The village of Saltaire: one of Britain's model towns. Photo: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images
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Imagined utopias: the history and future of Britain’s model towns

Saltaire was constructed as a Victorian utopia for the workers in Titus Salt's mill. Could Facebook follow in his footsteps?

The most illicit alcoholic drink to be enjoyed in West Yorkshire is taken in Don’t Tell Titus, a bar named in honour of the industrial philanthropist Titus Salt, who established the model village of Saltaire in 1851. That name is a playful nod to the beginnings of this Bradford suburb, which was constructed as a Victorian utopia for Salt’s workers along puritanical lines. Abstinence here was key.

Saltaire forms the centrepiece of Jacqueline Yallop’s new book, Dreamstreets: a Journey Through Britain’s Village Utopias, which studies a handful of the many model settlements built by wealthy figures in close proximity to mines, factories and mills – including Nenthead and Port Sunlight – mostly during the 19th century.

“Saltaire conjures up clearly the model of the mid-century mill town,” Yallop tells me from Aberystwyth, where she teaches creative writing. “It’s certainly the most ‘Victorian’ of the model villages in its form and conception.

“As I mention in the book, it strikes you as a kind of stalwart Victorian gent, very well turned out and impeccably mannered. Salt himself talked very little about his vision, however, so it’s difficult to know how far it realises his intentions – or, indeed, what his intentions were.”

The “Punjabi meze” and “home-made Scotch egg, Titus style” – breaded and bearded, perhaps? – on the bar menu suggest that times have changed. With its vintage clothing fairs, concrete skate park and David Hockney collection, a place once devoted almost entirely to one product – wool – now functions as a destination for art, food and commerce. In 2001, it was given World Heritage status.

Saltaire remains largely residential. The well-kept terraced streets are a testament to foresight and durability. The town provided bathhouses, a hospital, a library, a science lab and a gymnasium, free of charge. Today, beanstalks push through the acidic soil of the allotments first plotted on Caroline Street in the 1850s. The 14 acres of Roberts Park remain impeccably maintained.

“I think there was a mixture of genuine benevolence among philanthropists – often driven by religious belief – and commercial self-interest,” Yallop explains. “It can be very difficult to disentangle these motives and I’m sure many of the philanthropists themselves didn’t examine them too closely.”

This is evident in Salts Mill, a squat cathedral of a structure that stands emphatically against the turbid Pennine sky. Here, 3,000 workers once turned out 18 miles of worsted cloth every day. Now, in its vast retail and gallery spaces, the scent of fresh lilies hangs in the air, to a soundtrack of gentle classical music. The mill was saved by the entrepreneur Jonathan Silver in 1987, who brought theatre, performance and Hockney to Saltaire. The cavernous old loom rooms are the ideal spaces in which to view the Bradford-born artist’s collages, set designs and iPad drawings.

Nevertheless, visitors can’t escape the industrial past here. On a hot day, oil from alpaca wool rises up ghostlike through the flagstones to pool. Titus Salt may have been progressive but he was still a Victorian. He was against raising the minimum working age of children above nine.

When Salt died in 1876, as many as 100,000 people lined his funeral route. Are there, I wonder, any modern equivalents of such utopias?

“There are still places being built in America along similar lines, often for specific religious communities, or perhaps for retirement villages,” Yallop says. “There was also a recent discussion about Facebook building a company town, which would be an interesting update of the experiment.”

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.