Saltaire: The Making of a Model Town

July 15, 2010

Saltaire's founder, the reticent Sir Titus Salt (1803-76), in one of his rare utterances, is supposed to have observed that "drink and lust" were at the bottom of it all. His few sagacities were probably influenced by James Silk Buckingham, whose National Evils and Practical Remedies with the Plan of a Model Town appeared in 1849. This tome contained proposals for "Victoria" (the said Model Town), not only with large public structures of iron and glass, but a complete absence of "beer-shops, gin-palaces, dram-shops, cigar divans, pawnbrokers, gambling-houses, or brothels" in order to keep "the host of evils" at bay.

In 1850, Salt, who made a fortune in Bradford (then the world centre of the worsted trade), first from selling wools from eastern Europe, and then from perfecting the production of cloth made from alpaca and mohair combined with cotton or silk, decided to transfer his business to a site by the banks of the Aire, three miles from Bradford, and there to build Saltaire, a model town for his workers.

He proposed buying the Crystal Palace to house his factory, but this Buckingham-inspired idea was quickly dropped, and a new mill (then the largest of its kind in the world) was opened in 1853, with an Italianate exterior by the Bradford architects Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, and a structure designed by the engineer William Fairbairn. Lockwood and Mawson (joined in 1856 by Richard Mawson) did a splendid job creating a very handsome place to live and work, with schools and other amenities including the fine Congregationalist church to which Salt's robust mausoleum (with hefty angel inside) was later attached. The whole ensemble was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001, but by then much erosion had occurred, including demolitions and crass alterations.

This book chronicles the processes of building Saltaire, properly pointing out that the genesis of the place was not simply evangelical concern for the labouring classes, or even attempts at social engineering, but a deliberate exercise in the creation of an agreeable architectural solution having dignity, substance and aesthetic qualities. However, the ways in which some of the buildings have been mutilated by the insertion of inappropriate windows and doors (painted white, of course, to draw attention to them as much as possible) are an indictment of planning control and of the sensibilities of a populace no longer able to appreciate visual matters.

Several illustrations in this book are poor, and there could have been more informative captions. Nearly all the illustrations are colour plates, many ill-composed: indeed, the book is an excellent advertisement for black-and-white professional architectural photography. There are plans showing the layouts and building phases, and included is a CD of house-type analysis for every property in Saltaire identified as having been a dwelling in 1876. Unfortunately, the bibliography is inadequate, and errors, particularly with regard to proper names, have crept in here and in the text itself. A School-of-Architecture connection, lacking rigour in bourgeois concerns such as getting names right or observing grammatical niceties, is depressingly obvious, but the most problematic aspect of a book that should have been a fascinating study of a marvellous place is prose that, in response to Hamlet's injunction, is entirely absent from felicity.

Saltaire: The Making of a Model Town

By Neil Jackson, Jo Lintonbon and Bryony Staples. Spire Books, 258pp, £24.95. ISBN 9781904965213. Published 15 March 2010

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