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History: Saltaire United Reformed Church and Model Villages

Saltaire's Church

Visitors approach Saltaire URC down a short, tree-lined driveway. From the gate at the entrance, you can see the columns surrounding the semi-circular portico, and the bell tower with the rounded dome on top. It's strikingly Classical, nestled in the middle of parkland, with the Victorian-era canal just out of sight.

Saltaire United Reformed Church, plus local geese, seen from the road
Saltaire URC, plus local geese, seen from the road.

Despite the Italianate style – the Classical columns, the tower's cupola, the subtly baroque interior design – Saltaire's church is a straightforward and functional space. It's got one long nave and no aisles. There's no obstruction between the rows of pews and the back wall, where the pipe organ is on full display.

Like the village it was built to serve in 1859, Saltaire's church has a form to suit its purpose: in this case, a good quality building in which the village residents can come closer to God, in a location that encourages quiet contemplation despite the industrial activity nearby. Likewise, Saltaire itself had a single purpose: good quality housing for the workers of Salt's Mill, in a location that encouraged not only their good health, but their good habits and manners, by removing them from the dangers and temptations of the city.

Both church and village are the product and vision of their patron, Sir Titus Salt, whose remains lie in the family mausoleum on the church's north side.

The Salt mausoleum, Saltaire United Reformed Church
The Salt mausoleum, which rather breaks up the building's otherwise clean outline.

Saltaire Village

Saltaire isn't an old village that's grown up naturally over the centuries; you won't find it in the Doomsday Book. It was built over about twenty years, very deliberately and artificially, and at the direction of one man.

Sir Titus Salt's statue in Roberts Park, Saltaire
Sir Titus's statue in Roberts Park, Saltaire.

From 1850, the worsted cloth manufacturer Sir Titus Salt funded this new settlement on the banks of the river Aire (hence the name, Saltaire). That gave him a big say in the lives and the environment of the residents, and his character and views can be seen in the choice and design of the buildings.

Saltaire's mill came first. Opened in 1853, it was among the largest in the world. Salt's Mill was able to handle the whole process of producing worsted cloth, from taking in raw wool to the final weaving and finishing stages. It could produce 30,000 yards of cloth a day, and employed 3000 people.

The housing for that workforce came a little later, but by 1871 there were 4,300 people living in Saltaire, in 824 houses, and all in some way depending on the mill for an income. Besides the houses, the new village had shops, a school, public baths, an outdoor park, plus an infirmary and almshouses for elderly residents, and the Saltaire Institute featuring a library, reading room, games rooms, dance hall, laboratory, gymnasium, and lecture hall. The Institute was intended to offer all the benefits – without the downsides! – of pubs (which weren't allowed in the original village design). The Congregational Church was joined in 1866 by a Methodist chapel, although there was no requirement to attend either.

The Saltaire Institute, now Victoria Hall
The Saltaire Institute, now Victoria Hall.

A whole new village sounds like quite a financial commitment, and Salt already owned five mills in Bradford – so why pay to move operations a few miles up the road?


Nineteenth-century Bradford's population exploded as it became the new centre of Britain's wool and worsted cloth industry. Manchester might be known as Cottonopolis, but Bradford earned its own nicknames: Woolopolis and Worstedopolis.

Unfortunately, that industry was messy, and Bradford became a cesspool: one visitor in 1845 catalogued dungheaps, swill-tubs, open sewerage and a gas-filled atmosphere in the filthiest town he’d ever visited.

Salt had tried to lessen the impact of industry during his time as Bradford's mayor in 1848-49. But presumably he decided that the best way to improve city-dwellers' lives was to move them somewhere cleaner, away from the filth and cholera. He probably also had an eye on the efficiency savings he could get from consolidating his mills and industrial processes in one place.

Salt's Mill, Saltaire, seen from the railway bridge
Salt's Mill, seen from the railway bridge.

Saltaire fulfilled two objectives: it allowed Salt to carry out the Christian charitable work of improving his workers' lives and character, but also expanded his business and income. It was, however, just one of the more successful new settlements intended to set an example, or model, of self-improvement for the workers. These were known as model villages.

Model Villages

Model villages like Saltaire were springing up all over England, Wales and Scotland through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were directed by an industrialist wanting to house his workforce close to his new mill, factory, foundry or mine, or to service a new transport route. These were workplaces quite often far from existing population centres, because of the natural environment (manufacturing sites need to be near the raw materials and transport routes: for example, an iron foundry near iron and coal deposits, and a canal).

The pub/restaurant Don't Tell Titus...
One my favourite pub names, Saltaire's Don't Tell Titus... sprang up some time after Sir Titus.

Some industrialists found that the most economical option was to build new housing, as cheaply as possible, and nothing more The motive in these cases was clearly profit, and the workers were a means to that end.

Saltaire showed Salt's different approach, and caught the popular imagination in the way that it characterised the relationship between employer and employee. Nineteenth-century industrial relations were tense, with strikes, protests, and riots breaking out up and down the country in response to the changes brought by industrialisation. Political discontent was made worse by the squalor so many working people lived in, while medical studies and military recruitment shortfalls reflected fears about the declining physical health of the nation.

Saltaire offered an alternative, if only for a few workers.

Profit, or Philanthropy?

We can't be sure what Salt's motives were for building Saltaire, but the presence in the early plans of almshouses for pensioners, and the quality of the housing stock in general, suggest that profit wasn't the key.

The Industrial Revolution's shifting of manufacturing from domestic to urban settings brought employers a real chance to control both their workforce's working and non-working activity. In model villages, they could literally rebuild the workers' lives. Many of the more forward-looking, moralising industrialists were nonconformists (Unitarians, Quakers, and Congregationalists like Salt), concerned about employee welfare as Christians and as managers, and they used the workers’ environment as a tool for self-improvement.

Roberts Park, Saltaire, a pleasant green space with boating facilities
Roberts Park (originally Saltaire Park), a green space (with boating facilities) for the village's residents and their wellbeing.

This was all part of what Saltaire's UNESCO World Heritage listing describes as the spirit of 'Victorian philanthropic paternalism' probably motivating Salt. Saltaire was his chance to mould the character of his workforce – through, for example, visiting the Saltaire Club's recreational facilities instead of a public house, which he didn't permit in the village.

The neo-classical front of Saltaire United Reformed Church
The neo-classical front of Saltaire URC: colonnade, clock tower, cupula and all.

The Cadbury brothers went one step further in the 1890s, when they built their famous model village, at Bournville. The Quaker Cadburys had recognised that there was little chance of a fulfilling life in city slums, which they wanted demolished. But they'd also recognised that their chocolate was being marketed as a 'pure' product, and that manufacturing it surrounded by the smoke and fumes of Birmingham's factories undermined that message nearly as badly as it did the workforce's health. Bournville was the solution to both problems, improving the product, the company's reputation, the bottom line and the workers' quality of life.

Model villages like Bournville and Saltaire demonstrate the good that the enormous fortunes of the Industrial Revolution could be used for. And they're both products of men coming from the tradition of nonconformist churches, like Saltaire's Congregationalist (now United Reformed) church.


Further Reading


James, David, ‘Salt, Sir Titus, first baronet (1803-1876)’ on ODNB,


Sir Edward Baines, Baines's account of the woollen manufacture of England

Colin & Rose Bell, City Fathers: the early history of town planning in Britain (1969)

Jim Greenhalf, Salt & Silver: A Story of Hope (1997)

Lesley Husselbee & Paul Ballard, Free Churches and Society: The Nonconformist Contribution to Social Welfare 1800-2010 (2012)


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