Alpacas be praised, Saltaire

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The sound of an alpaca’s hooves on tarmac, a muted cricket appeal and a group warming up on a band stand set against a backdrop of giant Victorian industrial architecture. By Tom Salmon:

A walk around Roberts Park in Saltaire, a world heritage site near Bradford in the north of England, earlier this year gave us an opportunity to reflect on the impact that the industrial revolution still has on the way that we organise our lives. It’s August, the Sunday after the bank holiday – a Victorian invention created in 1871 – and families are walking around the park enjoying weekend time together – the weekend-off-work concept started for most people in the 1890s.

Saltaire owes its origins to Titus Salt (1803 – 1876). He was an industrialist, philanthropist, politician and one of the world’s first urban planners and social welfare reformers. The village provides the model for similar developments, such as the twentieth century garden cities of the UK and elsewhere, including in the USA, as well as at Crespi d’Adda in Italy. He was a man who understood how planned space could be used to improve living conditions, appease or retain a workforce, and to recognise the economic benefits of faster industrial processes.

We walk past his statue looking towards his mill, gazing over the River Aire and over another life sized bronze of two alpacas, their ears golden against the brown-green bronze having been shone by hundreds of climbing children’s hands.

This small part of Yorkshire owes a great deal to the Andean alpaca, which is why you often see them being led on leads around Roberts Park. The 33 year old Salt found, by chance, some bales of imported Peruvian alpaca wool lying neglected in a Liverpool warehouse. They were about to be sent back to Peru if no buyer was found. He took the samples back to his textiles lab, found a way of treating it and reconfigured his equipment to create a new luxurious, lightweight alpaca cloth. He had already taken over the five family mills and over the next eighteen years grew the business to become the largest employer in Bradford, where he became mayor in 1848 aged 45.

This, of course, was a time of rapid urbanisation (Bradford’s population between 1780 and 1850 rose from 8,500 to about 104,000), extreme deprivation, dangerous working conditions, pollution, ill health and industrial unrest. Salt saw cholera epidemics, the authorities shooting into rioting mill workers and the effects of smoke pollution at first hand. Life expectancy in 1850 was little over 20 years for both men and women. The gaudy ice cream van near the play park, where toddlers on scooters and older children on skateboards ride the ramps in the shadow of the mill’s huge walls, provides a weird juxtaposition to this history.

Standing in the verdant and sunny Roberts Park looking along the canal to Shipley it’s hard to imagine what the industrial urban centres of the north of England would have looked like in the 1850s. You can still see many of the tall brick chimneys rising from mills that are now converted into trendy flats or offices. The chimneys continue for another 12 miles down the Aire valley into Leeds, where factories such as Tower Works were designed to reference the towers of Verona, Florence and other Italian stops on the grand tour.

The urban mill complex was often a showy affair. Biographer David James described Salt as diffident and inarticulate so that “the village may have been a way of demonstrating the extent of his wealth and power… he may also have seen it as a means of establishing an industrial dynasty to match the landed estates of his Bradford contemporaries”.

Salt started to build Saltaire in 1851. He had decided to bring all of his textile manufacturing processes into one place, near to the River Aire, Leeds-Liverpool Canal and Midland Railway. The absolutely gargantuan mill and housing that followed, arranged in neat rows carefully designated to reflect the hierarchy on the factory floor, grew from green fields far from the overcrowding that Salt saw in Bradford. The wooded banks and green fields that rise into high moorland at the far edge of Roberts Park give you a sense of what the Airedale valley was like before the planned village and subsequent urban sprawl buttressed its edges.

As we walk around Saltaire from the park we talk about whether Titus was driven by a sense of Christian duty, philanthropy, pure economics or the desire to control a subdued workforce. We walk up from the Mill into the village, past the Victoria Hall, workers institute, alms-houses, church and around some of the 800 dwellings that he laid out. There were no pubs then, but new bars like Don’t Tell Titus and Fannys Ale House have long since solved that problem.

Of course Saltaire wasn’t a cure for poverty or a panacea for social justice. There is no doubt that it improved living conditions and the quality of life for workers at the mill but, as James points out, it “provided no real solution to the relationship between employer and worker. Its small size, healthy site, and comparative isolation provided an escape rather than an answer to the problems of urban industrial society.”

Various owners may have come and gone, from the Roberts family who renamed the park when their son died at a young age through to Bradford Property Trust and now hundreds of private households, but they have all retained a remarkable amount of the original village that Titus laid out.

As we walk around the village has a beauty and a buzz about it. The arts and music scene is thriving, not least because of the Saltaire Village Society and Jonathan Silver who started to regenerate the area when the mill closed after years of decline in 1986.

Saltaire still stands as a testament to an idea for a better way of organising space. Alpacas be praised.

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Words: Tom Salmon
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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One thought on “Alpacas be praised, Saltaire

  1. Pingback: Rage, politics and the ghost of Tom Joad | Under a Grey Sky

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