Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Richard Houlding (1822–1918)

by Ruth Teale

This article was published:

John Richard Houlding (1822-1918), store-keeper and novelist, was born on 22 April 1822 in Essex, England, son of Joseph Houlding, contractor, and his wife Sarah, née Olly. He worked in a London lawyer's office and claimed to have met Charles Dickens whose literary style he later tried to imitate. In January 1839 he arrived at Sydney in the Hashemy. He became a solicitor's clerk and then entered Thomas Smart's auctioneering office. In February 1840 he went to New Zealand where he bought land, but in February 1841 returned to Sydney. At Raymond Terrace he became postmaster, store-keeper and shipowner, and in 1852 sold his store and retired, enfeebled. In 1854 he visited England and on his return in 1855 lost his 'moderate fortune … unused to the peculiar dealings of some of the cute citizens' of Sydney. He had a nervous collapse and while on his back began writing.

In May 1861 Houlding told his patron, Nicol Stenhouse, 'Though I can scarcely hope you will be favourably impressed with it, as a literary production, I do trust you will recognize its useful design'. His first novel, Australian Capers (London, 1867), was reprinted as Christopher Cockle's Australian Experiences (Sydney, 1913). It records the downfall of an inexperienced migrant and his conversion to Christianity. Houlding's style was vigorous, humorous and loaded with such similes as the passenger whose 'tongue was as active as a duck's tail'.

Invited by John Fairfax, Houlding wrote for the Sydney Mail as 'Old Boomerang'; his early contributions were published as Australian Tales and Sketches from Real Life (London, 1868). He also wrote short stories for religious and secular journals under seventeen pen-names, including 'J. R. H. Hawthorn'. His second novel, Rural and City Life: or, The Fortunes of the Stubble Family (London, 1870), was also partly autobiographical. His later novels, popular as Sunday school prizes, were shorter and more didactic examples of 'a sanctified literary imagination': they appeared as Investing Uncle Ben's Legacy, a Tale of Mining and Matrimonial Speculations (1876), The Pioneer of a Family; or, Adventures of a Young Governess (1881), Launching Away; or, Roger Larksway's Strange Mission (1882), In the Depths of the Sea (1885) and A Flood That Led to Fortune (1886).

In Sydney in 1843 Houlding had married Elizabeth, née Hannaford. He lived quietly at his home, Hawthorn, Woolwich, and supported such charitable institutions as the Vernon training ship for destitute boys. He was also a Methodist lay preacher, a founder of the New South Wales Temperance Alliance and twice declined to stand for parliament. In the 1890s failing eyesight forced him to abandon writing. He died on 25 April 1918 and was buried in the Methodist section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by two daughters, of whom the elder, Lucy Hannah, married Rev. William Kelynack.

Select Bibliography

  • Maitland Mercury, 2 Sept 1848
  • W. H. G. Freame, ‘Old Boomerang’, Hawkesbury Herald, 20 May 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Apr 1918
  • J. E. Carruthers, Australian Scenes and Sketches, vols 1-2 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. R. Houlding (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Houlding, John Richard (1822–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hawthorn, J. R. H.
  • Old Boomerang

22 April, 1822
Essex, England


25 April, 1918 (aged 96)
New South Wales, Australia

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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.