Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tomholt, Sydney John (1884–1974)

by Nancy Keesing

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sydney John Tomholt (1884-1974), playwright and critic, was born on 6 January 1884 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Daniel John Tomholt, a Dutch-born waiter, and his Tasmanian wife Louisa, née Whelan (d.1898). After a limited education at state schools, he joined a firm of chartered accountants, but left about 1911 to join the Gloria (gas) Light Co.

Encouraged by Gregan McMahon and William Moore, in the early 1900s Tomholt began writing, chiefly one-act plays. On 2 November 1912 at All Saints Anglican Church, St Kilda, he married a pianist Hilda Merle Cotham; they were to have one daughter; late in 1914 he moved to Sydney to open an office for his firm. On 28 December 1915 Tomholt enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and next year went to France with reinforcements for the 24th Battalion. Evacuated sick in November, he was attached to the Pay Corps in London from March to September 1917. Through Charles Charrington, he met such leading writers as J. M. Barrie and G. K. Chesterton. G. B. Shaw wrote several times to Tomholt whom he recognized as 'a serious dramatist with a flair for atmosphere and emotional and dramatic intensity'. In December he was sent to No.2 Command Depot, Weymouth, but John Drinkwater arranged six months leave without pay for him to study drama from September 1918. Between May and October 1919 Tomholt attended the University of London as a playwright before embarking for home.

Unsettled after divorcing his wife in 1921, Tomholt left Australia in 1922 for Mongolia and China. He engaged in transport work in the Gobi Desert and was granted a rare interview with the Panchen Lama in Tibet. At Shanghai, by 1924 he was financial editor of the China Press and Shanghai Times. He married a White Russian refugee, Mary, née Kouptzova, who bore him a daughter in 1925. From the late 1920s he worked for the American firm, Pacific Commercial Co., in Manila where he met Tom Inglis Moore who became a lifelong friend.

Settling in Sydney in 1933, Tomholt joined 2GB radio as chief dramatic script writer. His serial, 'The Dreyfus case' and several of his dramas were broadcast; Anoli the Blind was placed in a Bulletin competition and included in The Best One Act Plays of 1936 (London, 1937). He published Bleak Dawn and Other Plays in 1936. Written in a period when Australian dramatists encountered difficulties with unsympathetic theatre managements, his plays were rarely performed: in general they emphasized 'the anguish of life'.

From 1937 Tomholt was film, music and dramatic critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. He joined the Allied Works Council during World War II, held Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowships in the mid-1940s and later ran a literary agency. Known to his friends as 'Tommy', he 'thought and spoke so rapidly that he often uttered delicious malapropisms'. Living in the inner city, he made his flat (always called 'The Room') into an informal meeting place for poets, theatre people and academics, among them Hugh McCrae, Robert FitzGerald, (Dame) Doris Fitton and May Hollinworth; his friend Maxine Poynton-Baker, née Murray-Jones, helped him at these gatherings. Survived by his wife and daughters, Tomholt died at Darlinghurst on 23 April 1974 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Keesing, Riding the Elephant (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Nov 1933, 19 June 1936, 13 May 1947, 25 Apr 1974
  • divorce file, 1920, no 468 (Prothonotary's Office, Supreme Court, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Nancy Keesing, 'Tomholt, Sydney John (1884–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tomholt-sydney-john-8828/text15487, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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