This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Henri Van de Velde (1878-1947), merchant and felt manufacturer, was born on 13 July 1878 in Brussels, son of Clement Van de Velde, civil engineer, and his wife Maria, née Bruteyn. With his parents and sister, he reached Sydney in the Salazie on 11 December 1884. Clement was vice-consul (consul 1891-94) for Belgium. Henri was later sent home to continue his education before returning in the Polynesien in March 1892; he attended Sydney Grammar School until September 1893 and began working as a woolclasser. When his father went back to Belgium, Henri defied his parents' wishes and remained in Australia.
In 1900 Van de Velde established himself as a hide exporter in Brisbane. At the general registry office on 5 October 1901 he married Jeannette Davison Ffoulkes, née Smith, a divorcee; they had three children before divorcing. The couple enjoyed music—Van de Velde played the violin accompanied by his wife on the piano. Declared insolvent in July 1902, he was discharged in October. Two years later he advertised as an importer and exporter of hides and skins, a wine and spirit merchant and a sugar-buyer. On 5 January 1905 he was naturalized; he later served as a justice of the peace for Queensland. Unable to find his certificate, he was again naturalized in 1932.
By 1913 Van de Velde was established in Sydney. During World War I he won a contract to supply woollen blankets to the army. The business was registered in 1921 as Sydney Felt and Textiles Ltd; from 1924 he was managing director. Under his leadership, the company grew rapidly and changed its name to Felt and Textiles of Australia Ltd next year. It was to become widely known for manufacturing the ubiquitous floor covering Feltex. At the registry office, Manly, on 3 September 1926 he married 35-year-old Una Ethel Maitland; their only child Paul died in 1930.
Van de Velde travelled extensively to expand Felt and Textiles' interests. He started a subsidiary company to manufacture felt slippers in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1929 and in 1932 oversaw the establishment of a factory at Durban, South Africa. In 1937 the firm was registered as a public company. Two years later Van de Velde joined the board of Bradford Cotton Mills Ltd. He also acquired grazing properties in New Zealand. Following the slump during World War II, he travelled to England and the United States of America in 1946 to re-establish his export markets. One of 'the major industrial undertakings in the Commonwealth', the firm had interests in sixty-five factories in five States, as well as subsidiaries in South Africa and New Zealand. In order to meet demand for its range of textile products, which encompassed footwear, carpet and saddle felts, the company was a substantial purchaser of the Australian wool clip.
The Blue Mountains became Van de Velde's passion and solace. Encouraged by his friend R. J. Wilson, he was leasing Everglades at Leura by 1933. Van de Velde purchased the property in lots in 1935 and 1938 and asked Eric Langton Apperly to design a house. He employed Paul Sorensen, a local nurseryman, as one of a team who contributed to the creation of a terraced garden. Van de Velde spent most weekends at Leura guiding its progress. He acquired rare trees and shrubs and, while on business trips overseas, bought sculptures for the garden. During World War II he raised £1200 annually for the Australian Red Cross Society by opening Everglades to the public twice a year.
Powerfully built and 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall, Van de Velde was 'almost fanatical about physical fitness'. A keen sportsman in his youth, he was said to have sparred with American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson before his 1907 championship fight in Sydney. He looked after the health of his employees. At the firm's Botany Road factory he included a clinic to provide free physiotherapy and medical treatment. In 1939 he commissioned a rooftop garden for his staff at the company headquarters, Feltex House, George Street.
Survived by his wife, and by the two daughters and son of his first marriage, Van de Velde died on 8 June 1947 in New York and was cremated. His ashes were flown back to Sydney. He left most of his estate, sworn for probate at £378,390, to his wife and children. Everglades was sold by the family soon after his death, and was acquired by the State branch of the National Trust of Australia in 1962.
N. T. McLennan, 'Van de Velde, Henri (1878–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/van-de-velde-henri-11908/text21331, accessed 22 May 2013.
This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002