Will the Real Miss Holt Please Step Forward.

Despite always having lived on Merseyside, I’m embarrassed to admit that I only visited Sudley House in South Liverpool, for the first time this year. Sudley House and its picture collection are run by National Museums Liverpool, and the estate was bequeathed to the city in 1944 by Emma Holt. This Georgian House was bought by Emma’s father, George Holt in 1822, a prosperous merchant, who came from a family of liberal Unitarians, and who contributed hugely to commercial and philanthropic activities in Liverpool.  George was an early supporter of higher education, providing Liverpool University with finance to cover two Professorships, and enabled the building of the pathological laboratories. Liverpool University still awards the George Holt Scholarship to young science students to assist them in their studies.

This visit of course made me consider the connections which must have existed between The Holts and The Martineaus, two active Unitarian families with strong connections to Liverpool and the North West, in particular, the less formal connections between the women of the families.

Reading the Biographical Directory of The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau, I was disappointed to find just two Holts listed:

  • Holt, Emily Sarah, writer of novels, religious tracts and historical narratives.
  • Holt, George, Liverpool Unitarian, merchant, education philanthropist: father of Anne

The George Holt of Sudley House had only one child, Emma, but preliminary research quickly showed that this was in fact George Holt Junior. George Holt Senior was father to eight children, including George Jnr and Alfred. It was Alfred who went on to found the shipping company The Blue Funnel Line. George Holt Snr had also lived in Liverpool (although not Sudley House), and contributed much to the health and wealth of the city, including the building of India Buildings, and was a major contributor to the building of the Liverpool Mechanics Institute on Mount Street (now LIPA), he also purchased Blackburne House on Hope Street, opening it as a school for girls in 1844.

The index of The Collected Letters showed just one letter to George Holt, but eighteen to ‘Miss Holt’. But which Miss Holt? The lengthier entry for Lancastrian novelist Sarah Holt in the Directory was the more obvious choice, but given my own previous research, I knew of no contact between Harriet Martineau and Sarah Holt. The third letter in the collection to Miss Holt from Harriet, dated 9th July 1853, confirmed my suspicion that these most certainly were in fact letters addressed to Miss Anne Holt of Liverpool, the sister of George Holt of Sudley House. Harriet wrote of sending her congratulations and best wishes to The Holts, adding, ‘I suppose you will now be very busy in that extremely pleasant way – furnishing a brother’s house for his bride. It is one of the most agreeable tasks in the world.’ George Holt Jnr married Elizabeth Bright in December 1853.

More conclusive proof was to be found in the archives of Liverpool Central Library, who hold a number of Anne Holt’s diaries.

Anne and Harriet exchanged letters in January 1854, which touched on Harriet’s recent translation of Auguste Comte. On Sunday 29th January 1854, Anne Holt recorded in her diary that she had received a long note from Miss Martineau. Anne continued:

Her reply has given me a worse opinion of her than anything or anybody else. It is exceedingly dogmatic and egotistic, & I think, remembering the few remarks I made purposely so that she might not think I agreed with her views, which she is very apt to do. It is very difficult to differ from her. Very unfair.

However, whatever difference of opinions there may have been between the two women, the correspondence continued amiably between Harriet and Anne for another 20 years. The final letter, dated 30th September 1873, from Harriet to her younger friend is to thank her for ‘the basket of beautiful grapes’, closing with the affectionate last line. ‘Dear friend, many thanks for all your goodness to your failing old friend H.M’.

Sharon Connor

August 2017