Harry Holland

Frank Mines

There are a number of reasons why we should remember Harry Holland. For one reason, he is the only significant political figure to have come from the Canberra district. There is another reason. It would be conventional wisdom that any politician in Australia or New Zealand who publicly espoused revolutionary socialism, either then or now, would be committing political hara-kiri. Yet only an untimely death prevented Harry Holland from becoming the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand.

A biography of Holland, Harry Holland: Militant Socialist, by Patrick O’Farrell, was published in 1964.  Those who have read it will realise that my interpretation of Holland’s career differs from O’Farrell’s.  There is no space within the ambit of this paper to do a critique of O’Farrell’s biography, but suffice it to say that I have approached Holland’s career from a different standpoint and in some cases have taken account of facts and events that O’Farrell does not appear to have addressed. Those who have read Dr Evatt’s biography of Holman, Labour Leader, may find that my interpretation of Holland is much closer to that presented by Dr Evatt.

Three ideas seem to have underpinned Harry Holland’s political philosophy. They were: democracy, revolution and socialism. Of these democracy seems to have been the most fundamental. His conception of revolution did not involve the violent overthrow of the existing political order.

Democracy was just starting to emerge in Australia in the 1890s and was assisted by the extension of the franchise and the growth of unions. On the other hand, the prevailing political orthodoxy, oligarchy, was strengthened by the emergence of modern electoral parties to which various interest groups and tendencies in the community were committed for protection and patronage.

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth there seems to have been a tension in political Labor in Australia as to whether it should focus on the poor or commit itself to the socially mobile or aspirational parts of the working class. This tension was resolved in the case of the Australian Labor Party in favour of the socially mobile. Harry Holland, on the other hand, chose the poor.

It is tempting and even appropriate to make comparisons with Holland’s colleagues and contemporaries. One need hardly make the point that he did not engage in the intellectual and ethical strip tease that many of his contemporaries engaged in. Unlike many of them he died respected by people he had come in contact with, even his conservative opponents.

Henry Edmund (Harry) Holland (1868-1933) was born on 10 June 1868 on a farm at Gungahlin, near Canberra.  His parents were Edward and Mary (née Chaplin).  His primary schooling was at Ginninderra Provisional School, which was housed during the week in Saint Francis’ Catholic Church, Ginninderra, the first Catholic church in the Canberra district. His education was interrupted from time to time by the need to help his family and he finally left school at age 12. At age 14 he was apprenticed as a compositor to the Queanbeyan Times. 

While serving his apprenticeship he spent a good deal of his spare time in the library of the Queanbeyan School of Arts. The librarian noticed his devotion to reading and his focusing on what he perceived to be a fundamental issue, that of alienable land. He recognised that the issue of who gets to own land and what is done with it is a fundamental issue in society. In later life he was to write a history of land which as far as I know was never published.

When Progress and Poverty, the leading work of the American political reformer, Henry George, which was published in 1879, became available in Australia he read it and adopted George’s principle of a tax on the unimproved value of land rather than on buildings on the land. This was aimed at soaking up the unearned rent on land and forcing its more productive use. Holland was later to attend Henry George’s lectures in Sydney when George was in Australia during 1890.

While he was still an apprentice, an American visitor gave him copies of Karl Marx’s work, Capital, and Henry Bellamy’s Looking Backward, an account of a socialist society in the United States in the year 2000. Henry Bellamy’s book had a wide circulation around the world and was avidly read by workers in Australia. This was one of many instances in which political fiction has played a part in disseminating political and economic ideas.

Holland was greatly influenced by Marxist ideas on politics and economics. The concept of surplus value was to be a feature of his speeches and writings. In New Zealand a lecture he gave at a university college on surplus value was published as a pamphlet. His reading in the field of Marxism was wide and in his later years included the writings of Lenin and Trotsky as these became available in English.

During his apprenticeship Holland joined the Salvation Army. People who knew him at the time noted not only his native intelligence but also his apparent religious commitment. His membership of the Salvation Army was to bring him into contact with the organisation’s work for the poor and destitute and provided him with valuable experience in speaking at public meetings.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Holland left Queanbeyan in 1887 for Sydney, where he married a fellow member of the Salvation Army, a marriage that was to last through all the tribulations of his life. However, the beginnings of a happy family and working life were marred by unemployment resulting from the great Maritime Strike in 1890.

Under the pressures of unemployment, poverty and the demands of supporting a family, Holland left the Salvation Army and joined the Australian Socialist League in Sydney in 1892, thus beginning a lifelong commitment to the cause of revolutionary socialism, which he pursued through journalism and political activism, editing or founding a number of newspapers devoted to radical and socialist causes and writing many pamphlets.  He went on lecture tours with a view to promoting understanding of his views. On the industrial side he was active in organising unions and providing assistance for the management of industrial disputes.

Although he never again belonged formally to a church or religious body after leaving the Salvation Army there is no trace in his writings of the anti-religious and anti-clerical sentiments to be found in those of some of his contemporaries.

While a strong supporter of industrial action to win better conditions he did not support violence against employers or industrial sabotage.  However, he did encourage workers to defend themselves if physically attacked by police or others during an industrial campaign.

Among his associates in the Australian Socialist League was William Arthur Holman, later Premier of New South Wales, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship, although their political paths were to diverge significantly.

Holland was active in efforts during the 1890s to found a Labour Party in New South Wales, becoming a member of the Labour Electoral League.

With his friend Tom Batho he edited the Australian Socialist League’s newspaper which went through various changes of name such as The People, The Socialist and so on. They were to edit it for seven years from 1895, shifting its base of operations to Newcastle for some years.

While in Newcastle he organised the Newcastle Wharf Labourers’ Union and helped organise several other unions in northern New South Wales.

When Holland became conscious of the poor pay and conditions of tailoresses in New South Wales he helped them form a Tailoresses’ Union in 1901, quickly recruiting 2,000 members. He led them in an industrial campaign for better conditions. He appeared as their advocate before the NSW Arbitration Court and won them a 100 per cent pay rise. The judge complimented him on his presentation and suggested he join the legal profession.

Although a strong critic of the Australian Labor Party for its lack of a revolutionary focus, he was nevertheless associated with it from time to time. For example, from 1901 to 1904 he was editor of the Labor-oriented newspaper, the Grenfell Vedette, owned by his friend Holman, and in 1904 he returned to Queanbeyan to establish and edit the Queanbeyan Leader, a Labor-oriented newspaper.

In 1906 he returned to Sydney and became editor of the InternationalSocialist Review and remained editor till 1912 when he moved to New Zealand.

During the early years of the twentieth century Holland came under the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), then active in promoting revolutionary industrial unionism in Australia.  From them he adopted the idea of industrial unionism but whereas the IWW stood for syndical socialism, Holland advocated a state socialism in which the land and tools of production would be owned by the State on behalf of the whole population.

In 1907 Holland became involved in the Coal Lumpers’ dispute, following a lockout by the Steamship Owners’ Association.  For his efforts on their behalf he received a gold medallion of membership in the union, which he was to wear at many public occasions during the rest of his life.

Holland’s successful organisation of industrial disputes did not go unnoticed in the wider community.  William Morris Hughes, a prominent Labor Party member in the federal parliament, was to play an important part in trying to undermine the industrial campaigns in which Holland was involved and to make it clear to the general public that there was significant political opposition to the industrial campaigns being led by such people as Holland and Tom Mann. These interventions put the unions in a difficult situation as they looked to the Labor Party for protection and political patronage.  In some cases they were affiliated with the Labor Party.  Hughes’ interventions also gave the green light to the conservative governments of the day to move against people like Holland and Mann who provided leadership and ideological backing to workers and their unions in their campaigns for better conditions.

In 1909 he became involved in the Broken Hill industrial action that followed a lockout by employers, working with Tom Mann who had been brought up from Victoria to help in organising the industrial action.  Holland, Mann and others were arrested but their trial was held in Albury rather than Broken Hill and the jury was made up of farmers and small businessmen. Holland was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Mann was found not guilty.

Sedition is defined as stirring up discontent against the government or fomenting discord between classes. As Holland was to point out this could be applied to anyone who criticised the government or any unionist who led a protest against working conditions.

Holland served only five months of his sentence.  A petition for his release attracted 100,000 signatures.  Of the five months, one month was spent in solitary confinement, with the Bible the only reading material permitted to him. He read it twice during this period and subsequently wrote a pamphlet on the strike led by Moses.

In the April 1910 federal election he stood as a candidate in the federal seat of West Sydney under the banner of the Socialist Federation of Australia against Hughes. This provided him with an opportunity to provide a critique of the Labor Party and of Hughes in particular, drawing attention to his interventions in industrial disputes.

In 1912 he campaigned against compulsory military training for young men, a policy supported by the Labor Party and of which Hughes had been a prominent advocate. His campaign included the writing of a pamphlet, Boy Conscription in Australia. Because he refused to allow his son to attend military training he was fined but never paid the fine. In New Zealand he was to campaign against conscription during the First World War and sought to have the matter decided by referendum but was unsuccessful.

In 1912 he was invited to go on a lecture tour of New Zealand. While there he accepted the editorship, in Wellington, of the Maoriland Worker, the New Zealand labour weekly, later to be called the New Zealand Worker. One of Holland’s first acts as editor was to make it clear that there would be no attacks on religion during his editorship. He also became involved in the 1913 waterfront lockout and strike.  Imprisoned for sedition, Holland served three months of a twelve-month sentence. The Chief Justice of the New Zealand Supreme Court, in imposing sentence, which was without hard labour, complimented Holland on the depth of his reading and the competence of his defence. (Holland had asked that his sentence be without hard labour because of the poor state of his health.)

He played a prominent role in the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916 and in 1918 was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Grey. The next year he became chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, a position he held until his death in 1933. 

Holland’s great achievement as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party was to woo the working class away from the New Zealand Liberal Party which, when led by Richard John Seddon (1845-1906), had introduced many social reforms while Seddon was Prime Minister from 1893?1906, including the old age pension. The growth in Labour’s support made Holland leader of the Opposition in 1925 but Labour did not win government in New Zealand until the election of 1935. Not all supporters of the New Zealand Labour Party shared Holland’s vision. There were those who preferred the liberalism and imperialism of Seddon to the socialism and internationalism of Holland.

One of the things that may have helped promote Holland’s political career in New Zealand were glowing tributes to Holland by his friend, Holman, Premier of New South Wales and by then on the conservative side of politics, which were made to journalists during a visit to New Zealand. Holland included Holman’s comments in his campaign material.

In Parliament Holland showed that he was prepared to accept a reformist program as a stepping stone to social and economic revolution and to accept support from a variety of sources. In this he was encouraged by his reading of Lenin’s writings. He made many proposals for the advancement of the New Zealand economy. Among them was the creation of a state central bank for the control of credit. He also advocated the nationalisation of the coal industry, a proposal which won support from some of the coal mine owners.

Holland’s comments on international relations were particularly prescient. He looked forward to the day when the British Empire would be transformed into a Commonwealth of Nations open to any free nation. He also foresaw that the transfer by the post-Great War Peace Conference of German interests in the Shandong peninsula to Japan over the objections of the government and people of China would lead to a war with Japan in which New Zealand would be involved. The Peace Conference had made this grant as a form of compensation to Japan for the failure of the conference to adopt the principle of racial equality proposed by Japan, because of strong opposition from the Australian Prime Minister, Hughes. Holland was opposed to remilitarisation as he believed this would simply accelerate the onset of the war.

Despite his knowledge of Marxist economic theory, Holland was apparently taken aback by the magnitude of the 1930s financial crisis. He sold much of his books and furniture and gave the money to the unemployed.

Following his collapse and  death while attending the funeral of the Maori king, Te Rata Mahuta, Harry Holland was given a state funeral from the Church of England cathedral in Wellington. A monument paid for by public subscription was subsequently erected over his grave. There is also a statue of him in the ParliamentaryGardens in Wellington, near that of Richard Seddon.

He died in debt as a result of recent campaigning on behalf of the Labour Party and the National Party government made a grant of 600 pounds to his widow.  Among his papers was found a proposal for government financial assistance for Leaders of the Opposition, to enable them to cope with the financial demands made on them. The government responded by providing a permanent secretary for the Leader of the Opposition.

He wrote thirty-six pamphlets, mainly on labour issues, but occasionally on other issues, such as New Zealand maladministration of Samoa and Irish independence.  He also wrote a volume of poetry, Red roses on the highways, published in 1924.


Paper presented at the Seventh National Labour History Conference, Canberra, 2001. Frank Mines is the ASSLH Public Officer and a foundation member of the Canberra Region Branch.