​​​​The Holden Family: Cotton Manufacturers Blackburn

George H Holden

Attended the Opening of Panama Canal 300px.jpgThe Blackburn Times obituary to George Holden carries the headline “Attended the Opening of Panama Canal” (i). This would have been in 1916 because although the canal opened in 1914 the official opening ceremony was delayed because of the war. He was on the Executive of the   Blackburn and District Cotton Manufacturers and attended in this capacity.  A remarkable story but perhaps not that surprising given that in the space of only a handful of years in the late 1800s he rose from a clerk in a gas office to a cotton manufacturer owning and running a substantial number of weaving looms. 

George started a weaving business in Chorley in 1886 deploying the ‘room and power’ system which enabled aspirant manufacturers, who lacked substantial financial capital, to lease space, power and machinery in an existing premise and then hiring operative to run the looms. Growth was rapid, riding the wave of the expansion of cotton manufacturing in Blackburn and Lancashire more widely.  In 1887 he expanded the business, moving back into Blackburn and leasing looms firstly at Rockcliffe Mill (Paterson Street) and then in Commercial Mill (Bolton Road). Trading as Geo Holden & Co Ltd he acquired Rockcliffe Mill outright in 1896. The mill cost £16000 (approximately £2m in today’s money), a sum that that would have required substantial loans alongside George’s accrued savings from the business since 1886.  In 1906 further expansion saw the purchase of Havelock Mill on Stancliffe Street. Subsequently this traded as T&A Holden Ltd as George’s sons move into the business – see also below.  At the height of the boom in cotton manufacturing the family were running over 1500 looms, well above the average for firms in Blackburn. 
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As the business prospered George and his wife Ellen bought a house on Preston New Road. Four of their five children were born and brought up here. George was a champion of the New Jerusalem Church on Anvil Street, Blackburn; Chairman and Vice Chairman in the 1890s and 1900s and then in 1910 elected organist. A period as choirmaster followed. He died at home in 1922; Ellen having died seven years earlier. They are buried in the non-conformist section of Blackburn Old Cemetery. Tom Holden (grandson) recalls this about his grandfather: “He must have been a most remarkable man starting with nothing but probably worth 2 ½ million pounds in today’s money when he died.  He was typical of the textile entrepreneurs, a man dedicated to his family, a strict church-goer, a man of discipline and a man of great determination” (ii)

Alfred B. Holden and James Holden

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​L to R, James & Mary Holden; Alfred & Minnie Holden

​George’s two younger sons continued the family business until 1960. George’s eldest son, Tom, had joined the business in 1895 but died in 1923 leaving his two younger brothers with the challenge of running Paterson Street Mill and Havelock Mill in increasingly challenging times. ​

Alfred was born in Chorley in 1887; the fourth child of George and Mary Ellen. His father had begun running ‘room and power‘ weaving rooms in Chorley in the early 1896.  On leaving school Alfred went to work at Martin’s Bank. He spent several years at the bank before coming into the family business around about 1910.  In 1914 he married into the wealthy Isherwood family. Redmayne & Isherwood Ltd owned a flax mill in Kirkham, near Preston and a cotton waste business within Commercial Mills, Blackburn.  James was born in 1891. At 11 he went to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School. On leaving school in 1906 he began work in the mill spending a year in year in weaving shed; a most valuable apprenticeship in preparation for taking over at Paterson Street.  He married Mary Haslam, a school teacher, in April 1917.

James ran Paterson Street Mill with Alfred running Havelock.  Although in charge of two separate mills the brothers had a close working relationship. They went together every week to the Manchester Royal Exchange where they shared a pillar for buying and selling. They formed a strategic partnership to meet the difficulties of the declining cotton industry. They would aim to produce cloths of the highest quality, employing first class weavers.  They would aim to sell to a few merchants only.  These merchants would be medium-sized forms of high integrity, assured financial strength and known for their interest in quality goods.   By supplying such merchants with quality goods at competitive prices and giving them excellent service, the brothers aimed to establish close links with their customers.  The hope was that, in bad times, business would still be forthcoming  from these houses. 

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Skinner's Trade Directory,1933-34 (iii)
Costs would be pruned to a minimum partly achieved by the “one man” concept where the Managing Director carried out what could be 2 or 3 persons’ work.  They would aim to achieve full production at all times.  “Stopped” looms meant that overhead costs were spread over a lower output and so the cost per yard of cloth produced was higher than it would have been if all looms were running. Tom Holden’s memoirs suggest it was well known in Blackburn that “the Holden mills never stop” (ii). This was not wholly accurate; strike action as part of the  ‘more looms’ dispute (1929-31) saw both mills close, albeit only for a short period.  The dispute followed an initiative by Burnley employers to introduce 8-loom working.  Nationally the dispute was messy with many employers far from convinced of the strategy to reduce costs. There was no way the two Holden mills could continue to produce high quality goods on an 8-loom system. Indeed, the dispute led to the breakdown of the previously fairly stable period of national collective bargaining. Local agreements were made to get mills back working and James and Alfred agreed a 6-loom system of working with the trade union. A consequence was the ending of a long-standing relationship with the Blackburn & District Employers Association. ​
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The Blackburn Times, 4th July 1952

Paterson Street was sold in 1948, the brothers taking advantage of a brief boom to acquire a reasonable price for the sale of a going concern. James moved over to Havelock and the brothers continued running Havelock until 1960.  At the start of the 1950s less than 30 mills remained in business in Blackburn Havelock was one of these. It was chosen by the Government  for a fact finding visit in 1952 to examine the future for the Lancashire weaving industry. Seven years later saw the passing of the Cotton Industry Act which provided James and Alfred the opportunity to close with financial compensation; approximately £50,000 (£1m in today’s money).

The brothers were equally close in life away from the mills; living at 31 and 37 Dukes Brow. Both continued their fathers’ engagement with the New Jerusalem Church, holding church officer positions for several years. Alfred was Treasurer from 1922 to 1941 and James, following in his father’s footsteps, was organist for over 30 years.  Both loved sport and were vice presidents of the East Lancashire Club.   James was also founder President of the Blackburn Badminton Club.

"James Holden bowling on Alexandra Meadows". 

Tom Holden, recalls this about this father (James): 

“My father was one of nature’s gentlemen.  His standards of honesty and integrity were uncompromising and he respected his fellow men, irrespective of “class”.  I would doubt there were a better-known man in Blackburn in the 1920s and 30s. He was deeply committed to the mill knowing full well that his family’s welfare depended on its viability – there was no social security for failed cotton manufacturers!!  For a man of 32 (1924) his responsibilities as Managing Director and General Manager of a sizeable weaving mill were considerable.  However, his training had been thorough, he was competent, shrewd and hard working.  Thus, he carried his position easily, never brought “business” into the home, thoroughly enjoyed his leisure and always had ample time for his family.  In his latter years bowling was his passion. He was even-tempered and very patient with his children.  Even as the years went by and business worries grew, these considerable attributes remained as they had always been.” (ii)

i   Blackburn Times, 9 September, 1922
ii  Holden, T. Boom and Bust in Cotton Manufacturing: The Holden Weaving Mills of Blackburn; ISBN 978-1-5272-7170-8
iii The Cotton Trade Directory of the World, 1933-34; Thomas Skinner & Co., London

With grateful thanks to Richard Holden (great-grandson of George Holden and grandson of James Holden)​ for the above text and images, published November 2021.

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