#35: English Unesco World Heritage Sites – Saltaire
Saltaire: the seventh of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites I’ve visited. Small in area terms compared to some of the sites, but easy to explore because of that. Essentially a ‘model’ industrial village built by Sir Titus Salt in the second half of the 19th century, it comprised two textile mills, workers’ housing and a number of public buildings; a school, an arts and science institute, the Congregational Church, a hospital, almshouses, the Dining Room, and park. The vast majority of the village remains intact, but with the exception of the Church and the park none of the space is still used for its original purpose. The mill ceased to operate in the 1980s and the machinery was all removed (it’s now a leisure and retail complex with office space), the hospital and almshouses have been turned into apartments, the workers’ housing is all privately owned and the Dining Room is part of a college. Victoria Hall (Salt’s ‘institute) is still used for functions and public events though. The main thing the village lacks is a pub. Salt refused to build one, not because he himself was teetotal or for religious reasons, but because he was horrified at the effects that excessive drinking had on workers and their families, which he had seen firsthand in the Bradford slums.
Saltaire made the UNESCO list for two reasons:
a) it’s an outstandingly intact example of a mid 19th century industrial town, the development of which influenced the garden city movement (Criterion ii)
b) The layout and architecture are a good illustration not only of mid 19th century philanthropic paternalism, but also the role played by the textile industry in economic and social development (Criterion iv)
Salt was a textile man who ran successful mills in Bradford, but who was appalled by the conditions he saw the workers living in, the effects of the overcrowded and unhygienic city environment on not only the workers but also their families and the lack of opportunity for any meaningful or improving leisure pursuits. He planned to build a new mill, situated in a healthier environment, with more space and better facilities for the workers. For this, he settled on a site alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal and near the railway line, just outside Bradford. At the time of building Saltaire, named for both its founder and the river Aire on which it is situated, was on a rural site. Now three sides are met by urban sprawl but the valley behind the mills is still a rural landscape so it has retained something of a village feel although the effect of distance from the city and a complete change of environment is less pronounced than it would have been in Salt’s time.
Salt built his mill first then, using the profits from his textile production, gradually added housing and public buildings to his village. The housing is particularly interesting as it was arranged hierarchically, with the small terraced two up two down cottages for the factory workers, slightly larger properties for the overseers and larger detached houses for the managers. The whole village was built in an Italianate style of architecture so it is very distinctive and far more pleasant to look at than most industrial architecture.
Workers had to pay rent for the housing, but Salt provided the hospital and also encouraged his workers to pay into a sickness benefit scheme which paid out if they were unable to work. The almshouses also made provision for workers who had been injured in the course of their work and for the elderly. The streets still bear the names Salt gave them; a mixture of the names of the ruling Royal family, the architects who designed the village and members of Salt’s own family. The result is names like Victoria Road, Albert Terrace, Caroline Street, Herbert Street, Ada Street… I wonder if the current residents regret the fact that one of Sir Titus’ daughter’s was called Fanny?
The village is certainly an interesting snapshot of a particular attitude and a particular time, although I was sad that so few of the buildings are open to public as it would have been interesting to see inside some of the houses, for example. Not my favourite of all the UNESCO sites I’ve visited and I didn’t feel that I learnt much from this one, but I enjoyed a pleasant stroll around in the sunshine and the church is beautiful.