Jacob Behrens was born in Bad Pyrmont near Hanover in 1806. There were few educational facilities in the area so Jacob’s father, a textile merchant, employed tutors for his son. Amongst them were Schnucke, a young Lutheran theological student who used to beat him, but he didnt stay long, Abbe Deguin a good natured Jesuit who gave weekly lessons in French, Smart a shipwrecked Scottish sailor who taught him to read and write in English and Jeiteles who taught him arithmetic. His education was unfortunately cut short when he was thirteen, at which point he was ‘turned over to the business’ He was apprenticed to his father’s textile company which imported woollen and worsted cloths and perhaps cotton cloth from England and sold these at the fairs and open markets in northern Germany. All this took place with the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) which was having an impact on the business. In 1815 the family moved to Hamburg.
Jacob travelled between England and Germany from 1832 to 1834 to negotiate with suppliers on behalf of his fathers business but he saw the advantage of having a base in England, so relocated, at first working for his father but then he started his own business. He opened a small warehouse in Somers Street, Leeds and took on staff, and so the company Jacob Behrens was formed and remarkably it is still operating today. There was little in the way of transport in those days so Jacob bought a horse. He often worked a 16 hour day which was beginning to affect his nerves and nothing but a gallop on Woodhouse Moor would restore them. He was joined in 1837 by his brothers Louis and Rudolph. The premises in Leeds were too small for an expanding business and so Louis persuaded Jacob to move to Bradford. He was very reluctant to make the move because he had established some good friends in Leeds but he did so for business reasons.
In 1838 he became one of the first textile export merchants to settle in Bradford. He took up lodgings in the Sun Inn, at the bottom of Ivegate, however, he was asked to leave as he did not drink as much as the Innkeeper expected. He had his rent doubled and the innkeeper threatened to double it again, and so Jacob left and took up lodgings with Mrs Patterson in North Parade where he stayed until he set up on his own.
Jacob became a merchant manufacturer in Thornton Road along with his brothers Louis and Rudolph. There were opportunities to expand the business to include cotton goods so Louis moved to Manchester in 1840 and set up a branch in Tibb Lane.
The photograph shown here was taken in 1844
Leaving Rudoph in charge at Bradford for a time Jacob made winter visits to Hamburg and in May 1844 he married Dorathea (Doris) Hohenemser in Mannheim, Germany. They had nine children and lived at Springfield House, North Parade, Bradford. Unfortunately two of the children died when they were very young and as you will see from the photograph below there were only seven in 1858. If fact the youngest of these children died shortly after this photograph was taken.
The photograph of his family was taken in 1858.
As time moved on the company expanded to become the largest textile manufacturers in Britain, they were exporting goods all over the world. Jacob’s other brother Eduard joined Louis in Manchester but after Rudolph retired in 1864, Eduard died in 1866 and Louis decided to set up on his own this left both Manchester and Bradford to Jacob who in 1871 introduced his eldest son Gustav .
Jacob Behrens was interested in the welfare of the Bradford people and in 1869 he opened a school, wholly at his own expense having been shocked at the state of the grammar school. His views on education were sought by the likes of William Forster who as a politician was largely responsible for the Education Act 1870. He continued to take an interest in education, reorganising the grammar school and in 1882, setting up the Technical College. He was also instrumental in setting up the Eye & Ear Hospital and the City’s Chamber of Commerce. He was a great promoter of Bradford throughout the world and improved the postal service.
His connection with the Chamber of Commerce was a very important one. He was vice president for seven years and president for six years and chairman of the all important tariff committee for forty years. Representing the Chamber he spent the month of October 1860 in France and sat with Richard Cobden to negotiate a trading agreement with the French and it was said that he was instrumental in drafting the commercial treaty between the two countries. Trading agreements with other European countries followed.
This public service as veteran of the Chamber of Commerce and his work on the treaty led to him being knighted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 8th August 1882.
Sir Jacob Behrens
In later years he concentrated on his charitable works as he had more interest in those than in politics. Photo here was taken in 1885.
He died on 22 April 1889 in Torquay. The following is a quotation from the memorial sent by the Chamber of Commerce to his sons. “Sir Jacob may truly be said to have been the founder of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce and for nearly forty years he has been the unceasingly occupied in every good object which might best serve the interests of the town and neighbourhood. He seemed to exist only to be of service to his fellow men”
The Behrens group today operate from Manchester, their focus being on Home Textiles, Sports and Casualware, Corporate and Workware, Healthcare and Fabrics. They have many of the counties leading retailers as their clients including Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsburys, Aldi and Boots to name just a few and other companies and organisations such as the NHS, Virgin, TK Max and Manchester United.
Research by Deborah Stirling and Steve Lightfoot
Behrens Group company website, The limited edition book Sir Jacob Behrens published by Percy Lund Humphries & Co Ltd 1925 from which these photographs were taken, The booklet The first hundred and fifty years by Behrens.