Young Harry Holland: the soapbox preacher

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand – Part 2. (For Part 1 click here).

Little detail is known of Harry Holland’s childhood. Despite being a prolific writer, he left no record of his own. What we know comes mainly from short notes and memoirs written after Holland’s death by his wife, Annie McLaughlin, William O’Neill, a friend from his youth in Queanbeyan, and Ike Askew, an early political collaborator.

Ginninderra Post Office and Store, 1870s.

We know that he was the second-born of five children, and that his parents were farmers at Ginninderra; both of them had emigrated to New South Wales from England as children. Young Harry helped out with the work on the farm, and occasionally earned a few extra shillings by working on neighbouring farms. From time to time he jumped aboard the wagons of hawkers, working for them as they toured the region selling clothing, tools and other items to farmers in the back blocks. In his spare time he went hunting with his brother William, often camping out in the bush when darkness found them far from home.

Stone Hut School in 1870s, which Harry Holland attended

His education was meagre. For a few years he attended the Ginninderra public school, and later the Stone Hut School, but at the age of ten his teacher informed his parents that he had absorbed all the learning that she could impart, and that he needed to be sent to a better school outside the region. His parents could not afford to do that, although they had hopes of his becoming a school teacher, and so he returned to work on the farm for a few more years. By all accounts, his childhood was a happy one, in the care of devoted and capable parents.

Harry Holland aged 14 in Queanbeyan, 1882.

That childhood ended at the age of fourteen, when Harry was apprenticed to learn the trade of printing at the Queanbeyan Times.  He learned to set type letter by letter on a composing stick, and to use a press that was operated by foot as the worker fed the sheets of paper in by hand. The apprenticeship lasted five years. According to Annie’s memoir, “the pleasures of boyhood left him on the day he was apprenticed. His apprenticeship was hard and cruel.” He would often have to work past midnight setting type on the newspaper, then only get a few hours of sleep before having to get up at dawn to deliver the papers. He lived at the employer’s residence, with another boy.

On one occasion when his parents visited him, they found him ill with measles, and yet despite having a high fever he had been working all through his illness. Worried for his health, his parents moved to Queanbeyan so that he could live with them. Harry’s father had suffered financial troubles with his farm after his crops failed one year; when they moved to Queanbeyan he became a builder, contracting to local businesses and farmers.  The family, including his younger sisters, remained in the district for many years after Harry had left.

The Queanbeyan Times prided itself on being the most literary of the competing newspapers in the town. Holland’s apprenticeship introduced him to the printed word; the boy with almost no formal education became a voracious and indiscriminate reader. William O’Neill, the printer’s son who was about the same age as Harry and became his friend, writes that “In the township there was an antiquated building, facetiously called the ‘School of Arts,’” whose librarian used to boast that Holland “had read everything on the shelves except a bound volume of the Government Gazette.”

O’Neill also tells a story of an itinerant compositor briefly employed at the printshop towards the end of Holland’s apprenticeship, a man who had “set type in Calcutta and pulled a press lever in Arizona” who brought with him “a volume of Karl Marx and Bellamy’s Looking Backward.” The compositor engaged Harry in a long and animated discussion on politics during the meal breaks, and left his two-book library behind when he left.

Of the two volumes, it was the Bellamy book, a utopian-socialist novel, that had the greater influence on Holland’s thinking.

Cover of an early edition of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward

It is difficult to appreciate today just how influential Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was among workers in late nineteenth-century Australasia and the United States.  As soon as it began to circulate, “Bellamy Societies” sprang up in all the big cities of the United States and Australia, where workers got together to discuss the ideas in the book. In the advertisements in labour newspapers of the time showing titles available in socialist bookshops, it features high on the list for many years. In fact it was among the best-selling novels of its time, behind only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: a tale of the Christ.

It is the story of a man who goes into a hypnosis-induced coma in 1887, just as the first great battles of the working class in the United States are opening, and wakes up in the year 2000, a century after capitalism has been overthrown. He is then obliged to explain to the citizens of the rational world of the future how capitalism used to operate, and his host reciprocates, explaining the workings of socialist society. Reading it today, when the year 2000 is no longer in the future, and yet capitalist rule still prevails, is somewhat problematic. The impression it gives is of a schematic and somewhat laboured explanation of socialist ideas (along similar lines as the infinitely more bitter and dour Ragged-trousered Philanthropists that became popular in England at about the same time).  The secret of the book’s appeal is unmistakable, however: it gives in popular terms a sweeping overview of capitalist society and the vision of a higher form of social organisation that might replace capitalism.

To workers bogged down in the daily details of their exploitation, like the young printer’s apprentice in Queanbeyan, this must have been truly liberating – and the book still holds this appeal today, within its rather quaint form. Ultimately, this idyllic vision was insufficient to equip Holland for the harsh realities of life in capitalist society. But on the eve of the great Maritime Strike, this was about as far as socialist thought in Australia had advanced.

Holland, meanwhile, had joined the Salvation Army at the age of seventeen, and in this one can discern aspects of the personality and character of the mature man.

In the first place, it demonstrates a religious piety, at least partly due to the influence of his religious mother. Harry Holland gave up public evangelism after a couple of years, and quit the Salvation Army altogether after a few years more. He never joined any other organised church. However, he never entirely lost his need for private religious solace in times of personal difficulty. Throughout his life he also maintained a deep literary interest in the Bible, as a source of both mythology and clues to the history of Palestine. He made frequent use of biblical allusions in his speeches and writings. During a period of imprisonment in 1909, he filled a notebook with his studies of the Old Testament, and his own thoughts on the biblical precedents of the modern class struggle.

Harry Holland at 29

The second trait that emerges is a strong crusading spirit, which took the form of enthusiasm and single-minded devotion to his creed. Holland soon became one of the Salvation Army’s outstanding open-air evangelists, addressing crowds outside the local hotels in Queanbeyan and impressing everyone with the breadth of his vocabulary and the strength of his arguments. (The art of soapbox oratory was one he later put to good use in the socialism movement). After he moved to Sydney, he always attended and spoke at all four of the Sunday services of the Army. On being warned that he could wear himself out if he continued to do that, he replied that he had to be either all in or all out. This same intensity marked his participation in political campaigns and movements later in life.

Most importantly, the Salvation Army episode reveals a profound, uncompromising and impatient moral rectitude in Holland’s character, which some observers found to be insufferably judgmental, while others, including O’Neill, regarded it as “a priceless gift, that enabled an apparently beaten man to rise superior to it all.” No one, of either opinion, doubted the sincerity of his convictions. For the time being, the Salvation Army, with its promise to rid the world of poverty and wretchedness by winning the poor and wretched to the path of righteousness, suited Harry Holland’s own needs, and his own somewhat formless utopian socialist thinking, very well.

Salvation Army newspaper 1882. The Army was expanding throughout the British empire at the time

Soon after he completed his apprenticeship in late 1887, Holland left for Sydney, hitching a ride with an itinerant hawker, as he had done many times before, to get to the railhead at Goulburn. (On this occasion, the hawker was carrying a quantity of gelignite, used by farmers to blast big tree stumps out of the ground, and it caused him a few nervous moments when a wheel fell off the cart.) In Sydney he quickly found work at The Spectator in Manly, a newspaper owned by John Gale of Queanbeyan. He worked there for a year, before moving to take on the management of the Australian Supplements Printery in central Sydney at a relatively generous salary of £3 and 5 shillings per week (approximately equal to  Australian $700 in today’s currency).

He continued to devote his spare time to Salvation Army evangelism, and it was at one of his Sunday sermons that he met Annie McLaughlin. By coincidence, Annie had grown up in the Ginninderra region too, where her father was manager of the Duntroon estate (which after the founding of Canberra City became a military college). They were later told by Harry’s mother that as five-year-old children they had played together when the Holland family visited Duntroon, but neither remembered this when they met as adults. In October 1888 they were married; their first son was born in April 1890. He was named Fred, after a workmate of Holland’s at the Printery who had become a close friend. Harry and Annie Holland were to have five sons and three daughters together.

Their marriage and family endured through times of extreme economic hardships, periods of political isolation and defeat, as well as several spells of Harry’s imprisonment. Although they were married before Harry had entered the political fray, it is clear that Harry and Annie came to their deeply held political convictions together, and that their marriage was based on comradeship as well as love. Annie became Harry’s closest political collaborator for the rest of his life, joined by several of their children as they became adults. (At one point, when Harry Holland had to travel to Sydney for a court case of the Tailoresses’ Union, he entrusted production of the newspaper he was publishing to his three sons, Fred, Allan and Roy, aged 13, 11, and 9!)

The marriage was to be severely tested in the next two years, when the happy life and secure future that had seemed within reach on Holland’s arrival in Sydney came to an abrupt end, and the young family was thrown into destitution.

2 responses to “Young Harry Holland: the soapbox preacher

  1. Pingback: Down and out in Sydney and Newcastle | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: The muddy waters of early Australian socialism | A communist at large·

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