Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Holt (1811–1888)

by Philip Geeves

This article was published:

Thomas Holt (1811-1888), wool merchant, financier and politician, was born on 14 November 1811 at Horbury, Yorkshire, England, son of Thomas Holt, wool merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ellis. Educated at schools in Pontefract and Wakefield, he entered his father's business in Leeds at 14, and in 1832-42 represented the firm in Europe. In 1835 he became a partner when a branch was opened in Berlin. There on 20 March 1841 Holt married Sophie, daughter of Frederich Eulert.

After reading John Dunmore Lang's Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales he decided to migrate and with his wife arrived on 16 November 1842 at Sydney in the Helvellyn. He succeeded as a wool-buyer, was made a magistrate and as one of Sydney's most prominent financiers was a foundation director and member of several gold-mining, insurance and railway companies. In 1850 he became a director of the Sydney Tramway and Railway Co. after he had successfully proposed that (Sir) Charles Cowper resign as chairman and remain manager. In 1855 Holt retired from active business though he retained most of his directorships into the 1860s and in the 1870s was a director of the City Bank. In 1851-80, either alone or with partners, he acquired interests in numerous New South Wales and Queensland pastoral properties totalling about three million acres (1.2 million ha).

Holt twice failed to enter the Legislative Council, but after responsible government in 1856 won Stanley Boroughs in the first Legislative Assembly, becoming colonial treasurer under (Sir) Stuart Donaldson. A free trader and opposed to a nominated Upper House, he paid much attention to financial subjects although some of his ideas were 'considered somewhat unsound'. Interested in education, he published two speeches on the subject in December. Addicted to writing to newspapers, Holt inexorably sought improvement in many public issues including immigration, swamp drainage and refrigeration of food. In 1861-64 he represented Newtown in the assembly. In 1865 Daniel Dalgleish accused him of personation at the Glebe. Holt was committed by the magistrate, D. C. F. Scott, but a bill was not filed and a later summons against him was dismissed. Holt failed in a court action against Scott and in an attempt to have him removed. He won £500 damages from Dalgleish, but declined to collect it.

Holt had sold some of his runs after the gold rush and in August 1861 bought an estate extending from Botany Bay to Port Hacking and including James Cook's landing place where he erected an obelisk in the centenary year. He also tried to raise sheep on pastures sown with imported grass and then cattle, scientific oyster-farming, timber-getting and coal-mining, each without success. He campaigned for the damming of George's River to supply Sydney with water but the government rejected his scheme.

Holt built a stone 'Victorian Gothic' mansion, The Warren, overlooking Cook's River and stocked its grounds with rabbits for sport, alpacas and other exotics. He lavishly entertained his friends and visitors including royalty at picnics and shoots. In 1866-68 he visited Europe and collected works for his large art gallery. Generous to charities, Holt lost 'a small fortune' trying to keep the Empire afloat and liberally assisted Frank Fowler's Month and other improving magazines.

As a member of the Legislative Council in 1868-83 Holt introduced three bills and in 1878 condemned 'the cruelty and degradation of compelling accused persons to stand in the dock during their trial'; the speech was published as Judicial Treatment of the Accused. In 1873-76 he served on the Council of Education, and was a commissioner for exhibitions at Philadelphia in 1876, Paris in 1878 and Amsterdam in 1883. He was a founder of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a director in 1873-83. He joined the Commission of Fisheries in 1880, was a vice-president of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales and a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales. A memorial village at Sutherland for elderly citizens was named in his honour. An active and charitable Congregationalist, he gave at half its value in 1864 his residence, Camden Villa, for the establishment of Camden College, of which he became a council member and trustee.

In 1881 Holt went to Europe and devoted himself to the poor of London and the Salvation Army, and helped the work of Rev. A. Mearns and Dr Barnardo. In 1888 he published Christianity, or the Poor Man's Friend. He died at his home, Halcot, Bexley, Kent, on 5 September, survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters. His estate was valued at nearly £330,000.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Cridland, Story of Port Hacking, Cronulla and Sutherland Shire (Syd, 1924)
  • P. Geeves and J. Jervis, Rockdale: Its Beginning and Development (Syd, 1962)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, 2, 32, 1855, 2, 576
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1869, 2, 502, 1878-79, 7, 53
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9, 11 Jan 1850, 29 Apr 1864, 2 Mar 1865, 21 Apr 1866, 9 Apr 1871, 19 Dec 1877, 15 Sept 1888
  • Empire (Sydney), 21 Apr 1856
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 16 May 1865
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 Oct 1874, 15 Sept 1888
  • Bulletin, 12 Feb 1881
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/542, 545.

Citation details

Philip Geeves, 'Holt, Thomas (1811–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 July 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

Thomas Holt, n.d.

Thomas Holt, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 170850

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1811
Horbury, Yorkshire, England


5 September, 1888 (aged 76)
Bexley, Kent, England

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