Friday, 16 March 2012

Sir James Roberts, family man

Photograph © the Roberts family, used with the kind permission of Julia Bolton Holloway

Saltaire has a thriving History Club (see the village website) and several members are actively engaged in ongoing research.  I was fortunate to be able to attend the last meeting and obtained a hard copy of the latest in a line of 'Saltaire Journals' (which are also downloadable free from the website).  Researched and written by David King, it is entitled 'The Second Lord of Saltaire: the family history of Sir James Roberts Bart. JP, LLD.'  It makes fascinating reading, though I can only briefly summarise it here.  We should be most grateful to David for his painstaking research that brings to life a man whose influence on Saltaire was fundamental and important, but who has hitherto tended to be overlooked.

The future Sir James Roberts was born in 30 September 1848 in Oakworth, near Haworth, son of James and Jane, one of their eleven surviving children. (At the time of his birth the Brontës were living in Haworth).  His parents were uneducated; his father was a weaver.  They were determined that their sons should receive an education and James was enrolled in a church school in Haworth. Aged 11, he started working (as most working class children in those days did) in a local mill and by the time he was in his early 20s he seems to have been doing well, rising to a management position.  He married a local girl, Elizabeth Foster in 1873 at Bingley Parish Church.

They lived in Bradford, where James soon went into business himself, along with his cousin Joe Feather.  The business prospered, sourcing merino wool from Russia.  James built a substantial new house in Bingley, known as The Knoll (now Claremont) and then moved the family to another house called The Knoll in Baildon after he bought Salts Mill. (See yesterday's post).  Eventually he took over Milner Field, the great house that Titus Jnr had built and which became infamous for the many tragedies that befell its various occupants.  (Click the Milner Field label below for more about that house).

Sir James and his wife had seven children, one of whom died shortly after birth.  Tragically, he was unable to pass his business on to any of his sons.  Willie suffered ill-health (TB?) that forced him to move to South Africa for a while but he died aged just 24.  Bertram, who married and had four children, worked alongside his father running Salts Mill but died suddenly aged 36 in 1912.  Harry then became joint managing director at Salts Mill.  His father fought hard to prevent him being conscripted in WWI but he had to enrol in 1916.  He was seriously wounded in 1917 in France aged 30.  He survived but was considered too infirm to carry on the Saltaire business.  He went on to marry and live a comfortable life as a farmer in Jersey until he died in 1946.  Sir James' youngest son, Jack, drowned tragically on a family holiday, aged 10.

(It is worth reading the Journal for the colourful accounts of the lives of Sir James' extended family. The estranged husband of one of his daughters murdered her lover!)

When Sir James Roberts retired from Salts Mill, he moved to his Scottish estate, Strathallan Castle (which is still in the family) and also had a house in London.  Later he and his wife lived in a beautiful house called Fairlight Hall in Sussex (see the photo above) where they both died within months of each other in 1935.


  1. An interesting family story.

  2. They look so innoncent on this picture but they produced 7 children, oh my !

  3. Hi Jenny .. who did inherit? I see they both are buried at Fairlight - it's 20 miles east along the coast from here and has a lovely beach ..

    Very interesting history .. love learning that - and you're certainly giving us a really good overview of Saltaire - I'm loving it .. cheers Hilary

  4. Interesting history -- and I love the casualness of the picture.

  5. Just looking at this picture one would never imagine all the tragedy in their lives that happened to their children. ~Lili

  6. Extract from The Daily Telegraph, 4 March 1916:

    Sir James Roberts, managing director of Sir Titus Salt, Bt., Sons and Co. (Ltd.), Saltaire Mills, near Bradford, a business having a world-wide reputation, threatens to close his mills unless his son, Mr. J. H. N. Roberts, a single young man, is given exemption from military service.

    Shipley Tribunal has refused, and appeal is being made to the Central Appeals Tribunal.

    In a letter to the tribunal Sir James says:

    “There is no unwillingness on my son's part to serve. Early in the war he pressed me hard to consent to his enlistment. I pointed out to him that was impossible, that if I could not have my frequent holidays in Scotland I could not do my work, and if he were not at Saltaire business would have to close down. The necessity of closing down Saltaire Mills I contemplate with horror. The loss would be enormous to me and others, and I need hardly say that physical limitations are the only ones that could cause this step to be taken. What I wish to do is to clear myself of responsibility for the taking of such a step.”

    Sir James is ill at the present time. About 2,500 people are employed at Saltaire Mills, and the firm pay £10,000 in rates annually to the local District Council.


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