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
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.