Back in spring 1800, the post riders galloped hastily over the muddy paths of the Emscherbruch swamp, along the highway towards the east. In their bag, they carried a letter addressed to King Frederick William III of Prussia. This was clearly their top priority. It contained a request written in elaborate officialese. The sender was a middle-class widow, a businesswoman from the small town of Ruhrort, who was bold enough to involve the King in local disputes while Napoleon lurked on Prussia's doorstep – and the King took note of her. The lady in question is Aletta Haniel, née Noot (1742-1815).
Trade in her DNA
Her request was not unwarranted; just a few decades earlier, her father, Jan Willem Noot (1708-1770), had helped raise the customs post of Ruhrort to national prominence by building the first large residence and office building there. At the time, Ruhrort was full of pioneering spirit: after the end of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) and French occupation, the state of Prussia expanded the harbour from 1766 and made the Ruhr navigable to allow shipping of salt from Königsborn saltern near Unna and, subsequently, coal. As salt inspectors, the Noots held key positions in the trading sector. In the past, they had already worked successfully as mariners forwarding freight on the Rhine. Aletta's family on her mother's side, the Erkenschwicks, were highly respected, well-educated and prosperous thanks to production and trading of cloth in Orsoy on the Lower Rhine. In her youth, Aletta also had the opportunity to attend a girls' boarding school in the Netherlands, studying subjects including French – then the language of diplomacy and high society.
Import meets export
Aletta married Duisburg wine merchant Jacob Wilhelm Haniel in 1761, amid the Seven-Years' War. Wine – Duisburg's most important export product – was hugely popular at the time, much to Haniel's benefit. His export business to the Netherlands and England supplemented the Noot family's imports of colonial goods. After the death of their father in 1770, Jacob Wilhelm inherited his company and combined the two arms of the business. As well as splitting the business risk into two areas, in terms of ongoing development, the twin-track approach gave Aletta more start-up capital to tap into the coal and steel industry.
A tight hold of the reins
Jacob Wilhelm Haniel died in 1782, making Aletta a widow at the age of 40. Her son Wilhelm was then just 17 years old and yet to come of age, so she decided to take over the reins and rename the company J. W. Haniel seel. Wittib (widow of the late J. W. Haniel). Although not uncommon in the 18th century, this was far from the norm. In a break with convention, Aletta did not marry again or simply take temporary charge. She stayed at the helm for over 20 years! In the 1790s, she alone made independent and pioneering decisions on the company's portfolio: Aletta shifted the focus of trade from wine and colonial goods towards the burgeoning coal and hardware market. The name also reflected this diversification: from 1795, the company was known as a “general forwarding firm“.
A trio of businesswomen
At the end of the 18th century, iron smelting started to take off in what was to become the Ruhr industrial region. The driving force behind this development was Maria Kunigunde of Saxony, Princess-Abbess of Essen, who initially invested in the Gutehoffnungshütte ironworks, then had the Neu-Essen ironworks built on her property, and finally bought up St. Antony. She was in close contact with Aletta Haniel and another widow and independent businesswoman: Helene Amalie Krupp. The three women formed a regional network of female business pioneers: Helene Amalie Krupp had already co-financed the construction of the Gutehoffnungshütte ironworks and bought shares in it. For her part, Aletta took on ironware trading for the St. Antony ironworks from 1792, and then for Neu-Essen and the Gutehoffnungshütte ironworks from 1795 – all by arrangement with the Princess-Abbess. Furthermore, invoices from 1796/97 show transportation transactions between widow Krupp and Aletta Haniel.
The vision for change
With her investments in the ironware and coal business, Aletta adapted to the economic and political situation. The conflicts between England and France under Napoleon played into her hands: 1793 saw the first naval blockades against the British Isles, France imposed further restrictions on English trade with the continent in 1796, and the Continental System prevailed from 1806 to 1813. Consequently, wine could no longer be sold to the British Isles, and ironware and coal exports from England fell through the floor, propelling demand in Europe (particularly in France and the Netherlands, which then included what is now Belgium). Aletta saw this as her opportunity to fight for a storage site for her cargo, and consequently for her position in the coal and iron business, in the face of resistance from Ruhort's traders. The aforementioned letter to the King of Prussia proves her persistence: she had previously written six requests to the authorities, but had been either fobbed off or harassed. So she turned directly to King Frederick William III, who ultimately saw to it that Aletta received a storage site.
Aletta – A prerequisite for the industrial Ruhr area
Aletta Haniel was the first businesswoman to export hardware from the Ruhr region to Flanders and Wallonia – by in French hands – and to Amsterdam. When cultivating trading contacts in these regions, she made good use of the French and Dutch skills acquired in her youth. At the same time, she identified a national market for coal from the Ruhr Valley. There is no doubt that she was an independent businesswomen and industrial pioneer. She eventually made her sons Gerhard and Franz partners in 1802, before giving them two equal shares on withdrawing from the company entirely in 1809, excluding her eldest son, Wilhelm. Here too, she broke with the conventions of her time and demonstrated a keen business mind. With her investments, Aletta acted as a pioneer and an original thinker: by shifting the portfolio towards iron and coal, she showed Gerhard and Franz the path to the future. Without their mother's groundwork, they would probably never have bought the ironworks from the Princess-Abbess of Essen or tried to extract coal from beneath the marl, thus missing out on triggering industrial coal mining in the Ruhr.
You can find further information about Haniel's realignment under the slogan "Do it like Aletta" here.