Tag Archives: France

78. Isaac Holden et Fils: images of the Usine Holden, Croix, France

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.

Postcard showing the Usine Holden, the wool combing factory of Isaac Holden, Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/1).

Postcard showing the Usine Holden, Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/1). (The card states “reproduction interdite”, but we believe it to be out of copyright).

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.

Postcard showing La Grande Cheminee, Usine Holden (the big chimney of Isaac Holden's wool combing factory), Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/2).

Postcard showing La Grande Cheminee, Usine Holden, Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/2).

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.

Postcard showing the Temple Anglais, rue Holden, Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/3).

Postcard showing the Temple Anglais, rue Holden, Croix, France (ref. HOL 6/1/3).  The firm built Protestant places of worship for their English workers.

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.


62. “A Controverted and Debated Question”: Mr Holden, Mr Lister, and the Square Motion Combing Machine

Front cover of The Square Motion Combing Machine, letters by Holden and Lister (ref HOL 5/2)

Front cover of The Square Motion Combing Machine, reprinting letters by Holden and Lister (ref HOL 5/2)

This little pamphlet tells the story of a bitter dispute between two Grand Old Men of Victorian Bradford: Sir Isaac Holden and Samuel Cunliffe Lister (Lord Masham).  It reprints letters written by the two men during the 1870s to the Bradford Observer and other local newspapers arguing about the origin of the “square-motion” wool comb, following “some reflections by Mr Lister upon Mr Holden in a letter during the County Election of 1872”.  The pamphlet was printed at Holden’s instigation circa 1887 when the argument flared up again.

We already met Isaac Holden, courting his second wife Sarah during the late 1840s.  At this time, Holden linked up with Lister, a successful inventor and industrialist to develop a commercially viable wool comb, an innovation which had so far eluded inventors.

Detail of the 1848 Memorandum of Agreement between Holden and Lister (HOL 1/4/2)

Detail of the 1848 Memorandum of Agreement between Holden of Bradford and Lister of Manningham, in which they agree to have equal shares in the profits of the French wool combing enterprise(HOL 1/4/2)

Lister filed a patent for what became the square-motion wool comb and the two set up a partnership agreement for an enterprise in France which would use and improve the new comb, Lister supplying capital and machines, Holden dedicating his time to running the business.  The first factory at St Denis was followed by others at Croix and Rheims; the original design was perfected and patented; great profits were made, setting the foundation of Sir Isaac’s immense wealth.  However, the business relationship was never easy.  In 1858, Holden bought Lister out for £74,000.  For the rest of their lives, they would continue to argue about the origins of the square-motion comb and what had really happened between them during the 1840s and 1850s.

The letters in the pamphlet show how public, painful, personal and bitter the dispute became.  Holden argued he had developed square motion before he formed links with Lister, Lister insisted that Holden was just a book-keeper whom he had used to run the French enterprise, too ignorant of the mechanics of wool-combing to invent the machine, and that a patent was more than an idea.

The Holden Papers contain a wealth of correspondence, legal and business papers  shedding light on the complex issues involved.   They include the original partnership agreement of 1848, many of the important letters referred to by Lister and Holden in their arguments, press cuttings (including letters reprinted in the pamphlet), and notes made by Holden.

(I’ve simplified the story of the technical innovations of Holden and Lister and the various patents and legal issues involved:  Technology and Enterprise by Honeyman and Goodman offers a useful introduction and is widely available in academic libraries).