The end of textile manufacture at Salts Mill, 1986

In 1985 I bought my first SLR camera, an Olympus OM40 and quite recently I came across prints of my early photography. On this blog are photos from when I worked in Salts Mill helping to count the stock pending sale to Drummonds in around April, 1986 which preceded the closure of the mill.

Whilst most were of the spinning sheds there are also shots of the area that currently accommodates the Hockney Gallery, diner and retail units. It is a long way removed from the environment of The Diner at Salts, a favourite haunt of my family for Sunday breakfast or lunch. [Link here to the Salts Mill website]

Back in 1986 I got into trouble for wandering off taking the pics but I am glad that I did. It was a poignant experience to witness the closure of the business and the end of a chapter in the history of the mill. It was also a massive privilege to be able to see the final workings of textile manufacture in Saltaire. The financial burden of Illingworth Morris (who owned Salts of Saltaire) was the upkeep of the mill and for all we knew, it was destined either to be demolished or left to rot. Indeed, maintenance of the physical infrastructure of Salts Mill had already been cut back to minimal levels of upkeep. No-one could imagine that someone like Jonathan Silver might revitalise it in a new creation.

The plant and machinery was antiquated and much would have been at least fifty years old, probably more. By then the most recent capital investment and renewal would have been at least ten years’ old. Tellingly, the bulk of that constituted Italian or German machinery whereas it was the older equipment that carried the names of textile engineering companies in Bradford, Keighley or Halifax.

(*I have another selection of images from around the same time of a spinning mill in East Ardsley which will be uploaded shortly and these show the antiquated machinery.)

Salts Mill in June, 2020
The front of Salts Mill from Victoria Road, Saltaire in June, 2020
Salts Mill 1986

I am sharing these old images as a record of local history. Whilst I have no objection to them being circulated on social media I would ask that I am credited and a link provided to this site. More of my photos from the era will be uploaded to Twitter (@jpdewhirst) and to this blog also. Anyone wanting to see a far better standard of Bradford mill photographs, including of the final days of Salts Mill as a textile factory, should look for the work of Ian Beesley and in particular his compilation Through the Mill.

My apologies for the condition of my photos. Although I have been able to scan from the original negatives, some are discoloured by streaks of light shading which I assume arose from the roll of film being prematurely exposed to light.

Being sentimental about the mills…

It is tempting to glamorise the old mills and mourn their loss. Indeed, the demise of the textile industry wiped out much of the character and tradition of places such as Bradford, Huddersfield or Halifax like other northern towns across the Pennines. Hence the sentimentality for the old mills like that for old football grounds or railway stations of a long gone era. These photographs serve as a reminder of how decrepit they had become and, as with football grounds such as Valley Parade, they were probably also unsafe.

It is now difficult to imagine that in a past life the mills were loud and often inhospitable places. Many of the old mills that survive offer such sanitised environments – such as Salts Mill – with urban living, chic dining and boutique shopping. Others have similarly been converted to new trendy offices. Yet the working conditions for textile manufacturing were altogether different and frankly unpleasant with the noise, airborne particles and humidity to contend with. In earlier decades those conditions would have been even worse.

The expansion of third world competition from the 1960s meant that textiles became a race to the bottom with low wage rates and short-termism. By the 1970s many businesses were clinging on to survive another year and few had a long term vision. The industry was much contracted by the end of the 1980s but economies of scale proved elusive and by the end of the 1990s it had virtually disappeared. Twenty years ago I worked in one of the last remaining textile firms in Bradford and saw for myself the final demise of the industry as major UK retailers opted for foreign production to keep prices low. All that remains now is the physical footprint of how they shaped northern towns and cities such as Bradford.

It is frightening to think what could have become of Salt’s Mill had not Jonathan Silver rescued the estate and replicated what had been achieved at Dean Clough, Halifax. In 1986 for example Salt’s Mill had a very uncertain future with no guarantee of survival. Indeed, by the mid 1980s old mills were being demolished at an accelerating rate and others were disappearing through arson and falling apart through disrepair or abandonment. What was lacking was the imagination to find alternative uses for the structures – once demolished it was too late and it is difficult to argue that the sheds or brownfield sites that stand in place of old mills have necessarily enhanced the urban environment.

I believe that the above photograph was taken where The Salts Diner is now situated.

The final images are of Saltaire in 1987 by which time the mill was standing empty prior to its re-incarnation…

Thanks for visiting my blog, the content of which is mainly – although not exclusively – about Bradford City AFC. I am interested in local history and in particular industrial, sporting and railway history but you will also find content about my favourite band, The Stranglers. The above menu at the top of the page gives access to content published in the BCAFC matchday programme, features on local history as well as my reviews of sundry sports books that have local coverage.

I have unearthed other old photographs that I took of Bradford as well as my travels in the Soviet bloc around this time and will upload those also on an ad hoc basis. For something else completely different, you can find my photographs of the DPRK from this link.

Refer to the menu above for links to other blog features.

I tweet photos from @jpdewhirst many of which feature Saltaire. During lockdown I am remaining within walking distance of home in Moorhead and hence my photography will be of local sites. Link here to my lockdown photos of Saltaire village and Salt’s Mill.

*** Details of my new book (2020) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals – A History in Colour which tells the story of the rivalry of Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue in the Football League, 1908-70. Copies of my other books in the bantamspast History Revisited series can be purchased in the Salts Mill bookshop when it reopens after lockdown.

Saltaire station in 2020.