John Holt was born in 1841, in the Lincolnshire village of Garthorpe. At the age of 15, having previously worked in a coastal schooner belonging to his grandfather Thomas Holt, he began a five year apprenticeship with William Laird, a Liverpool coal dealer, member of the famous shipbuilding family and brother of West African explorer MacGregor Laird.
In June 1862, just days short of completing his five year apprenticeship, John Holt accepted the offer of a post as secretary to James Lynslager, British Consul on the Spanish island of Fernando Po, off the West African coast. The offer was for three years, to act as clerk, storekeeper and overseer for Lynslager's merchant interests. It would include an annual salary of £2,000, board, lodging, passage and medical attendance. After the death of James Lynslager in 1864, John Holt continued to work for his widow until 1867 when, at the age of 25, he purchased the business from her. During that year he was joined by his brothers, Jonathan and Thomas Holt, and they expanded the business from Fernando Po to the mainland of West Africa.
During his twelve years on the African coast from 1862 to 1874, John Holt played a notable part in the pioneering and development of British trade in West Africa, helping develop trade in important new products, including cocoa, cotton lint and groundnuts, alongside the traditional trade in palm oil and rubber. In 1884 the business was made into a partnership of the three brothers, and in 1897 it became a limited company, John Holt & Co. (Liverpool) Ltd.
Along with these commercial interests, in later years he became a champion of African welfare, developing friendships with notable humanitarians of the day, such as E.D. Morel, Mary Kingsley and the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
By the time of John Holt's death in 1915, the company had developed into a flourishing private concern, with branches in all the main centres of the West African trade.
During both World Wars, ships of the John Holt & Co. (Liverpool) Ltd. fleet were requisitioned by the British Government for the movement of munitions and stores and the evacuation of troops. In June 1940 the SS John Holt was involved in the rescue of 1,100 survivors from the Cunarder Lancastria which was sunk by German
bombs off Saint Nazaire. The period following the Second World War saw the company expand its international concerns by extending its interests to other continents.
The collection consists of 362 boxes and dates from 1816-1995. It was deposited at National Museums Liverpool in 2006 by the descendants of John Holt and is accessible to the public at the reserve store. Additional material is listed under B/JH(A) and is available at the Maritime Archives & Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum.