Today I’m writing about my home town of Saltaire, since the two places have a lot in common.
I realise at first this may be a bit hard to believe. For a start, 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 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.
Today I’ve put together a gallery of photos of Saltaire, which you can find at the bottom of the page, if you want to skip reading.
The town, 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.
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!
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.
To view the gallery, click on the first photo, and scroll through the collection to view the captions. (Press ESC to exit gallery.)
I hope you like my photos and history of my home town. If you’ve read any of the books above, or have visited Lyon, or have any questions at all, please let me know in the comments. I always love to hear from people!