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‘ …. a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire ..’

Posted by on May 9, 2013

The line above is from T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, published in 1922, which mocks the habits of Bradford businessmen who wore top hats to attend auctions at the Bradford Wool Exchange.  Was my ancestor Thomas William Burnley among them?  More than 100 years earlier the top hat had begun its association with the upper classes – royalty even – but by the 20th century was also a target for satirists and social critics, and a symbol of capitalism in socialist cartoons.  Eliot is tapping into widespread social snobbery about the nouveau riche aping the style of their superiors, but achieving only incongruity.  The full line is about a lowly awkward clerk, ‘one on whom assurance sits, like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire’.

The only Bradford millionaire Eliot, in his post as a bank clerk, might have met was Sir James Roberts, (by then the owner of Saltaire).   Sir James was a regular visitor to Eliot’s bank to press his case for

The item in question

The item in question

reparations for the large financial losses his business suffered as a consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917.  Sir James was one of 18 children of a tenant farmer, whose schooling ceased at age 12.  Diligent and able he soon prospered in business and by 1900 was the sole owner of Saltaire – sold in 1920 for the then huge sum of £2 million.  Sir James had a distinguished public life, and was a well-known philanthropist.  He was the one who bought the Bronte family home of Haworth Parsonage for the nation.  But Victorian attitudes to social mobility hardly budged for another 50 years.  While many approved of ‘getting on’ in life that meant working hard and material success, not moving out of the social class into which you were born.   Everyone knowing their place and staying in it was a common view.  Vicious snobbery and snide comments served to enforce this class system.  What Sir James and other Yorkshire businessmen made of this I have yet to explore.



7 Responses to ‘ …. a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire ..’

  1. Nicola Stevens

    I always love the extra background information a writer finds. the quotation for some reason made me smile on this grey damp morning – thank Margaret for “…. a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire ..’ from T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, published in 1922

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    Very glad that my aim to entertain succeeded with Nicola. Also wonderful to have a repository for bits of research than cannot fit into the main work about my ancestors.

  3. Paul Kamill

    Hats, of this sort, I believe were also made of beaver pelts. The process involved the use of mercury, which, of course, is toxic. The sheen on the hat was from the use of mercury. Lewis Carroll’s mad hatter, and the phrase “as mad as a hatter” are examples of this hazard.
    Saltaire was the ‘model village’ built by Sir Titus Salt for his workers at his still standing Italianate mill. The phrase, “to spend a penny’, comes from the manufacture of worsted. Pails of urine, used in curing the wool, would have been collected from the doorsteps of the workers houses, for which they were paid a penny.

    • HappyLuckyAlix

      The phrase ‘not having a pot to piss in’ also comes from this aspect of the wool trade.

  4. John Barry Robinson

    Wonderful bit of history to come across, thank you,Margaret McAlpine…..I’ve posted a copy on one of our Bradford sites ……Old Photos of Bradford. It has a photograph which I couldn’t copy but will be of interest.

  5. Prof Shalini Rana

    Thank you very much for the insight.

  6. Colin Holloway

    Interesting, the random hits of Google.
    Given that Elliot’s letters to Emily Hale have just been unsealed, I was looking for that reference as to the Bradford millionaire.
    Mummy had always told me about that line and how it must have referred to her mummy’s grandfather, Sir James Roberts.

    Wouldn’t it be something if those letters had mention of that?

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