Vaudine England on writing a company’s history


At first glance, a history of a company best known for selling building products, especially sanitary ware, might seem a little dull. This was not a big name like Jardines or Swires; not even Dodwells or Gibb Livingston. This was Arnhold & Company. Looking back at the nineteenth century you won’t even find such a firm, but you will find Arnhold, Karberg & Co, and indeed, they are direct relatives, one growing out of the other.


This gives the first hint of an interesting story — who were Mr Arnhold and Mr Karberg and what happened to them? And why did the company have to change its name? In fact, it changed at least four times over its existence, depending how you define the word ‘change’, and that’s not including the brief period it was publicly listed as i-Onyx.

Luckily, this company has a current patriarch, Michael Green, who was personally enthusiastic about all the ups and, more importantly, the downs of the company. He has told a fantastic story, unafraid of exposing failings or crises, and personally encouraging the discovery of much that was not known about his company’s past.

What makes Arnholds fascinating is that it has lived through interesting times. Arnholds, Karberg & Co was founded in Hong Kong in 1866, with a branch office in Canton opened a year later. The young men involved came from Northern German and Danish Jewish families and already had experience working in silk from Canton. They soon expanded to Shanghai and beyond, and diversified beyond silk into manufacturing machinery and products, bringing part of Europe’s industrial revolution eastwards.

Then World War One began, and being a German company in British Hong Kong suddenly became impossible. All German firms were liquidated, and Germans interned, often breaking up close friendships and ruining lives. From 1914 to 1918, Harry and Charles Arnhold, sons of the firm’s founder Jacob Arnhold, were busy ducking and weaving, desperately trying to find ways to save the business. They managed it — although some of their competitors never quite forgave them for their clever dealing — only to be taken over by Sir Victor Sassoon in Shanghai.

Again, those interesting times intervened — the bombing of Shanghai by Japan in 1937, the onset of expanded war by 1941, internment of the Arnholds and many others, and the slow death of all foreign firms in China after 1949 and the flight back to Hong Kong. By then, a bright young engineer called Maurice Green had risen through the ranks enough to be able to get control of the flailing firm in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and Arnholds has been run by the Green family ever since.

How does one find out what actually happened in places which have been dragged through such revolutionary change that few records survive? The answer in this case was the London Metropolitan Archives near Roseberry Avenue in London, and of course the National Archives at Kew. That’s after spending time in the Carl T. Smith Collection, and tracking down long-forgotten descendants by knocking on deserted doors in deepest Sussex.

For me, the realities of a trading company on the nineteenth century China Coast required a crash course on Treaty Ports. Beyond all that faded grandeur of large old mansions and godowns in far-flung towns, it was necessary to learn what was actually traded (I’m still not absolutely certain what strawbraid is), how it worked in all its very many variations, and how the conditions and personalities in these places changed over time. Just as it takes only a bit of colonial history reading to find out how vastly different each colony was from the next, so too with treaty ports.

There remains a wealth of business history to be done with these and other little-used resources. Using a company as a red thread which one follows through a range of strange places and events is yet another way to tell history. In this case, it meant that a cold case file could be opened and, for now, closed, having told the firm’s owners many things about their company and its interesting times that they never knew. Hopefully others will explore the many more old firms and families whose daily lives and travails help illuminate the past.