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Isabel Salt, 1876-1968

Traveler, champion of the poor, suffragist (not a suffragette!)

Isabel Salt was a granddaughter of Saltaire’s founder Sir Titus Salt. Her privileged background allowed her to meet Royalty at a young age, and to travel in Europe.

Isabel, though, had a keen social and political conscience which saw her champion many progressive causes including female education, welfare for the poor, and equality for women, including voting rights.

Read her fascinating life story below and explore many items from her life in the Isabel Salt Collection.

Early life

Mary Isabel Salt, known as Isabel, was the youngest child and only daughter of Titus Salt Junior (youngest son of Sir Titus Salt, the founder of the model village of Saltaire) and his wife Catherine Crossley from the famous carpet manufacturing family of Halifax. Both sides of the family had risen high among the industrial elite, and gained both wealth and prestige.

Isabel was brought up in a large and striking house, Milner Field, built by her father near the village of Saltaire. There was a nursery for the children with attractive story book windows, and a boating lake, conservatories and extensive gardens for them to enjoy as they grew older. Photographs show Isabel in an elaborate costume and she and her brother in fancy dress.

2018.9.4.9: Isabel Salt as a young girl
2018.9.4.9: Isabel Salt as a young girl

Royalty and tragedy

2018-36.7: Prince and Princess of Wales planting a tree in Saltaire Park
2018-36/7/001: Prince and Princess of Wales planting a tree in Saltaire Park. Isabel is at the front on the right with her parents and brothers

The size and luxurious appointments of the house made it suitable not just as a family home, but as a place which Titus could offer for the entertainment of the Prince of Wales and his wife, Alexandra, when they came to open Bradford Technical College in 1882. A cook was hired from London; Catherine ordered monogrammed sheets for the royal couple. For the dinner a guest list of the local leading families, both from the aristocracy and industry, was drawn up.

Isabel would then have been about five and a half, and appears in the photographs in a very frilly costume next to her mother, and watching Princess Alexandra planting a tree.

All seems to have gone successfully with this first visit, but the second Royal visit was ill omened.

It was held in 1887 to mark the opening of the Royal Yorkshire Jubilee Exhibition and the Schools of Art and Science which Titus had built to commemorate his father. The exhibition had built up debts, and Titus seems to be showing some strain in the photos with Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen, and her husband. Isabel once again appears in fine clothes for the photographs

November of that year brought tragedy for her and for the rest of the family, as her father died suddenly at home from heart trouble.

Life after the death of her father

Catherine was a widow, but received adequate provision from Titus’s will (£69,000 – about £7million in 2023) as well as an annuity of £2,000 from her father’s will. There was still money for dinner parties with the local industrial and academic elite, as shown by Catherine’s daybook , and for a coming out party for Isabel in 1895, which took the form of a fancy dress ball. The family enjoyed fancy dress events.

There was money for travel, though not to spend it too extravagantly. In August 1890 Catherine, Isabel, her brother Lawrie, and Mrs and Miss Pesel, friends of the family from the German community in Bradford, set out for the continent, and Isabel recorded her first visit abroad in her diary.

I suppose one ought really to keep a foreign journal for memoirs(?) of a foreign land

wrote Isabel, aged 13¾

The journal shows the party behaving in quite a thrifty way. They took sandwiches for the train for all the party, but unfortunately lost the Pesels in Paris (they turned up later). They also met in Catherine’s hotel room for bread saved from lunch time, and a brew of tea.

When Isabel was seventeen there was another visit to Germany by Isabel on her own to stay with a family who were obviously well known to the Salts. During this visit Isabel sent a begging letter for extra funds worthy of any teenager today back home to her mother.

If you sent me a cheque at once, by return, I should get it in plenty of time before I leave. I think this would be best, don’t you?

There was a further visit in 1899.

2018. Travel notebook of Isabel Salt from 1890
2018. Travel notebook of Isabel Salt from 1890


2018. Page from Isabel Salt's travel notebook on trip to Germany, written in German
2018. Page from Isabel Salt's travel notebook on trip to Germany, written in German

Apart from these visits, which must have been intended to improve Isabel’s German, as well as for enjoyment, there does not seem to be any record of Isabel’s education.  

Her family were definitely in favour of the higher education of girls. Her grandfather, Sir Titus, wrote in the Bradford Observer of  30 March 1876:

I feel it is only fair that [the  boys’] sisters should have equal opportunity of attaining higher education

He  gave a generous gift towards the foundation of Bradford Girls’ Grammar School. Isabel’s father supported the education of women, and her mother had belonged to the Bradford Women’s Educational Association, which founded Bradford Girls’ Grammar School

So surely Isabel must have received some secondary education, but it has not yet come to light. Her two older brothers went to public school and then university, and Lawrie went to public school. Did Catherine feel that, in spite of the family’s liberal attitude to women’s education, she could not afford an expensive education for her daughter too?

Young adulthood

Isabel reached the age of twenty-one in 1897.  At this stage presumably all the family expected her to marry, preferably someone from a family of the same standing as her own. There is no record at this time of any such attachment.

According to the press she takes part in some social events such as the Conversazione started by her parents. But there is evidence of her wanting to do more than mere socializing when she joined the Loyal Elizabeth Lodge when it was set up in Shipley (Shipley Times and Express, 21 Sept 1901).  This was one of the friendly societies which were set up to help the poor to lay aside small funds to meet emergencies. In the past most had had a male membership but  this one was set up for women, as were others at the time.

Isabel gave a speech at the first anniversary of the Loyal Elizabeth Lodge in which she commented:

Women are daily becoming more independent in thought, action and social position.

(Shipley Times and Express, 10 0ct 1902.)

Isabel gave a speech at the second anniversary too, and also at the third anniversary, in spite of the fact that by this time she, together with her mother and others in the family, had left Saltaire. In 1903 Milner Field had been sold to James Roberts, who had taken over the mill.  Catherine had taken a lease on Denton Hall at Ben Rhydding near Ilkley. This was near enough to Saltaire to return to speak at meetings.

2018.9.4.10: Isabel Salt with her dog Max at Denby Hall, Ilkley
2018.9.4.10: Isabel Salt with her dog Max at Denby Hall, Ilkley

A year spent in the Women’s University Settlement at Southwark

Isabel describes this experience in a talk at Shipley before they left, and, more fully at a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Association in Otley later in the year. (Wharfedale and Airedale Observer, 20 Nov 1903). These settlements involved volunteers, who were mainly members of the universities, in work among the poorer residents in deprived areas. The objective of the settlement at Southwark was

to promote the welfare of the poorer districts of London, more especially of the women and children, by devising and advancing schemes which tend to elevate them, and by giving them additional opportunities in education and recreation.

Isabel described some of the problems in these areas and concentrated on the need for different classes to mix with each other as the first step in finding a solution. She did not say which year she had spent there, nor what her special link with this Settlement was.

Champion of the poor and female equality

Clearly Isabel was not going to embark on a frivolous social life at Denton Hall, and very soon she joined the Wharfedale Board of Guardians.   These Boards were responsible for the administration of workhousesThis was obviously one of her interests – she gave a talk on Poor Law administration to the Women’s Liberal Association at the [Shipley] Liberal Club. (Shipley Times and Express, 6 April 1906).

The minutes of the Board of Guardians are unfortunately lost, but, reading between the lines of local press reports, it sounds as if she came as a shock to the system of some of the members of the existing board.  She tended to vote for a more lenient policy. For example, she supported a rise in pay for the supervisors, who had not had a rise in pay for many years, whereas the attitude of some other members was that they received a good salary, and things should remain as they were.

When sent as the board’s representative to conferences she produced very thorough reports.

A leading member of the Board said

the board had had a singularly able report from Miss Salt.  Without any disparagement of other members he did not know that they had had a finer report, more eloquent, and more exhaustive, than that given by Miss Salt.

(Wharfedale and Airedale Observer29 July 1910.)

Others were urged to follow the same standards when they attended conferences.

When Isabel later left the board someone else, possibly someone who had sent in a less thorough report, commented that their meetings would now be much shorter.

Isabel the Liberal

2018. Excerpt from The Women's Liberal Review 1918 featuring Isabel Salt
2018. Excerpt from The Women's Liberal Review 1918 featuring Isabel Salt

Isabel, a firm Liberal from a Liberal family, had shown her concern for better welfare provision, and she supported the Liberal government’s Licensing bill, which placed taxes on alcohol, and the budget of 1909, proposing, among other measures, an old age pension for those over seventy.  She gave speeches on these topics, and appeared to relish them.

There is a reference in the Bath Herald of 3 Jan 1910 to her travelling on a bus with other Liberals (all men), which sounds rather surprising in Edwardian days. The purpose of the trip was to give speeches. Isabel would be thirty-three at the times, so perhaps was considered too old to be chaperoned.

There is a flyer for a speech of July 20 1911, given to the Ipswich Women’s Liberal association which includes a notice ‘No children over three months will be admitted.  No perambulators…Husbands admitted at 6 o’clock by showing a member’s ticket.’  Women friendly, but not family friendly.

Isabel the suffragist, definitely not the suffragette

In addition to these other causes of agitation there was the cause of women’s suffrage. From 1905 onwards a supporter could be either a ‘suffragist’, i.e. a moderate, not resorting to violence, and led by Millicent Fawcett, or a ‘suffragette’, who felt the government had not listened to reason, and would support violence. They were led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Isabel was very decidedly a ‘suffragist’, and there is a most interesting correspondence in the Wharfedale and Airedale Observer about this. In the issue of 12 Feb 1909 Isabel explains why she is a suffragist, in the issue of Feb 19 the editor hails ‘Miss Salt as a suffragette’. The issue of 26 Feb. carries a disclaimer by Miss Salt, where she proves clearly to the editor that he has not understood her previous article at all, and the editor puts in an apology of sorts:

one was so impressed by the intellectual strength of Miss Salt’s recent utterances…that the subtlety in the difference in the definitions “Suffragette” and “Suffragist” had escaped one’s notice…

It is worth noting that in her disclaimer Isabel stresses that she is a Liberal first and a suffragist second. Her family had all been strong supporters of the Liberal party, and Isabel obviously thought this was her first loyalty. She says in her response to the editor that she looks forward with hope to the time when the Liberal party will be united upon this question. However, this hope was not fulfilled.The Liberals under Asquith several times seemed to be on the brink of giving women the vote, but it came to nothing. Her own constituency MP, Mr. J.H. Duncan, was interrogated on his support for women’s suffrage and said that he would not vote for it.

At this point the war intervened, and the women’s suffrage movements put their main effort into war work.

2018. Isabel Salt letter to the editor clarifying she is a suffragist not a suffragette
2018. Isabel Salt letter to the editor clarifying she is a suffragist not a suffragette

Isabel and the First World War

2018. Letter to the editor calling for a reassessment of Britain's role in the First World War
2018. Letter to the editor calling for a reassessment of Britain's role in the First World War

Isabel made sure that the work which women were doing was kept in the public eye, and war or no war she continued to advocate equal pay. The Shipley Times and Express for 21 April 1915 carried an account of a speech, Woman’s work in war time, where Isabel ranges over the effect of war on social questions

private interests must be sunk for the public good”.  There must be a change in attitude  to employment of women as drivers, interpreters, doctors, who  did not get equal pay.

Chauffeurs belonging to the Red Cross Society are receiving better salaries than highly skilled and highly trained nurses” (Shame).   There must be “Equal pay with men for equal work

This theme of opportunity for women in war is continued in various speeches:

The great lesson of the war was that they [women] must gain more control over their destinies.

(Shipley Times and Express, 9 Nov 1917)

The fact that she knew that if women seized the opportunities presented by the war, it would bring votes for women nearer did not blind her to the futility of war and the dangers of militarism and the arms race. In her letter, The war and after, which she sent to the Harrogate and Claro Times in December 1915, under the name, Candida, she pleads that the war has been going on for 17 months, and has achieved nothing but destruction and misery.  It is nonsensical to try to crush Prussian militarism by the same tactics. Only a change of heart can achieve what is needed.

Isabel and her mother had moved from Denton Hall in 1911 to Thorpe Arch near Boston Spa, so the Harrogate and Claro Times was their local paper. She could still go back to Saltaire to give talks, as one at the Saltaire Institute, recorded in the Shipley Times and Express 23 April 1915, where she describes war as “a cause of hatred, envy, fear, selfishness and greed.”

Isabel had become a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, by 1918. They favoured conciliation and were opposed to violence. Another possible reason for her desire to spare Germany suffering was her friendship with the German family she had visited before the war. Her passport shows she continued to visit Germany, and possibly this same family, in 1921 and 1922.

The end of the war and later life

Finally the war ends and  in her speech at Saltaire supporting Mr. Tom Snowden (Shipley Times and Express, 13 Dec 1918) Isabel declared herself ‘Pacifist and proud of it’.  She also declares that

She had always been a Liberal, but she was now on the Labour side because she had found no outlet for her principles in the Liberal party.  The great hope for the future lay with the Labour party.

In the years between 1918 and 1923 Isabel seemed  to concentrate on writing or speaking about the need for a League for Human Rights, which would unite men as individuals without membership of a specific race getting in the way. This was propounded by Maurice Hewlett, a historical novelist of the time. There is more prominence given to religion in her writing, and to a sort of mysticism. These writings do not seem to me to have the incisiveness or practicality of her earlier writing.

In 1925 she appears to have set up a residence in Oxted in Surrey. No reason is known for this move. Her mother continued to live in Harrogate, and did not die until 1930. Isabel had been living in a house in Harrogate separate from her mother since 1916. Isabel had taken an interest in ‘Betty’, a child in a family in Oxted, and paid for such things as her schooling, though she was never removed from the family situation. This may have been one reason for the move.

After this there is no evidence of more speeches or letters taking editors or mayors to task, which seems a pity, as she was so good at it. It may have been that her energies were all taken up with Betty. Betty’s daughter has said that she used to be taken by her mother to see ‘Aunt Salt’, and she enjoyed the visits as ‘Aunt Salt’ was fun. Betty preserved many of Isabel’s letters, diaries, news cuttings and textiles after her death, and these have are now part of the Saltaire Collection.

Isabel helped pay the university fees of Denys Salt, the son of her brother Harold. The receipts for these are in the Collection.

At least she retained her interest in reading, as one of her last public letters (Surrey Mirror, 24 Jan 1947) was written in response to the County Library being ousted from its premises to be offered a wooden hut.

Surely a good public library with all the cultural and recreative amenities that implies, should rank high in priority of accommodation and certainly higher than a games room for the staff.

2018.9.4.11: Isabel Salt in later middle age
2018.9.4.11: Isabel Salt in later middle age

Author: Pauline Ford, 2019

Isabel Salt Collection

2018.9.6.3: Tin box containing acorns collected by Isabel Salt
2018.9.6.3: Tin box containing acorns collected by Isabel Salt at the exiled Kaiser's palace

We have many items from the whole of Isabel’s life, including notebooks (from the age of 13 3/4) and photographs and postcards from her travels in Europe; letters to and from her friends and her mother Catherine and brother Lawrence; newspaper cuttings of letters to the editor and reports on her speeches on various subjects including votes for women, pacifism, and education; some clothing; household receipts and recipe books; and a wide selection of photographs of family members. and homes. And there’s an intriguing tin of acorns gathered in the Kaiser’s garden.

The collection was created by Isabel and kept by Rosemary Golege (Betty) Steel (1917-2016).  It was donated to the Saltaire Collection by Rosemary’s daughter Penny Howden in November 2017.

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