Oakworth House

As so many of my paintings do, this picture started out with a trip to the park…

In Holden Park, at the heart of Oakworth village, used to stand a vast Italianate mansion built of Yorkshire stone. It was the creation of Isaac Holden. A remarkable house for a remarkable man.

oakworth-house-painting smallerPrints of this painting of Oakworth House are available on my website. They are limited giclee prints, printed on heavy watercolour paper. They  are all hand-finished with gold leaf and gold thread.

I did some investigation in the Bradford University archive where I found auction catalogues and plans, and ‘The Holden Letters’. The latter gave an insight into the personality and incredible energy of the man. I also found a detailed description of his early life in These Lonely Mountains – a Biography of the Bronte Moors by Peggy Hew.

Isaac Holden was born in Glasgow in 1807. His father was a coal-miner, but keen to see his only son educated. He studied in the evenings and late into the night. During the day, he worked in the mills.

He taught, briefly, at the Reading Academy, and it was there that he made his first invention: the safety match. It was an invention born of necessity. He would rise very early in the morning in order to study, and rather than fumble around in the dark with a tinder and flint he invented the Lucifer safety match. He demonstrated the invention to his students one day, and very soon the father of one patented the invention and produced them commercially. Isaac himself had felt it would be wrong to cash in on an idea that had come about as a happy accident.

As a child Isaac had been considered rather sickly, and as a young man took great care of his personal health. All this is relevant to the house, I promise… When he left the teaching profession to return to the mills he negotiated with Townend Bros, his new employers, to be allowed two hours of fresh air and exercise everyday, in lieu of holidays.

“I never stopped in for the weather, neither for snow, hail nor rain, and it did not matter whether it was hot or cold, I never shortened my walks. That lays the foundation for youth in old age. Then my diet was always sparing – I never varied more than six pounds in weight… I kept down to eight stone six pounds…if I ever began to get heavier I cut off supplies”

When he left Townend Bros, three men had to be trained up to take his place.

He then set up business with his friend Samuel Lister (later Lord Masham) producing fine woollen cloth. They set up mills in Croix, St Denis and Rheims in France to produce fine merino wool and Isaac developed a unique square motion wool combing machine. The friendship ended in bitter dispute over patent of the invention. The increasingly acrimonious dispute is well documented in letters kept in the archives of Bradford University.

Sir Isaac Holden lived in France with his wife Sarah. He loved the country and was happy to embrace the climate, the food and all the experiences that came with living abroad. But Sarah, a strict Methodist (and seemingly joyless woman judging by her letters and photographs) was not happy and longed to return to Oakworth,  yearning for amongst other things, “a right good English servant”. Eventually in 1869, they moved back and Isaac began the grand renovations of Sarah’s family home with the help of Bradford architect George Smith.

oakworth house 2

“I trust your Château is making progress at Oakworth” Jonathan Holden (nephew) said in a letter to Isaac Holden in 1876 (Holden-Illingworth Letters p 513)

The renovations took ten years at the cost of £80,000, and the end result was a cross between an Italianate Mansion and a French Château. It had every modern luxury; not only gas, telephone and electricity, but temperature controlled rooms and a sprinkler system. Some 7000 feet of piping kept the rooms at an even, warm temperature of 60 degrees, and a network of ventilation shafts kept the air circulating. This required a huge basement furnace, the chimneys of which can be seen in this photograph:

oakworth house

Holden had strongly held views on diet in relation to health, and the regulation of body temperature. He built a Turkish bath and, inspired by a visit to Somerleyton Hall down in Suffolk (home of Sir Francis and lady Crossley of Dean Clough fortune), built an elaborate network of hot houses and a winter garden which extended to half an acre and cost an estimated £120,000

“…the number of gardens and glass houses are believed to be without exception the finest connected with any private house in the United Kingdom” (from the 1898 Auction catalogue for the estate, held at Bradford University archive)

There was a palm house, tomato house, peach house, orchid house, rose house and winter garden. This is the only photograph I could find of the glass house:

glass house

and here is one from an old glass plate, of the interior. Both are in the archives at Cliffe Castle, Keighley.


An ornamental lake at the front of the house was in fact a reservoir, one of three within the grounds, which fed the Turkish bath, the hot houses and the air-conditioning system. It was clever stuff, though by all accounts in never quite worked as it should. The descriptions from the auction catalogue give a wonderful sense of the houses opulent interior.

The Drawing room: Most elaborately  decorated by French and Italian artists. Ceilings, walls and panels being hand painted and beautifully furnished in Ivory white. It contains a magnificent pure white marble mantel of very elegant design.

Turkish Bath: Consisting of hot room, shampooing room, spray and douche and cooling room.

Bathrooms: of the latest and most improved type – all fixtures of silver plate.

The grounds, consisting of some 30 acres, were landscaped to allow the family to take pretty and interesting constitutional walks. A unique network of stone walkways and grottos, some with mosaicked floors and twisting staircases were also created. Designers used mirrors to create illusions of space, and they were lit at night with electric lights. They must have been magical! Much of this remains today. The Friends of Holden Park is a local group dedicated to maintaining the park and Holden’s unique stone grottos.

Sir Isaac Holden was a philanthropic man. He promoted his theories on health and healthy living. I found this whilst reading through the collection of letters; it is a letter to Mrs Gladstone, sent when the prime minister was ill:

“I have taken the liberty to send a few bottles of oil which I have used for some years and which I have found of great benefit.” He goes on with instructions for an 80 degree bath and a description of how to apply the oil. (from Isaac Holden’s letters 1845 – 1896. Held at Bradford university archive).

He was happy for the people of Oakworth to make use of his grounds and he was generous with the fruit and the flowers from his hot houses.

Sir Isaac Holden was highly successful in business. As well as the three mills he set up in France, he set up two more near Bradford. He was a committed Wesleyan Methodist and built a large Methodist chapel right next to Oakworth house (this can just be seen on the right of the colour photograph of the house).

He was also a radical liberal MP, serving as MP for Knaresborough from 1865 – 1868, and The Northern West Riding of Yorkshire from 1882 – 1885, and then for Keighley from 1885 – 1895. He campaigned for electoral reform, church disestablishment and Irish Home Rule, and in 1893 was created a Baronet.

He died in 1897, aged 91. After his death the estate was broken up and sold. These are the plans for the division of the estate:


No buyer could be found for the house and so it sat empty for 10 years. It was partially destroyed by a fire, and was then demolished.

It was gifted to Oakworth by the Holden family to be turned into a park in Sir Isaac’s memory. Holden Park was opened in 1925 by his grandson, Francis Illingworth.

holden park

Today nothing stands of the house but the portico and the grand gateway. The stone walkways and grottos are there, but nothing remains of the winter gardens. The road layout through Oakworth has changed too. Where there was once a lake, reflecting the grand house, there is now a main road and the primary school. It is this view, also from the Cliffe Castle archive, that I chose to paint. The water makes it so utterly unrecognisable from what is there today. The dome of the winter garden can be seen behind the house.

from brass castles

21 Responses to “Oakworth House

  • Fascinating, Kate. Really makes your painting come even more alive when viewed with the knowledge of its history. There also comes with it a sense a sadness that such a glorious house, that meant so much to someone in times gone by, has now been lost.
    I wouldn’t have minded a few days stay there to enjoy the luxury of his Turkish baths and hot houses in such splendour!

  • I saw your painting on Facebook and followed your link to this blog. These stories fascinate me. What a grand house that had to have been. I love your artistic version of the house.

  • I am most grateful to Michelle Catlow, of the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, for bringing this website to my attention, which I would otherwise never have known about. I have circulated it round all branches of the current Holden Family, whom I believe will be as interested in it as I was.

    • Hello Sir Paul,
      You’re very welcome, Kate’s work is beautiful so felt compelled to share. I found it really interesting whilst I was researching Sir Isaac/Oakworth House (& previously Cliffe Castle) for the interpretation signs but was interested to see photographs I’d not seen previously and thought the family would be interested.

      Can’t wait for the exhibition in Halifax!

      All the very best,
      Michelle (Catlow)

  • Hi Kate, Love the illustrations. I have just been in Bradford today speaking to the Bradford Antiquarian and History Society about my book, Holden’s Ghosts, The life and times of Sir Isaac Holden , Inventor, Woolcomber and Radical Liberal M.P. which was published last year. I too have used the Bradford JB Priestley archive and the Brotherton Library archive in Leeds to research my book. I will be speaking to the Oakworth Society on 8th March and will ensure they know about your work. If you want a copy of my book let me now.

    Best wishes, Tony Holden

    • Oh Tony – I wish I’d known! I scrabbled around trying to find information here there and everywhere. Images are very scarce, though i was very pleased to find that one of the glass house. I’d love to see a copy of your book. Where can i find one?

      • Hi Kate, I can post you a copy. It is £10 plus £2.65 post and package. You can email me arnholden@gmail.com. I am hoping to come along to your exhibition.
        Best wishes, Tony

  • Hi Kate

    I am Sir Isaac’s great great great grand-daughter. After my son was born in Bradford last year, we called him Isaac in memory. I really like your painting – it somehow captures the magical energy of the house and the man!

    Thanks also for the potted history. I have visited the grounds but had no idea about the network of gardens, hot houses and baths. It may explain how I ended up a thermophile and a consultant in well-being 🙂

    Do let me know if you make prints – jodyaked@hotmail.co.uk

    Thanks again for a lovely painting and history

  • Well done Kate. Excellent painting and many new photos of Oakworth that I have not seen before and interesting reading about my Gt.Gt. Grandfather.

  • Great work Kate. Beautiful painting and fascinating research. I am a great great grandson too… So delighted to find some info on my ancestors.

  • Hi Kate,

    What a lovely painting of Oakworth. Michael and myself have a water colour of the house so its lovely to see it in a different light. Where is the painting now?
    We took our girls up to Holden Park in October 2014 and they were impressed with their family history and had a great time discovering the gardens.

  • Hi Kate, I am one of Sir Isaac’s great-great grandchildren, and have lived in Australia since 1954 (aged 3), but have always been interested in the Holden family history and Oakworth House, even from this distance. I love the painting and your history – it complements my cousin Tony’s book, “Holden’s Ghosts”, which I am sure you will enjoy if you get hold of a copy. I’m also wondering if you do prints? – bridgetstone@y7mail.com.

    Kind regards,


  • Loved reading this. Fascinating how Oakworth used to look and the grandiose house which once was. I deel quite saddened that there isn’t more of the house left. Ihave spent many hours in this park as a child and my own children do now. I hope Sir Isaacs would be happy with it’s use now.

  • Well done Kate for a wonderful piece of work. Love your other pictures too. I have also been looking into the history of Oakworth House and the Holdens/Illingworths as part of my research into the Bradford Victorian photographic studios including the Appleton and Sachs studios. Both these studios as well as others were used by the families to take their portraits. I am also currently looking into the link between the houses that were built/renovated by the Holden/Illingworth families during the 1860s when the Alston Works and Whetley Mills were being built. Last but certainly not least am enjoying reading Tony Holden’s book just now.
    Best Regards
    Steve Lightfoot

  • Hello! I have been looking into the ‘French side’ of the Holden family – with Jonathan Holden as founder of the first municipal library, here in Reims and owner of a great chateau at Hermonville, a small village in the Champagne region.
    What a fascinating family! I too, would be very interested in reading the book ‘Holden’s Ghosts’. As I said in my post, it is quite hard to get factual accuracy – a certain amount of misleading information is available via internet – so I truly hope I haven’t added another layer of inaccuracy!

  • I’m sorry, I forgot to say how beautiful your work is!

  • Hi Kate
    Fascinating article and a beautiful painting of the house.
    I recently moved to Oakworth and am currently researching the history of our house (part of Oakworth Grange, off Station Road). The building was designed as a stable block in 1878 by George Smith and I was wondering if you knew if it is the ‘stabling’ mentioned on the cover of the auction catalogue for Oakworth House. Any information you have would be very useful.
    Thank you


  • I have been researching the HOLDEN Family link from the Lancashire/Derbyshire (?) side since 2010. My own particular family seems to descend from the Haslingden area and especially from Holden Hall (gone now) and reappear from all accounts at Aston Hall in Derbyshire. As with most families at this time 1100-1500-1600 down to the present and common with the Gentry, appear to have been married into many distinguished families of the area; including the Shuttleworth, Hoghtons, Southworths, Sherburnes etc etc. You name any family, ‘we’ have probably some link. Anyone wishing to get in touch may do so. Andrew

  • A fascinating read….
    And i have personal connection as my grandmother’s family bought the stone (after the fire)…. they used it to create a family home on Devonshire Street in Keighley (I have pictures). I’m sure it would have still been stood today, if the council had not made a compulsory purches in the early seventies – so they could knock it down to build a concrete telecoms building!

  • What beautiful artwork and the photos of the house are amazing. I’m from NZ and my mother Diana Williams (nee Holden) was a Gt Gt granddaughter of Sir Isaac.

  • What a lovely painting. I am a great great great granddaughter of Sir Isaac and have recently become fascinated by this branch of my family. I was delighted to find this page. Is it possible to obtain a print of the painting?

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