Emma Holt 'Fairy Godmother of Liverpool University'

Emma Holt moved to Sudley House with her parents when she was 21 and lived there for the majority of her life. She never married, so with her death in 1944 she bequeathed the house and the collection of paintings assembled by her father to the city of Liverpool. In this article we discuss her many achievements especially those in support of women's education in Liverpool.

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Emma Holt was born in West Derby and was the only child to Elizabeth and George Holt who was Victorian ship owner, merchant, and art collector. In 1883 she and her parents moved into Sudley House which would be her home until she retired. The Holt family were great supporters of the University College Liverpool (now the University of Liverpool) and in 1909 Emma Hold joined the council of the University. She was on the council until 1934 and donated a lot of money throughout that time. She became such an important person to the University that in 1928 they granted her an honorary doctorate of laws. She was very passionate about the education of women, in 1898 she organised a voluntary committee which raised funds for the building of a hostel for women students. It was for these reasons that Holt was known as the ‘Fairy Godmother of Liverpool University’

Emma Holt by David Muirhead, Victoria Museum and Gallery
Miss Emma Georgina Holt, 1904, by David Muirhead. Courtesy of the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.

The Victoria Gallery and Museum have done further research and provided the following information.

Emma Holt contributed the largest amount – £10,000 – to an appeal for a new physics laboratory in 1898, along with her mother. It was opened in 1904 and named for her late father, George Holt Jr. Emma also provided a hall of residence for women in 1899, later called University Hall. She also provided funds for the women’s wing of the students’ union, and persuaded University Council to investigate increasing the number of female staff.
We must flag up info that came to light as part of our decolonisation programme tracing the origins of University funding like Emma’s. She was the sole heiress to her father, George Holt Jnr, who was the named partner in the shipping line of Lamport & Holt, founded in 1845. They traded mostly with the Americas, South Africa and India, pioneering the Brazil to New York coffee trade,  so did take financial advantage of enslaved labour in Brazil which remained legal until the 1880s.

She used these organisational skills during the First World War. Emma was approached to help find premises for a local auxiliary hospital, so she headed a committee which established the Crofton Auxiliary Hospital in 1917. During those last two years of the war, the hospital tended to over 650 patients. Emma Holt also took an active role in the Liverpool Queen Victoria District Nursing Association.  As well as being a financial subscriber, she was a superintendent for one of the busiest districts from 1915 into the 1940s. 

Miss Emma Georgina Holt, 1928 By René le Brun, Comte de L'Hôpital (1877–1929)
Miss Emma Georgina Holt, 1928, By René le Brun, Comte de L'Hôpital. Courtesy of the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.

Emma lived at Sudley until 1940 when, due to ill health, she moved to the family’s country home in Cumbria where she stayed until her death 1944. In her will, Emma left Sudley House and its collection of paintings to Liverpool and stipulated that the collection was to remain together at Sudley. This was so that the people of Liverpool could see the pieces of artwork, collected by her father, in their original setting. Substantial amounts of money were left to Emma’s maid, cook and secretary. 
Today, Sudley House is one of only a few period homes decorated in a Victorian style that still has many of its original features. It houses the only surviving Victorian merchant art collection in Britain still hanging in its original location This is thanks to George and Emma’s shared passion for art and philanthropy, which continues to inspire visitors every day.