The cholera most forcibly teaches us our mutual connection. Nothing shows more powerfully the duty of every man to look after the needs of others. Titus Salt.
There’s a touch of melancholy in Yorkshire’s Salts Mill, a deep sigh that swirls through the inspirational exhibits. Everyone talks in whispers, the omnipresent classical music creating the atmosphere of a reverential mass, or a hybrid between a library, an art gallery and heartbreak hotel.
Even the posters in the historical section remind us that “not even wealth and privilege can protect us from the scourge of death.”
Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site provides a retreat of sorts, a modern sanctuary of education, art and commerce, where hundreds of strangers lose themselves within the airy workrooms of the mill.
Salts Mill began life as a factory. At its birth in 1853 it was the largest in the world, employing 3000 workers and producing 30 000 yards of cloth each day. And this vast industry, housed in an Italian Renaissance palazzo deep in the Yorkshire countryside, owed its existence to one man: Sir Titus Salt, the entrepreneur who not only established Salts Mill but then went on to build an entire village around it.
It is difficult to reconcile the contrasting images of his legacy. Salts Mill, after all, was a Victorian industry, with cramped conditions, scalding presses, poverty and child labour, all squashed and squeezed together to create wealth for Sir Titus and his family.
On the other hand, judging him by the standards of his time, this man provided more for his workers and improved the lives of their families considerably more than many democratically-elected politicians do today.
Appalled by inner city life, Sir Titus constructed his village, Saltaire, among the grassy hills of Yorkshire and the cheerily named River Aire. He built schools, spacious housing, an infirmary and a chapel. He also restricted access to liquor.
In today’s world, would I choose to live in this village, working 12 hours a day choked between relentless machines with no other prospects in life? Well, no.
But if I had to choose between that and Bradford’s other 19th Century factories then I’d probably fight to work in Salts Mill, never mind simply acquiesce. As a piece in the Bradford Observer noted in1845:
“In the course of last week I have visited some of the most filthy and wretched abodes that the mind of man can conceive, in which misery of the lowest description was personified. In a portion of this town called The Leys, there are scores of wretched hovels, unfurnished and unventilated, damp, filthy in the extreme and surrounded by stagnant pools of human excrement and every thing offensive and disgusting to “sight and smell”. No sewers, no drainage, no ventilation. Nothing to be seen but squalid wretchedness on every side, and the features of the inmates show a perfect and unmistakable index of their condition; all this is to be seen in the center of this wealthy emporium of the worsted trade.”
Not too appealing.
Today, Saltaire’s honeyed streets still look neat, clean and very much ‘on the up,’ marking their ties to St Titus by bearing the names of his children. The canal, once a vital trading route, now enjoys leafy trees while walkers, cyclists and families enjoy the fresh air.
Tranquil air also breathes through today’s Salts Mill, instead of the screech of metal, the fumes and the dirt of the Victorian Age. A twentieth century entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver, bought the derelict factory after his return from a round the world trip. Where others saw a decrepit building with no place in the modern world, Silver saw something else.
He partnered up with celebrated local artist David Hockney, through a schoolboy connection, and together the pair built this fascinating mélange, a Salts Mill that combines institution with adventure and art with entertainment.
The ground floor sells prints, notebooks, pencils and artistic posters amid calming lighting and plenty of space, almost apologising for selling anything at all. The first floor displays even more books, with collections from Paulo Coelho and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.
From exploring the mind, Salts Mill moves to exploring the world by selling outdoor equipment and walking boots. Then it takes on gastronomy with the restaurant and café and their soothing rainbow sofas, carrot cake and coffee.
Further up, funky lime green kitchen appliances rest between fuscia eggcups in the home dining area. This is unmistakeably commerce, but around the corner the art galleries stay safe from stickered price tags. The exhibits vary, but David Hockney’s legacy to Salts Mill forms a strong theme throughout.
So, indeed, does the very idea of legacy, through art, Silver’s imaginative restoration and Titus Salt’s Victorian vision. Yet although legacy celebrates the achievements of a lifetime, it also reminds us that life is timed and that the end will come for us all. It should be an inspirational reminder, a call to Carpe Diem, but somehow Salts Mill still swirls with melancholy.
For the Eats, Shoots and Leaves of you out there, the complex calls itself Salts Mill.
Disclosure: I visited Salts Mill after hearing some very sad news.