Happy birthday for a great survivor

The Victorian Titus Salt made Salts Mill and Saltaire – and Jonathan Silver re-made them for the 21st century. Today, they are thronged by festival crowds in celebratory mood. Stephen Biscoe reports.

THERE's not much doubt that Salts Mill would stand for 150 years – its monumental stonework looks as if it could outlast the pyramids. But there could have been very little to celebrate when the actual anniversary arrived. The mill had come in on the high tide of Victorian prosperity and by the late 20th century the receding Yorkshire textile industry left it well and truly beached, a hulk that no-one wanted.

Its wonderful self-confident architecture spoke of a time gone by, of pride in manufacture and wealth creation and one man's self-belief.

Once the workers had dwindled to nothing, the machines had gone quiet and had finally been stripped out, the mill's echoing stone-flagged halls seemed abject. At that low point, it was hard to imagine that anything would ever be made here again or that anyone could lift the encircling gloom. There could never be another Titus Salt.

Enter Jonathan Silver, probably as different a man to Sir Titus as it would be possible to find. Except in one key aspect. Here was a hard-headed entrepreneur who, like the eminent Victorian, also possessed the vital quality of imagination.

Brought up in neighbouring Shipley, Silver was, above all, a man who saw the potential in things and in people. For him, obsolete textile mills that others preferred to ignore were an opportunity.

After a couple of earlier projects with Sir Ernest Hall at Milnsbridge and Halifax, Silver took on the great mill which Sir Titus had built.

In doing so he not only reversed its fortunes, but those of Saltaire, the model village Sir Titus had built for his workers and whose star had also declined.

It took a very unusual mix of dynamism, instinct, commercial nous and romantic whimsy to take the chance. Not everything Silver planned at the beginning worked. Central to his vision was a scheme to make part of Salts the northern outpost of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its south Asia collection transferred to Yorkshire. It didn't happen, although not through lack of trying by Silver.

One thing which has worked superbly was the creation of the 1853 Gallery to showcase David Hockney's work. Silver had first contacted Hockney with characteristic chutzpah when he was a schoolboy, asking the artist to do something for the school magazine. As the years rolled by, their friendship intensified. Silver's gift for making headlines meant that the opening of one Hockney exhibition resulted in a live spot on News At Ten.

Art was part of the commercial mix (with the Hockneys came cutting edge electronics manufacturers, a restaurant and high class retailing) which gave the mill a new lease of life. It also became the engine of recovery for the surrounding area of Saltaire which received World Heritage status a couple of years ago.

This month, it's the bicentenary of the birth of Sir Titus, and coincidentally the 150th anniversary of the official opening of his Mill on September 20, 1853. So all this is now being celebrated with a nine-day festival which started yesterday.

Among the many events being planned – and they cover dancing, music, poetry recitals, exhibitions and a beer festival – two stand out.

One is the restoration of the six ringing bells at Sir Titus Salt's Congregational Church (now the United Reformed Church) funded by Maggie Silver, Jonathan's widow: the other is a production of Poetry or Bust, a play by Britain's leading film and theatre poet, Leeds-born Tony Harrison, and performed by Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides Theatre Company.

It tells the sometimes comic but ultimately tragic story of a boozy 19th century Yorkshire poet John Nicholson, known as the "Airedale Bard" who worked as a woolsorter for Sir Titus, and drowned in the River Aire just two minutes' walk away from the mill building.

The play was originally performed in a warehouse at Salts Mill 10 years ago, and is being staged again in that same space. Jonathan Silver had initially asked Harrison to write a play about Nicholson to mark the 150th anniversary of his death, and Harrison told him he wouldn't have time.

Silver is enduringly famous for finding a way around obstacles, however, and on this occasion he was aided by a plaque of Dante from the Burmantofts pottery (Silver was a collector). He and Harrison were admiring it and Harrison recalls that he told Silver – not entirely seriously – that he'd write the play if he could have the plaque. In next instant it was his. How could he now say "No"?

As it happened, Nicholson was a subject Harrison was not averse to writing about. As a youngster, Harrison, a working-class lad from Leeds, developed an affection for Nicholson because his poems were the first which he had come across which referred to places he knew, places like Bradford. When he looked into his life, he found a flawed but fascinating character.

As a poet, he says, Nicholson, "betrayed his own voice," by writing poems which were intended to impress a wealthy and influential readership, and this father of eight children spent all his money on drink.

Harrison wrote, designed and directed Poetry or Bust, all in two weeks. At one point he told Silver they needed a red carpet: Jonathan Silver was on the phone immediately, asking for one to be delivered within the hour. And it was.

"His enthusiasm was irresistible," says Robin, his brother who is now managing director of Salts Mill.

Harrison had thought his play would have just one airing, and then be put away and never see the light of day again.

The suggestion that he direct a new production of it for the Saltaire Festival made him wonder how it would look, 10 years on.

He says: "It was better than I remembered. Because it was done so quickly, it has energy and speed, but I didn't have time to bring out the darker side, and the subtleties of Nicholson's character. I've tweaked it here and there to point up the moods so as to keep the audience in a state of unbalance."

Salts Mill, it has to be said, in no way shares that sense of uncertainty. Jonathan died of cancer in 1997 after an illness which gave him time to ensure continuity in the hands of Maggie and Robin.

Robin thinks that Jonathan was encouraged to buy Salts Mill because it is in such a remarkably pretty setting and because he knew it from his childhood – he used to paddle a canoe along the canal –so it was a place he knew and felt comfortable with.

His affection for it was coupled with respect, and consequently he did not rip everything out in order to create blank, anonymous spaces.

The mill's past permeates the present and a combination of activities from the aesthetic to the work-a-day combine harmoniously. It gives the place a unique atmosphere which brings hundreds of visitors.

The village of Saltaire is thriving – as the festival will show – and Salts Mill buzzes with activity.

The relationship is symbiotic, both mill and village relying upon and benefiting from the other's ability to attract visitors and business.

That the village has become a place where people want to live and work, says Robin, would have especially delighted his brother – but such things do not happen by chance.

"He told me, 'Whatever you do, do it the best'," says Robin. "It's got be be better than just done well."

Salts Mill and Saltaire are solid evidence of what that principle delivers when rigorously applied.


Poetry or Bust by Northern Broadsides, from tonight to Saturday, September 13, 7.30 pm, Salts Mill. For details, call 01274 587377.

Saltaire Festival information: 01274 587945.