Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Holder, Sir Frederick William (1850–1909)

by Ralph Harry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Frederick William Holder (1850-1909), by Mendelssohn & Co, 1900s

Frederick William Holder (1850-1909), by Mendelssohn & Co, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23386143

Sir Frederick William Holder (1850-1909), parliamentarian and journalist, was born on 12 May 1850 at Happy Valley, near Adelaide, eldest son of James Morecott Holder, a freeman of the City of London, who had migrated to South Australia shortly after his marriage on 9 September 1848 to Martha Breakspear Roby, daughter of a London tailor. James Holder became a schoolteacher at Happy Valley and, about 1870, stationmaster at Freeling. Frederick was educated initially by his father, later at state schools, then at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. He also became a teacher, first at Prince Alfred College, then at Freeling. In August 1875 he was made headmaster of the Kooringa Public School at Burra Burra.

In 1877 Holder, whose school was superseded by a new Model School, became manager of a Burra store, town clerk and first managing editor of the newly established Burra Record, of which he was later proprietor. He had already been active in the Burra Parliamentary Club and in the Record developed ideas on government at both the colonial and local level. He was elected to the Burra Corporation and as mayor in 1885 and 1886 was largely responsible for a water-works scheme and bridge construction. He served as captain in the South Australian Volunteer Force and on the council of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries.

On 29 March 1877, at Burra, Holder married Julia Maria, daughter of John Riccardo Stephens, a Cornishman, homeopathic doctor, farmer, teacher and shopkeeper, who had studied for the Methodist ministry. Julia Holder eventually became Australian president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Holder shared her Wesleyan convictions and as a lay preacher regularly conducted services on Sundays in Adelaide and country churches. He was also active in the administration of the Church and in seeking unity of the different Methodist denominations. He supported his wife's campaigns for temperance and against gambling, but he had a keen sense of fun and made a happy home life for his four sons and four daughters.

In 1887 Holder was elected senior member for Burra in the South Australian House of Assembly. He described himself as a free trader opposed to selling Crown lands in order to remove the deficit and was against a property tax. He favoured increase of the land tax, reduction of income tax and customs duties, and payment of members. He opposed the totalizator and agreed with the Chaffey irrigation scheme. In his first arduous session Holder was a member of the commission on the land laws, the select committee on the Star of Greece shipwreck disaster, and chairman of the Barrier trade select committee. On 27 June 1889 he became treasurer in the Cockburn ministry which introduced succession duties and a progressive tax on unimproved land values. Next year he was chairman of a select committee, later converted into a royal commission, which advocated the adoption of intercolonial free trade on the basis of a uniform tariff. He was also a member of the commission on European mails.

After the fall of the Cockburn ministry in August 1890, and particularly as leader of the Opposition and member of the pastoral lands commission in 1891, Holder travelled extensively in the colony and wrote a series of articles on the pastoral industry for the South Australian Register urging caution in subdivision of pastoral properties, steady improvement of water resources and more rabbit-proof fencing. On 17 June 1892 he defeated Thomas Playford in the House on a motion of confidence and became premier and treasurer. But it was a time of great financial difficulty and the ministry fell on 15 October.

After the Liberal win in the election of 1893, Holder, though still leader of the Opposition, made way for Charles Kingston to become premier; he himself became commissioner of public works and, from April 1894, treasurer and minister in charge of the Northern Territory. The State Bank of South Australia was established during Holder's treasurership and he produced a balanced budget, despite successive years of drought and depression. As minister controlling the Northern Territory, and as a commissioner to report on the best means of promoting settlement, he made an extensive journey by train and camel in 1895 beyond the MacDonnell Ranges.

On 28 November 1899 the Kingston government was defeated and, when V. L. Solomon was unable to form a ministry, Holder again became premier and treasurer, and also minister of industry, positions which he retained until he moved to the Federal parliament in May 1901. The second Holder government established libraries in country towns and introduced standard time throughout South Australia. It also ensured completion of the Bundaleer and Barossa water schemes.

Though not in favour of Federation 'at all hazards and at any price' Holder was a 'warm Federalist' who saw the free exchange of goods as the first step towards a united Australia. He was elected to the 1897 Federal convention second only to Kingston, and by the close of the convention was in the first rank of influence, particularly on financial matters. He presented the Adelaide draft for a Federal constitution to the South Australian parliament on 6 July 1897 and when the bill, after revision in Sydney and Melbourne, was submitted to the electors, its acceptance by a preponderating vote in South Australia was largely due to Holder's influence and advocacy. Having, with other premiers, refused to serve in a Federal ministry under Sir William Lyne, he hoped to be treasurer in Barton's cabinet. But an invitation failed to reach him and Barton asked Kingston to be his South Australian colleague. Holder was bitterly disappointed. However, in the election of 30 March 1901 conducted in South Australia as a single constituency, he was elected to the House of Representatives. He stood fourth to Kingston, Bonython and Glynn in the total poll but received the largest number of votes in the twenty-one country districts.

On 9 May, when parliament was inaugurated in Melbourne, Holder was elected first Speaker of the House of Representatives. Working with Sir Richard Chaffey Baker, first president of the Senate, he had the responsibility of adapting the forms and practices of Westminster and of the colonial legislatures to the needs of the new parliament. He carried out this role with skill and dedication, earning the respect and affection of members of all parties. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1902. Standing as an Independent, Holder was returned to parliament for Wakefield in 1903 and 1906. He was re-elected Speaker without contest after each election and kept aloof from party politics, though he once admitted to 'an almost overwhelming desire to step out of the Chair and tear off the gag'. He gave particular care to his administrative duties as Speaker, especially as chairman of the Joint Library Committee. His report of 1903 was, in fact, a blueprint for the eventual National Library of Australia.

Never a very robust man, Holder showed a disregard for his health and for the advice of doctors and friends. In 1899, when the mules pulling his vehicle on a country trip bolted and he seriously injured his hip, he refused to seek medical advice. The campaign for Federation, the establishment of the new parliament and the vigorous interplay of the parties all took their toll. About 6 a.m. on 23 July 1909, when the House was in committee after a stormy all-night sitting, Holder, who had confided to friends his distress at the bitter feeling between the parties, was heard to say: 'Dreadful! Dreadful!' and fell insensible to the floor of the House. He died that afternoon from cerebral haemorrhage without recovering consciousness. The town hall bells in Adelaide were tolled when the news was received. After a memorial service in the House his body was taken by train to Adelaide for a state funeral and burial in West Terrace cemetery. He was survived by his wife and their eight children.

Holder made a notable contribution to the development of Burra and of South Australia, particularly as a political leader. He marshalled his arguments well and spoke fluently and with fervour. (Sir) William Sowden described him as 'one of the smartest administrators ever known in Australian politics'. Alfred Deakin paid high tribute to his contribution to the attainment of Federation and there has been no dissent from his statement that Holder 'presided over the House of Representatives with conspicuous ability, firmness and impartiality'. Several of Holder's articles were reprinted in 1892 under the title Our Pastoral Industry, and a small book of his sermons, Condensed Sermons by a Layman, was published in Adelaide in 1922. There are portraits by George A. J. Webb in the South Australian House of Assembly and in the House of Representatives in Canberra. Another portrait, by Holder's daughter Rhoda, is held by the National Library. His name is commemorated by a Canberra suburb.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, H. Brookes ed (Melb, 1944)
  • J. Reynolds, Edmund Barton (Syd, 1948)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Hopetoun Blunder (Melb, 1957)
  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • Sydney Mail, 28 June 1909
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 Aug 1909
  • Christian Advocate, 14 Oct 1909
  • Brisbane Courier, 8 Nov 1930
  • Frederick Holder papers (National Library of Australia and National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Ralph Harry, 'Holder, Sir Frederick William (1850–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holder-sir-frederick-william-6706/text11575, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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