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Sir James Arthur Holt (1899–1982)

by Kay Cohen

This article was published:

Sir James Arthur Holt (1899-1982), engineer and public servant, was born on 30 April 1899 at Lithgow, New South Wales, eldest of three children of James Holt, hotelkeeper, and his wife Delia, née Trill, both born in New South Wales. James was educated at Lithgow Public and Sydney Boys’ High schools and the University of Sydney (BE, 1921), where he graduated with first-class honours in civil engineering. First an engineering draftsman with the New South Wales Department of Public Works, employed under John Bradfield on the design and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Holt was promoted in 1927 to supervising engineer. On 30 November 1932 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Audrey May Benson. After the bridge opened to traffic that year he spent two years as officer-in-charge of the Narooma office of the Department of Main Roads.

When Bradfield was appointed consulting engineer in 1933 for Brisbane’s new cross-river bridge (named Story Bridge in 1937), he invited Holt to join him. In 1934-40 Holt was supervising engineer for the project under the direction of the Bureau of Industry’s Bridge Board, chaired by (Sir) John Kemp. Early in World War II he taught mathematics and navigation to trainee pilots at the Central Technical College. Effectively becoming Kemp’s `right-hand man’ after the latter was appointed director of the Allied Works Council in Queensland in February 1942, he was engineer-in-charge in 1943-44 of all AWC works in the Cairns region. From 1944 Holt was chief engineer with the Bridge Board.

In 1946, when the co-ordinator-general of public works took over the functions of the Bureau of Industry’s boards, Holt was delegated to supervise construction of the University of Queensland’s new campus at St Lucia. In 1949 he was appointed chief engineer, Co-ordinator-General’s Department, with oversight of both the bridge and hydraulics branches. He superintended the completion of the Somerset dam, and the design and construction of bridges over the Fitzroy, Burdekin and North Johnstone rivers and of water conservation and hydro-electricity schemes for the Tully, Barron and Burdekin rivers. In 1953 he took responsibility for compiling Queensland’s annual co-ordinated plan of works and in June 1954 succeeded Kemp as co-ordinator-general.

With government policy increasingly oriented towards resources development, Holt and his department took a dominant role in the planning, design and implementation of the State’s major infrastructure projects. As chairman of the Burdekin River Authority, he advanced its proposed huge irrigation and hydro-electricity scheme. Through the Bureau of Investigation of land and water resources, he maintained a program of surveying and reporting on the conservation and future development of regional resources, out of which came the first river and beach protection models. He represented Queensland at Australian Loan Council meetings, seeking funding for public works. Chairman of the Queensland Traffic Commission (1958-63) and of the Standards Association of Australia’s Queensland committee (1950-76), he participated in numerous interdepartmental and advisory committees.

Holt was active in the Institution of Engineers, Australia, serving as a committee member of the Queensland division (1939-48), division chairman (1943, 1947) and member of council (1948-54); in 1971 he was elected an honorary fellow. He was awarded the (W. H.) Warren memorial prize (1939), the R. W. Chapman medal (1953) and the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal (1961). An external member of the University of Queensland’s engineering faculty (1948-56) and member of senate (1955-68), he received an honorary doctorate of engineering in 1965.

A sound administrator, Holt did not seek the limelight and was determinedly apolitical. His recommendations for projects were always decided on technical merit, supported by meticulous attention to detail, specialist knowledge and an overall sense of the benefits accruing to Queensland. Respected for his integrity, he had an open and enthusiastic yet serious manner. In place of the traditional, formal meeting with local government representatives held annually in Brisbane, he preferred to visit them informally on their own ground.

Whenever possible Holt spent time at his Caloundra beach house, away from the telephone, playing lawn bowls, fishing and surfing. He was a founding member of the St Lucia Bowls Club, and a member of the Johnsonian Club. Knighted in 1960, he retired as co-ordinator-general in 1968 and took up several directorships: Evans Deakin Ltd (1970-75), Crusader Oil NL (1970-79) and the Metropolitan Permanent Building Society (1972-79).

Sir James died on 1 May 1982 at Auchenflower and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their three sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (ed), Three Decades of Queensland Political History (1962)
  • G. Cossens (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers Volume II (1999)
  • Co-ordinator-General of Public Works, Queensland, Annual Report, 1947, 1953, 1954, 1982
  • J. Minnery, Coordination and the Queensland Co-ordinator General (MPubAd thesis, University of Queensland, 1988)
  • K. Cohen, J. R. Kemp, `The Grand Pooh-Bah’ (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2002)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kay Cohen, 'Holt, Sir James Arthur (1899–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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