Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Hollis (1851–1937)

by J. C. Docherty

This article was published:

Robert Hollis (1851-1937), engine driver, trade union leader and politician, was born on 14 January 1851 at Field Head, Belper, Derbyshire, England, son of Robert Hollis, an illiterate labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Wragg. At 13 he joined the Midland Railway Co. and reached engine driver grade in 1878. On 30 March 1875 at Ripley he married Alice Turton. Hollis was active in such political and social movements of his day as the Liberal Party, consumer co-operatives, building societies and railway provident, friendly and benevolent associations. Although he served on the executive committee of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1877-79, he was disappointed by its conservatism. Correctly sensing major industrial conflict in the Midland Railway Co., Hollis left for New South Wales in 1884 and joined the Department of Railways in January 1885 as a fireman.

His abilities soon came to the attention of his fellow enginemen, and in December 1886 Hollis became general secretary of the New South Wales Engine Drivers', Firemen's and Cleaners' Association (founded in 1884); he resigned in October 1910. His experience in England had convinced him that railwaymen's best interests were served by sectional unions. Thus he opposed the efforts of William F. Schey in 1886-87 to organize all railway employees in a single union. The depression of the 1890s and the merciless anti-unionism of the chief commissioner E. M. G. Eddy suppressed mass unionism in the railways for a decade and led to a confrontation with the enginemen which brought about Hollis's resignation from the railways in 1893.

He had turned increasingly to politics as a medium for restoring the industrial gains made in the late 1880s. In 1891 Hollis was prominent in organizing the first Labor League at Newtown, Sydney. After several attempts he won the State seat of Newtown-Erskine, an inner suburban working-class electorate, for Labor in 1901. Nevertheless, he continued with his union work in the railways. He was the prime mover in the formation of the Federated Railway Locomotive Enginemen's Association of Australasia in 1900 and served as its secretary until 1913. As an ex-railwayman and member for an electorate with a high proportion of railwaymen, he often spoke in parliament on aspects of railway administration and the protection and improvement of its workers.

In early 1914 Hollis was sufficiently well off to visit England via the United States of America. On his return he continued as before, but as World War I progressed he was increasingly unable to come to terms with its adverse effects on the living standards of working people and the growth of anti-war sentiment. In 1916 he supported conscription in defiance of his electorate. In the ensuing upheaval he and many of the other British-born first generation founders of the State labour movement were expelled from the Political Labor League in November 1916. In the March 1917 election, Hollis, standing as a Nationalist, was defeated.

Thereafter, he devoted himself to benevolent work—most importantly, as a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1913-33. He died in the Masonic Hospital, Ashfield, on 25 May 1937 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. A member of the Church of England and a prominent Freemason, Hollis was survived by three of his five sons.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 July 1888, 10 July 1901
  • Australian Workman, 26 May 1894
  • J. C. Docherty, The Rise of Railway Unionism: A Study of New South Wales and Victoria, c. 1880-1905 (MA thesis, Australian National University, 1973)
  • D. H. Coward, The Impact of War on New South Wales: Some Aspects of Social and Political History, 1914-1917 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen, New South Wales Division, records (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

J. C. Docherty, 'Hollis, Robert (1851–1937)', 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]


14 January, 1851
Belper, Derbyshire, England


25 May, 1937 (aged 86)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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