24 July 2023
Harris & Henry Holland - A Tale of Two Talents
The story of an uncle and his nephew on their journey to become world famous gunmakers - part one.
The origins of Holland & Holland were unlike many other gunmakers, in that the tradition of Gunmaking was not handed down from one generation to the next. This is a tale of an entrepreneur and and inventor whose combined talents proved highly successful in making Holland & Holland the world famous gunmaker that it is today.
Harris Holland was a determined and thriving entrepreneur with a keen interest in shooting. Henry, his nephew, was a forward thinking and able gunmaker but neither started out this way.
The Hollands were a family of skilled tradesmen with a musical background. They built organs - a profession which required great skill both in their construction and musical knowledge to set up. Harris John Holland was born to parents William and Mary Holland at a time when both his Father and Grandfather were making organs . His Grandfather was very well respected in the industry, seemingly originally apprenticed to his Uncle, a famous organ maker named George Pike who is credited with building many of the finest English Church organs.
Oddly, no one quite knows the official year of Harris Holland’s birth as in the early 1800s, the Holland family did not solemnise their births or marriages and it did not become compulsory in England and Wales until 1837. This would suggest that perhaps religion was not of great importance or significance to the family.
Furthermore there is conflicting evidence as to the year of his birth from primary sources, with the 1851 Census indicating he was born in 1809 whereas the 1881 and 1891 Census both declare that he was born in 1811. Meanwhile his burial certificate states that he was born in 1807 but his death certificate states 1806. Perhaps he and his widow had wanted him to reach the impressive milestone of 90 years old but there is also thought that his second marriage to a lady 43 years younger than himself might have some bearing on these statistical anomalies!
The name ‘Harris’ is unusual and is thought to have perhaps come from the maiden name of the wife of another Holland as the name appears in at least three generations of the Holland Family.
Harris had two younger brothers, the first, John Holland, born in 1809 who grew up to become a greengrocer. His significance in the story is that he fathered a boy in 1845 - namely Henry William Holland, the nephew who would prove so important in establishing Holland & Holland as a world famous company. The second brother for Harris was William Holland, born in 1810. He became a solicitor and fathered eight daughters!
As mentioned previously, Harris’s Father, William, created a business for himself building organs and selling musical instruments in 1820 with his registered address being in Holborn. When Harris was a teenager he began his apprenticeship with his father - it was naturally assumed he would follow in the long standing family tradition of organ building. By all accounts, Harris was a talented musician and looked set to have a career in the industry - he became an expert in the construction of barrel organs, he sold music and could play to an excellent standard. This was not commonplace in the early 19th Century and it was only in the mid to late 19th Century when piano and musical education became part of everyday life for the middle classes.
In either 1823 or 1824, William Holland died, aged approximately 45 years old. It is thought that his wife, Mary must have experienced financial difficulties and with business and rates records stating ‘a poor widow’. As the eldest son, Harris assisted his mother in the continued running of the family business but it changed from making organs to selling musical instruments and music as a retail outlet. Around this same time, Harris married his first wife, Eliza Marshall and it is known that her father, William Marshall paid rates for the Holland family business due to ongoing financial turmoil. Interestingly, not only did Harris marry Eliza Marshall, but his younger brother, John, married Eliza’s sister Merial Marshall so the two families were very strongly linked.
It appears that the Holland music business ceased to trade around 1831. Harris would have been around 25 at this time and would have gained much practical skill and knowledge not only in organ building but also in running a business and his entrepreneurial talents became apparent. For reasons nobody is entirely sure of, Harris sought new career away from music and ventured into the tobacco trade.
To be continued….