How best should large numbers of people live together in close proximity? Different ages naturally come up with different answers. This century has seen panaceas ranging from garden cities such as Bedford Park, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Letchworth, through to new towns such as Harlow and Milton Keynes, and even, in the Sixties, the tower block.
What was the 19th-century answer to this eternal conundrum? In two words: model town. Robert Owen at New Lanark, the Fort Sunlight of the soap manufacturer Lever, the Cadburys and Bournville - these were all examples of well-meaning employers setting up industrial villages for their employees. Inevitably they were attacked by reactionaries for being "do-gooders" and by socialists for their paternalism and patronage. But before condemning them out of hand, pay a visit to the best preserved of these communities, at Saltaire, outside Bradford.
Sir Titus Salt made his fortune out of alpaca and angora wool. But instead of just taking the money and running like the heads of certain modern companies, Salt was horrified by the living conditions of Victorian Bradford. In 1851, he decided to build a new community to house almost 5,000 people on a 50-acre site perched on the River Aire.
Public baths, wash houses, library, school, hospital, park, church, alms houses and drainage were installed - as well as the four lions that had originally been intended for Trafalgar Square. Conspicuous by their absence were pubs and pawnshops. The venture was completed in 1872 and offered its new residents a higher quality of life than was to be found anywhere else in a Victorian city.
Certainly, authoritarian Sir Titus knew full well the financial benefits of having a contented and healthy workforce. It is impossible to visit Saltaire and not be continually reminded of his brooding presence, whether it be in Titus Street, Saltaire Road or his statue in Roberts Park with replicas of the alpaca and angora goat on the base. Here was a philanthropist determined to be remembered.
Saltaire is no longer a company village. And yet walking around its peaceful streets and refurbished buildings today, visiting the fine church or the mill which now houses a museum, it is difficult not to conclude that, compared with our inner-city slums and job insecurity, perhaps Sir Titus was on to something after all.
Andrew John Davies
Saltaire in West Yorkshire is a few miles north of Bradford and to the west of Leeds.Reuse content