Todmorden U3A: Sir Titus Salt, a hero or a villain?

Maria Glot with Ernie Rogan, Chair  of U3A Todmorden.

Maria Glot with Ernie Rogan, Chair of U3A Todmorden.

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Maria Glot is an energised and riveting speaker. Her subject, ‘Titus Salt and Saltaire’ left Todmorden U3A members with plenty to ponder and discuss.

Was Sir Titus just an egocentric Victorian capitalist living on the mighty profits generated by his oppressed workforce, or was he an archetype of the best in philanthropic paternalism?

Maria’s presentational alter-ego, Ellin Dooley (common mill worker, denizen of Amelia Street, mother of twelve and a thirteenth on t’way), gave us an animated account in both current and Victorian time zones of her employer.

As a young man, Titus Salt, against his father’s wishes, set out to be a doctor. One day he cut himself, was unable to stand the sight of his own blood, capitulated to paternal pressure and joined his father in the wool stapling trade.

As a stapler, he discovered some discarded bales of strange wool in Liverpool, funny stuff called alpaca – too long and silky for cloth making. Titus saw an opportunity, borrowed a friend’s factory and discovered a way to spin this new wool.

His marketing coup was to interest Prince Albert and consequently Queen Victoria who liked the new cloth. So everyone else did too. It felt like silk, but cost the same as wool. Titus cornered the market with a 15 year patent. He was a made man.

So made, in fact, that it was not long before he was Mayor of Bradford. But this was a Bradford where canals fermented methane that exploded and where cholera and typhoid were rife.

So Titus decided to move out and employed the architects Lockwood and Mawson to find him a site for a new factory outside Bradford. They chose the area we now know as Saltaire, where there was clean air, clean water, and room for roads, a railway and a canal providing perfect resources and commercial infrastructure. And there they built the enormous Italianate Salt’s Mill and a village of over 850 dwellings for the millworkers complete with toilets, gas streetlighting and wide roads, all of which the new business paid for in a few years.

This is where an assessment of the man becomes endlessly interesting. Was Titus right to abandon Bradford, that had made him a fortune, to its social misery? Was he solely interested in financial and personal self-aggrandisement? Or was he a generous mill owner, an enlightened paternalist, providing new and well designed facilities for his workforce?

Moreover, was he not an early environmentalist? He insisted that his village be kept clean and inspected it. He had reservoirs built to provide pumped water to his houses. He insisted his chimneys be designed to be non-polluting. He managed sewage hygienically.

This latter issue provides evidence for his canny business mind. Female urine is good for dyeing, so he collected it for his dye works. Male urine is good for tanning, so he barrelled it up for tanners who supplied the leather belting for his power looms. Solid waste was used in a process for extracting pure lanolin from the wool, and he sold the lanolin to cosmetics companies. Anything left over was formed into briquettes, dried, and burned in the factory furnaces.

What’s not to like?

Perhaps the workers’ lack of freedom. There were no pubs in Saltaire and no pawnshops; you had to attend church on Sundays; to ensure you weren’t late for work after your dinner, you had to eat it in his dining hall and you paid him for it; your crumbs were collected and sold to pig farmers.

You paid him a high rent for living in his housing and he paid you less well than any other Yorkshire employer; you worked till you died and you paid him to bury you in his cemetery.

And, although an MP, he knowingly employed underage children.

A Colonel Hill was employed to maintain the peace which he did through his 19th century surveillance system of lookouts who looked out for loiterers, animals, washing hung out to dry. So your freedom was considerably restricted, though Titus got an efficient, peaceable, money-making workforce.

The workers did get the better of Titus in one respect. They could leave, and did so when they were fed up with not being allowed to keep animals and grow their own food. Titus agreed to provide them with allotments.

So much more could be said about this controversial entrepreneur, and Maria Glot is to be congratulated and warmly thanked for her entertaining and stimulating talk.

Other news includes U3A Todmorden hosting a Memory Day for members. The presentation was given by Arthur Maltby and John Bews of U3A Heswall and was entitled Understanding Memory. Over an interesting two hour period members learned how the brain functions, performed mental gymnastics and learned about their cognitive functions. All took part in exercises which will, hopefully, allow retention of memory well into old age.

Our next meeting will be held on Thursday 16 March in the Central Methodist Church in Todmorden at 1.45 when our speaker will be Alan Hemsworth whose subject will be ‘The Riddle of Humpty Dumpty and other Nursery Rhymes’. Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk, enquiries@u3atod.org.uk, or 01706 812015.