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. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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

Screengrab from Telegraph video
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The Telegraph’s bizarre list of 100 reasons to be happy about Brexit

“Old-fashioned light bulbs”, “crooked cucumbers”, and “new vocabulary”.

As the economy teeters on the verge of oblivion, and the Prime Minister grapples with steering the UK around a black hole of political turmoil, the Telegraph is making the best of a bad situation.

The paper has posted a video labelled “100 reasons to embrace Brexit”. Obviously the precise number is “zero”, but that didn’t stop it filling the blanks with some rather bizarre reasons, floating before the viewer to an inevitable Jerusalem soundtrack:

Cheap tennis balls

At last. Tennis balls are no longer reserved for the gilded eurocrat elite.

Keep paper licences

I can’t trust it unless I can get it wet so it disintegrates, or I can throw it in the bin by mistake, or lose it when I’m clearing out my filing cabinet. It’s only authentic that way.

New hangover cures

What?

Stronger vacuums

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to hoover up dust by inhaling close to the carpet.

Old-fashioned light bulbs

I like my electricals filled with mercury and coated in lead paint, ideally.

No more EU elections

Because the democratic aspect of the European Union was something we never obsessed over in the run-up to the referendum.

End working time directive

At last, I don’t even have to go to the trouble of opting out of over-working! I will automatically be exploited!

Drop green targets

Most people don’t have time to worry about the future of our planet. Some don’t even know where their next tennis ball will come from.

No more wind farms

Renewable energy sources, infrastructure and investment – what a bore.

Blue passports

I like my personal identification how I like my rinse.

UK passport lane

Oh good, an unadulterated queue of British tourists. Just mind the vomit, beer spillage and flakes of sunburnt skin while you wait.

No fridge red tape

Free the fridge!

Pounds and ounces

Units of measurement are definitely top of voters’ priorities. Way above the economy, health service, and even a smidgen higher than equality of tennis ball access.

Straight bananas

Wait, what kind of bananas do Brexiteers want? Didn’t they want to protect bendy ones? Either way, this is as persistent a myth as the slapstick banana skin trope.

Crooked cucumbers

I don’t understand.

Small kiwi fruits

Fair enough. They were getting a bit above their station, weren’t they.

No EU flags in UK

They are a disgusting colour and design. An eyesore everywhere you look…in the uh zero places that fly them here.

Kent champagne

To celebrate Ukip cleaning up the east coast, right?

No olive oil bans

Finally, we can put our reliable, Mediterranean weather and multiple olive groves to proper use.

No clinical trials red tape

What is there to regulate?

No Turkey EU worries

True, we don’t have to worry. Because there is NO WAY AND NEVER WAS.

No kettle restrictions

Free the kettle! All kitchen appliances’ lives matter!

Less EU X-factor

What is this?

Ditto with BGT

I really don’t get this.

New vocabulary

Mainly racist slurs, right?

Keep our UN seat

Until that in/out UN referendum, of course.

No EU human rights laws

Yeah, got a bit fed up with my human rights tbh.

Herbal remedy boost

At last, a chance to be treated with medicine that doesn’t work.

Others will follow [picture of dominos]

Hooray! The economic collapse of countries surrounding us upon whose trade and labour we rely, one by one!

Better English team

Ah, because we can replace them with more qualified players under an Australian-style points-based system, you mean?

High-powered hairdryers

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to dry my hair by yawning on it.

She would’ve wanted it [picture of Margaret Thatcher]

Well, I’m convinced.

I'm a mole, innit.