The Yorkshire Society is committed to promoting and protecting Yorkshire’s heritage. Here’s a cautionary tale by David Pickersgill on what happens when built heritage isn’t protected, kindly provided by History & Heritage Yorkshire
NO ORDINARY TRACK IN THE WOODS…
There are signs right from the start that this is no ordinary track into the woods, gradually climbing through the trees close by the north bank of the River Aire. Beneath decades of accumulated leaf mould are the potholed remains of a cobbled surface, while the overgrown hedges at either side contain an unusual concentration of holly bushes. The giveaway, however, is a Victorian stone-built lodge behind three stout gritstone gate piers, though whatever grand barrier once hung between them has long been replaced by an incongruous five-bar steel gate. Pass through the pedestrian entrance at the side and you enter the grounds of Milner Field, a little-known and long-lost relic of the same business dynasty which built the landmark mill and model village of Saltaire, just a mile downstream.
Before the advent of reliable motor vehicles, it was often the habit of industrialists to live close by the place which generated their wealth, however noisy and polluting that factory or mine might be. Thus, it was that Titus Salt Jr, whose father established the renowned textile business and gave the family’s name to the workers’ village, bought a seventeenth-century manor house, Milner Field, within sight but, probably not coincidentally, upwind of Salts Mill in 1869. Almost immediately he commissioned architect Thomas Harris to design a replacement house, a grandiose mansion in a mixture of Gothic revival and more traditional styles, which was completed in 1871.
It was fitted with all the late-nineteenth century mod cons – running water, central heating, electric lighting – and incorporated innovative construction techniques including cavity walls and cast-iron beams supporting the floors above the cellars. It even possessed an internal telephone system connecting with the offices at Salts Mill. In typical high Victorian fashion there was lots of wooden panelling, stained glass and marble; oak bookcases in the library; wall paintings and a pipe organ in the grand hall; and a free-standing conservatory linked to the house by a covered walkway. The octagonal-shaped kitchen was modelled on that at Glastonbury Abbey, while there were nine bedrooms and three dressing rooms. The grounds were equally lavishly laid out, featuring an ornamental lake along with a range of greenhouses and an extensive kitchen garden, while the coach road from Saltaire and Shipley was planted with the holly bushes which still grow along its course.
INFERIOR NEW MONEY
Despite the Salts almost certainly being considered inferior ‘new money’ within the strict hierarchy of Victorian society, Milner Field nevertheless attracted its share of high status visitors. In June 1882 the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) stayed there for three days with his wife Princess Alexandra when the couple came north to open a new technical college in Bradford, then in May 1887 Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, and her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg, were guests when they opened the Royal Yorkshire Jubilee Exhibition in Saltaire.
Only six months after the second royal visit, however, Titus Salt Jr died suddenly in the Milner Field billiard room, the first of several deaths associated with the house which gained it a reputation of being cursed. In 1903 Salt’s widow, Catherine, sold the family business and the house to textile baron Sir James Roberts (after whom Saltaire’s park is named) who, in the space of fourteen years, lost three of his four sons to illness or accident then saw the fourth badly injured in the First World War, after which his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, died in the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Fortunes were no better for the next occupants, Salts Mill managing director Ernest Gates and wife Eva: Mrs Gates succumbed to an unknown illness in October 1923, only weeks after the couple moved in, then in April 1925 Ernest died of septicaemia. Gates was succeeded as managing director by Arthur Hollins who, along with his wife Anne, moved into Milner Field in May 1925: Anne was dead, from pneumonia, within nine months, while Arthur died suddenly while on holiday in August 1929, at the age of fifty-one – coincidentally, the same age as his predecessor Ernest Gates.
ABANDONED AND DEMOLISHED
The Hollins family were the last people to live at Milner Field. Though its reputation cannot have helped, in reality it had become damp, hard to heat and its formerly state-of-the-art fittings were obsolescent. It was a burden on the Salts business but one which was impossible to sell at a time when potential buyers with enough money to take it on preferred homes in a more rural setting. Like so many similar houses in the middle years of the twentieth century, it was abandoned: what could be sold was stripped out and the stonework was utilised as a source of materials for repairs at the mill and in Saltaire village. The elements and vandalism did the rest until, in the mid 1950s, contractors with bulldozers and dynamite razed the shell of the house to the ground (see below).
CLUES TO ITS FORMER GLORY
Today, it is hard to picture how Milner Field and its grounds once looked, since unchecked tree and scrub growth have overwhelmed the site. However, strike left off the old coach road on a visible path into the trees and clues soon start to appear: the ivy-clad walls of the former entrance archway; scattered fragments of decorative stonework; mounds of broken stones and bricks, some merely rubble, others more substantial and still identifiable as parts of door casings and window frames; shards of window glass. A short flight of steps from the terrace to the lawn, a survivor of the seventeenth-century house, is still there, as is the conservatory floor. Just visible, too, are the vaulted brick ceilings of the cellars and one of the cast-iron beams which supported the stone floors. Some distance away, the ruins of the greenhouses and boiler house border a scrubby field which was once the kitchen garden. Beneath its green canopy, a place which hosted lavish parties yet was visited by tragedy now lies hidden and silent.
THINGS ARE BEGINNING TO STIR
However, almost seventy years after the final demolition, things are beginning to stir at Milner Field. Over the past year or so, a small group of enthusiasts has spent countless hours clearing undergrowth and rubble, revealing surviving features which had been buried for decades. More of the decorative stonework, stairs and floors, fragments of ironwork and numerous fascinating artefacts have been uncovered; some left in situ, some – the smaller, removable items – secretively reburied for safe keeping. The current highlight (though who knows what future exploration might uncover?) is arguably the conservatory floor, which retains its stone kerbs and many of the decorative mosaics, including the borders and central floral motifs. While so much of the house and gardens has gone, nevertheless there is still enough to see to make a visit an intriguing experience, a fascinating contrast to the better-known attractions of Salts Mill with which its history is so closely entwined.
View progress on uncovering the site’s secrets at www.facebook.com/groups/1228446237987921
HOW TO FIND MILNER FIELD
Milner Field can be reached on foot from Saltaire by crossing the canal and river into Roberts Park then heading across to one of the exit gates on the far side. Turn left out of the park on to Higher Coach Road, passing Titus Salt School on the right and a housing estate on the left, after which the tarmac road gives way to the gravelled former driveway. Continue through the gateway at South Lodge into the woods with the track swinging gradually right then left, after which start looking for the path on the left toward the ruins. There are no obvious landmarks to indicate where the path begins but it is not too difficult to spot. Strong footwear is recommended. Trains run every 30 minutes from both Leeds and Bradford Forster Square to Saltaire. There is no road route from Saltaire on to Higher Coach Road; instead it is accessed from Shipley via the A6038 Baildon Road, turning left on to Green Lane just after crossing the River Aire. Park, with consideration for residents, on the roadside by the housing estate mentioned above.
Images courtesy of the author.
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