Street View: 4 (Suppl. 3)
Address: 171-175 Regent Street
James and Joseph Holmes, brothers, were shawl and cloak merchants at 171-175 Regent Street, just off the corner with New Burlington Street. As their advertisement in Tallis’s Street View proudly states, they ran their business by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, Her Royal Highness the Princess Augusta, and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge.
Many of the shawls sold by Holmes were imported from India, but the import of certain goods from there was deemed detrimental to the manufacture in England and measures to curb imports were considered. The East India Company petitioned Parliament for the continued free trade with India and R. Montgomery Martin reports at length on the issue in The Colonial Magazine and Commercial-maritime Journal. Montgomery Martin not only states that it would be an injustice if imports from India were to be curbed, but a prohibition to import shawls from there would only benefit other countries as shawls made in England were of inferior quality. To support the argument, Holmes is quoted as saying that if they did not have enough stock from India, they imported the shawls from Paris.(1)
In an advertisement in The Court Journal the shawl dealers state that their business “is the only establishment in the Kingdom for the exclusive sale of SHAWLS; and, from the vast renown and distinguished patronage their house had acquired by the magnifique and constant supply of fresh productions from their Manufactories at home and Agents abroad, combined with the flattering encomiums bestowed by the fashionables who have honoured Messrs J. and J. Holmes with a visit, amply recompense them for the expense they have incurred in rendering their Establishment the most attractive and splendid even in that vicinage.”(2) A visitor to London also heaps praise on the shop “At Holmes’s nothing was sold but Cashmere shawls of the most expensive kinds, and with these shawls the shop window was most picturesquely draped; the only other decoration being a huge vase of Oriental porcelain, standing perhaps some four feet and a half high. I have in my entrance hall precisely such a vase. I bought it many years ago, slightly cracked, as a ‘bargain,’ and when I look upon it I never fail to associate it with Holmes’s great Cashmere shawl shop in Regent Street.”(3)
Things appeared to go well for Messrs. J. & J. Holmes and in the 1847 supplement to Tallis’s Street View they had their elevation not only adorned with their name, but also with their Royal links. Before that, in 1844, they had dissolved their partnership with Emile Le Batard “by mutual consent” and continued the business together.(4) When and why they had entered into the partnership with Le Batard is unclear. Apart from the occasional embezzlement by dishonest employees, all seemed to go smoothly.(5) In 1851, during the Great Exhibition, James Holmes & Co. [Joseph Holmes seems to have disappeared, perhaps he died, but see below for 1848 trouble] displayed an opera cloak, composed of the finest white wool, ornamented with 1,200 gold pendants, together with several other items.(6) He received a medal. To lure more people to the Exhibition, a book was produced, London as it is Today, which described the establishment of J. Holmes as a “most elegant and distinguished trading establishment” with products ranging from three hundred guineas for the “wealthy and titled lady” to articles from a “humbler sphere”.
Be that as it may, very shortly afterwards, on 19 August, 1852, bankruptcy proceedings were filed against James.(7) But things had already not been well even before the Great Exhibition. Dickens relates in his Household Narrative for 1853 that
In the Court of Bankruptcy on the 28th ult. Commissioner Fane gave an Important Judgment in the case of James Holmes the shawl-warehouseman in Regent-street, who became bankrupt some time ago. Mr. Fane attributed much of the bankrupt’s misfortunes to a private arrangement which followed his bankruptcy in 1848. He disapproved of private arrangements generally, as inducing the bankrupt to purchase secrecy by the promise of a higher dividend than his assets will allow, and as unfair to future creditors […] In the present case. Holmes owed, in 1848, £15,907, and had £4151 available assets; but the arrangement specified that he should pay not five shillings but ten shillings in the pound. Of course the extra five shillings could only come from the future profits of the business. Then he had agreed to pay the dividend by instalments extending over a space of eighteen months. Yet to some he had paid twenty shillings and fifteen shillings instead of ten shillings in the pound, and others he had paid in fifteen days instead of eighteen months. Mr. Fane censured him for extravagant personal expenditure—£800 a year. He also adjudged him guilty of obtaining forbearance of debts by fraud; the fraud being concealment of his dealings with the money-lenders, to the amount of £6518. Holmes likewise, when sued in June 1852, instead of meeting his creditors, as he should have done, being insolvent, had pawned some valuable shawls sent him by a French merchant on sale or return. That was a violation of commercial integrity. The judgment of the Court is, (Mr. Fane said in conclusion) that the certificate of the bankrupt be suspended for three years from the date of the bankruptcy, without protection, and when granted to be of the third class. If he should be imprisoned, I shall be willing to release him after three months’ imprisonment. I am sorry to be compelled to pronounce so severe a judgment against a person who had such excuse for his errors as the circumstances of 1848 furnish; and if all his creditors should abstain from exercising the power of punishment which the law gives,it will not surprise me, for I have seen in my judicial life quite enough to convince me that the severe creditor is the rare exception to the general rule.(8)
What happened in 1848? Did Joseph die and did James not have a head for figures? Or has something else happened we cannot now trace. I will continue the research and let you know if I come up with a clue.
The establishment was taken over by Farmer & Rogers who continued in the same line of business as an advertisement for a ‘bosio’, apparently an opera cloak, in The Musical world of 1858 testifies.
G.A. Sala was, however, not as pleased with them as he had been with Holmes, “I am not so certain about Farmer and Rogers’, the Indian warehouse; although the firm are, I should say, ancient denizens of the street”.(9) Other well-known customers frequented the shop; the Library of Congress holds an invoice to James McNeill Whistler for items delivered to Mrs Whistler, probably his mistress who sometimes styled herself Mrs Whistler, which was never paid because Whistler went bankrupt (see here).
But Farmer and Rogers played another part in the development of the ‘India’-style clothing and furnishings, as in 1862, they employed one Arthur Lasenby Liberty. After more than ten years in service at Farmer and Rogers, Arthur set up his own business, Liberty & Co, but that is another story.
(1) The Colonial Magazine and Commercial-maritime Journal, volume 5, 1841, p. 178.
(2) The Court Journal: Gazette of the Fashionable World, no. 299, 17 January 1835, p. 46.
(3) George Augustus Sala, Travels in Regent Street, part 2, 1895, pp. 219-220.
(4) London Gazette, 22 October 1844.
(5) In 1839 William Berry, described by Joseph Holmes as “their shopman” as withholding money received from clients (Old Bailey proceedings 13 May 1839).
(6) Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 2nd ed., 1851, p. 105.
(7) London Gazette, 28 March 1854.
(8) Charles Dickens, Household Narrative, volume 4, 1853, p. 35 (online here).
(9) Sala, p. 219.
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