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Frances Gillam Holden (1843–1924)

by B. E. Briggs

This article was published:

Frances Gillam Holden (1843-1924), nurse, was born on 9 February 1843 at Ellalong, Brisbane Water, New South Wales, eldest daughter of Alfred Holden, police magistrate, and his wife Jane, née Osborne, and niece of G. K. Holden. For several years the family lived at Newport and in 1849 moved to Penshurst on the Paterson River. With her brothers and sisters, Fanny, as she was known, was educated at home by tutors and encouraged by her father to read avidly. She was a governess for many years. Aged 31, despite an inherited delicate constitution, she took up nursing, with her younger sisters Laura, Rosamund and Edith. On 10 June 1874 Frances and Rosamund entered Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary to train under Lucy Osburn. Frances, forthright and indomitable, did not get on with her superior. On 3 March 1875, having worked in men's and accidents wards she was dismissed as incompetent.

After nursing privately for a few months, in January 1876 Frances Holden went to Hobart General Hospital with her sisters Laura and Rosamund to assist the new lady superintendent, Florence Abbott, to reconstruct the administration. In December a royal commission upheld their complaints against conditions and the management. Next year Frances contracted typhoid and went to Melbourne. Rosamund returned to Sydney about 1879 to nurse at the new Hospital for Sick Children, Glebe, that their cousin J. B. Watt had helped to found. In September 1880 Frances was appointed lady superintendent.

Although the hospital made excellent progress under her skilled supervision, Frances Holden deplored the lack of a resident medical officer and the manner in which visiting physicians and surgeons discharged their duties. The dispute began in 1884 when the honorary medical staff resigned, and finally erupted in 1887 in a bitter public debate in the press. When she claimed that a child had died through negligence, a government inquiry was held. Although ill again with typhoid, she welcomed the investigation and prepared her case. Despite testimonials from colleagues, ex-patients and friends, including Dr Andrew Ross she failed to prove her charges and was dismissed in October 1887; several of the staff went with her.

From the early 1870s Miss Holden had contributed verse and articles to journals and newspapers, sometimes under the pseudonyms, 'Australienne' and 'Lyra Australia'. Some of her most acclaimed works were written during the controversial years she was lady superintendent. Her treatise, Trained Nursing, was published in 1882, and in 1884 The Travels of Red-jacket and White-cap; or, a History of the Circulation of the Blood, an instructive booklet, written 'in à la Bunyan or allegorical style'; Dr Ross wrote the preface and recommended it as a textbook in schools. In 1887 she published a small collection of verse and prose, Her Father's Darling, and other Child Pictures with an introduction by Rev. William Woolls. She lectured and wrote on nursing, physiology, hygiene and hospital reform and advocated higher education for women. Her experience of typhoid, both as a sufferer and as a nurse, prompted several articles on its treatment.

In support of women's rights and social reform she founded the Dawn Club in 1888 with Louisa Lawson and other women; she became its vice-president, composed its manifesto, and contributed irregularly to its journal, Dawn. In the 1880s and 1890s she contributed to the Sydney Mail, Humanity and Health, a New York journal, to the Sydney Quarterly Magazine, and to journals of Sydney and Melbourne universities.

In 1902 the editors of Dawn lost contact with Frances Holden: in the latter half of the year her father, brother and a sister died. During World War I, although an invalid, she worked for the soldiers, for the Red Cross Society and kindergartens. On 21 August 1924 she died at Burwood and was buried in the Church of England section of Rookwood cemetery. Her devotion to her calling and her ardent desire to make it better for all aspirants was expressed with evangelical fervour in all her work, both written and practical. The keynote of her papers on hospital reform was always the quality of the nurses: 'to reform the nursing staff is to reform the hospital'.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Hipsley, The Early History of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney, 1880 to 1905 (Syd, 1952)
  • A. Downie, Our First Hundred Years: The History of Nursing at the Royal Hobart Hospital (Hob, 1975)
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Sept 1887
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Aug 1924
  • Royal Alexandra Hospital Archives
  • Sydney Hospital Archives.

Citation details

B. E. Briggs, 'Holden, Frances Gillam (1843–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Australia, Lyra
  • Australienne

9 February, 1843
Ellalong, New South Wales, Australia


21 August, 1924 (aged 81)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.