Salt’s ruin: The curse of Milner Field

| April 21, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lisa Firth

Like the skeletal shell of the once mighty Titanic lying desolate on the ocean bed, the sparse ruins of Titus Salt Jr’s Milner Field mansion at Shipley Glen are steeped in history, legend – and a grim mythology.

Milner Field

Little is left of the once stately Milner Field mansion, pictured here in 1885

In November 1887, Titus Salt Jr – son and heir of his namesake, the Saltaire founder and self-made millionaire Sir Titus Salt – was relaxing in the billiard room of his luxurious mansion when he suddenly collapsed in pain. He was pronounced dead of heart failure shortly afterwards, aged only 44. This was just one in a series of bizarre tragedies to befall residents of Milner Field, the sprawling estate Salt Jr had commissioned 18 years earlier.

There had been a time when it seemed as if the young businessman led a charmed life. Inheriting his industrialist father’s vast textile empire following the latter’s death in 1876, Salt was wealthy enough to have the world at his feet and this reputedly shy and reserved man found himself at the forefront of elite Yorkshire society. With his wife Catherine and their four children, he played host to distinguished guests that included, among others, the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra).

But the family’s days of high living were soon to be at an end as misfortunes came on thick and fast. A slump in the wool trade deeply affected Salt’s business affairs, further exacerbated by unwise ventures in the United States and at home – he invested money heavily in the lavish 1887 Yorkshire Jubilee Exhibition. In addition, Salt’s health had begun to fail: his doctor diagnosed a weak heart in 1885, foreshadowing his premature death two years later.

The backdrop to Salt Jr’s dramatic rise and fall was the overwhelmingly extravagant, custom-built Milner Field mansion, which replaced an older country house of the same name. A Manderley-esque mass of turrets, towers and arches in neo-Gothic Italianate style, the house boasted every luxury money could buy.

Nestled in beautiful wooded surroundings at Shipley Glen, close to the Salt family wool empire in Saltaire, the estate featured opulence on an unprecedented scale both inside and out, with an orangery, courtyard, conservatory, boating lake and perfectly landscaped gardens contained within its extensive grounds. Well ahead of its time when completed in 1873, this estate agent’s dream included all mod cons: its own water supply, electricity and sewage system, water-cooled refrigeration rooms and a direct telephone line to the mill at Saltaire.

Milner Field rubble

These bricks were once part of the house’s bay window

After Salt Jr’s death, Milner Field fell into the hands of Sir James Roberts, the new proprietor of Salts Mill, who purchased it from the late owner’s widow. He, too, succumbed to the mansion’s strange spell, and like his predecessor found himself beset by bad luck and personal calamities.

Roberts had already suffered the death of his eldest son from pneumonia in 1898. In 1904, the year he moved into Milner Field, this was followed by the tragic drowning of his 11-year-old youngest son during a family holiday in Ireland. His second son died of a nervous illness in 1912 aged 36, and Roberts’ last surviving son, Harry, was badly injured in the First World War, preventing him from taking over the family business at Salts Mill as his father had hoped. The nurse Harry Roberts fell in love with while being treated for his injuries also died, pregnant with his child, in the flu epidemic that followed the war (Harry eventually married her sister, another nurse).

On top of these tragedies, the family were shamed by a national scandal when their married daughter’s lover was murdered by her spouse in a notorious and widely-reported crime of passion. In 1903 Alice Roberts had eloped with a doctor, Norman Cecil Rutherford, greatly against her father’s wishes: he had wanted her to wed another suitor, a Polish count. In 1919 Alice informed Norman – the father of her six children – that she wanted a divorce in order to marry her lover, his friend and colleague Major Miles Seton. Recently returned from tending wounded soldiers in the trenches and suffering from shell-shock, Dr Rutherford didn’t take the news well. He hunted down his love rival Seton and put a bullet or three in his chest, spending ten years in Broadmoor for the crime.

Subsequent occupants of the estate also suffered tragic and in some cases bizarre deaths. Ernest Gates lost his wife to a pre-existing illness just weeks after taking up residence at Milner Field in 1923, following her himself two years later after injuring his foot in a domestic accident and developing septicaemia. The exact cause of Ernest’s injury is unknown, with rumours ranging from an unlucky scratch by a rose bush to an accidental whack with a golf club.

Milner Field’s final owner, Arthur Remington Hollins, took the house in 1925 (like Ernest Gates before him, Hollins was a managing director of Salts Mill). His wife Anne died of pneumonia, aged only 43, less than a year after moving in, and three years later Arthur also passed away when he was suddenly taken ill during a summer holiday. Suffering from irritation of the gall bladder and diaphragm, Hollins literally hiccuped himself to death.

By the time of the Second World War the house had understandably acquired a macabre reputation, and that coupled with the cost of upkeep made it impossible to find a buyer for the once grand mansion. Having fallen into disrepair after two attempts to auction it off, Milner Field was used as a source of building materials for repairs on Salts Mill. Derelict, gutted, roofless and with barely a trace of its former glory, the house was finally demolished in the 1950s – although an initial failed attempt to flatten the place with dynamite is testament to the quality of the original building work.

Visiting the site of Titus Salt Jr’s once lavish estate today, it is tempting to recall the inscription on the ruined statue of the pharaoh Ozymandias in Percy Shelley’s poem of that name:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

One wonders what Salt, an Ozymandias for his era, would make of the ruins of his sumptuous palatial home. All that now remains to testify to the vast estate’s existence are a few piles of brick, some fragments of the conservatory’s mosaic floor hidden in the undergrowth at Shipley Glen, and the ghosts that are said to wander the site.

Milner Field conservatory floor

The conservatory floor as it is today, with its Romanesque mosaic border still visible

Unsurprisingly given its gruesome history, there are stories of a number of spectral former inhabitants, with identities ranging from Salt Jr himself to Eva Gates and Anne Hollins, the wives of the final two owners. The most intriguing resident ghost must be an Edwardian figure known as “The Green Man of Milner Field”, who, it’s claimed, first appeared to a local schoolboy in the 1950s. Dressed all in green, he roams the ruins playing on a flute.

Were the residents of Milner Field victims of an otherworldly curse, or simply prey to a series of unfortunate coincidences and the period’s high mortality rates? Whatever the truth, the legend of this lost estate, reduced now to rubble and ashes, will live on.

I am indebted for much of the detail on Milner Field’s history in this article to Richard Lee-Van den Daele and R David Beale’s excellent book, Milner Field: The Lost Country House of Titus Salt Jr. For anyone interested in the estate, the book is available to buy online from www.milnerfield.co.uk, as well as at many local bookshops.

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