Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Holt (1756–1826)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Joseph Holt (1756-1826), Irish rebel and farmer, was one of the six sons of John Holt, a Protestant farmer of Ballydaniel, County Wicklow, Ireland. In 1782 he married Hester Long, daughter of a Protestant farmer of Roundwood, at the foot of the Wicklow mountains. Here Holt took up a farm and, as a trusted loyalist, held several minor local offices. About 1797 he joined the United Irishmen. In the course of a private feud Holt's house was burnt by a company of militia in May 1798, whereupon he took to the mountains.

Active during most of the 1798 rebellion he rallied the defeated rebels with skill and resource and organized guerrilla resistance. Hunted long but unsuccessfully, Holt eventually surrendered himself on 10 November 1798 on condition of his exile without trial to New South Wales. These lenient terms and some transactions while he was held awaiting transportation at Cork aroused suspicions that he had turned informer. Holt, who took his United Irishmen's oath seriously, always denied this vehemently, but he was seldom one to keep silence, and the authorities may have got more out of him than he realized.

After a lengthy delay Holt and his wife and son sailed from Cork in the Minerva on 24 August 1799 and arrived at Sydney Cove on 11 January 1800. From Captain William Cox, a passenger in the same ship, Holt accepted the management of Brush Farm. His arrival caused some little stir, and among those who sought him out were Maurice Margarot, Richard Atkins ('full of chatter as a hen magpie' while sharing a half-gallon bottle of rum) and Samuel Marsden whom he snubbed. The authorities seem to have feared that Holt, an experienced rebel leader, would be a centre of disaffection, but nothing was farther from his plans. As a lower middle class Irish Protestant with firm notions of respectability Holt wanted to better his position by thrift and hard work. A good farmer, he met early reverses resulting from the vagaries of the Australian climate, but showed more capacity than many in New South Wales at that time. He was a useful manager for Cox and by 1809 was himself the owner of 210 acres (85 ha), on which he grazed 400 sheep and 50 cattle.

Despite his vigorous protests Holt was thrice arrested for suspected complicity in plans for an Irish rising. In September 1800 he was denounced as a conspirator during a period of alarm. He was acquitted but was constrained to witness the brutal flogging (of which he wrote a vivid account) of two convicted offenders, Fitzgerald and Galvin. On Christmas eve 1803 he was haled before Atkins on a false accusation of plotting his murder, but was again cleared. Three months later, however, he was detained after the Castle Hill rising and transported to Norfolk Island, where he remained until November 1805. Nevertheless he seems to have held aloof from conspiracies, having a lively fear of informers and something of a contempt for the amateurish tactics of the disaffected Irish Catholics.

Returning to his farm, Holt met no further trouble except the confiscation of an illicit still in 1806. Through Major Edward Abbott he secured a free pardon from Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson in 1809, confirmed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1811. Next year Holt sold his properties for over £1800 and then returned to Ireland, suffering shipwreck on the way. He became a publican in Dublin but found his custom affected by old feuds. In 1814 he retired to Dunleary (Dun Laoghaire) where, lamenting that he had left New South Wales, he lived on the rents of several houses until his death on 16 May 1826. He left a daughter and two sons, Joshua (b.1787), who farmed land in New South Wales and left descendants, and Joseph Harrison (b.1799). Undoubtedly he was resolute and able, with qualities of leadership, although perhaps not quite so resourceful in deed and repartee as his memoirs suggest.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 4, 6, 7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 2
  • T. C. Croker (ed), Memoirs of Joseph Holt, General of the Irish Rebels in 1798, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1838)
  • C. W. Vane (ed), Memoirs and Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, vol 2 (Lond, 1848)
  • W. E. H. Lecky, A History of Ireland in the Eghteenth Century, vol 5 (Lond, 1892).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Holt, Joseph (1756–1826)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Wicklow, Ireland


16 May, 1826 (aged ~ 70)
Dunleary, Ireland

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.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: life
Court: Cork (Ireland)
Trial Date: 1798


Left the colony: Yes