Standing on the banks of the river Aire, it was the brainchild of the Victorian entrepreneur and philanthropist Titus Salt. He had a vision for a very specific kind of industrial utopia, and when he built Salts Mill and the surrounding village of Saltaire, he made that dream a reality.
Built to emulate a palazzo of the Italian Renaissance, Salt didn’t see his workers as numbers on a balance sheet but believed the money made from the textile industry could and should be used for social and cultural advancement.
When Salts Mill opened in 1853, it was the biggest factory in the world and a grand statement of its owner’s philosophy. Three thousands workers manned the 1,200 looms, producing 30,000 yards of cloth every single day. And Salt wasn’t done there. Over the next quarter of a century he also built housing, a church, schools and almshouses for his workforce.
The good times weren’t to last. The textile industry gradually declined, and by the 1980s the mill had become virtually redundant and might well have been demolished had it not been for another visionary businessman.
Jonathan Silver bought the site in 1987, ignoring those who said that much of it was in poor repair and was without a future.
The mill’s new owner saw only opportunities and a chance to write a new chapter in the already rich history of Saltaire.
His hunch was proved right and by the time of his death 10 years later he had successfully transformed Salts Mill from an empty building, which was down on its luck, into a bustling centre for art and commerce.
It was Silver who opened the 1853 Hockney art galleries, and made other areas into restaurants, shopping and office space.
Today Salts Mill continues to thrive. Hundreds of people are employed on the site and the success of combining modern business developments in an historic building has helped Salts Mill and the surrounding village of Saltaire win several awards and in 2001 it capped it all by being named a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Words: Sarah Freeman