Salts Mill

When was the mill built?

The mill was completed in 1853 after a building process of just under three years. Constructed using the same York sandstone as the Houses of Parliament, it represented a landmark not only for its architectural ambition but also its innovative safety measures.

The official opening on the 20th September coincided with Titus Salt’s 50th birthday and a grand banquet was held in his honour.


Why did Titus choose to build it here?

By the 1840s Titus was already wealthy enough to retire and successful enough to feel satisfied with his achievements. Yet he felt obliged to harness technological innovations in production and transport, and offer his workers a route to a healthier, happier life. To do this required all processes to be in one place.

Securing the mill site was a case of good fortune following bad. After losing his first choice by being uncharacteristically late for a meeting further up the Airedale Valley, he came across a piece of land three miles north of Bradford.

It was the site of Dixon’s Mill, built in 1635, and was far better equipped for his needs. The land was purchased for £14,000 in 1850 and construction began within a year.

The mill sits between the canal (est.1816), railway line (est. 1846) and the river. Its design would take full advantage of them all. Their proximity ensured a unique opportunity for the company; a complete manufacturing chain of wool to worsted under one roof.


Why is it built on this scale?

The building was a true feat of engineering and pushed its architects, Lockwood and Mawson, to their limits. When constructed it was the most advanced mill in Europe and Salt doubled his workforce. The scale was not due to indulgence, it was to enable profitability. It cost approximately £7 million in today’s money but the investment was priceless to Salt and his workers.

The southern frontage of the mill is 550ft long, its six stories rising 72ft. The design is influenced by Venetian architecture which Titus admired greatly. Such design is exemplified by the distinctive Tuscan towers that book-end William Fairburn’s Engine house.

Among many innovative engineering aspects and unique features of the building is the ‘T’ shape created by the northern wing.


What did it produce?

Known as the ‘Palace of Industry’ the mill became the centre of worsted cloth production. This was a result of Titus’s unique skill for spotting both top quality wool and good investment opportunities.

He was also determined to experiment with his industry’s processes and to refine his product. His discovery of alpaca wool occurred by chance on a trip to Hagan & Co. in Liverpool in 1836 where he came across a warehouse of bales deemed ‘useless’.

Alpaca Orleans cloth was the result of 18 months of secret experiments locked in his laboratory. It combined wool, cotton, and silk to form a fabric that was lighter, more durable and cheaper than his competitors could hope to produce.


How many people worked in the Mill under Titus Salt?

The industry required a huge workforce despite mechanisation, and was largely carried out by skilled employees who did their jobs for life. Some travelled from outside the village, but the construction of houses provided Titus with willing employees ‘on-site’.

Thousands were required to maintain the mill’s output. At its peak, there were over 4,500 production staff. Specially chartered trains for staff ran from Bradford to coincide with shift patterns.


What happened to the Mill?

The first 25 years of operation put Saltaire at the vanguard of production and attracted widespread admiration. Sadly, the next 100 years would bring fluctuating fortunes.

Pressure from global competition, US trade tariffs and changing fashions forced diversification into velvet, plush and sealskin production. Ill-fated investment in Dayton, Tennessee, left the business in a perilous state. Circumstances were made worse by the premature death of Titus Jnr. Receivership quickly followed, and the sale of the business.

The company was saved by a consortium of four local businessmen, headed and later led solely by James Roberts. The quartet of John Maddocks, John Rhodes, James Roberts and Isaac Smith pioneered new techniques and transformed the company’s fortunes well into the 20th century.

The mill and village was sold again in the 1920s to another consortium led by Sir James Hill and sons alongside Ernest Gates and Henry Whitehead. Opportunities for success were already beginning to diminish but the new owners, particularly Gates, performed admirably under turbulent economic and political circumstances.

Despite its former glory, the mill was caught in fluctuating markets caused by war and depression. Tangible effects of these changes included forced sale of the village houses to offset debt. There were some positives, including the purchase of land to develop the Salts Sports Society for locals to enjoy.

After 1945, Salts Mill found new impetus by employing foreign workers and extending output through 24-hour shifts. But the UK textile industry struggled to secure long-term profitability compared to cheaper production overseas and the increasingly widespread use of man-made fibres.

The final owners of the mill in its operational phase were Illingworth Morris, an incorporated textile company. Complete production under one roof came to an end – no longer did Salts work from fleece to piece, as the company preferred to separate specialist processes amongst its operational centres.

In 1975 the governing board had a dispute with the majority shareholder, Pamela Mason. New investment was impossible and the mill was forced to close in 1986.

Campaigners fought to secure a Grade II listing for the mill but lacked financial capital to find new uses for it. The mill was bought in a timely gamble by Jonathan Silver, a locally born entrepreneur who saw a unique opportunity. Silver found a variety of tenants and set up his own retail offer within the mill, visitors came not to seek work but to escape it. Silver’s friendship with David Hockney led to a unique offer; the most extensive display of Hockney’s work anywhere in the world.


What happened to all of the machinery?

Much of the original machine stock was sold in stages over the years. Driven by the need to improve production, older machines were replaced in the 1920s and altered again at various points in the post-war period. Illingworth Morris disposed of much ‘unnecessary’ equipment before the building and its contents were sold lock, stock and barrel to Jonathan Silver.

The equipment for which Silver had no use was kindly donated to Bradford Council’s museum collections. Enthusiasts can find original textile samples at Cartwright Hall and restored machinery at the Industrial Museum. In 2015 a new exhibition “People and Process” opened at Salts Mill, displaying a superb model of the mill, some refurbished machinery, and a variety of items on loan from the Saltaire Archive.



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