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Drawing of Salts Mill from around 1920
World Heritage Site 20 years logo

Saltaire Collection and Saltaire History Club collaborated with Derwent Valley Mills and New Lanark to prepare some shared materials for the Foundation and Legacy Exhibition taking place between May 28 and June 20, 2021 in the old boardroom at Salts Mill.  All three sites were designated as World Heritage Sites in December 2001 by UNESCO.

Whether UNESCO’s decision to inscribe the three sites, at the same time, was coincidental or not, there are interesting links between key ideas, events and people across the sites that illustrate the progression of the Industrial Revolution from the 18th to the 19th Century and, for some of the pioneers, ideas that mitigated the negative effects of industrialisation on working people.

Richard Arkwright by Mather Brown 1790. Courtesy of the New Britain Museum of American Art via Wikimedia Commons
Richard Arkwright by Mather Brown 1790

The achievements of Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) in inventing powerful new machines to process raw materials are widely accepted as being the foundation of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th Century.

By 1767, a machine for carding cotton had been introduced into England and James Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny. With the help of a clockmaker, John Kay, who had been working on a mechanical spinning machine, Arkwright made improvements that produced a stronger yarn and required less physical labour. His new carding machine was patented in 1775 and the mechanisation of cloth production grew apace.

Arkwright was also the first to use James Watts’ steam engine to power textile machinery, leading to the development of the power loom.

Robert Owen, courtesy of
Robert Owen

Arkwright’s best-known mill is Cromford Mill within the Derwent Valley World Heritage site, but he was involved in many more mills. In one such he worked with David Dale in New Lanark to establish a large mill, capable of employing 2,000 people. Meanwhile, Robert Owen (1771-1858), from humble beginnings in Wales, had worked with other entrepreneurs in Manchester and successfully managed the Piccadilly Mill then the Chorlton Twist Mill in Manchester.

He had also begun to develop enlightened ideas. In 1793, he was elected a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where the ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed. He also became a committee member of the Manchester Board of Health, instigated by Thomas Percival to press for improvements in the health and working conditions of factory workers.

On a visit to Scotland, Owen met and fell in love with Ann Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale, the proprietor of the large New Lanark Mill. After their marriage on 30 September 1799, the Owens set up home in New Lanark and Owen purchased the New Lanark mill, becoming manager in 1880. He set about creating an ideal community for the workers, establishing probably the first organised childcare, education for children and adults, reducing working hours for his employees and lobbying nationally for improved social welfare provisions.

Owen supported the cooperative movement and trade unionism. His influence on British Social Policy and the improvements he made to industrial social welfare were known in Europe and America. Owen established a Utopian Socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana, and alongside New Lanark, these towns remain as reminders of his efforts.

Sir Titus Salt in his later years
Sir Titus Salt in his later years

Titus Salt (1803-1876) had moved to Bradford with his parents and siblings in the 1820’s and by 1834 had set up his own wool combing and spinning business. Salt and his contemporaries benefitted from the continued innovations that allowed the mechanisation of cloth production.

Bradford had become a magnet for people seeking work or business opportunities and the once small township had experienced a population growth of 78% in just over 30 years. Bradford had become a foul and overcrowded place, with many textile mills increasing the levels of untreated industrial waste. It had attracted many migrant workers and had high levels of abject poverty and ‘lawlessness’.

Titus had had great success by 1850 but unlike his contemporaries he did not buy a landed estate and retire. Troubled by the poverty and poor living conditions of textile workers and the pollution created by the growth of mills in Bradford his decision was to build a grand new mill, in rural surroundings, and create an industrial community which he was to name Saltaire.

Salt’s decision to found the model community of Saltaire and the plans he brought to fruition to provide education, health, and social care in this model village show many similarities with Owen’s work to transform the lives and experiences of workers.

The histories produced to record the events and achievements of Titus Salt’s life, provide no evidence to demonstrate that Salt ever visited New Lanark or supported Owen’s vision of utopian socialist communities. It would, however, be very unlikely that Salt had no knowledge of Owen’s work to improve the treatment of mill workers and ensure the provision of public services.

His legacy was in some danger 16 years after his death. Three of his five sons who were directors of Salts Mill with an older, experienced manager, Charles Stead made some significant international investment in Dayton, Tennessee and, this with other trading factors, caused the business to develop serious financial problems. Sir Titus Salt had not left legacies to the sons receiving directorships, believing that the family business would meet their needs. In addition, Salt left legacies and annuities whose value amounted to £530,000 but after probate was completed, his estate was valued at less than £400,000. His sons were unable to continue and preserve his legacy.

Sir James Roberts portrait
Sir James Roberts

James Roberts (1848-1935) had visited Saltaire as a young man and was inspired by the work of Sir Titus Salt. Neither of James Roberts parents were literate, nor with a family of eleven surviving children, would they have had spare resources. James commenced part time work at the age of eleven years, as a worsted spinner at Old Oxenhope Mill. He rose rapidly within the industry and, by the time of his marriage in 1873, he was a mill manager.

Roberts then formed his own ‘wool and top merchant company’. He had acquired enough wealth and valuable experience to become one of a consortium of four people who purchased the Salt family business and the Saltaire estate in 1893. He rapidly became the senior partner of the enterprise and, after insisting on better, more transparent accountancy in the business, the three other partners sold him their shares.

His actions throughout his time at Saltaire confirmed his huge respect and admiration for Sir Titus Salt. He was engaged in local political and social life, extended Salts Mill by one third and turned the once failing business into a highly successful enterprise. Sadly, he was to lose three of his four sons to untimely deaths and have his remaining son injured in World War 1. In 1918, he sold the thriving business and Saltaire to a local partnership of businessmen.

He had not felt the need to change the name of the business to that of his own family; he had sustained the charitable bodies initiated by Sir Titus Salt and was instrumental in ensuring continued payments of annuities to Salt’s legatees.  He continued the legacy and vision of Sir Titus Salt without seeking to have his own name remembered. The only public recognition of Sir James Roberts in Saltaire is the change of name for Saltaire Park, to Roberts Park in 1920, after he gifted this to the local authority to hold in trust for the community. The plague on the park gates is a memorial to the one son who was able to be a partner in the business for a number of years, Bertram Foster Roberts.

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