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Life and times of Norwich's own 'Dick Whittington'

PUBLISHED: 09:10 19 May 2018

Workers at the first big Edwards & Holmes factory in Esdelle Street, Norwich.

Workers at the first big Edwards & Holmes factory in Esdelle Street, Norwich.

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It was 150 years ago when a baby boy was born who would grow up to become a "second Dick Whittington" and one of the best-loved and respected men in Norwich. Derek James pays tribute to Sir Henry Holmes.

A friend to all: the remarkable Sir Henry Holmes, born 150 years ago, who was knighted for his services to NorwichA friend to all: the remarkable Sir Henry Holmes, born 150 years ago, who was knighted for his services to Norwich

He was a humble clerk at the Eastern Daily Press who turned into a shoe baron with a heart of gold. A man who reached out to embrace the people of Norwich and Norfolk and how they loved him... he was Lord Mayor twice and knighted for his services to the city.

His name was Henry Holmes, who forsook paper for leather to established Edwards & Holmes, one of the biggest and most important boot and shoe factories, not only in Norwich but across

the land.

When he died in 1940 we reported: “No one serving in the public life of the city in recent years won his way more closely into the hearts of his fellow citizens.

“Two years as Lord Mayor naturally brought him prominently to the fore, but long before that he had been working in less observable ways for the good of the community.

“The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and the Jenny Lind Hospital found in him a real worker and a generous friend and so did numerous other philanthropic bodies,” we wrote.

A prime example was that when he was serving as Lord Mayor in 1921 he bought the Bridewell, gave it to the city, and adapted the inside so it would be turned into a museum. It was opened in 1925 by the Duke of York.

In 1938 the Dean of Norwich revealed that Sir Henry was indeed the hitherto anonymous donor of the statues of the King and Queen unveiled by the Queen in Norwich Cathedral Cloister and that he had also paid for the cloister bays to be repaired.

He helped to provide the city with an airport by giving the Norwich Aero Club its first plane and making it possible for them to buy three more.

Henry also loved the work of the Norwich School of Painters building a collection of their works which he loaned for public exhibitions.

Much of his good work went ahead without the glare of publicity, as Sir Henry was a generous yet modest benefactor helping out so many people and good causes.

“Every task to which he set his mind or action was carried through with a joy in the doing that led to his interest and support being enlisted for an exceedingly wide variety of worthy objects,” we wrote.

And it was former mayor H J Copeman who said many aspects of his life were similar to those of Dick Whittington. From an almost obscure position in life he came to occupy such a place of honour in the commercial and public life of Norwich that few attained to.

Henry, born in 1868, was the son of J H Holmes who was the clerk to the Markets and Inspector of Weights and Measures under Norwich Corporation. He went to the old Model School and then got a job as a junior clerk in the offices of the Eastern Daily Press.

He left the EDP to serve a term of apprenticeship at Bostock’s leather merchants at Swan Lane in Norwich and was there for about nine years, learning the trade.

Then he and Mr W E Edwards took over a cottage in West Pottergate, during 1891 and began making boots and shoes. They never looked back.

The business later moved to St George’s Middle Street in the city and from there to Botolph Street. The expansion continued with footwear being sent across the Empire.

In 1896 a new factory was built on Esdelle Street. Mr Edwards retired from the business but the company continued to grow and a new Esdelle Works was built on Drayton Road. It was described as the most up-to-date footwear factory in the country, and provided work for upwards of 1,000 people.

Henry was a forward-thinking and much-loved boss. He married in 1894 to Miss Hatch of Great Yarmouth, They had two daughters and a son, Geoffrey, who went to take over the business following his father’s death.

In 1921 Henry was elected Lord Mayor and he was proud to serve for a second term in 1932/3. It was reported that his concern for the well-being of the city and its citizens was deep and genuine.

On his death in 1940 it was said of him: “A reserved man, he was very guarded in speech but if he seldom gave free expression to his thoughts he had decided views.

“His shrewd judgement of character had undoubtedly much to do with his remarkable business success – his gift of sizing people up people on the briefest aquaintance was almost uncanny.”

Away from work he played the violin with the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra. He loved playing bowls - he was president of the Norfolk Bowling Association - and he was also a keen sailor, being Commodore of Horning Town Sailing Club.

He died in January 1940 at his home in Upton Road, Norwich, days before his 72nd birthday. It came as no surprise that Norwich Cathedral was packed for his funeral.

As for Edwards & Holmes Ltd, the factory was blown up in the Norwich Blitz but it rose from the ashes to become a leading player in the city shoe trade... don’t miss the second part of the story next week when we met some of the workforce.

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