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William Arthur Holman (1871–1934)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

William Arthur Holman (1871-1934), cabinetmaker, politician and barrister, was born on 4 August 1871 at Pancras, London, son of William Holman and his wife Martha Mary, née Bingley, both actors. He went to an Anglican school in London, winning many prizes, and was apprenticed as a cabinetmaker at the Cleveland Works. Motivated and encouraged by his parents Holman attended night classes and literary societies; he developed a fine speaking voice and became an insatiable reader. In 1916, when premier of New South Wales, in welcoming Sir Rider Haggard to Sydney, he recalled his purchase in London 'for a few coppers' of 'a tattered copy of … She … an introduction to a new world'. He was also enthusiastic about radical, socialist, economic and philosophical literature. He never lost his love for books.

Tall, wiry, graceful and handsome, with dark curly hair, Holman was conscious of his talents, but not his appearance. His wide cultural interests included music; and he mastered the French language and honoured French wines—a confirmed Francophile. He was emotional, gregarious and compassionate, though his patience had its limits. Most liked him, but some claimed to detect that his fastidiousness often changed to disdain; others noted petulance under pressure. H. V. Evatt said he was shy; that is debatable, though there was no doubt about his charismatic charm. He became Australia's best all-round orator, mellifluous, logical, convincing.

With his father, mother and brother Charles, Holman arrived in Melbourne in September 1888 on the Cuzco. A fire cut short his parents' theatrical engagement and next year the family settled in Sydney, where he worked at his trade. By 1890 he was frequenting the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts reading room, where 'schemes for the redemption of society' were formulated. With W. M. Hughes he led the Ethical Society, an impoverished students' group, soon joined by (Sir) George Beeby; they studied the works of Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and Boehm-Bawerk. Holman's father set up as an actors' coach and elocution teacher, and their home attracted many young radicals, including D. R. Hall. In 1890 Holman belonged to the Australian Socialist and the Sydney Single Tax leagues.

He joined the Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) in 1891, although he had taken no part in its foundation by the Trades and Labor Council in 1890-91. Trade unions never quite harmonized with Holman's style or ambitions; but he was secretary of the Railways and Tramways Employees' Union in 1893 and represented it briefly on the T.L.C.; he organized intermittently for the Australian Workers' Union in 1896-98. He responded to the zestful reforming appeal of the new party by throwing himself into its early activity; by 1892 he represented Leichhardt on the central executive. The theoretical socialist aspect of Labor appealed to him: in 1893 he enlarged the appeal of the party and his own reputation for precocious intellectualism by a series of notable public lectures on Marx, Henry George and Boehm-Bawerk.

He also revealed a flair for grass-roots organizing. The president, J. C. Watson, welcomed his zeal and gifts, and Holman became one of the executive's chief spokesmen, useful in Watson's efforts to apply the trade unions' principle of solidarity to the parliamentary Labor Party, which consisted of thirty-five members in 1891, but which had split that year and in 1892. At a unity conference in November 1893 Holman proposed that the executive's pledge for parliamentarians be accepted and it became the basis of a successful motion, helping to unite the party for the 1894 and future elections. His own parliamentary aspirations were frustrated at Leichhardt in 1894.

Although he was poor for most of the 1890s, Holman spent much time in proselytizing. In 1894 he was involved with Beeby in a publication at Hillgrove in the northwest; the same year with Hughes and others he produced the New Order, which occasionally featured irreverent comments on trade unions and their leaders, including W. G. Spence, the shearers' (A.W.U.) president. The most ambitious, and disastrous, project was the Daily Post which ran from January to April 1895. In November Holman was charged, with other directors, with conspiracy to defraud a creditor. Mercurial optimism and enthusiasm and lack of business experience, rather than dishonesty, had produced the crisis, but a miscarriage of justice saw him sentenced to two years in March 1896. The conviction was quashed in May, but his imprisonment was wounding and salutary. T. Routley, secretary of the party executive, had organized his appeal; Holman claimed later that Watson and Hughes did not help him.

Holman also believed in improvement through parliament. He became aware by 1895 that Labor's support was greater in the country than in the city. He was attracted, too, by the romantic aura of 'the bush'. That year he ran for Grenfell; his loss did not dispel his fervour, especially as the electorate was in a picturesque region combining agriculture and sheep with gold-mining and an exciting bushranging past. He gradually improved his connexions there, becoming widely known for his bicycle tours. In 1898 he managed to buy the Grenfell Vedette.

He remained in the centre of Labor activity in Sydney and attended the 1897 conference, arguing that socialism was all right as a basic party principle, but had no place on the fighting platform. He was elected to the executive and selected to run as one of Labor's ten candidates for the Australasian Federal Convention. Labor supported Federation and he was a leader of the party's efforts to liberalize the draft constitution. None of the Laborites was elected. Holman's analysis of the causes of the defeat emphasized the need for modern electioneering tactics, including house-to-house canvassing; 'their platform', he said, 'was advanced enough to serve for the next twenty years'. He was becoming restless at the parliamentary party's support of the Reid government, realizing that the premier's radical liberalism was fading under pressure from the Legislative Council and his increasing concentration on Federation.

At the July 1898 elections Holman won Grenfell and quickly became a force in parliament, emphasizing Reid's 'inertia' and the need for reforms to help country as well as city people. But in 1898-99 New South Wales politics was dominated by the approaching culmination of Federation, and his patience was tested. Influenced by J. S. T. McGowen and Watson, the Labor Party agreed to back Reid's parliamentary plans to have the final draft constitution submitted to a referendum in 1899. With Hughes, Holman claimed that the draft was still too undemocratic, and at the March 1899 conference they tried to have Labor's support for the referendum withdrawn; but Watson pointed out the primacy of the principle to the party and overcame them, much to Holman's annoyance. Federation was becoming boring to him and he was keen to get on with reforming New South Wales. With the party, he campaigned strongly in June against the constitution 'bill' but the referendum was carried.

Criticism of Reid widened in the Labor caucus, with Holman, Hughes, A. Edden and J. R. Dacey threatening to resign their seats unless the party abandoned him. It climaxed in August-September 1899 in an agreement with (Sir) William Lyne, leader of the Opposition, for legislation on old-age pensions and early closing of shops. In a complex censure motion Labor withdrew its support from Reid and he was defeated.

The Lyne government was immediately confronted with the problem of sending a contingent to the South African War. In the debate Holman acknowledged his loyalty to the British Empire, but claimed that at stake was the interest of 'a little gang of swindling speculators on the Rand'; his courageous and eloquent speech aroused the jingoism of most members and provoked wild interjections. He became increasingly agitated and, when baited by (Sir) Edmund Barton, blurted out, 'I believe from the bottom of my heart that this is the most iniquitous, most immoral war ever waged with any race. I hope that England may be defeated'. Parliament, including most of Holman's confrères, was shocked. But his view, when shed of its hyperbole, had much support in the party, notably from A. Griffith, and represented a significant minority opinion in the community, though it held great electoral risks. Above all, it revealed Holman's own repugnance for 'capitalistic militarism'. As a member of the Anti-War League he campaigned against the war in 1901-02.

By 1900 the Labor Party had become an integral part of the New South Wales political system. At the 1901 election it increased its seats from 20 to 24 in a House of 125. It offered rewarding careers to ambitious members, but made great demands on them. Holman had quickly perceived the links between politics and law, and realized that the party needed legal men: Hughes, Beeby, Hall and J. D. Fitzgerald reacted similarly. In 1900 Holman became a part-time student at law and next year matriculated for the University of London; in 1903 he passed the intermediate examination of its faculty of laws. On 31 July, after a futile objection by a barrister over the Daily Post affair, he was admitted to the Bar.

Holman's deep intellectual and emotional commitment was to the development of the party in New South Wales, and to the improvement of that State. These goals, with his distrust of the Constitution, led him to disregard Federal politics. But he was far from a crude 'States-righter'. Moreover, he believed that the States had more important 'national' powers than the Commonwealth and would be the more dynamic arena. In 1901 he decided to remain in local politics. Watson and Hughes won Federal seats. McGowen remained the New South Wales Labor Party's leader, but Holman was determined to improve his position in it. On 22 January, at the Oddfellows' Temple, Sydney, with the rites of the Australian Church, he married Ada Augusta Kidgell, a Victorian journalist.

In 1901-10 Holman emerged as the party's most successful propagandist, and earned a State-wide reputation as a brilliant and popular politician. Yet he found time to practise at the Bar. Mostly his work was on the recent industrial legislation of the State and Federal parliaments, but it included some constitutional and criminal cases. By 1910 he had achieved success, but little remuneration, as trade unions were not good payers. He was frustrated by the judiciary's reactionary approach to the new field of industrial law; and the High Court's narrow interpretations reinforced his doubts about the general role of the Commonwealth.

He retained Grenfell at the 1901 election despite being labelled 'pro-Boer' and 'pro-Catholic': he supported Home Rule for Ireland, and was even handed towards all religions. Holman's seat was abolished in the 1904 redistribution, but his win in nearby Cootamundra showed how he had regulated his radicalism to the cautious tempo of country conditions; it also reflected the advance of the Labor Party which won twenty-five out of ninety seats. The party had adjusted well to the new demands of the Federation era. But it now had to prepare to move from its role as a 'third party' seeking 'concessions in return for support', to a new function as the parliamentary Opposition. It needed improved leadership, both in and out of parliament. McGowen was not able to provide it, but from 1904 Holman substituted for him.

In 1905 he became deputy leader and at the annual conference spoke strongly of the need to win more country and suburban seats. He linked this aim with the electoral dangers of the party's current socialist objective, and had it replaced with an evolutionary goal which emphasized state acquisition of monopolies and 'the extension of the industrial and economic functions of the State and municipality'. This policy suited most Labor members, but it tended to alienate many radicals, including some unionists. Holman had grown farther away from the unions even as they increased in numbers and prominence as a result of industrial legislation. They remained a powerful and complex element in the party.

He was the obvious Laborite to challenge Reid who in 1905 campaigned to check the party by emphasizing its 'dangerous socialistic base'. Reid, now an ex-prime minister and portlier than ever, was past his best but still formidable and a favourite of Sydney. Their debate took place in the Centenary Hall on 2 and 3 April 1906, on 'The Principles of Socialism as Defined in the Objective of the Platform of the Labour Party'. Seconded by Hall, Holman prepared for the event like a prize-fighter; nervous at the start, he soon sparkled. Reid played it by ear and was cramped by the ban on interjections; but shafts of his great wit and repartee hit home sufficiently to help make the contest a feast for capacity audiences. The splendid occasion generated nation-wide publicity. No vote was taken but Holman had excelled, and boosted Labor significantly. He claimed that the interest in the debate showed that 'Australian intelligence, debauched (lately) by a muddle-headed Imperialism, is recovering its firm and healthy tone'.

In parliament his prowess was recognized by the premier (Sir) Joseph Carruthers and other opponents. In June 1906 the report of the royal commission into the administration of the Department of Lands made charges of corruption against W. P. Crick, an ex-minister of lands, and referred to Carruthers. Holman was Labor's chief speaker on the report and the government tried to silence him. Their tactics coincided with the dubious plans of John Norton, a notorious ex-associate of Crick, who blamed Holman for an article in the Worker which denounced Norton's failure to mention the land scandals in his newspaper, Truth. Norton raked up the Daily Post case, accused Holman of venality and, in a fine frenzy, proposed that each should resign his seat and contest Cootamundra. Holman effectively disposed of the charges, and quixotically accepted the challenge. Norton scuttled out of the fight, but a strong candidate ran against Holman, who won.

Labor Party hopes at the 1907 general election were shaken when Carruthers astutely raised the question of States-rights over customs charges on wire netting imported by his government. In the confusion the land scandals and Labor's reform policy were obscured. Nevertheless the party increased its seats to thirty-two. Holman was inspired to systematize and intensify his political organizing, especially in the country. His bicycle, which he also used in the city, was again a chief means of transport. He was on the State executive in 1906-12 and had the necessary help of many capable men and women. But more than any other person he was responsible for the powerful growth of the Labor Party in New South Wales, to make it the most important branch in the Commonwealth. His work greatly assisted the development of the federal party, and he was present at the 1908 Interstate (federal) Conference, which decided to seek only limited extra powers for the Commonwealth parliament.

Holman's misgivings about trade unions were hardened by an upsurge in strikes in 1908-09, partly related to deficiencies in the State and Federal arbitration systems. Overseas ideas brought in by the Industrial Workers of the World and Tom Mann were also influential. Holman perceived the possible dangers of these militant trends to the well-being of the Labor Party and determined to blunt them. But his intervention in the tramways strike was ineffective and rekindled the A.W.U.'s hostility. Nevertheless, although he stressed moderation and adherence to the law, he supported the strikers and strongly opposed the coercive policy of the new premier (Sir) Charles Wade. Only a few unions were antagonistic to Holman but his attitude was likely to provoke more, as he believed that 'Comprehensive ideas for the advancement of Labor … can only be evolved by minds who have had a training in politics and national policies'.

In April 1910 the Federal Labor Party won the Commonwealth general election: Holman had been the most effective and assiduous worker in the campaign in New South Wales. In the State he continued his potent criticism of Wade who was proving an inept premier. The rewards of his parliamentary and electoral leadership, and of the devoted and experienced backing of all Labor Party members, were gained when the party won forty-six seats in the October election. McGowen formed a ministry with Holman as attorney-general and minister of justice. But they had a majority of only two.

Holman now found that, in effect, he had to lead a government. It had a capable and energetic cabinet, including Beeby, Griffith, F. Flowers and A. C. Carmichael, aware of their talents. Some friction arose, testing Holman's patience and skill, and increasing the great pressure on him. Hints of temperamental and health weaknesses appeared; his non-Labor enemies increased in number and sound. The structure of the party responded jerkily to the new prestige of the Commonwealth parliamentarians, now driven by the aggressive ambition of Hughes, who saw Holman as an obstacle to his hopes to make the federal branch supreme. Hughes's relentless craftiness contrasted with Holman's subtle flair. Their combat put him under further stress.

The issue was joined in 1911 on the question of constitutional amendments to give extra powers over industry, trade and commerce to the Commonwealth. The proposals went well beyond the decisions of the 1908 federal conference. Powerful support was given them by the A.W.U. and, despite Holman's opposition, the 1911 State conference directed a 'Yes' vote at the April referendum. His arguments against the amendments were restricted by conference's decision, and by the complexity of the issues in relation to current State and Federal needs, and to the structure of a party based on the States but with a strong and growing Federal component. But he wrote cogently, if anonymously, and organized skilfully, keenly conscious that at last he was in a position to realize some of his dreams for the betterment of the working-class of his State—already he and Beeby were planning comprehensive industrial legislation changes. Moreover, he feared the use of the new powers by non-Labor governments and the dangers of centralized authority, and he showed that, at the time, the idea of 'national' was not limited to the Commonwealth.

But Holman went close to breaching official Labor solidarity and the referendum was lost. Intellectually, he had the better of Hughes in the uncomfortable circumstances of the campaign, and some of his points remain relevant to a consideration of the problems of a Federal system. However, the tide of events and opinion was moving against him, and in the long run his views did not prevail. H. Lamond, editor of the A.W.U.'s Worker, now became his bitter critic.

Acting premier in McGowen's absence at King George V's coronation Holman found his parliamentary skill tested when W. F. Dunn and H. E. Horne, country Labor members, resigned on 26 July 1911 during a censure motion: they opposed a party decision to withdraw the right of Crown land lessees to convert to freehold. With the defeat of the government imminent Holman tendered its resignation; the acting governor had to refuse Wade's request for an advance approval of a dissolution if he were commissioned and later defeated in the House; whereupon Holman was recommissioned and granted a prorogation until after the by-elections in August. One seat was regained, leaving the assembly equally divided. The Labor Speaker had resigned and Holman, with Griffith's help, persuaded H. Willis, a Liberal, to replace him. Public sympathy was with Holman and his tactics were received with amused appreciation. Coincidentally during the excitement, a special Labor conference was held, at which Hughes planned to have Holman, Beeby and others censured for their ambiguous work in the April referendum: but Holman foiled him again.

McGowen's return made little difference to Holman's work-load. He either prepared or encouraged a flow of reforming legislation. The cabinet responded well, with Beeby's Industrial Arbitration Act and Carmichael's Bursary Endowment Act land-marks of 1912. He backed Griffith's successful negotiations with the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd to establish a steel works at Newcastle, though the Labor platform provided for state ownership. But they rescued a city, even as party criticism flared up. He also encouraged Griffith's energetic railway extension policy and above all his determination to establish state enterprises in several fields. Those and other successes consolidated Labor's role as the efficient and positive element in State development, helping to lay the foundations of the widely held belief that New South Wales became 'a Labor State'. On the other hand the Opposition, which had regarded its rule as part of the natural order, was losing dignity and credibility.

Holman was now a parliamentary, even a national personality and his stature posed problems for his role as a leader of a mass democratic party. The Legislative Council was proving a stumbling block: even with 11 appointments in 1912, Labor had only 13 members out of 59. Inevitably there were delays and failures in effecting the government's industrial programme. Holman resented rank and file and executive criticism, especially as he regarded much of it as provoked by Hughes and the A.W.U. But he had many supporters outside parliament and was not above factional intrigue. In parliament, despite the government's overall achievements, party troubles were aggravated. The anomalous position of McGowen as premier created confusion, leading to independent action by ministers. Holman tried to ease his problems in 1912 by appointing Hall to the Legislative Council to relieve himself of the justice ministry. The cabinet's difficulties were accentuated by the temperament of Carmichael, the resignation of N. R. W. Nielsen in 1911 and the deaths of D. Macdonell, 1911, and Dacey, 1912. Holman's attempts to ease McGowen out were unsuccessful.

By the end of 1912 Holman was sick, soured and dispirited. In August his wife and daughter had gone to England, and in December he asked to be made agent-general in London. Before a decision could be reached another emergency arose when Beeby resigned his seat and portfolio; it had been rumoured that he had tried to persuade Holman to join a new 'Centre Party'. Holman withdrew his application and was reconciled to staying in Sydney as he lacked money for the trip. But out of the blue his new friend H. D. McIntosh made him a loan, and he spent four months in England, returning on 6 June 1913 apparently recuperated.

In his absence McGowen proved his ineptitude and on 30 June Holman became premier, although several influential party members, including Watson, opposed it; he remained attorney-general until 1914. In May 1913 the Federal Labor government had lost the election and Hughes's redrafted constitutional amendments had been defeated. Conservative forces feared a renewed State Labor Party under Holman and attacked the government at its most obvious progressive point—Griffith's administration of public works—hoping to defeat it at the forthcoming election. But with the premier's help Griffith defended his probity vigorously and successfully. Holman revived his great resources for the October campaign, inspiring the party with a fresh sense of purpose and enthusiasm; he turned to his advantage an attempt by Fr M. O'Reilly to introduce sectarian issues. Labor won 50 seats to the Opposition's 40. Holman was euphoric, but his vision of his importance to the party no longer corresponded with reality.

In 1913 Holman was the outstanding Labor man in Australia. But his success had changed him and, while he retained much of his youthful figure and looks, his health had deteriorated and he was tired. He was also treasurer in 1914-18, acquiring more power and suffering more strain. Parliamentary achievement and ministerial status had eroded his recognition of the significance of the contribution of very many politicians and ordinary members to the strength of the party. An element of vanity, hitherto kept in check by his sense of humour and enthusiasm, now obtruded to blunt his sensibility. He thought that his stature and his responsibilities to State and Crown had given him the right not only to the respect but also the subservience of the Labor caucus and conference. He was oblivious to new radical forces influencing the trade unions and often contemptuous of the new ideas of Labor parliamentarians, notably R. D. Meagher. His wife, a strong character, encouraged him. He had acquired many elevated non-Labor acquaintances; from McIntosh he received a raffish and beguiling friendship—later, he saw him more clearly as an 'adventurer'. Once a liberal Spartan, Holman was now an Epicurean.

The 1914 conference, knowing that he had promised to make McIntosh a member of the Legislative Council, decided that the executive should approve all nominees. Caucus also wanted to ratify them. Holman scorned the rulings; it was the ministry's prerogative, he said. Despite party pressure he asked for no appointments, even though the council continued to reject and mutilate legislation, especially industrial measures. World War I affected him profoundly. Its massive scale put it apart from the South African War, and he now had a deeper appreciation of the British Empire and a keen perception of the sufferings of France. His new-found sense of responsibility forced him to concentrate on the demands of war—excessively, as defence was a Federal task. His reforming zeal ebbed further and he was not sufficiently responsive to the decline in workers' standards of living. The 1915 conference rebuked him for his failure to put Laborites into the Legislative Council and wanted renewed attempts to implement the platform. He responded by revitalizing his own rank and file support: Fitzgerald was party president in 1915-16. But it was not enough.

The gap between Holman and the labour movement widened over conscription for overseas war service. The A.W.U. and most other trade unions strongly opposed it; they gradually gained backing from local party branches; more caucus members became disaffected, especially after the 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin. Holman's attitude to the war hardened as casualties soared; he began to see conscription as a possible necessity. Early in 1916 his health again troubled him and he began surfing, increased his fencing sessions and took up hill-climbing. The annual conference met in April with the trade union, notably A.W.U., opposition organized as 'the industrialists'. A censure motion on the government provoked another Holman manoeuvre which somehow lacked the glitter of earlier stratagems: the ministers quickly resigned to caucus, and an unwilling John Storey was elected leader; he convinced conference of the electoral dangers confronting him; and a compromise brought Holman back with a promise to submit the question of the abolition of the Legislative Council to a referendum at the impending elections. Conference decided that the Labor Party should oppose conscription and thus confirmed a powerful conviction of the whole movement.

Late in August Hughes, now prime minister, announced that conscription would be introduced subject to a referendum in October. The State Labor executive ruled that any parliamentarian who supported it would have his seat endorsement withdrawn. Holman campaigned strongly for 'Yes' and, when the referendum was lost, he judged that his own best interests and the nation's would be served by inviting the Opposition to coalesce with him in the formation of a National party and ministry. The decision was precipitated by the war, but was inherent in Holman's personal dilemma and official actions after his accession to the premiership, when his life changed direction and the Labor Party organization became a hindrance to him.

With seventeen other Labor members of the assembly he was expelled in November. Following devious negotiations, aided by McIntosh and P. T. Taylor, he formed a new cabinet, including Hall, Fitzgerald, W. C. Ashford and W. C. Grahame from the old ministry: Wade became agent-general, and Beeby was brought back. A new law extended parliament for an extra three to four years. Holman soon perceived that the Labor Party was in disarray after the convulsive split. He persuaded his new colleagues that much of Labor's legislative and administrative reforms should be retained and built on; but he stressed that 'Parliamentary government [should be] free from dictation'. Thus armed, he cleverly called an election for March 1917. He stressed the need to win the war and gained 50 seats. He and others had proclaimed that the Labor Party was not only unpatriotic but also obsolete: but it won 33 seats.

In May Holman went to England, arranging that his twenty-three appointments to the Legislative Council, including McIntosh and Taylor, should be announced after his departure. He was welcomed and flattered overseas. On an inspection of the Australians at the front in France he was injured and shocked when a shell exploded near the group, killing Major General W. Holmes. He returned through the United States of America and arrived back in November, in time to take a half-hearted part in the second conscription referendum next month. Berating Hughes for his deviousness, he even proposed that F. Tudor, the Federal Labor leader, should become prime minister. But Hughes was now beyond his criticism.

Holman's control of the ministry was lax and he achieved little in parliament. In 1918 he attempted to stop the rot by shedding his treasury post. From 1917 allegations had spread of weak government, sometimes involving possible corruption: doubtful relations with 'coal baron' J. Brown, and the indiscretions of Grahame in negotiating a grain elevator contract, were followed in 1919 with Beeby's resignation from cabinet making four charges of maladministration. Two royal commissions into one of the complaints, concerning a wheat contract with G. Georgeson without public tenders, did not clear the air. The press, with some scores to settle, harried Holman relentlessly. A consolation was the praise of General Pau, on a French mission to Australia, 'We have found in you … a faithful and sincere friend of France'; he was appointed to the Légion d'honneur. He was also made a commander of the Belgian Order of the Crown.

Holman's style, leavened with a residual radicalism, brought about much demoralization in non-Labor forces, and hastened the process, begun by Beeby, of separating country from city conservatives. The Nationalists were emerging as an urban pressure group with some questionable connexions. Holman's attempted solution to his problems facilitated the new political directions: with the help of McIntosh and Taylor he contacted city magnates and obtained monetary and moral backing, but it did not prevent his electoral decline. At the 1920 election he campaigned as skilfully as ever, using an aeroplane and surviving a minor crash; he expatiated on the new 'Bolshevik' menace of the Labor Party, but it won. Holman lost his seat. The year before, T. J. Ley, a grubby and sinister ex-Nationalist, gibed, 'he clings to office like the proverbial leech'.

Holman became a K.C. in June; he was appointed knight commander of the Finnish Order of the White Rose in August. He returned to the Bar and in the 1920s, despite recurring ill health, revealed again his great capacity for hard work, his learning and intellectual versatility, by attaining a leading position in a competitive profession. He delivered the Macrossan lectures in Brisbane in 1928. Politics still fascinated him, and he was president in 1917-20 and vice-president of the New South Wales National Association in 1920-29 and 1931-32. But he was not trusted by the powerful men who ran the party machine or by the wealthy interests that financed it. However, he helped the Fuller government in the 1925 elections, and (Sir) Thomas Bavin prevailed on him to be director for the successful 1927 campaign. He failed narrowly next year to win pre-selection for the Federal electorate of Martin after a party official had organized against him, but he was the party's candidate in 1931, and won. Age and health were against him and he made little impact on the Commonwealth parliament.

Holman's honesty was impregnable, but one of the intriguing aspects of his life was his attitude to money. He had small regard for it and never accumulated much, although in 1898-1910 he received a parliamentary salary (£300) plus professional fees, and in 1910-20 his income as a minister and premier ranged from £1500 to £2000. For the times those were not insubstantial remunerations. In the 1920s his receipts were somewhat discontinuous, but seem to have been adequate, and he had been given a gratuity by some of his supporters. Yet he often complained about being short of money. In the end his association with McIntosh was costly, for he invested in his Sunday Times and apparently lost at least part of savings of £4000: at McIntosh's bankruptcy proceedings in 1932 he said that he had put aside that sum between 1910 and 1920. After his death his intestate estate was valued at £4385, and the Worker commented, kindly for it, that it 'was much more than it was generally thought he possessed'. But it was an insignificant amount for a life of achievement and of intense physical and intellectual effort, mostly expended for others.

On 4 September 1933 Griffith, who had recently been readmitted to the Labor Party (federal branch), and Holman had reason to write to the Sydney Morning Herald, defending on economic and social grounds the remaining state industries established by Labor in 1910-16: they sought a 'full public inquiry … before any final step be taken for their abandonment or disposal'. Next year on 5 June Holman died of heart disease at his home at Gordon and was cremated after a state funeral from St James Anglican Church: the pallbearers included Watson, Hughes, Hall and Griffith. He was survived by his wife and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Socialism, as Defined in the Australian Labor Party's Objective and Platform: Official Report of a Public Debate in the Centenary Hall, Sydney, Between G.H. Reid and W.A. Holman (Syd, 1906)
  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1942)
  • V. G. Childe, How Labour Governs F. B. Smith ed (Melb, 1964)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vol 1 (Syd, 1964)
  • P. Ford, Cardinal Moran and the A.L.P. (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1892-93, 2, p 1233
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1899, p 100, 102, 1460, 3520
  • Labour History, 1970, no 18
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 4 July 1894
  • Catholic Press, 18 Jan 1902, 21 Jan 1902, 5 Apr 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1911, 23 Feb 1916
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 27 Apr 1916, 8 Feb 1917, 14 Aug 1919
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Apr, 5 Sept, 7 Nov 1916, 8 Oct 1918, 20 Feb 1920, 6 June 1934
  • Sun (Sydney), 10 Mar 1918
  • Brisbane Courier, 11 Apr 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 June 1934
  • William Holman papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ada Holman papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Holman, William Arthur (1871–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 May 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

William Holman, 1919

William Holman, 1919

State Library of New South Wales, 179253

Life Summary [details]


4 August, 1871
London, Middlesex, England


5 June, 1934 (aged 62)
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Passenger Ship
Military Service
Key Organisations
Political Activism