Thursday, 15 March 2012

Sir James Roberts, businessman

Photograph © the Roberts family, used with the kind permission of Jamie Roberts.

Most people know of Sir Titus Salt's connection with Saltaire.  He pretty much ensured immortality by giving the village his name and that of the River Aire which flows through it.  It was his vision and his money that created the huge mill and the village around it, built to house his workers in much better conditions than those prevailing in the Victorian cities at the time.  Sir Titus's legacy is ensured.

The story of Salts Mill and Saltaire after Sir Titus' death is perhaps less well-known but still deserves telling and remembering.   (Click below to read it - a new Blogger trick I'm trying!)

Sir Titus Salt died in 1876, leaving the business in the hands of his sons.  Two of them retired early, then Titus Jnr died in 1887, leaving only one son, Edward, involved.  He was unable to steer the business through tough economic times (after the USA introduced trade tariffs)  and in 1892 Sir Titus Salt Bart., Sons & Co Ltd went into receivership. In 1893 the company (and the village) was taken over by a consortium of businessmen: John Maddocks, John Rhodes, James Roberts and Isaac Smith.  They modernised and extended the mill and by 1895 production was at its highest-ever level.  By 1902, Roberts was the sole owner, employing 4000 workers and overseeing the village of 4500 inhabitants.

By all accounts he was an intelligent and able man, determined, visionary, socially committed and true to Sir Titus Salt's own values.  He was made a baronet in 1909, becoming Sir James and continued to run the business through to the end of WWI in 1918, despite difficult personal and economic circumstances.  In 1918, suffering ill-health, he sold the business and the village and retired to his Strathallan estate in Scotland.

It seems sad to me that the only memorial to him in Saltaire is Roberts Park, which bears his name because he gifted it to Bradford Corporation in 1920.  His role in safeguarding and improving Saltaire, over 25 years, was crucially important to its present prosperity.  He should also be fondly remembered for many other benevolent acts: he bought the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth in 1928 and presented it to the Brontë Society to use as a museum - so we can all benefit from that wonderful gift.  In 1916 he gave money to Leeds University to create a professorship in Russian studies (he had strong business links with Russia) and was later awarded an honorary doctorate. (See the painting of him in his academic robes above, which used to hang in Leeds University but is now in his family's possession.)


  1. Hi Jenny .. a really informative post - I enjoyed the read. Roberts certainly sounds philanthropic .. especially with the presentation of the Bronte parsonage to the Society.

    Great story and post and I love the picture .. cheers Hilary

  2. He has a kind and serene face ... It would be nice to see more recognition given to the name of this most generous gentleman.

  3. And very proud of himself too.

  4. Sic transit gloria mundi.. A great man, and you made a wonderful tribute to him.
    I like the men of those times because they all had fabulous moustaches! :o)

  5. It is a shame that his contribution is not more valued. I'm sure that, like me, many people overlook what came after Sir Titus.

  6. Good post, Jenny! I notice Des uses this blogging trick too! Tell us how to do it?

  7. Michael - you just insert a jump break where you want the "read more" to appear - click the icon at the top of the Blogger compose screen. I don't know how you do it if you don't use Blogger.

  8. Thanks for your informative post, Jenny.

  9. You did a wonderful job of acknowledging his contributions to Saltaire on here Jenny! Also, I didn't realize before where the "aire" part of Saltaire came from, that's pretty cool. ~Lili


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