I am delighted to bring you this post by Jen Fox, one of our graduate trainees who has been working on the Untangling the Holdens Project, in which she explains what she learned from the project and the value of the letters for historical research:
Spending time with any archive is a privilege; access to primary sources of historical information just can’t be beaten. The Letters of the Holden family held in Special Collections at the University of Bradford are no exception.
Spanning over tens of boxes this archive is a veritable treasure trove of first hand information on Bradford’s wool industry during its heyday. The personal letters sent to Isaac Holden from his children reveal much about the reality of his business, from trading with other local business partners and expansion of the company to experiments with new ways of combing the wool and problems with the machinery. But they also reveal a great deal about their personal lives and family relationships.
The first challenge when reading letters from the 19th Century, such as these, is to interpret the handwriting. Skills in palaeography, the study of old hand writing, would have stood me in good stead to begin this task, but instead a determination to find out what was written in these letters had to suffice. Thankfully I found that the inky scrawl of Maggie Holden achieved more and more clarity each time I picked up one of her letters to her father. Each one revealed copious amounts about not only Maggie and Isaac, but other family members. Details of births, deaths and marriages, yet also the relationships between mother and daughter, the arguments had and apologised for, the visit of ‘the first’ physician for consumption in Europe to Mary in Torquay. It is these details which are not recorded in the history books and would be lost if these letters were not preserved.
There are also many letters sent from Isaac’s sons regarding business and touching on personal issues. But what these really reveal is the inner workings of a family business, the relationships and conversations between father and sons working together to achieve industry success. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next letter from Angus to his father, detailing the progress of the new Shed on Thornton Road and discussing the details of the chimney. Walking along Thornton Road today it seems so alive knowing some of the history of the area, empty mill buildings somehow seem more fascinating and important, which demonstrates the value of this resource for local people as well as historians.