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Henry James Holden (1859–1926)

by Joan Hancock and Eric Richards

This article was published:

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This is a shared entry with Edward Wheewall Holden

Sir Henry James Holden (1859-1926), saddler, carriage-trimmer and motor-body manufacturer, and Sir Edward Wheewall Holden (1885-1947), motor-body manufacturer, were father and son. Henry was born on 18 July 1859 at Kensington, Adelaide, eldest of nine children of James Alexander Holden (1835-1887) and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Phillips. After falling out with his stepmother J. A. Holden had in 1854 left his late father's flourishing leather business at Walsall, Staffordshire, England, for the United States of America. Attracted then to Australia by the goldfields, he settled in Adelaide where he began a leather and saddlery business, by 1883 a considerable establishment in the colony. He was a staunch Baptist, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and active in the foundation of the Chamber of Manufactures. His son Henry was educated at Thomas Caterer's School, Norwood, and the Hahndorf Academy. At 19 he was sent to England to consolidate family business links. With both father and business ailing, he returned to the Adelaide leather trade. On 7 April 1881 at the Norwood Baptist Church he married Mary Ann Dixon Wheewall, daughter of an Alberton grocer. After gaining experience in several departments he became a partner in 1883; two years later James sold the business to Henry and H. A. Frost, a carriage-builder, who had become a partner in 1874. The firm weathered further financial crises in 1887 and 1893.

During the South African War Henry captured large government saddlery contracts in the teeth of interstate competition. Mechanically ingenious, he set up rows of machinery in a rented shed, personally trained the workforce, and developed large-scale, low-cost production methods. When Frost died in 1909 Holden bought his interest and extended the firm's activities to include motor-body trimming: it produced hoods, upholstery and carriage hardware, and painted bodies for steam and petrol cars. Batches of motor-cycle sidecars were also manufactured.

World War I presented further opportunities in the leather-manufacturing market; but more important were the economic consequences of the 1917 government embargo on the import of completed car-bodies. Holden, having built two car-bodies in the previous year, joined forces with Dodge distributor S. A. Cheney to build a standardized body for imported chassis at a highly competitive price. This prototype, designed by Edward Holden, was an instant success with distributors. Henry swiftly acquired the Adelaide premises of another carriage and body-builder F. T. Hack & Co., and began production. With a loan of £50,000 from the Bank of Adelaide, arranged by local financier Charles Irwin, and Edward as managing director, Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd was floated late in 1917. Shareholders subscribed £35,000. Initially mass production techniques at the King William Street premises were static: the moving assembly line came later. Holden exercised rigorous quality control; he sought to establish direct command over raw material supplies, and negotiated labour agreements in 1918 to minimize production disturbances. After the war Holden pressed the Federal government to maintain high protection: in the 1920s the tariff on imported motor-bodies was 100 per cent.

By 1923 Holden's employed over a thousand men and produced 240 car-bodies per week (for numerous makes of imported chassis), more than half the national output. Rapidly expanding demand required innovative production methods, and repeated restructuring of the firm's finances to provide capital. In April the company expanded its plant to a 22-acre (9 ha) site at Woodville; production rose from 6661 bodies in 1922 to 22,060 in 1924. Increasingly under Edward's leadership, the Woodville development incorporated the latest technology, including automated production lines, and became the largest plant of its type outside North America. Holden had undertaken expansion in South Australia notwithstanding its relative remoteness from its major markets in the eastern States, because of cheap transport facilities, favourable labour supply, and his feeling of local patriotism. Approached by General Motors Export Co., the American-owned firm to which it was already supplying car-bodies, Holden's agreed to devote the Woodville plant exclusively to production for General Motors, on a system of cost-plus pricing, with General Motors supplying designs and technical help. Thus Holden's and General Motors became highly interdependent, with General Motors taking about 60 per cent of Holden's output throughout the 1920s. This symbiosis led eventually to control of the firm by General Motors.

H. J. Holden, a self-made entrepreneur, enjoyed a close patriarchal relation with his workforce. He fostered generous social welfare arrangements and good labour relations, using a factory consultative council. His passion for quality caused him to slash poor work under the noses of his workers; but he reputedly knew each personally and was remembered as a generous employer. He was not fully attuned to the scale and style of the new methods, and increasing tension marked his dealings with his innovative son.

As well as being the State's leading industrialist, Henry Holden contributed substantially to civic life. He was mayor of Kensington and Norwood for eight years, a member of the Norwood School Board, and as a foundation member of the Municipal Tramways Trust initiated moves for electrification of the system. President of the Municipal Councils Association in 1903 and later vice-president, he acted as chief magistrate in the eastern suburbs and was chairman of a committee formed to draft a bill for town planning. He was president of the Baptist Union for twenty-one years, a deacon for twenty-five and a Sunday-school superintendent. In 1904 he established the Norwood Cottage Homes for the aged poor. He was president of the Young Men's Christian Association and official visitor to the Parkside Asylum. When visiting England in 1911 he was commissioned to investigate management of hospitals for the mentally defective. A diabetic, in his last years Holden appeared infrequently at board meetings. He died at Norwood on 6 March 1926, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons.

Edward Holden was born on 14 August 1885 at College Town. Educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1905), on graduation he joined the family firm (still trading as Holden & Frost Ltd). He was influential in Holden's expansion into motor-body building, and its use of highly automated mass production technology. Widely travelled, and much influenced by American methods, he introduced to the business new standards of scientific management, cost accounting and production control. A strong advocate of piecework, he achieved a rapid improvement of labour productivity at Woodville, though the new processes apparently diminished goodwill among the workforce. In close association with General Motors, Holden's established a dominant market position throughout mainland Australia. Output rose spectacularly: 36,171 motor-bodies were produced in 1926 and 46,981 in 1927, with a downturn to 33,785 in 1928. In 1929 the company employed 3400 workers and was the biggest body-builder in the Empire; but that year it suffered a double crisis with a further decline in orders and the death of Holden's younger brother William Arthur (1899-1929), a director and production manager at Woodville.

In August 1929 General Motors revised its order levels downwards, and Ford suspended expected orders. In September Holden informed the annual general meeting that the business remained 'inherently sound', but in October the plant closed temporarily for lack of continuous work, and Ford announced it would be placing no further orders. To utilize slack capacity Holden's diversified to the production of golf-club heads, steel filing cabinets, and wooden packing-cases for fruit. Merger with three other Australian motor-body manufacturers was considered, but rejected, and in January 1930 Holden set out for the United States of America to discuss amalgamation with General Motors. That year the entire plant was closed for weeks on end and mass production methods became inappropriate as output collapsed to just over 9000 bodies. (Output for 1931 totalled only 1630 bodies.) Holden's major competitors had effectively ceased business and a similar fate appeared to confront Holden's, although it remained solvent: its continued existence depended on orders from General Motors, which then constituted three-quarters of Holden's remaining demand. In February 1931, after withdrawing an all-cash offer, General Motors offered £1,116,000 for Holden's—£550,000 in cash, and the remainder in non-convertible cumulative preference shares in the proposed new company. No ordinary shares were to be held by the former Holden's shareholders. After disorderly debate among shareholders, the offer, recommended by the directors, was accepted: although the price paid was below the balance-sheet value of £1,410,666, it exceeded the market value of the shares by about half a million pounds. The issue of preference shares reduced the cash burden of the merger for General Motors, and also gave it complete control while maintaining an Australian character in name, ownership and management.

Holden became chairman of General Motors-Holden's Ltd, and was appointed joint managing director in August 1931 and later sole managing director in a reconstituted administration. However, with the arrival of (Sir) Laurence Hartnett in March 1934 from General Motors' English subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors, Holden was supplanted as managing director, although he remained chairman through the period of economic recovery when new plant and central administration were established in Melbourne. Bitter and disappointed at his displacement, he turned to other business activities and parliamentary service. As the company became involved in the munitions programme for World War II his contribution to the company declined further. He became honorary controller-general of army canteens in 1939-45 and visited troops in the Middle East. In 1942 the canteen administration ran into controversy over contracts and Holden was called upon to defend his policies. He remained chairman of directors of General Motors-Holden's until, in ill health, he resigned in January 1947.

Holden had been prominent in many South Australian enterprises in the previous twenty years. He was chairman of directors of the South Australian Brush Co. and Australian Cotton Textile Industries as well as director of the Bank of Adelaide and several other companies. As foundation director and first chairman of the South Australian Industries Assistance Corporation he did much to entice foreign enterprise to the State. He was president of the South Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Manufactures, and of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia. He was a councillor and alderman of the Adelaide City Council, president of the National Safety Council and a member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. His conspicuous absence from the membership of the Adelaide Club has been attributed to blackballing in his early days by two doctors. In 1925-31 he was a member of the Council of the University of Adelaide; he helped to finance, and accompanied, a university expedition to Central Australia to study the Aboriginals in 1927; and in 1943 he donated £5000 towards the establishment of a chair of electrical and mechanical engineering. He was knighted in 1945.

Holden served as a Liberal in the Legislative Council in 1935-47 and, though not loquacious, was a consistent spokesman for industry and a strong advocate of technical education. He supported governmental efforts to attract industry to the State in the 1930s, especially by reducing wharfage costs, and by developing the South Australian Housing Trust in order to depress living costs and thereby preserve the low labour cost advantage. He supported the auditor-general J. W. Wainwright in a sustained campaign to preserve and expand South Australian industry, and later helped to gain wartime contracts for the State. He approved of government initiatives to foster small business but, increasingly, he emphasized the dangers of 'socialistic' legislation and price and investment controls. In 1947 he refused to vote for the government takeover of the Adelaide Electric Supply Co., despite pressure from Premier Thomas Playford.

Holden died in North Adelaide of cerebro-vascular disease on 17 June 1947, survived by his wife Hilda May, née Lavis, whom he had married in Adelaide on 18 March 1908, and by a son and two daughters.

The Holden family made a signal contribution to the development of Australian manufacturing and to the shaping of the South Australian economy. Through their outstanding managerial abilities they demonstrated that large-scale, mass production methods could be adapted to Australian industry despite the disadvantages of remoteness and a small local market. Their name is commemorated on hundreds of thousands of Australian motor vehicles.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • L. J. Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melb, 1964)
  • S. A. Cheney, From Horse to Horsepower (Adel, 1965)
  • J. Miles, A Richness of People (Adel, 1969)
  • N. Buttfield, So Great a Change (Syd, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia) 1926 (57), 1927 (59)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1962
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 38 (1967)
  • Register (Adelaide), 8 Mar 1926
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 Mar 1926, 28 Jan 1928, 18 June 1947
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 26 Feb 1973
  • P. L. Swan, General Motors-Holden's and the Australian Automobile Industry in Economic Perspective (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1972)
  • R. W. Keeley, Politics and the Motor Industry in South Australia from Depression to War (B.A. Hons thesis, Flinders University, 1979)
  • J. Sutterby, Workers and the Rise of Mass Production: Holden's in the 1920s and the 1930s (B.A. Hons thesis, Flinders University, 1981)
  • Holden family papers (National Library of Australia, copies in State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Joan Hancock and Eric Richards, 'Holden, Henry James (1859–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 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]


18 July, 1859
Kensington, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


6 March, 1926 (aged 66)
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.