Nineteenth-century industrialists such as Titus Salt and George Cadbury developed a philanthropic bent, building homes and community facilities for their workers while strongly discouraging alcohol. And their idealism worked – in these isolated pockets, health improved.
Arriving by train in the town of Saltaire in North Yorkshire, near Bradford, you are greeted by a large mill building.
It’s no ordinary industrial building, though. Built in yellow sandstone in the style of an Italian palazzo and located on the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the River Aire, the quiet beauty of the Yorkshire moors surrounds it.
Across the road, a church with a semicircular portico sits at the end of tree-lined pathway. Streets of terraced housing lie neatly by.
I visited Saltaire on a clear day in late winter, and as the sun glinted off the canal and the mill chimneys rose quietly into the blue sky, the overwhelming sensation was one of peace.
It’s hard to imagine the reality of this same place in the 1850s, when the vast spaces of the mill building held the huge machines of industry. Then, it was the biggest factory in the world, with 3,000 workers attending 1,200 looms, producing 30,000 yards of cloth every day.
A benevolent employer
Salts Mill and the surrounding town of Saltaire were built by the wealthy textile baron Titus Salt. As a young man he joined his father’s wool business in Bradford, eventually opening his own factory to specialise in his new product using alpaca wool.
He was politically engaged. As Mayor of Bradford in 1848 he attempted to introduce measures forcing factory owners to limit the damage they were causing to local health, but his ideas for reform met with reluctance.
In 1850 he decided to build one large mill to accommodate all his manufacturing and, reluctant to “be a party to increasing that already overcrowded borough" of Bradford, he chose the site where Saltaire now stands.
Salt provided community facilities alongside the mill, churches and housing – a hospital, schools, allotments, a park and boathouse. A library, reading room, concert hall and gymnasium offered opportunities for education and recreation.
It was an enormous undertaking, with health influencing many aspects of the design. At the mill, non-polluting smoke burners were used to protect the air quality for the surrounding town. Houses were provided with fresh water and gas, and had an innovative toilet and sewage collection system.
Rules and resources
At Saltaire Archive I unfolded a set of plans for the bath and washhouse that opened in 1863. The plans show bathing facilities for both men and women, as well as a Turkish bath, while the washhouse provided the most up-to-date laundry facilities, with six washing machines, a rubbing and boiling tub, wringing machine and hot air dryers. Laundry could be fully washed and dried in an hour.
A medical report drawn up by a Dr Samuel Rhind in 1867 approved of such innovation, commending “the removal of whole masses of damp clothes from the streets, and of the steam of washing-tubs from the houses”, saying it “greatly conduces to the health and comfort of the inhabitants. Indoor washing is most pernicious, and a fruitful source of disease, especially to the young.”
Despite this, the bathhouse proved unpopular and was converted to housing before later being demolished.
The archive also reveals a tantalising glimpse of Titus Salt as something other than a benevolent master, with stories of his disapproval of washing lines leading him to cut them down on sight. Further digging suggests this is likely an apocryphal tale – although the rules for living at the village almshouses includes one forbidding hanging clothes out to dry in front of the houses.
No eating between meals was recommended, as was eating meat only once a day and avoiding alcohol.
These rules show that paternalism is not always benign, as it can limit the freedom of the residents of communities like Saltaire. The village, for example, famously has no pub.
Again, Dr Rhind approved: “With comfortable houses and every inducement to stay at home – with literary and social institutions in their very midst, with high-class tastes, and, to crown all, a beautiful temple to the worship of God – it would be strange indeed had Saltaire not a reputation and a name.”
Ideal lives in model villages
Bournville was a village built just outside Birmingham on similar principles to Saltaire by George Cadbury, the chocolate-factory owner. His aim was to provide healthy homes for workers, whether employed in his factory or not. Bournville’s architecture was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which prioritised traditional craftsmanship and medieval styles of decoration.
Cadbury’s scheme included provision of gardens for “pleasure and profit” where residents were encouraged to grow – and sell – their own fruit and vegetables, while the town would retain “a pleasant rural aspect”. And each resident was issued with a small booklet, a set of ‘Suggested Rules of Health’ that promised a “healthier and therefore more cheerful life”.
Turning the pages of this diminutive publication – only about 10 cm square – I was fascinated by the breadth and tone of the advice. No eating between meals was recommended, as was eating meat only once a day and avoiding alcohol – influenced by Cadbury’s Quaker beliefs. Other rules included spending as much time as possible outdoors, and sleeping in single beds, as “double beds are now little used in civilised countries outside the United Kingdom”.
A set of rules for young people were later developed, with the addition of advice on ‘Looking Ahead’, ‘Care of Money’ and ‘Being a Gentleman’.
The dream of Wellcomeville
The impact on the health of those who escaped overcrowded and insanitary conditions of Bradford and Birmingham was significant. Mortality rates were greatly improved and, in a letter to the then Prime Minister Lloyd George, George Cadbury set out the improvements to child health achieved in Bournville.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that this model caught the eye of Henry Wellcome, and in 1911 a set of plans was drawn up for Wellcomeville, his own version of an ideal company village.
I’d long been aware of the existence of a large prospective drawing for Wellcomeville in Wellcome Collection, but I’d only seen it in reproduction. So it was down to the archive stores in the basement of the Wellcome building to view the original, and see if there were any other additional treasures to discover.
In fact a full set of drawings had been drawn up for the works, in plan and elevation, which revealed the scope both of the plans for Wellcomeville, and of Wellcome’s operations at this time – administration buildings, laboratories, manufacturing facilities were all carefully described. But what of the wider ambition for a model village – the ‘ville’ in Wellcomeville?
Drawings of Wellcomeville
A smaller map on brittle tissue paper revealed an overall scheme, including sports fields, an ornamental lake, villas for supervisors, workers’ cottages and even a museum to hold Wellcome’s growing collection of artefacts.
It’s not clear why Wellcomeville was never built; instead the Wellcome Research Institution was founded in our current building on London’s Euston Road, and the factory works were moved into a former paper mill in Dartford, Kent. But some residual influence of the ideal community remained – a library, gymnasium, tennis courts and that ornamental lake were provided for the staff that worked there.
The philanthropic vision of figures like Salt and Cadbury did have a demonstrable impact on the health of their workers – and marked a significant improvement (if limited in scale and scope) in the terrible living conditions like those described by Dickens and his ilk.
But what were the options for the more middle-class urban resident? To find out, and to explore the claim of “the healthiest place in the world” I had to return to London, to the garden suburb of Bedford Park.
About the author
Emily Sargent is Senior Curator at Wellcome Collection. She has curated numerous large exhibitions on a wide range of subjects, including 'Living with Buildings' (October 2018–March 2019), and exhibitions on human enhancement and the experience of consciousness.