THE fabric of Bradford today is woven from diverse communities, and this was also the case nearly 200 years ago during its industrial heyday.

One community to make a substantial contribution to the city’s social and economic development was from Germany. There are still traces of their commercial activity, in particular the warehouses of Little Germany. Situated between Church Bank and the Cathedral, this is one of the oldest sections of the city still standing. Whilst built for a practical use, these buildings are highly ornate, reflecting aspirations of their owners, as well as civic pride, rivalry with other Victorian towns, and the vast wealth generated by the textile industry.

Take a look next time you’re passing. These old buildings stand as testament to the dynamism, drive and optimism of many of those who came to Bradford. The name ‘Little Germany’ is indicative of the ethnicity of many merchants who worked there. Many were also Jewish and one of these merchants was Jacob Behrens, born in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806, a time of turbulence, uncertainty and upheaval in European history. This is reflected in his earliest memories, of playing soldiers and warfare. His family had a history as textile manufacturers and traders in Bad Pyrmont, in the small principality of Waldeck, Germany. Jacob had an unorthodox education; learning English from a shipwrecked Scottish sailor and French from a Jesuit emigre. This knowledge of languages would become invaluable to him.

It may seem surprising that merchants from Germany chose to migrate to Bradford in the 19th century, but both had a history of textile manufacture. There were fortunes to be made in Bradford, which was rapidly becoming an engine house of the North, processing two thirds of the country’s wool. In the 1850s Bradford was ‘Worstedopolis’ - the wool capital of the world. Its mills also produced mixed fabrics and silks; textiles so fine and of such quality that they were in great demand in Europe. For anyone interested in a career in the worsted trade, Bradford was the place to be.

Jacob Behrens sailed by paddlesteamer on his first visit to England in 1832, arriving in Hull then travelling to Leeds, via riverboat. canal and coach. He was inspired by the dynamism of the country compared to Germany at the time and was excited by the potential that he saw. Therefore, it was perhaps unsurprising that he would eventually set up in business here.

Following his apprenticeship, Jacob was promoted to the role of buyer and set sail for England to meet with the company’s suppliers. When there were issues with products meeting his requirements he saw an opportunity to set up his own business manufacturing goods which met with his specifications. Thus, in spring 1834, Jacob left the family business in Hamburg and began his new venture as a wool merchant manufacturer; renting a factory and a warehouse in Leeds. The business initially employed just three warehouse staff, with a single rolling machine and two second-hand wooden presses. The company was called ‘Jacob Behrens’ and whilst it had small beginnings, from small acorns trees grow.

In 1838 Jacob, with his brother Louis, relocated to larger premises in Bradford, breaking new ground as the first textile export merchants in the city. They opened on Thornton Road and their cloth was exported initially to Germany then Holland, Belgium and Italy. Their success led to the creation of the five-storey warehouse at 26 East Parade, one of the largest in the vicinity designed in 1873 by Milnes and France, now a Grade II listed building. It was designed in an Italianate style with magnificent iron gates across the entrance proclaiming the name J Behrens and Sons Ltd.

In addition to business success, Jacob was interested in the welfare of Bradford’s working classes. He engaged in many philanthropic works and in 1859 was presented with a clock with a plaque from his workers as a ‘token of their high esteem for him as a kind and considerate Master and as President of The Benevolent and Contingent Fund Society’, which he founded in 1854. His benevolence extended beyond his workforce; he was instrumental in raising funds for an infirmary in the city and for the establishment of Bradford’s Eye and Ear Hospital in 1857. He was its chairman from 1866 until his death. By 1859 this hospital had treated over 1,000 patients and operated on a further 203.

Jacob was also a significant driving force behind educational improvements, building a school house, reforming the grammar school and subsequently becoming chairman from 1877-1879 as well as a Life Governor. He was known to William Forster, Liberal MP and Minister for Education who drafted the Elementary Education Act of 1870 that led to the creation of Board Schools providing basic education for children aged five-12. Jacob wrote a memorandum that so impressed Forster he circulated it amongst MPs in support of his Bill. Eventually, Jacob came to Queen Victoria’s notice and in 1882 he was Knighted in Windsor Castle for his dedication to public service.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Jacob shaped Bradford in other ways, playing a pivotal role in the creation of Bradford Chamber of Commerce. He was President for six years and Vice-President for seven. Crucially he was Chairman of the Tariff Committee, a role that brought him to the Government’s attention. His reputation was such that he was labelled ‘The Terror of the Foreign Office’ - a ‘terror’ who took part in negotiations in October 1860 in the Commercial Treaty with France, whose terms turned out to be good for the city. He subsequently took part in trade negotiations with Austria, Belgium and Italy. The company Jacob Behrens evolved into Jacob Behrens and Sons Ltd and his son Gustav went into partnership with him in 1871, remaining a partner for over 60 years. The company celebrated its 125th anniversary in Bradford in 1959. However, market conditions had become increasingly challenging as newly independent countries began to develop textile industries.

Jacob Behrens died in April 1889, to the sadness of many in Bradford. Whilst his initial motivation for migrating here was to establish a business, his impact on the city was much greater. Bradford Chamber of Commerce stated “he seemed only to exist to be of service to his fellow men”, since for nearly 40 years was “unceasingly occupied in promoting every good object which might best serve the interests of the town and neighbourhood”. His legacy was in the many institutions benefitting residents of the city. His mausoleum is in Undercliffe Cemetery. Whilst there have been significant changes and the Behren’s warehouse in Little Germany has been converted to flats, the company that he founded remains a family run business in Manchester, producing sports and casualwear, home textiles and workwear.

l Many thanks to the Local Studies Library and the Behrens Group and family for their assistance in this article.