books · Lyon · saltaire · silk · silk-weaving · the silk romance · weaving · woollen mill

A weaver’s stories of Saltaire and Lyon, and a gallery of photos

A few months ago I wrote a post on silk-weaving in the city of Lyon, the setting for my novel, The Silk Romance.

Today I’m writing about my home town of Saltaire, since the two places have a lot in common.

Salt’s Mill, a former woollen mill
helena fairfax, salt's mill, saltaire
Leeds-Liverpool Canal outside Salt’s Mill

At first it may be hard to believe that my home town and Lyon could share much in common. 

Lyon is situated in the southern part of France, has a beautiful climate, with a culture of street cafés and a vibrant night-life.

Saltaire, on the other hand, is a Victorian mill town, on the edge of the moors, with a typically northern English climate of cold winds and bleak grey skies.

But both Saltaire and the Croix-Rousse (Lyon’s silk-weaving district) are UNESCO World Heritage sites, filled with the history of weaving.

Saltaire, which is really just a handful of streets, was purpose built by Sir Titus Salt in the nineteenth century.  It was an incredible achievement.  The town provided clean, new houses for mill workers, who had previously been forced to live in terrible squalor and slum conditions in the nearby mill town of Bradford.  There was a purpose built school, an infirmary, a beautiful park for recreation, and the provision of allotments so that the workers could grow their own food.

The bookshop, and machinery from the former mill

Up until recently, Salts Mill was still a thriving woollen mill.  My father-in-law is a retired weaver, and he used to visit the mill regularly when it was in its heyday, and the mill yards rang with literally thousands of workers. 

Nowadays the mill building is quiet.  It fell into disuse when the weaving industry collapsed in England in the eighties.  Luckily an entrepreneur, with the encouragement of Yorkshire artist David Hockney, had the forethought to bring the beautiful old mill building back to life.  It is now a bookshop, gallery and office space.

After working as a weaver all his life, my father-in-law, George, has many stories to tell of the weaving industry.  It wasn’t the romantic place people imagine when he started out in the fifties, but actually a really hard occupation, with a typically hard set of Yorkshiremen working in it. 

George tells tales of how, as a sixteen year old apprentice, he would occasionally be picked out by the foreman to bare knuckle fight one of his fellow apprentices after work.  There was no saying no to the bosses.  The weavers put a lot of money on these fights.  George took a break to do his National Service in the British Army, and came back to the mill a very different man. After that, there was no more ordering him to fight his friends.  Anyone who did got short shrift.

I mentioned there are definite links between the Yorkshire woollen industry and the Lyon silk industry.  George eventually began managing a weaving-shed in Bradford, and once took some of his staff to visit a mill in Lyon.  The French and English workers were able to share a lot of technical skills.

However, the incident which sticks out in George’s mind is when one of his own weavers was the cause of some embarrassment.  On a visit to the toilet, he somehow managed to flush his dentures down the pan.  How this happened is not entirely clear to this day, but it caused the French weavers a lot of amusement.  They couldn’t leave an English guest with no teeth for the rest of his stay, so they very kindly got into the sewage sump and retrieved them.  George’s colleague gave his teeth a good scrub after their adventure in French sewage, and popped them back in in time for dinner.  Job’s a good ‘un, as we say in Yorkshire!  Or ça y était, in Lyon!

A street in Saltaire

If you’d like to know more about Saltaire, or the weaving industry, I can recommend the following books:

Salt and Saltaire, by Dr Gary Firth.  A brief history, which has a lovely collection of old photos

The Last Telegram, by Liz Trenow.  This is a historical romance set in a British silk-weaving factory which moved over to producing parachute silk during World War Two.  I haven’t read this novel yet, but downloaded it after reading this review on Dizzy C’s Book Blog.  Apparently the author has many years experience of working in a silk mill.  The novel looks really interesting and is next up on my TBR list.

Finally, I couldn’t possibly leave out one of my favourite romance novels of all time: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  This gripping 19th century novel is set in the cotton mills in Lancashire.  If you’ve never read it, please try it.  It’s brilliant.

I hope you like my photos and history of my home town. More photos of Saltaire below, and for more photos of my beloved Yorkshire, and of places I visit, you can sign up to my newsletter here.


12 thoughts on “A weaver’s stories of Saltaire and Lyon, and a gallery of photos

  1. What a beautiful place Saltaire is. I must go and visit some day. As for your story about the dentures, this poor man must have been really stuck to clean them up and put them back on. I suppose it was either that or go without teeth for the rest of his stay in Lyon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again an interesting post, Helena. It was nice to see the photographs, it helps to give that extra dimension to my idea of place. North and South was one of my favorite books, long, long, ago..I may check it out again, now you have reminded me.


  3. Thanks for pointing me to this, Helena. I love the layout and everything in Saltaire, but I agree it would be a mistake to romanticise the past. The idea of the bosses setting up the young apprentices for a fight is somewhat sickening. Nevertheless, must be a good place to live with the moors at your back door – and a decent train service!


    1. It is a great place to live, Anne. The only downside is the heavy traffic at Saltaire roundabout. I much prefer to use the train rather than drive if I possibly can, and I escape to the solitary moors pretty much every day with my dog.
      Thanks for checking out my post, and for your comment.


  4. North and South was how I cam to these planned villages. I later found out that Prince Albert had model homes at the Great Exhibition of 1851… such a fascinating time in history. I am particuarly interested in the rich/poor gap and the textile industries of the time (I love to sew, too!)
    Thanks for the wonderful pictures. I hope to make it there soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Julia, and for reblogging my post. I didn’t realise about the model homes at the Great Exhibition. How interesting. It really is a fascinating period, with the growth of industrialisation and the move from rural to urban areas for thousands of people.
      If you’re interested in the textile industry, I can also recommend Armley Mills in Leeds for a visit
      Hope you do manage to make a visit up here some day. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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