Robin Longbottom explores the extraordinary life of an Oakworth-born industrialist

IN May, 1927, Sir James Roberts of Fairlight Hall, near Hastings, East Sussex, announced at the annual Bronte Society meeting that he proposed to buy the parsonage in Haworth and donate it to them for a permanent museum and library.

The purchase was completed, and the parsonage was gifted to the society and formally opened to the public by Sir James on Saturday, August 4, 1928.

James Roberts was a man of very humble origins. He was born in a cottage at Lane Ends in Oakworth in 1848 and was the son of a weaver. He was the seventh child of James Roberts and his wife, Jane Hartley, who had moved to Oakworth from Thornton-in-Craven shortly after the birth of a daughter in 1845. When he was about four years old the family moved to Haworth where he received a basic education at the schoolhouse next to the parsonage and recalled in later life seeing Charlotte Bronte and her father, Patrick. As his family were baptists, they were unlikely to have met the Brontes through the church, although in later life he claimed to have heard Patrick Bronte preach.

When he was still a boy, he started work for William Greenwood at his worsted spinning mill in Oxenhope, and eventually rose to be the mill manager. In 1873 he married Elizabeth Foster of Harden, the daughter of the village grocer. After his marriage he set up in business as a topmaker, buying and preparing raw wool for spinning. To cut out the middle man he bought his wool direct from the growers and this took him to the steppes of southern Russia. At this time Russia was the largest producer of merino wool and a wool known as Donskoi, chiefly used for carpets. He travelled annually to Circassia and the Kuban Steppe, which lay north of the Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. He taught himself Russian, traded directly with the agents of the vast Russian sheep stations and exported the wool from the port of Odessa on the Black Sea. Through this trade he gradually amassed a small fortune.

When Titus Salt & Sons of Saltaire went bankrupt in 1892 he joined forces with three other industrialists, and they bought the mill and the village. By 1900 he had purchased his partner’s shares and taken sole ownership of the whole of Saltaire. In 1909 he was one of six new baronets created in honour of the king’s birthday and the following year in keeping with his newly elevated status he purchased Strathallan Castle, north-east of Stirling in Perthshire. The castle and estate of several thousand acres had been the ancestral home of the Drummond family and the Earls of Perth and had been rebuilt in the Scottish baronial style with battlements and towers.

Roberts continued spinning alpaca, for which Salts Mill was famous, and importing wool from Russia. He was a keen promoter of Anglo-Russian relations and in 1916 he gave £10,000 to Leeds University to create a faculty for the study of the Russian language and literature. However, the subsequent revolution resulted in Sir James sustaining considerable financial losses and he redirected all his trade to Australia and South America.

In 1920 he gave Saltaire Park to Bradford Council provided it was renamed Roberts Park in memory of his son, Bertram, who had died in 1912. He retired to Fairlight in East Sussex in 1926 leaving his grandson, James Denby Roberts, to reside at Strathallan Castle. Saltaire and the mill were sold for an estimated £2 million in 1933. On December 31, 1935, Sir James Roberts, born in a humble weaver’s cottage at Lane Ends in Oakworth, died at Fairlight Hall aged 87.