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Holder, Sir Frederick William (1850–1909)

from Sydney Morning Herald

Frederick Holder, by Swiss Studios

Frederick Holder, by Swiss Studios

National Library of Australia, 23378556

Sir Frederick Holder, was essentially a student, and his studies were in nearly all departments of knowledge. He began life as a schoolmaster, but his activites were too great for the limitations of a schoolmaster's life, especially for a schoolmaster who was at the same time a member of the Civil Service. Theology, sociology, political economy, science, mathematics—all came alike to him, and he had an intellect which enabled him to assimilate all he read. Spare in build, even thin in his physical habit, he had the mental equipment which forbade him to be idle. His early training—for he came from a devout family—weaned him from any inclination to sports and amusements simply for sake of amusement. His childhood's associations were such as to direct his thoughts into a serious channel. When his life is written, it will be shown that he was of a religious turn of mind, and that following that bent he was received into his church, and as a very young man became a local preacher. Then he gave promise of his later wide knowledge. In his sermons, even while he was yet a novice in the pulpit, he showed deep thought, and his earnestness was undoubted. It was sometimes a matter of surprise to his friends that he did not embrace the profession of a minister of religion, but if he had done so Australia would probably have lost his services in other directions. His father before him was for a time a schoolmaster, then he joined the Railway Service of South Australia, and though by birth he was a Congregationalist, circumstances threw him into communion with the Wesleyan Church. He lived in the country, and the family attended the Wesleyan chapel near at hand.

Frederick William Holder was born at Happy Valley, South Australia, in 1850, and received his early education in the Public schools of the Province. The status of a school-master was not as high then as it is now; indeed, some of the teachers who found employment in the South Australian Education Department were men who had failed in other walks of life. However, this lad went to their schools, and when the time came he was sent to St. Peter's College, in Adelaide, where he was well grounded in secondary education. Then he became a teacher in Prince Alfred College, which was established by the Wesleyans in 1867, but he did not remain there very long. The revival of educational thought which marked the early seventies in South Australia, and later called the late Mr. J. A. Hartley from the headmastership of Prince Alfred College to the position of Inspector-General of Schools, called Mr. Holder from the position of a Junior master to the position of principal of Burra School. He filled this position for several years. Then a disagreement arose between him and Mr. Hartley on a matter of departmental discipline. He resigned, and after a little while became proprietor and editor of the local newspaper, the "Burra Record," buying out the original proprietors. The paper immediately took on a higher tone. Its criticisms of public affairs became close; its leaders on educational subjects were incisive, but not malicious, and the circulation rose. After several years Mr. Holder sold out, and became a contributor to the metropolitan press of South Australia. He next entered Parliament for the electorate of which the Burra was the centre. This was in 1887. His experience in the pulpit enabled him to become a fluent speaker at once on political subjects, and in two years he attained to Ministerial rank. The present Sir John Cockburn, who is now in London, was Premier, and Mr. Holder was his Treasurer. Finance was the subject above all, in which a strong man was required in those days, because the effect of a policy of drift for many years had left the Treasury in debt. The Ministry proposed certain measures, but was defeated in the following year, 1890. Short-lived Ministries were the rule in South Australia for very many years; there was a constant struggle between the old party of Parliamentarians which had inherited the traditions of government from the date of the inauguration of responsible government, and the newer school of thought which sought to more equitably adjust the State burdens. But Mr. Holder came bark into office in 1892 as Premier and Treasurer. In 1893 his Ministry went out of office, and he joined the late Mr. C. O. Kingston, as Commissioner of Public Works. In 1894 he went back to his old position of Treasurer, and the Ministry lasted until 1899. During this time the chief occupation of Ministers was to straighten out the finances, and they did it, but the struggle caused South Australia to fall somewhat in the estimation of the British money-lender. However, in December, 1899, Mr. Holder became Premier, Minister of Industry, and Treasurer, and his Ministry lasted until 1901, when he resigned in order to enter Federal politics. He was elected Speaker of the first House of Representatives, and after that his position in the chair was never challenged. He was Speaker at the time of his death.

Mr. Holder's connection with federation dated from the moment when it became a live issue. While, however, he was still a country editor, he saw the possibilities which federation had for Australia, and wrote in support of a union of the colonies. Possibly, while he was still a country schoolmaster he was incubating his political programme, and a series of articles which appeared in the "South Australia Advertiser" while the late Mr. 'William' Harcus filled the editorial chair put the advantages of federation in a very clear light—a series which Mr. Holder could not fail to read. He was not a member of the convention which drew up the first Constitution in 1891; his colony's delegation was given to older politicians; but when Mr. Reid was instrumental in getting the convention which, first sitting in Adelaide in 1897, and then, in the succeeding years in Sydney and Melbourne, drafted the present Constitution of Australia, Mr. Holder was elected by the people of his colony as one of their representatives. His connection with the Treasury of his colony placed him in the front rank of financiers who sat in that convention. He drew up a financial scheme of his own, and was a member of the financial committee. Other schemes were drawn up by other delegates, but Mr. Holder's was nearest right in its details. Finally the financial committee reported, and the report was largely the work of the South Australian representative. That report was discussed by the convention, criticised by the Parliaments of the colonies, amended in certain respects by them, sent back to that convention, which harmonised the amendments made by the colonies, and then became the financial scheme which obtains to-day, and will in all probability enter on a new phase next year or the year after. It was considered strange that a man who had not had a commercial training in his youth should evince such a grasp of higher finance, but Mr. Holder's habit of concentration stood him in good stead. His tenacious memory enabled him to carry rows of figures in his head, his analytical powers gave him the faculty of seizing on the salient points in any debate almost intuitively, his ability to work out problems gave him the quickness in evolving something which might at least serve to overcome a difficulty. The abstruse seemed to have a charm for him. Had he, as it was at one time rumoured he would do, stepped down from the Speaker's chair and succeeded Sir George Turner as Treasurer after the retirement of Sir Edmund Barton from office in 1903, the financial problem of the Commonwealth and States might have been more clarified than it is to-day. But rumour for once was wrong.

Throughout his political life he maintained his active connection with his Church and with the temperance party. An eloquent man he could not be. His voice precluded that. He had not the sonorous, resonant voice which the orator requires, but he had the clear reasoning which incited his hearers to believe him. Weakness of the heart made him careful, but a temperate life enabled him to husband his strength. By simple living he was able to bear the strenuous life, and when he was Speaker he spared himself very little. During the great stonewall of 1905, when the House sat from half-past 2 o'clock one Thursday afternoon until midnight on the following Saturday he was in the chair much more than half of the time. During the late stone-walling which Mr. Fisher's party has maintained in revenge for being ejected from office, he has been in his place as long as any other member of the House, and now that it is too late, in all probability the members of the party whose tactics in obstruction have enabled them to delay business will reflect that they have contributed to the shortening of his days. He was at one time with them persona grata. As member for the electorate of Wakefield, which embraces his old State electorate of the Burra, he was unopposed at the general election of 1903, but when the forward movement was taken, and it was declared by Labour that "he who is not of us is against us," he had to fight a Labour candidate in 1906. He beat him badly, and was looking forward to another fight next year. However, this has been denied him. His political fights are over, and, just on the verge of his 60th year, he has departed from amongst us.

Deceased left a widow, four daughters—Mrs. A. H. Harry, M A., and Misses Rhoda, Winifred and Ida Holder—and four sons, Messrs Fred Holder (who is in South America), and Evans, Sydney, and Clem Holder.

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'Holder, Sir Frederick William (1850–1909)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/holder-sir-frederick-william-6706/text37113, accessed 20 November 2019.

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