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Joseph Thomas (Bland) Holt (1851–1942)

by Dennis Shoesmith

This article was published:

Joseph Thomas Holt (1851-1942), by unknown photographer

Joseph Thomas Holt (1851-1942), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22964523

Joseph Thomas (Bland) Holt (1851-1942), producer, theatre entrepreneur and actor best known as BLAND, was born on 24 March 1851 at Norwich, England, son of Joseph Frederick Holt and his first wife Marie, née Brown. His father, actor-manager in the Norwich Theatre, went to Melbourne with his wife in September 1854 at the suggestion of George Coppin. From Geelong he went to Hobart Town and Launceston and in September 1855 opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Sydney. Before leaving Australia in April 1857 he had played in most of the goldfields centres of Victoria. In 1858 he returned to Melbourne with his family, including Bland, in the Josephine. A successful tragedian, Holt played Othello to Gustavus Brooke's Iago; in 1862 as joint lessee of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, he engaged such players as Brooke, Anna Bishop, Joseph Jefferson and others. When the lease ran out he went to Dunedin for about two years before returning to England. In September 1878 he became joint lessee of the Duke's Theatre, Holborn. He died in London in October 1903.

Bland Holt was educated at the Church of England Grammar School, Brighton, Victoria, and at the Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin. At 6 he had made his first stage appearance at the Royal Theatre, Sunderland. At 14 he became a professional actor and for the next nine years toured the United States and England. He returned to Sydney in 1876 with the rights, bought from his father, for Paul Merritt's play 'The New Babylon'. It opened at the Victoria Theatre, Sydney, with Myra Kemble as leading lady, and began Bland's career as one of Australia's foremost actor-managers. His first repertoire of 'twenty-four new and original dramas' borrowed from Drury Lane included The Bells of Haslemere, A Million of Money, The White Heather, The Fatal Card, The Prodigal's Daughter and The Great Millionaire. Dubbed the 'King of Melodrama', he became famous for his spectacular effects: in one play he used horses, hounds and a stag; in another, horses galloped along Little Bourke Street to make their last run on the stage of the Theatre Royal; and in others he introduced balloon ascents, trained pigeons, a human bridge, diving scenes and the first motor car used on stage. Holt played in many of his own productions as a fine comedian, a capable dramatic actor and a superb pantomime clown. Many of the plays he produced he revised substantially and despite highly-qualified assistants he managed almost every detail of his productions himself. He leased the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney and the Theatre Royal in Melbourne and his plays had record runs. His first wife, known on the stage as Lena Edwin, died in June 1883. On 29 September 1887 in Adelaide he married Florence Griffiths Anderson, daughter of William Curling Anderson. She appeared with him in many of his plays.

Holt later introduced an Australian flavour into some productions: The Breaking of the Drought in 1907 was described as 'true in every detail to Australian scenes, types and characters'; he even induced Henry Lawson to write a play for him but it was unplayable. He retired in 1909 after touring the Continent, North America and New Zealand with his wife and his private secretary Lucy, daughter of George Coppin. Until his death on 28 June 1942 he lived at Mere House in East Melbourne, Sunning Hill in Kew and The Anchorage, Sorrento. Quiet and hard-working, Holt maintained a harmonious theatrical company; among the actors he encouraged were John Cosgrove, Dorothy Brunton, Madge Titheradge, Vera Pearce and Marie Lohr. He also introduced a high standard of stagecraft into Australian theatre. His wife survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Bagot, Coppin the Great (Melb, 1965)
  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • Australasian, 2 June 1883, 11 Dec 1909
  • Bulletin, 18 May 1901
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 June 1942
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 June 1942
  • Clarence Holt diary (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dennis Shoesmith, 'Holt, Joseph Thomas (Bland) (1851–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joseph Thomas Holt (1851-1942), by unknown photographer

Joseph Thomas Holt (1851-1942), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22964523

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Holt, Bland

24 March, 1851
Norwich, Norfolk, England


28 June, 1942 (aged 91)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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