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Ernest Rudolph Holme (1871–1952)

by A. G. Mitchell

This article was published:

Ernest Rudolph Holme (1871-1952), professor of English, was born on 18 March 1871 at Footscray, Melbourne, third son of Rev. Thomas Holme, Anglican clergyman and native of Manchester, England, and his Queensland-born wife Martha Louisa Maria, née Zillman; J. B. Holme was a brother. Their father became incumbent of All Souls Church, Leichhardt, Sydney, in 1882 and Ernest was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1891; M.A., 1909); he graduated with first-class honours in Latin and English. In 1891-94 he was an assistant master at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and in 1894 was appointed lecturer in English (and also taught French and German) at the university under Professor (Sir) Mungo MacCallum.

On leave in 1905, Holme studied at the universities of Paris and Berlin. In Berlin he was stimulated by German research on early Germanic languages and literature and also studied phonetics at the famous Tilly Institute. These experiences helped him to develop his style of teaching in his special area—English language and early English literature. Next year his report to the university senate on Aspects of Commercial Education in Europe was published. In 1908 Holme was appointed associate professor and continued to teach modern languages. With Emile Saillens he published First Principles of French Pronunciation (1909) which applied phonetics to the direct teaching of modern languages.

Interested in the physical and social welfare of students, Holme originated the plans for a reconstituted university union in 1912, providing it with its own building, gardens and lawns; he was president of the Sydney University Union in 1912-13. He tried to make evening students feel a valued part of the university and was 'almost perpetual' patron of their association.

On the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Holme was appointed interpreter on the censorship staff, and was in charge of censoring foreign mail. In 1918 he helped to organize reinforcements for the Australian Imperial Force raised by the Sydney University Undergraduates' Association. In August he was appointed honorary captain in the A.I.F.'s education service, embarking for London after the Armistice. In February 1919 he became assistant director of education (university studies) under Bishop Long, and superintended the entry of Australian servicemen, waiting for demobilization, into British and French universities. He returned to Sydney in February 1920 through the United States of America and wrote a discursive survey, The American University (1920).

Upon MacCallum's retirement, chairs were created in English literature and language; Holme was appointed to the new McCaughey chair of English language in July 1920. He specialized in the study of the history and development of language to current usage and pronunciation, and particularly observed and recorded Australian speech. Anglo-Saxon and middle literature were prominent in his courses while he continued to contribute to modern literature studies. 'Many were imbued by Professor Holme with a life-long feeling for Beowulf, for Chaucer, for Dryden and certain eighteenth century writers'.

Dean of the faculty of arts and a fellow of the senate in 1921-25, Holme contributed to the expansion of the range of faculties and was prominent in the group of academics and administrators who shaped the course the university was to pursue for the next twenty years. In a sense he was a university man first and a teacher of English second. A strongly conservative force in the formation of policies and attitudes, he disapproved of radical tendencies in the 1930s, while remaining a stern upholder of the university's autonomy. An ardent patriot, he was a driving force behind the development of the university's war memorials—the bronze honour rolls in the main entrance of the quadrangle unveiled in 1931; the university's Book of Remembrance (1939); and the War Memorial Carillon. In 1926 he toured Britain and Europe observing carillons and in 1927-28 he was director of the university's seventy-fifth anniversary appeal which raised £300,000. Known as 'Sonny', he was also secretary of the University Extension Board, a director of the University Club and a founder in 1923 and later president of the (Australian) English Association. He believed in the value of independent religious education and was a council-member of Shore and later of the Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School. In 1951 he published Shore, a history of its first headmastership.

Holme had been appointed O.B.E. in 1920 and commander of the Belgian Order of Leopold II in 1935. He retired from his chair in 1941 and, unmarried, lived with his sister Ada at Neutral Bay. He retained a keen interest in the affairs of his beloved university, which awarded him an honorary D.Litt. in 1952. He died in hospital on 20 November the same year and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Southerly, 3 (1954), p 154
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 10 July, 16 Oct 1920, 17 Mar 1921, 22 July 1935, 30 Aug, 21 Nov 1952
  • J. Le Gay Brereton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. G. Mitchell, 'Holme, Ernest Rudolph (1871–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 June 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 March, 1871
Footscray, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 November, 1952 (aged 81)
New South Wales, Australia

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