These lovely postcards introduce another element of the story of Bradford entrepeneur Sir Isaac Holden and his family. The cards depict the family’s wool-combing factory, the Usine Holden, in Croix, a town in Northern France, just outside Lille.
Sir Isaac Holden and his partner Lister set up the first factories exploiting their new wool comb technology in France because of the market opportunities that country offered: demand for worsted and immense capacity for spinning. In addition, Lister wanted to expand his enterprises into Europe and Holden was frustrated by past difficulties in getting established in business in the UK. The original French enterprise, at St Denis near Paris, opened in 1849. High demand for their wool further North led to the building of two more factories, at Croix and Reims, which began production in 1853.
Isaac lived in France during this time, with his wife Sarah. She was not happy on what she called the “barren and solitary soil of France”, and returned to England as often as she could. Isaac was much more receptive to “this lovely country”, keen to try new food and experiences: “I have just ordered a bunch of small fish of the Rhine and frogs’ legs” (Strasbourg, 1852). His letters try to cheer Sarah out of her habitual religious gloom.
However there were real difficulties for the Holden-Lister enterprises: the industry was very competitive and their technology was unproven. They faced several lawsuits. Worse, relations between the two men deteriorated badly. Holden bought out Lister’s shares in the French firms in 1858, adding his sons Angus and Edward as partners and renaming the company Isaac Holden et Fils. St Denis was run down, to generate capital to support the other firms which were better located in the heart of the French wool industry: it was closed in 1860.
Holden then returned to Bradford, where he had growing industrial, charitable and family interests: the vast Alston works on Thornton Road were founded in 1864. The French businesses were now managed by his nephews Jonathan Holden (Reims) and Isaac Holden Crothers (Croix). However, tensions between the two and between them and Isaac’s sons caused problems. Eventually in 1880 a new agreement put an end to the rivalries. It left Isaac Holden Crothers as manager of Croix and the “Vieux Anglais”, the original Reims factory, while Jonathan set up another factory in Reims, the “Nouvel Anglais”.
This French connection is one of the most intriguing and unexpected elements of the Holden Papers. Who would imagine that the archive of a Bradford mill-owning family would be a rich source of information about the tumult of France in the mid 19th century? However, the letters from Sir Isaac and other family members are full of detail about travel and everyday life and valuable testimony about the impact of political upheaval (Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851) and the Franco-Prussian War.
The French factories continued into the 20th century: Honeyman and Goodman report that the Usine at Reims was destroyed during the Great War, and Croix “ceased production in 1938 and its assets sold to the local Syndicat des Peigneurs”: a combine of local wool combers.
The Holdens were not purely concerned with profit from their French firms. They took a paternalistic, philanthropic approach, rooted in their Methodist beliefs, providing work, training, new buildings and opportunities for religious and social improvement: “our business is a great good to France”, Isaac wrote in 1851.
The Holdens’ philanthropy is still remembered in Croix and Reims. Witness for instance this, from the short history of Croix on the municipal website: “Retracer l’histoire de Croix, c’est aussi évoquer la mémoire d’Isaac Holden”, because of the significance of the works’ contribution to the development of the town. Croix boasts a Rue Isaac Holden Crothers and a car park: Parking Isaac Holden!
In Reims, Jonathan Holden founded the first public library (which still bears his name) in 1887. He too is commemorated in the cityscape with the Rue Jonathan Holden. I was delighted to discover that Isaac Holden was the founder and first president of the Bicycle Club Rémois, set up in July 1880. I will be following this up: links between our archives and cycling in France are of particular interest this year!
Note on sources: I am again indebted to the study of the French firms by Honeyman and Goodman, where much more detail about the processes and finances of the firms can be found.