It’s been our policy to visit every UNESCO World Heritage site we are near. When we found ourselves close to Saltaire on the road back to our West Midlands base, a stop to see this Heritage site was unavoidable.
Saltaire is Sir Titus Salt’s factory town. Founded in 1851, the village is located roughly a dozen miles to the west and north of Leeds. Like many of the British World Heritage sites, Saltaire’s preservation celebrates Britain’s industrial past.
Though the Industrial Revolution transformed Great Britain and the world, it often came with poor working conditions and a hard life for the workers. In this sense, the story of Saltaire is unlike the broader story of the Industrial Revolution. Salt envisioned a factory town that would provide a better life for his workers. And thus the well-planned factory town of Saltaire with its embedded social services was created.
Salt built neat stone houses for his workers, wash-houses with tap water, bath-houses, a hospital, and an institute for recreation and education that included a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory, and gym. The village included a school for the children of the workers, almshouses, and a park. Saltaire, in its time, was a comparative workers utopia. It is viewed today as an important development in the history of 19th century urban planning.
The textile mill in Saltaire produced goods until 1986. Today the factory and town remain largely intact; UNESCO World Heritage status protects the area from the hammers of redevelopment. Though the factory’s buildings have been repurposed and now serve other functions, the exteriors remain much as it has been. Beyond the factory the well-planned grid of workers’ homes interspersed with community buildings still climbs up the hill from the factory. Even today Saltaire looks livable and comfortable. During the Industrial Revolution workers must have felt fortunate to have the opportunity to live in such a community.
Today, visitors touring Salt’s town get a glimpse into England’s industrial past. During the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Saltaire’s residents must have felt they were living in a town of the future.