Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Kenyon Holden (1808–1874)

by T. H. Irving

This article was published:

George Kenyon Holden (1808-1874), solicitor and politician, was born in Worcester, England, son of Adam Holden, sugar-refiner, and his wife Maria, née Gillam. Educated probably at Worcester Grammar School, he studied law. He met leading writers and statesmen and travelled widely while helping Sir James Mackintosh with his History of England (1830). Holden was admitted as a solicitor in England and in December 1831 arrived in Sydney. While private secretary to Governor Sir Richard Bourke until 1837 he also engaged in modest importing. He was also a stipendiary magistrate at Campbelltown in 1833-37 and then became crown prosecutor in the Quarter Sessions but resigned in December 1838 after the judges insisted that a barrister should hold the position. Within five years his practice as a solicitor had more than compensated for that blow to his prestige; his clients included leading business and landed families. After 1843 he was a partner of H. Chambers and W. G. McCarthy.

Holden's 'energy, intense conscientiousness and unswerving tenacity of purpose' allowed him to pursue many interests. In 1849-50 he was secretary to the Law Commission and in 1849 served on the Board of National Education. In politics he never belonged to any faction or contested a parliamentary election. From the 1840s he was closely associated with (Sir) Henry Parkes and other rising men. In 1851-54 he was active in the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation. He worked for more representative government in the colony but as a member of the New South Wales Constitution Committee he led a moderate group which in fear of 'democratic' excesses sought to postpone responsible government. He assisted anti-squatter candidates at the elections in 1849 and 1856. He wrote pamphlets and letters to the press and to the Mechanics' School of Arts gave addresses on such subjects as 'without education it was impossible for any democracy to exist'.

In 1856 Holden was appointed to the Legislative Council and in May 1861 resigned in support of Sir William Burton over the swamping of the council. He was reappointed in June. An admirer and correspondent of John Stuart Mill, Holden had always believed that the council should be elective, and while serving in the select committee on the Legislative Council bill he drafted a measure which embodied the Hare system of proportional representation. The attorney-general disagreed with the new bill so Holden piloted it through the council. Though it was lost in the Assembly, he received international recognition for his advocacy of proportional representation. A free trader, he urged law reform and supported the abolition of state aid to religion. He promoted the introduction of the Torrens title system. After the 1862 Real Property Act set up the Land Titles Office, he resigned from the council and gave up his lucrative practice to become chief examiner of titles on 1 January 1863; when his salary of £1200 a year was reduced in December he threatened to resign.

At the height of his influence in the 1860s, Holden was president of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, a trustee of the New South Wales Savings Bank, a director of the Liverpool and London Fire and Life Insurance Co. and in 1864-65 chairman of the National Schools Board. In 1866 he was attacked by David Buchanan for writing to the press on the education bill while holding public office, but the government declined to interfere. Only one of Holden's three pamphlets, The Moral and Intellectual Culture of the People (Sydney, 1853), was widely read but all were significant expressions of colonial liberalism. Modest in business, cautious in politics and pragmatic in argument and public service he refused to lead popular movements and on principle avoided the clash of classes and of parties. Aged 67 he died at Darlinghurst on 16 April 1874 and was buried in the Canterbury cemetery. He was survived by his wife Eliza Punette Clunes, née Mackenzie, and by five sons and three daughters. His goods were valued at £10,000.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Halloran, ‘Some Early Legal Celebrities’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 6, 1927, pp 317-52
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6, 12, 13 Dec 1861, 4, 18 Sept, 1 Oct 1862, 18 Apr 1874
  • Empire (Sydney), 17 Apr 1874
  • Town and Country Journal, 16 May 1874
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Deas Thomson papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

T. H. Irving, 'Holden, George Kenyon (1808–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Worcester, Worcestershire, England


16 April, 1874 (aged ~ 66)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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