In the Middle Ages Bradford became an important centre for the woollen and textile trades. From 1774 Bradford was connected to the canal from Leeds to Liverpool. This encouraged the building of woollen mills and by the end of the 18th century, six had been built in the town. The development of worsted manufacture increased the number of mills in the town. By 1810 Bradford was responsible for 25% of the West Riding's production of worsted and the town became known as Worstedopolis.
The introduction of the steam engine to drive machinery increased the number of mills in Bradford. With over 200 factory chimneys continually churning out black, sulphurous smoke, Bradford gained the reputation of being the most polluted town in England. Bradford's sewage was dumped into the River Beck. As people also obtained their drinking water from the river, this created serious health problems. There were regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, and only 30% of children born to textile workers reached the age of fifteen. Life expectancy, of just over eighteen years, was one of the lowest in the country.
Titus Salt, who owned five textile mills in Bradford, was one of the few employers in the town who showed any concern for this problem. After much experimentation, Salt discovered that the Rodda Smoke Burner produced very little pollution. In 1842 he arranged for these burners to be used in all his factories.
In 1848 Titus Salt became mayor of Bradford. He tried hard to persuade the council to pass a by-law that would force all factory owners in the town to use these new smoke burners. The other factory owners in the town were opposed to the idea. Most of them refused to accept that the smoke produced by their factories was damaging people's health.
The growth of Bradford was helped by the opening of the Leeds & Bradford Railway in 1846. This resulted in a dramatic increase in Bradford's population. The number of inhabitants rose from 26,000 in 1801 to 106,000 in 1861. A large number of Irish immigrants found work in the town and in 1861 only just over a quarter of the inhabitants had been born in Bradford.
(1) George Weerth, a young German on holiday in England, described Bradford in an article that he wrote for a German newspaper in 1846.
Every other factory town in England is a paradise in comparison to this hole. In Manchester the air lies like lead upon you; in Birmingham it is just as if you were sitting with your nose in a stove pipe; in Leeds you have to cough with the dust and the stink as if you had swallowed a pound of Cayenne pepper in one go - but you can put up with all that. In Bradford, however, you think you have been lodged with the devil incarnate. If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford.
(2) After the cholera epidemic of 1848, Titus Salt, at that time the mayor of Bradford, made a speech on the lessons of this tragedy.
The cholera most forcibly teaches us our mutual connection. Nothing shows more powerfully the duty of every man to look after the needs of others. Cholera is God's voice to his people.
Mr. Smith of Deanston, in a sanitary report made about 1837, describes Bradford as being the dirtiest town in England. Mills abound in great plenty, and their number is daily increasing, while the town itself extends in like proportion. Bradford is essentially a new town. Half a century ago it was a mere cluster of huts: now the district of which it is the heart contains upwards of 132,000 inhabitants. The value of life is about 1 in 40. Fortunes have been made in Bradford with a rapidity almost unequalled even in the manufacturing districts.
The houses of the work people are very inferior. They are one and all constructed back to back, or rather built double, with a partition running down the ridge of the roof. This is the case even in rows and streets at present building. "The plan," said my informant, "is adopted because of its cheapness, and because it saves ground rent."
Bradford is well suited for drainage. There is ample fall, and the "Bradford Beck," a rapid stream which flows through the town, would, if arched over, make a capital main sewer. The brook at present runs the colour of ink. The relieving officer with whom I inspected the town, showed me a spot where the foul water washed the grimy walls of half a dozen steaming mills. "There," he said, "when I was a boy. I used to catch trout in as bright a stream as any in Yorkshire."
We arrived on a stormy night in November. Coming out from the entrance of the Midland station, we saw, in a swuther of rain, the shining statue of Richard Oastler standing in the Market Square, with two black and bowed little mill-workers standing at his knee.
Next morning we awoke in a new and quite unknown world. It was a Sunday, and the smoke cloud that usually enveloped the city had lifted. Tall dark chimneys reaching skywards like monstrous trees, made dark outlines against the faint grey of the sunny morning. On weekdays these big stone monsters belched forth smoke as black as pitch that fell in choking clouds.
The condition of the poorer children was worse than anything that was described or painted. It was a thing that this generation is glad to forget. The neglect of infants, the utter neglect almost of toddlers and older children, the blight of early labour, all combined to make of a once vigorous people a race of undergrown and spoiled adolescents; and just as people looked on at the torture two hundred years ago and less, without any great indignation, so in the 1890s people saw the misery of poor children without perturbation.