mill. He became joint managing director of the business with his father after the death of Bertram and the two continued to run a successful business until Harry was refused exemption from service during World War One and, in the event, was seriously injured.

This final personal tragedy, Sir James Robert’s advancing age, the trading problems during World War One and a heavy loss of investments in Russia caused by the Russian revolution led to his decision to sell the Salts business and Saltaire in 1918.  He had managed to successfully continue the business, despite his many obstacles brought about by the war and he was not the only person to benefit. He had continued to support all the mill workers financially during periods of short time working and in February 1917 he called all his employees into the mill yard to report that he was willing to purchase Government War Loan Stock at his own expense and allow each worker who was able to, to purchase some for themselves in return for a small weekly payment. The Salt Business continued to be highly successful and profitable and does allow insight into Sir James Roberts’ character and personal strength during a long period of great tragedy and loss. He is more than worthy of some last words that try to define his legacy a little more fully.


Sir Titus Salt's statue
Sir Titus Salt’s statue, commissioned by Sir James Roberts

Roberts Extension to Salts Mill
Roberts Extension to Salts Mill (in green)

His actions throughout his time at Saltaire confirmed his huge respect and admiration for Sir Titus Salt, for example, he had not felt the need to change the name of the business to that of his own family; he had sustained the annual payments to all the charitable bodies either initiated by or supported by Sir Titus Salt and was instrumental in ensuring continued payments of interest to Salt’s legatees over 25 years. In 1903 he commissioned a large statue of Sir Titus and had this placed in a prominent position in the then Saltaire Park, where it stands to this day. He continued the legacy and vision of Sir Titus in treating the mill workers with many kindnesses and showed great understanding of their needs when times were hard. He had offered to build a new hospital in Saltaire in 1906 (but, some conditions he set that did not find favour with the hospital charity trustees) and he had extended the mill itself by almost a third of the original floor space on the north west of the original complex, involving the construction of a multi-story building for spinning that connected with the existing dyeing and finishing plant.

Sir James Robert’s philanthropy and business improvements did not end there, and his charitable acts were many. For example, in 1910 he provided a scholarship of £40 for three years to Bradford Grammar School and purchased a large property at Town Well Road in Harrogate to gift, with his wife Elizabeth, to Dr Barnardo’s as a home for invalid children. In 1914 he subscribed generously to the Prince of Wales Relief Fund; provided a pavilion for the Saltaire Cricket Club and offered to place the Scottish estate he had purchased at Strathallan Castle at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government for the care of wounded soldiers. In June 1916 Sir James gave a gift of £10,000 to Leeds University for the foundation of a professorship of Russian language and literature and he gave generous donations to the French Red Cross. In 1920 he gifted Saltaire Park to Bradford City Council to hold all its facilities in trust and maintain this for the local community on condition that it would be re-named ‘Roberts Park’ as a memorial to his son, Bertram. In 1928 he purchased the Haworth Parsonage and gifted this to the Brontë Society to hold in trust in memory of the remarkable Brontë sisters and this is well maintained and immensely popular with visitors to the present day. Except for the re-naming of Roberts’ Park and the small plaque honouring Bertram, he showed no signs at all of wanting or needing to have his own image or name remembered in Saltaire, a fact that has led to his legacy to be overlooked more often than it is remembered. It is very sad that neither Shipley Urban District Council at the time (incorporated with Bradford since the 1970s) nor Bradford Metropolitan District Council have seen the need to create a memorial to him, given that his effort and skill caused the fulfillment of Sir Titus Salt’s vision to be secured for a long time into the future.

His legacy needs to be remembered and celebrated much more today than it has been in the past, if for nothing else that, despite enormous hurdles; significant personal tragedies and the trading difficulties during World War One, he was able to expand the Salt business considerably, after its rescue from bankruptcy. At its sale in 1918, it employed 4,000 staff drawn from the Saltaire, Shipley and Bradford areas (in contrast to the 2,000 jobs available when the consortium purchased it) giving impressive numbers of people work and good conditions of employment for many years into the future. The business and the Salt estate were sold for £2,000,000 and his legacy ought to be one that acknowledges his remarkable achievements

Back To Top