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Sir James Roberts, 1848-1935

From humble origins to industrialist and

Sir James Roberts rose from a humble background to become a major mill owner and leading philanthropist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He became sole owner of Salts Mill in 1902 and oversaw the development of the textiles business and the preservation of Saltaire.

Read about his early life, his business success and his role in the consortium that bought Saltaire, before he became sole owner and shepherded the Mill and the village through the challenging times of World War One and several family tragedies.

Early life

James Roberts was born on 30 September 1848 at Lane Ends, Oakworth near Keighley in West Yorkshire. James was the eighth surviving child of James Roberts (senior) and his wife Jane (nee Hartley). His father was a weaver by trade, likely a hand weaver originally.

Neither of James’s parents were literate and with a family of six daughters and five sons they would have had little in the way of spare resources.

The family had moved to Belle Isle in Haworth by 1861 with James senior working in the mills as a power loom weaver. He later became a small tenant farmer in the Haworth area.

H2-160b: Oxenhope mill where James Roberts first worked
H2-160b: Oxenhope mill where James Roberts first worked

Marriage and business success

H2-160b: Oxenhope mill where James Roberts first worked
H2-160b: Oxenhope mill where James Roberts first worked

Aged 11 James began working part time at the spinning mill of William Greenwood Junior in Oxenhope near Keighley, becoming a full-time spinner by 14 years old.

In 1873 James married Elizabeth Foster of Harden near Bingley. They were to have a family of four boys and three girls. By the time of his marriage James was mill manager at the firm of J&W Hodgson & Co., worsted spinners in Bradford.

James then set up in business as a wool merchant and topmaker in partnership with his nephew, Joe Feather. Beginning at premises in Palmerston Buildings, Manor Row, Bradford, his company built a warehouse, Colonial Buildings, in Sunbridge Road, Bradford around 1888.

The firm prospered, partly due to James’s knowledge of supplies of wool in Russia. He had spotted a major opportunity for sourcing merino wool from vast flocks of sheep being reared there.

James travelled to Russia frequently to ensure he could obtain wool at the best prices. He developed a strong attachment to Russia and became fluent in Russian.

Purchase of Salts Mill and Saltaire

Faced with financial and trading difficulties, the firm of Sir Titus Salt, Bart, Sons & Co Ltd applied to be voluntarily wound up in 1892. James 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 well known Bradford businessmen: Isaac Smith, John Maddocks and John Rhodes. Smith and Maddocks, who were textile industrialists, resigned within 5 years and James became managing director of the company. John Rhodes, a colliery owner with no expertise in the textile industry, resigned from the business in 1902.

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.

2018..36.5: Limited Deed of Arrangement
2018..36.5: Limited Deed of Arrangement

More business success

H2-081a: Naming of new generator Mary after Sir James Roberts' granddaughter, 1915
H2-081a: Naming of new generator Mary after Sir James Roberts' granddaughter, 1915

By this point all prior creditors had been paid in full and new boilers, steam engines and machinery were installed. 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.

Production at Salts Mill was back to its highest capacity. With it came a significant increase in profitability, with the company’s bank balances being between £80,000 to £130,000 (that’s £7 to £12 million in 2023), compared to only £18,000 during the consortium years.

James continued to invest in the business throughout his ownership. Even in the challenging years of World War One he was willing to install equipment such as a new generator for Salts Mill.

Recognition from royalty and workers

James’s great success in business and his preservation of Saltaire was recognised in the King’s birthday honours of 1909. He became Sir James Roberts, First Baronet of Milner Field (a large country house originally built for Titus Salt Junior and purchased by James from Titus’s widow Catherine).

Sir James celebrated the occasion by giving his workers a week’s paid holiday. His workers presented him with an illuminated address in a decorated silver gilt casket. Sir James also announced the creation of a pension scheme for those who had worked in the mill and were over 65.

H2-074: Scroll and casket
H2-074: Scroll and casket

Social, political and public concerns

H2-177a,c: Opening of Saltaire Cricket Pavilion
H2-177a,c: Opening of Saltaire Cricket Pavilion

From the outset of his involvement in the Salt business, James enthusiastically engaged with the social life of Saltaire and was active in local political and public affairs.

He was a member of Shipley Urban District Council, 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.

Family tragedies

James no doubt hoped that his sons would succeed him in the Salt business, but sadly the family suffered a series of tragedies.

His first son James William, known as Willy, died of tuberculosis in 1898 aged just 24. 

In 1903 the second son Bertram married Eliza Gertrude Denby, the only daughter of Ellis Denby of Wycliffe House, Shipley. But just 15 months after Bertram’s marriage another tragedy struck. In August 1904, during a family holiday in Ireland, James Roberts’ youngest son John Edward was fishing near Portrush when he was swept out to sea and drowned.

Bertram gradually took on greater responsibilities for managing Salts Mill from his aging father. Everything seemed set for Bertram and his brother, Joseph Henry, known as Harry, to build on their father’s success. Sadly, though, in 1910 Bertram began to suffer from back pain and was diagnosed with ‘serous neuritis’. In November 1911 he suffered a complete breakdown and he died on 11 January 1912 aged 36. He was buried close to his brother Willy in a local cemetery.
James’s’ remaining son Harry became joint managing director of the business after the death of Bertram. James and Harry continued to run a successful business until Harry was refused exemption from service during World War One. Harry survived the war but tragically was so seriously injured that he was unable to resume his duties with the textiles business.
H2-041-3: Bertram Foster Roberts in 1903
H2-041-3: Bertram Foster Roberts in 1903

Challenging times

H2-137: Sir James Roberts commissions statue of Sir Titus Salt
H2-137: Sir James Roberts commissions statue of Sir Titus Salt

World War One (1914-1918) posed great business and personal challenges to Sir James. His workforce was affected by men leaving for the war; production had to change in part to support the war.

James supported all the mill workers financially during periods of short time working. 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 purchase some for themselves in return for a small weekly payment.

In 1917 the revolutions in Russia led to major financial losses for the textiles business.

In 1918, with old age approaching and being in ill health, James sold the textile business and village of Saltaire. In 1893 the mill had been threatened with liquidation but it was now in a healthy and thriving condition, employing around 4,000 people. 

At the sale of the mill generous gifts to the employees were made, estimated to amount to between 20-30,000 pounds (around one million pounds today).


James seems to have been a rather modest person, not looking for fame but he was clearly concerned to share his fortune more widely.

In 1903, James commissioned a statue of Sir Titus Salt for Saltaire Park to commemorate 50 years of Saltaire. (It’s notable that Roberts left no statue or memorial for himself).

In 1910, Sir James provided scholarships for students to study at Bradford Grammar School. He also purchased a large property in Harrogate for the Barnardo’s charity to care for invalid children.

In 1914, as well as the new cricket pavilion mentioned above, he subscribed generously to the Prince of Wales Relief Fund and offered his Scottish estate at Strathallan for the care of wounded soldiers.

H2-137: Sir James Roberts commissions statue of Sir Titus Salt
H2-137: Sir James Roberts commissions statue of Sir Titus Salt

In 1916, he gifted a sum of £10,000 to the University of Leeds for the creation of a professorship in the study of the Russian language and literature. He also gave generous donations to the French Red Cross.

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 Brontë Parsonage, Haworth, at a cost of £3,000 (about £150,000 in 2023) for the Brontë Society, for use as a museum. He also later provided £1,500 for the renovation of the parsonage.

H2-116: Plaque commemorating Bertram Foster Roberts at Roberts Park
H2-116: Plaque commemorating Bertram Foster Roberts at Roberts Park

Later years

H2-066: Sir James Roberts
H2-066: Sir James Roberts

Sir James spent his final years at Fairlight Hall, on the south coast of England He passed away there on 31 December 1935 aged 87.

Sir James’s legacy has regrettably been all too easy to overlook. Except for the re-naming of Roberts’ Park and the small plaque honouring Bertram, Sir James showed no signs of wanting or needing to have his own image or name remembered in Saltaire. But his business acumen, hard work and concern for his workers and the residents of Saltaire were critical for the survival of Salts Mill and the village. Saltaire would not be as it is today without him.

The Saltaire Collection contains many personal and business items related to Sir James in its Roberts Family Collection.

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H2-081a: Naming of new generator Mary after Sir James Roberts' granddaughter, 1915

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