John Holt was born on the 31 October 1841 in Garthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. In June 1862 he sailed from Liverpool to Africa after being offered the post of secretary to James Lynslager in Fernando Po. Two years later James Lynslager died and John became manager of the business. In April 1867 he bought out the business and began trading in his own right.
At the end of 1867, John returned to England where he appointed Irvine and Woodward of Liverpool to act as his sole agents. Whilst John was in England his affairs in Africa were managed by his brother, Jonathan, who had joined him in Fernando Po earlier in the year; shortly later they were joined be a third brother, Thomas.
In 1868 Jonathan purchased a schooner, the Maria, which enabled John to begin to establish 'factories' or trading posts in other parts of West Africa. In 1874 John returned to Liverpool again and, dissatisfied with Irvine and Woodward's handling of his affairs, established his own office with premises in Water Street.
In February 1881 John entered into the palm oil and kernel trade when he appointed Henry Cotterell as his agent for the Bonny and New Calabar Rivers. In 1882 this arrangement developed into the partnership of Holt & Cotterell, with Thomas Welsh acting as chief agent. On the 29 February 1884 John and Jonathan entered into the partnership of John Holt & Company; this new company absorbed the partnership of Holt & Cotterell.
John acquired further interest in the oil rivers in 1885 when he entered into a partnership with George Watts to form the Liverpool African Company. Two years later he entered into partnership with Thomas Welsh, a move which resulted in an expansion of John's business to Lagos and Porto Novo in Nigeria. Further expansion was enabled by the acquisition of the Lower Guinea Company in 1890.
Jonathan Holt died in September 1896, but despite this loss the company continued to flourish and in 1897 the limited company of John Holt & Company (Liverpool) Limited was formed, with John and Thomas Holt and Thomas Welsh as the first directors. This new company took over the existing Holt establishment in West Africa and also absorbed the John Holt/Thomas Welsh partnership.
John's sons, Jonathan and Robert, also became associated in partnership with Thomas Welsh when a new venture on the Brass River, the Brass Trading Company, was established in 1899. In 1910, Jonathan's sons, Thomas Godfrey and John Jnr., also joined the Brass venture. The four Holts eventually took over Welsh's trading interests in Calabar and formed Holt Brothers & Company. During World War I both the Brass Trading Company and Holt Brothers & Company were assimilated by John Holt & Company (Liverpool) Ltd.
Following a severe stroke in 1910, John Holt was compelled to give up active work with the company. He retired to Broughton Grange, Lincolnshire, England, where he remained until his death at the age of 73 on the 22 June 1915.