HOLMAN, William Arthur (1871-1934)


HOLMAN, William Arthur (1871-1934)
labour leader, premier of New South Wales
son of William Holman, an actor, was born at London on 4 August 1871. His mother was also on the stage under the name of May Burney. There were bad times in the theatrical profession during the 1880s, and the Holmans were glad to obtain an engagement with Brough and Boucicault (q.v.) in Australia. They arrived in Melbourne in October 1888 with their two sons, both of whom had been apprenticed to a cabinet maker in London. W. A. Holman, the elder of the two, though he had been successful at school, showed little ability at his trade, but he was a great reader and was falling under the influence of Mill, Morris, Darwin, Spencer, and later, Marx. The burning of the Bijou theatre, Melbourne, left the company without wardrobe or engagement, and the Holmans removed to Sydney where the sons obtained employment at their trade. William joined the Sydney School of Arts Debating Society, where he came under the notice of Barton (q.v.), who encouraged him. He was taking much interest in the foundation of the New South Wales Labour party, but was too young to be a possible candidate at the 1891 election, when 36 labour men were returned. But he gave evidence before the select committee on banking as representative of the socialist league, and did much lecturing on socialism and economics. In July 1894 he was a candidate for Leichhardt at the election for the legislative assembly, when he was defeated by 95 votes, and in 1895, at Grenfell, he was again defeated. He had become a director of a company formed to publish a daily paper with Labour sympathies, called the Daily Post, but it was a failure and the company went into liquidation. The directors were charged with conspiracy to defraud by a man who had lent the company money, and four of them including Holman were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. A point, however, had been reserved, and the conviction was subsequently quashed. Holman had in the meanwhile spent nearly two months in gaol, and felt the indignity and mortification deeply. Dr Evatt, his biographer, after examining the evidence, considered that Holman was morally and legally not guilty, and that the judge should have advised the jury to acquit the directors out of hand.
Though discouraged by this experience, Holman began to interest himself again in the organization of Labour, and did some writing for a weekly paper, The Grenfell Vedette, of which he afterwards became the proprietor. In July 1898 he was elected a member of the assembly for Grenfell, and in October made a remarkable maiden speech during the federal resolution debate. He became one of the leading opponents of the bill, objecting principally to the difficulty of amending the constitution and the nature of the financial clauses. When the South African war broke out Holman was again with the minority, and opposed the sending of a New South Wales contingent to South Africa. This brought him some unpopularity, but the Labour movement as a whole was consolidating its strength, and had influenced much legislation passed by both Lyne (q.v.) and See (q.v.). Holman had been studying law, and having passed the necessary examinations was admitted as a barrister of the supreme court on 31 July 1903, and practised with success for many years. He became deputy-leader of the Labour party in 1905, and in 1906 had a great public debate with Reid (q.v.) on socialism, a meeting of two worthy antagonists. A report of this debate was published as a pamphlet. At the 1907 election Holman was advocating a state national bank and a graduated land tax, and was returned for Cootamundra after a strenuous contest. Labour now had 32 members in a house of 90 and there were several independents. Encouraged by the increase in the party's strength, Holman did a great deal of organizing during the next three years, covering much ground on his bicycle. In 1909, with P. A. Jacobs, he brought out a volume on Australian Mercantile Law, and he worked hard during the federal election campaign in 1910, when Labour had a complete victory and came into power. In New South Wales Labour won no fewer than 18 out of the 27 seats for the house of representatives. At the state election held in October Labour for the first time came back with a majority, winning two seats more than the combined liberal and independent candidates. McGowen (q.v.) became premier and Holman attorney-general. During the 1911-12 session a graduated income tax act, a criminal appeal act, and an industrial arbitration act, were among the measures passed, and it had become apparent that Holman was the driving force in the cabinet. But he was over-working, and at the end of 1912 made a short trip to England which renewed his health and spirits. McGowen resigned his premiership in June 1913, and was succeeded by Holman who was a stronger leader. At the election held at the end of 1913 Labour won 50 out of the 90 seats, but a struggle followed with the legislative council which threw out many of the bills passed by the assembly. Dr Evatt considers that Holman should have swamped the upper house with Labour nominations (Australian Labour Leader, p. 534), but it would have required a very large number of nominations, and difficulties might have arisen. War broke out in August 1914 and Holman threw himself into the recruiting movement and worked hard and successfully. On 22 August 1915 he said in an interview, that if the voluntary system did not work satisfactorily he would support conscription as he considered it the most logical and satisfactory way of carrying on the war. His adherence to this principle was later to have fateful consequences for him. At the first conscription referendum Holman supported W. M. Hughes, the prime minister of Australia, though various Labour conferences had decided against conscription. As a result, although not formally expelled from the Labour party, Holman's endorsement was withdrawn, and he was unable to stand for parliament as a Labour candidate at the next election.
Conscription was defeated by a small majority, and Holman formed a coalition with Wade (q.v.), the leader of the opposition, under the name of the Nationalist party with himself as premier. He was elected for Cootamundra as a Nationalist candidate in March 1917. Holman was no doubt quite sincere in believing he could still be of use to his country in the new circumstances, especially in carrying on the war effort. Probably too he hoped to influence local legislation in the direction of Labour ideals. The new workers' compensation act was in fact a great advance on the previous act, and Holman also succeeded in having the various state enterprises established by the Labour government continued. In May he visited England and America and in both places made a most favourable impression. At the second conscription referendum Holman again spoke in favour of conscription, although he strongly objected to the methods used by Hughes during the campaign. During 1918 Holman was subjected to much criticism from his own and the Labour party, and from the press, and he felt the strain severely. At the next state election, held in March 1920, he was defeated, after having been premier for six years and nine months, then a record for New South Wales.
Before resuming his practice at the bar Holman brought actions for libel against two newspapers that had reflected on his character. He obtained damages from one, and a public apology and unreserved withdrawal from the other. He was given a public luncheon and a presentation from his admirers, and speaking at the luncheon, with characteristic generosity, asked that the Nationalists should extend every consideration to John Storey (q.v.) the new Labour premier. Taking up his practice after a short rest Holman was made a K.C. and had no difficulty in getting briefs, but spent much nervous energy on his cases. He was appointed to the J. M. Macrossan (q.v.) lectureship at Brisbane and in 1928 his Three Lectures on the Australian Constitution were delivered and published. In December 1931 he was elected to the federal house of representatives as a United Australian party candidate for Martin, but though only 60 his health was deteriorating, and he looked like an old man. He had an operation in 1933 which was apparently successful, but he died quietly on 6 June 1934, apparently from shock and loss of blood after a difficult tooth extraction on the previous day. He married in 1901 Ada Kidgell who survived him with a daughter. Mrs Holman was the author of a novel, Sport of the Gods, three books for children, and Memoirs of a Premier's Wife.
Holman looked what he was, a highly cultured, scholarly man with a fascinating personality. He had a beautiful speaking voice, was one of the greatest orators Australia has ever known, an excellent debater, and a first-rate parliamentarian and leader. There is no reason to think that he broke with the Labour party for any other reason than that he thought the course he followed was the right one. His biographer discusses this at some length without sufficiently demonstrating that it was a question of principle. But the result was that Holman, after giving nearly 30 years of his life to a much loved cause, was practically finished with politics before he was 50. He was much interested in the cultural life of Sydney which owed the Verbrugghen (q.v.) orchestra largely to his efforts, and his belief in education led to the extension of high schools so that the poorest, if sufficiently able, should have their opportunity of going on to the university. A man of noble ideals, of high courage, of consuming energy, with a passionate desire for justice, he spent himself in his work. Such a man could not always be prudent, especially in connexion with his own interests, but no other man of his time so successfully brought before the people all that was best in the ideals of his party.
H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader; The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 1934: The Bulletin, 13 June 1934; The Labour Daily, 6 June 1934; The Worker, 1916-17; Who's Who, 1934.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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