Lauren Padgett, ‘Salt’s Mill, Saltaire: Brief History and Review’

Lauren Padgett is a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University, investigating representations of Victorian women in contemporary museums. She worked in local museums for four years; her first museum job, assisting with the redevelopment of textile galleries, fuelled her interest of the textile industry and Bradford’s textile heritage. 

Saltaire, a model Victorian village (a few miles from Bradford’s city centre), has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001. [1] Saltaire was commissioned by Sir Titus Salt (1803 – 1876), a local textile industrialist, and built by architects Henry Lockwood and Richard Mawson. Salt, conscious of the poor conditions his Bradford workers lived in, decided to relocate his mill and employees away from the city’s smog and overcrowded back-to-backs to improve his workforce’s health and productivity. Construction began in 1851; Salt’s Mill was completed in 1853 while work on the village ended in 1876. Saltaire had luxury housing, utilities and leisure facilities for workers. [2]

This is a portrait of Sir Titus Salt and an illustration of Salt’s Mill (photo taken in the Saltaire History exhibition, Gallery 2, Salt’s Mill, on 2 September 2015 by Lauren Padgett).

Salt is seen as the epitome of a Victorian philanthropist. [3] But some may be shocked to discover that he was a hard-nosed, controlling businessman, striving to increase profits and productivity. He opposed the 1833 Factory Act (which banned the employment of children under nine in a textile mill) as he relied on the cheap labour of children. As workers with trade union support were more likely to demand better working conditions and strike, Salt banned his staff from being trade union members. Saltaire was designed to maximize his workers’ productivity. Having the workers’ housing in close proximity to Salt’s Mill reduced the chance of them being late. As did the canteen (metres away from the Mill) which meant workers on breaks did not venture too far away from the Mill. He had the canteen floor swept after meal breaks and sold the crumbs as pig food as another income source. His pub ban in Saltaire was not because of the Temperance Movement or his Christian values, but because his knew that drunk and hung-over workers were less productive, made mistakes and caused accidents; reducing his profits.

Salt’s Mill was unique as most mills specialised in a particular process or series of processes, for example top-making (turning raw fleeces into tops – balls – of clean, combed wool fibres) or spinning (turning roving – thinned top fibres – into yarn). Salt’s Mill, however, with its vast premises and workforce, conducted every process from start to finish. Raw fleeces would go in and internationally acclaimed cloth would come out.

Britain’s textile industry declined in the 1980s; production ceased at Salt’s Mill in February 1986. It was bought by entrepreneur Johnathan Silver in 1987 who transformed it into a tourist destination. The renovated mill now accommodates retail units, business premises, eatery spaces and galleries. It permanently displays a substantial amount of artwork by Bradford-born artist David Hockney.

These are some prints of iPad drawings by David Hockney displayed in The Arrival of Spring temporary exhibition (photo taken of The Arrival of Spring exhibition, in Gallery 3, Salt’s Mill, on 2 September 2015 by Lauren Padgett).

There is a sense of its past despite the renovations to the grade II* listed mill,.  Underneath the fresh layers of paint and beyond the bistro tables and retail displays, Salt’s Mill still embodies the ghosts of the textile machinery that would have filled it and the people that worked there.

These ghosts of beings and machinery are the subjects of a temporary exhibition at Salt’s Mill called People and Process: The History of the Mill (located in Gallery 3). The exhibition aims to display the Mill’s 133 year history, combining industrial and social history.

These are some of the reels displayed in the Reel Lives, 1891 exhibit (photo taken in People and Process exhibition, Gallery 3, Salt’s Mill, on 2 September 2015 by Lauren Padgett).

I was first drawn to the art installation Reel Lives, 1891 (2013) by Caren Garfen. [4] A long glass case contained suspended cotton reels with long strips of woven cotton hanging from them. The cotton strips are embroidered with biographical details of the Victorian single women who worked at Salt’s Mill, as evidenced in the 1891 census records. The artwork is “in memory of, and in recognition of, the women” with each reel as a “memory plaque”. Some have personal effects attached to them, such as thimbles, scissors and spectacles. Several are embroidered with facts about the women’s working life, emphasising the gender gap, for example “Women’s wages in the mills were on average about half men’s wages” and “A large proportion of the workforce were children under 16 or young women”. One sentence stood out: “Machinery will destroy your natural claims to home and domestic duties”. [5] A smaller display case adjacent contains reels representing the married women.

On display is a twisting machine, warping frame and mending table. [6] These machines and equipment do not look comfortable in the building which was once their home. It’s a though they know that they are now redundant, no longer useful or necessary, and have become antiquities and remnants of a long-gone time and by-gone industry.

This photo shows the textile machinery and equipment on display (photo taken in People and Process exhibition, Gallery 3, Salt’s Mill, on 2 September 2015 by Lauren Padgett).

A video installation called Drawing Out the Threads by Annie Harrison (2013) shares the oral histories of seven ex-workers of Salt’s Mill. [7] When their work-life memories (ranging from the 1940s to the 1980s) were told and recorded, they were encouraged to draw on an iPad. The video combines the oral history recordings with footage of the drawing process. One participant drew the layout of his office whilst recalling memories of his managerial role and office space.

Peppered around the gallery are artefacts from a Victorian and more recent past. One case presents a beautiful Davenport dinner service used at Milner Fields (the residence of Titus Junior) from 1882 to 1887, and a Minton plate used in the opening ceremony of Salt’s Mill. An 1853 pattern book of alpaca cloth swatches, that Salt’s successfully mastered the weaving of by combining an alpaca weft with a cotton warp, is also displayed. This rare and significant object, which encapsulates the innovation, progress and industry of the Victorian textile trade, sits unassuming, understated and uninteresting on the shelf. Other cases house a 1930s cloth sample book, cuttlings of cloth from the 1950s and 1970s, and ephemera relating to the 1953 centenary company trip to Blackpool. A 1890s lady jacket is contrasted with a 1920s ladies coat. Although these objects have people attached to them, they remain in the shadows.

My meanderings of the exhibition ended with the exhibit If the walls could talk – the last yarn, by Hannah Leighton-Boyce (2013), displaying several balls of different coloured yarn, “[h]andspun in the roof space at Salts (the original spinning mill) from remnants of fleece found in the storage recesses built into the wall”. [8]

Allowances must be given as the mill is not a museum and has limited artefacts and funding for exhibitions. With that in mind, I thought that People and Process is a good exhibition. It does offer a glimpse (if somewhat tentative) into the mill’s past, although the narratives of people and process are segregated and fractured as opposed to integrated and cohesive. Ironically, the people who stand out are the contemporary artists responding to the mill and its history with their art projects and installations, as opposed to the mill owners and workers.

Salt’s Mill Gallery 2 displays the Carr display, the Parker display and the Saltaire History exhibition. Henry Marvell Carr (1894-1970), a Leeds-born artist, was commissioned in 1951 to create a series of murals depicting the textile processes from fleece to cloth. Displayed in sequential order, the murals illustrate the interaction, the synergy, between workers and machinery arguably better than the People and Process exhibition. There is something intriguing about Carr’s irregular canvases and bold colours.

These are three of the Carr murals, depicting (from left to right) the processes of spinning, twisting and warping (photo taken in Gallery 2, Salt’s Mill, on 2 September 2015 by Lauren Padgett).

There is another display of contemporary artwork by Simon Parker. Parker’s paintings reimagine and recreate a Victorian (idealised) Saltaire, with recognisable landmarks and people, including Sir Titus Salt himself. A section at the end of the gallery contains the Saltaire History exhibition providing timelines of milestones relating to Salt’s life, that of his family, the mill and village. A video on loop provides further interpretation via commentary to images and film footage. Although small-scale and basic, it does often some contextualisation for visitors.

Salt’s Mill is a unique heritage site to visit and fills the needs of any visitor wanting to indulge in some retail therapy, fill their stomachs and/or absorb some local history. Saltaire village is well worth a visit with its streets (named after Salt’s children) lined with workers’ houses, the popular Robert’s Park, quaint shops, great cafes and pubs with locally-brewed ales (which I’m sure Sir Titus Salt would not approve of).


[1] Saltaire village gets its name from Sir Titus Salt and the River Aire that runs through the village.

[2] Each house had gas lighting, a water supply, an outdoor privy, multiple bedrooms and separate cooking and living areas. Alms-houses were built for the retired and infirm to live in rent-free (with a pension). Utilities included a bath-house and infirmary. Workers had a park, library and concert hall for recreation.

[3] He gave so much money away when he was alive (circa £500,000, the equivalent of £24 million today) that his family were shocked by the modest amount remaining when he passed away. Salt did support some campaigns and laws that aimed to improve the rights and lives of the working class (such as the Ten Hour Movement) and  disproved of others which denied the working class particular rights (for example, the Poor Law which stopped state hand-outs and the 1842 Great Reform Act which had failed to enfranchise working class men).

[4] This art installation was originally commissioned for and displayed in the 2013 Cloth and Memory {2} exhibition.

[5] This is a quote from the 1845 petition by the (male) potters’ union, regarding their concerns of women and children taking their jobs.

[6] Twisting machines twist multiple strands of yarn together to strengthen it enough to weave with. A warping frame holds the warp yarns taut when being set onto a warp beam. A mending table is used to inspect woven cloth for imperfections.

[7] This video installation was originally commissioned for and displayed in the 2013 Cloth and Memory {2} exhibition.

[8] This art installation was originally commissioned for and displayed in the 2013 Cloth and Memory {2} exhibition.


One comment

  1. Saltaire historian, Colin Coates, has complemented Caren Garen’s, Reel Lives, by producing mini biographies of the women featured in Caren’s installation. You can find Colin’s work on the Saltaire Village website:

    Colin Coates has also produced notes on the Saltaire soldiers involved in WW1.

    Articles on social history are published on the Saltaire Village website.

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