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Preserving Saltaire

How James Roberts saved Saltaire

The modest James Roberts turned around the collapse of the Salt Family business in the early 1890s and worked to continue Sir Titus Salt’s principles in sustaining Saltaire. 

Without his efforts, the Saltaire known and loved today may not have been preserved almost intact.

Purchasing Saltaire

Faced with business and financial challenges, the Salt family and its partners placed their business and the estate of Saltaire into voluntary administration in 1892. In 1893 a consortium of four Bradford business men purchased Sir Titus Salt (Bart) Sons and Co. Ltd and the associated estate which included the village of Saltaire.

The Yorkshire Post reported that Isaac Smith was to be chairman of the new board, John Maddocks would manage manufacturing and merchandising, and James Roberts would be responsible for supplying raw materials. The fourth director John Rhodes (a wealthy colliery owner) did not have a specific role, though he was a significant financier for the purchase.

Ultimately, it was to be James Roberts who was to play the most significant role in returning the company to profitability and in safeguarding much of the philosophy that underpinned the foundation of Saltaire.

2018..36.5: Limited Deed of Arrangement

Owning and managing Salts Mill

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

Roberts was well-established as a wool and top merchant at the time the consortium was formed. His experience allowed him to improve the supply of raw materials and consequently the profitability of Salts Mill. He also took up more prominent roles within the consortium: managing land sales from the estate; acting as secretary to board meetings; and commissioning repairs to the vital river bridge at Saltaire.

After Roberts’ insistence on some accounting changes for the firm during 1898, Smith and Maddocks sold their shares to Roberts and Rhodes and then resigned as directors. James Roberts’ son, Bertram Foster Roberts was appointed a director in July 1898.

From August 1898 the company board minutes began to record a greater interest in worsted manufacture. New spinning and wool washing machinery was purchased. In 1899 extensions and alterations to the wool warehouse were agreed. Eventually, 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. Ultimately, the extension to Salts Mill increased its size by around one third.

Sole ownership

In July 1900, John Rhodes resigned as chairman of the company and James Roberts took his place. Rhodes resigned completely as a director in January 1902 and sold his shares to Roberts.

From this point on James Roberts, then aged 54 years, with his wife Elizabeth and his son Bertram, became the sole owners and managers of Salts Mill and the Salt Estate which they were to safeguard for the next 16 years.

Roberts oversaw a significant increase in profitability, with the company’s bank balances being between £80,000 to £130,000 (about £800,000 to £1,300,000 in 2023), compared to only £18,000 during the consortium years.

In 1903 Roberts commissioned a large statue of Sir Titus Salt for Saltaire Park to celebrate 50 years of Saltaire

In 1908, Bertram’s younger brother Joseph Henry, known as Harry, was made a company director.

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

Public life

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 Roberts enthusiastically engaged with the social life of Saltaire and was active in local political and public affairs.

He was a member of the Shipley Urban District Council, 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, 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.


In the King’s birthday honours of 1909, he became Sir James Roberts, first Baronet of Milner Field (a large house and estate which he’d purchased from Catherine Salt). He gave his workers at the mill a week’s paid holiday to celebrate. 

In return, 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 years of age.

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

Tragedy, war and sale

H2-041-3: Bertram Foster Roberts in 1903
H2-041-3: Bertram Foster Roberts in 1903

Bertram Roberts also had a prominent role in local public and political affairs, having a seat on the Shipley Education Committee; working as a Salt Schools governor; a governor of Bradford Royal Infirmary and a president of the Shipley Board of Health. Tragically, his active business and public life was cut short when he fell ill and eventually died in January 1912 at the age of 36.

In 1914 tragedy struck the whole country with the outbreak of World War One. The war made it difficult to maintain the workforce at Salts Mill, as men of working age were called up. 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.

Sadly Roberts’ remaining son Harry returned from the war seriously injured and could not continue in the business. Sir James sold the company and Saltaire to a new group of Bradford ‘wool men’. He gave generous gifts to the employees, estimated to be between 20 and 30 thousand pounds (at least a million pounds in 2023).


Roberts’ actions throughout his time at Saltaire confirmed his huge respect and admiration for Sir Titus Salt. Not only had he commissioned a statue of Sir Titus, but he never felt the need to change the name of the business from Sir Titus Salt Bart. and Sons Co. Ltd. to that of his own family. He sustained the annual payments to all the charitable bodies created and supported by Sir Titus. He ensured continued payments of interest to Salt’s legatees over 25 years.

He was able to expand the Salt business considerably. Near bankruptcy and employing 2000 workers in 1893, by 1918 the business was highly profitable and 4000 staff were drawn from Saltaire, Shipley and Bradford. A large number of families had work and good conditions of employment for many years into the future.

Roberts left little visible sign of his tenure in Saltaire. Saltaire Park became Roberts Park in 1920 when it was donated for public use to Bradford Council, but is named after Bertram not James. Despite this near-invisibility, Roberts’ legacy for Saltaire is enormous and should be better recognised.

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

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