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William Holyman (1858–1921)

by Alan Warden

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HOLYMAN BROTHERS: Thomas Henry (1856-1933), William (1858-1921) and James (1862-1944), master mariners and shipowners, were sons of William Holyman and his wife Mary Ann, née Sayer. All three were born at Torquay (East Devonport), Tasmania, as was their sister, Susannah (1860-1928), who contributed to the success of the family by marrying a shipbuilder Harry Wood in 1882. The young Holymans absorbed the waterfront life of the Mersey River, its salty jargon and their father's sea-faring tales. Each attended a small school run by a retired sea-captain, James Cartledge, who had sold the ketch Cousins to William Holyman senior in 1861. In time the sons handled cargoes alongside their father, learning the language of barter and business and discovering where to look for trade and how to approach it.

Thomas Henry, born on 24 October 1856, joined his father in 1868 on Cousins. He was an independent, venturesome boy and after three years he left to serve on the brigantine Emma Jane. A year later he was aboard the schooner Leslie but, satisfied by nothing short of deep-sea sailing, he joined the brig Assyrian as third mate and sailed to England around Cape Horn. From England he joined vessels carrying freight into Baltic ports and other centres of British trade; he gained his second mate's papers, being the only member of his family to secure a foreign-going master's certificate. Thomas returned to Tasmania in 1878 on the barque Westbury. In maturity he was a large, forthright man, barrel-chested and spade-bearded, who fluently demonstrated his command of the loud language of a seafarer—he was known to everyone as 'Roaring Tom'. His ill-fortune in losing several ships during a career of over sixty years was due to impulsiveness: over-confidence induced him to accept risks with both sail and steam and, in later life, to speculate foolishly in Tasmanian mining shares.

In 1890 Thomas again left the family business to work on vessels trading between Melbourne, Launceston and Beauty Point. But he returned in 1902 and, until his retirement in 1929, commanded many ships of the Holyman fleet. In December 1911 his steamer Toroa carried stores and equipment from Hobart to Macquarie Island for (Sir) Douglas Mawson. His first wife Grace Victoria, née Young, whom he had married about 1883, died in 1885; on 22 April 1889 at the Anglican Church of Holy Trinity, Beaconsfield, he married Helena Josephine Wyett; he had no children. A Freemason, Holyman died on 13 May 1933 at St Margaret's Hospital, Launceston, survived by his wife, and, like his brothers, was buried in Carr Villa cemetery.

William was born on 23 July 1858. More settled than the vehement Tom, he saw his future in the family ships and from that commitment he never wavered. For six years he learned the ropes; then the purchase in 1877 of the ketch Catherine made it possible for him to take over Colleen Bawn, a converted schooner bought in 1874 and destined to be the 'mother' of the Holyman fleet. William married Honora Ballard on 1 January 1878 at Launceston according to the forms of the Independent Church, and his first voyage as master was also his honeymoon.

There followed years of growth and consolidation: the flag of the Holyman White Star Line became well established, Holyman senior retired from the sea in 1886 to manage the business ashore, sailing ships were gradually replaced by steamers, and in 1899 the head office was moved from East Devonport to Launceston. In 1901, on his father's complete retirement, young William took over the management. It was a time of intense competition between Holymans, the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand Ltd and Huddart Parker & Co. Ltd, leading, over the ensuing forty years, to the registration of Wm Holyman & Sons Ltd, Holymans Pty Ltd, Holyman Bros Pty Ltd, James Holyman Pty Ltd, and other proprietary companies.

William Holyman junior died on 29 September 1921 of coronary vascular disease, two years after his father, at his home in Launceston. He was survived by his wife (d.1932) who, having devoted much time to charitable work, was appointed M.B.E. after World War I, and by four of their six sons and five of their seven daughters. His daughter Love, who had 'embraced the Roman Catholic religion', was excluded from his will which divided among the family an estate valued for probate at almost £60,000.

James, born on 8 September 1862, succeeded William as head of the business. Under his management there was growth and by 1931 nine steamers were plying the waters between Tasmanian ports, Bass Strait islands, Melbourne and Adelaide. As a young boy, James had followed his brothers by sailing with his father. In 1881 when the ketch Pauline was added to the fleet under the control of young William, James took over Colleen Bawn. Next year, when Thomas was allotted the Albion, four ships were commanded by four Holymans.

In 1907 the Holymans began acquiring Bass Strait island grazing properties, first Waterhouse Island, then Twenty Day Island (called Ninth Island on Admiralty maps), followed by Robbins and adjacent Walker Island in 1916. The company King Island Steamers was formed in 1910. For several years James, whose life-long eccentricity was punctiliously to wear a formal, high, starched collar held by gold studs front and back, but to refuse to wear a tie, managed Robbins Island with sheep, cattle, pigs and a small cheese and butter factory; the property, sold in 1957, supported several families and a Holyman-sponsored Education Department school of twelve to fourteen pupils. Trefoil Island was bought in 1926 and sold in 1948. In 1932, with two of William's sons, Victor and (Sir) Ivan (1896-1957), James founded the airline which became Australian National Airways Pty Ltd, later to be absorbed into Ansett Transport Industries Ltd.

James died at Launceston on 7 April 1944, leaving an estate valued for probate at £22,671. His first wife Amelia, née Lewis, whom he had married at Launceston on 17 July 1884 and by whom he had five children, died from the effects of childbirth on 17 July 1894. He married Mary Isobel, née Cameron (d.1970), on 31 December 1895; they had seven children.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hodges, Veil of Time (Melb, 1945)
  • C. Ramsay, With the Pioneers (Hob, 1979)
  • R. A. Ferrall, Notable Tasmanians (Launc, 1980)
  • J. M. Millar, The Start of a Saga (Launc, 1973)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 30 Sept 1921, 15 May 1933, 10 Apr 1944
  • S. Barnes, From Sea to Air, a History of the Holyman Family 1854-1957 (University of Tasmania Library)
  • C. Ramsay, Footsteps in the Sea, the Holyman Story (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Alan Warden, 'Holyman, William (1858–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 July 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

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