Dictionary of Sydney

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Holden, George Kenyon

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George Kenyon Holden

George Kenyon Holden was born in Worcester, England in 1808. Studying law after his schooling, Holden first worked for the English jurist, philosopher and historian Sir James Macintosh. Holden was employed to help research Macintosh's History of England, during which time he travelled through Europe, coming into contact with some of the leading writers and statesmen of the period. Holden was admitted as a solicitor and proctor in England, before leaving for Australia in July 1831 aboard the Margaret as part of Governor Bourke's entourage. [1]

Arrival in Sydney and early career

Holden arrived in Sydney on 2 December 1831, and little is known of his first years in Sydney. Living at 109 Pitt Street, he appears to have continued to work as a solicitor about town, as in June 1833 he notified the public of his intention to apply to practise as an attorney in the Supreme Court. In the same month he was appointed as a magistrate for Campbelltown and in December 1833 was employed as Governor Bourke's private secretary, a position he held until the governor's resignation in January 1837. [2]

Holden attracted the wrath of sections of the colonial press and landed gentry during his tenure as secretary, through his public support for a number of Governor Bourke's initiatives, most particularly Bourke's attempt to introduce elective government and his restriction of magistrates' power to inflict punishments on convicts. Bourke's action against the magistrates brought howls of protest from magistrates in the Hunter Valley in particular, where a number of prominent and influential colonial landowners had estates.

Holden the attorney

Following Governor Bourke's resignation, Holden was appointed as Crown Prosecutor in October 1837. Before the official announcement, the Sydney Gazette questioned Holden's credentials and his appropriateness for the role. The Gazette, commenting that it was not even aware Holden was a solicitor, noted that Holden

is not the person whom the Colonists would have nominated on account of his having figured before them on more than one occasion as the private and confidential correspondent of convicts, on matters affecting the characters of their masters. [3]

Although well qualified to hold the position, Holden announced his resignation from the Crown Prosecutor's office in November 1838, having come under increasing pressure from judges who believed that the position should be held by a barrister. He instead returned to private practice, joining Mr David Chambers of Chambers and McCarthy. [4]

Holden practised as an attorney for the next 30 years. In 1843, upon the death of David Chambers, Holden continued in the practice with Chambers's nephew Hugh, who retired four years later. At this time the firm changed its name to Holden and McCarthy, under which it continued to operate until 1862 when Holden was appointed First Examiner of Titles. [5] During his years as an attorney, Holden was active not only in his firm but also in the wider legal fraternity, including serving as secretary to the Law Commission from 1849 to 1850.

Holden the politician

His legal training and years working for Governor Bourke readied him for, and likely steered him towards, a career in politics. Holden was active in the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation in the early 1850s, writing often to the press on the topic and organising letters and petitions to be sent to Earl Grey at the Colonial Office in London, as well as to Queen Victoria, urging that transportation of convicts to New South Wales not be reinstated, as was thought to be imminent. [6] He was an advocate for more representative government in New South Wales, serving as a member of the Constitution Committee in 1853, and worked to help anti-squatter candidates in elections in 1849 and 1856. [7] Although Holden's work towards elective government and proportional representation was not successful during his tenure, he was recognised internationally for his advocacy of the issue. [8] In 1856 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, on which he served until January 1863 when he took up his role as the first Examiner, or Master of Titles.

As Examiner of Titles, Holden oversaw the dramatic change in New South Wales land title administration through the introduction of the Torrens Title system of land registration. Coming out of the Real Property Act 1862, the Torrens system was derived from the one devised by Robert Torrens for the South Australian registry in the 1850s. Based on the system for insuring ships used by Lloyds of London, it created a single register for each land holding which held all details affecting that land parcel. Holden had worked hard in the Legislative Council to have the Act introduced and to fine-tune its details. His dedication to the Act worked towards his appointment by the government to the role of Examiner. Holden's role as Examiner of Titles was to assist the Registrar-General in investigating and dealing with the implications of bringing land under the provisions of the Act. The position was reserved for a barrister or attorney of the Supreme Court but specified that they could not be engaged in private practice or partnership, hence Holden's retirement from his previous positions. [9]

Holden remained as Examiner of Titles until his death in 1874.

A role in education

In 1849 Holden was appointed to the Board of National Education, remaining until 1867 when it was replaced by the Council of Education. During his tenure, Holden also served as the chairman of the National Schools Board until 1865. His interest in education, as with land title reform, was likely rooted in his time as Governor Bourke's private secretary, as Bourke had been an advocate of public education in New South Wales.

Another institution that Governor Bourke had patronised was the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA). In August 1852, Holden was elected as one of the SMSA vice-presidents, after being nominated by Mr G Wright who had known him since his arrival in Sydney. [10] Holden's private worth, literary attainments and high standing in society were listed among the reasons for his nomination.

The early 1850s were not the best of times for the SMSA. In 1848, 527 members were recorded at the annual general meeting, but by 1852 this number had dropped dramatically to just 300. One of the reasons put forward for the falling membership was the recent announcement of gold discoveries around Bathurst. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 had started a gold rush from Sydney, with shiploads of immigrants leaving to try their luck at the diggings. However, the announcement of gold discoveries closer to Sydney triggered a bigger response, as people could up and leave for the gold fields without the expense of an international ocean voyage. Across Sydney, thousands of would-be miners left their jobs and homes and headed west. The SMSA was as powerless as anyone else to stop its members deserting.

Members may also have been leaving for other reasons. In 1851 Dr Douglass, a member of the Legislative Council, had opposed the Legislative Council grant of £200 normally placed on the estimates for the SMSA. Douglass, who was on the committee of the SMSA as one of its vice-presidents, cited mismanagement of the institution as his reason. [11]

On top of all this, in August 1852, Francis Bellingham, the former secretary and librarian of the SMSA, sued for remuneration for extra services undertaken and over his dismissal. When the trial began in November 1852, the firm of Holden and McCarthy acted for the SMSA against claims by the former secretary. Bellingham had left the SMSA, making a claim for £140 remuneration for extra services carried out by him during his employment. Although the committee agreed that Bellingham had worked extra and was entitled to some further payment, the fact he had not made claims while working for them, and the feeling that his claims over-reached the actual work, led them to recommend a payment of only £10. Also against Bellingham was the fact that he had been dismissed from the SMSA after complaints about his manner towards members and abuse of his position. As a result, Bellingham sued the SMSA. Although Holden and the SMSA eventually won the case, the resulting evidence of disunity, distrust and instability in the SMSA, as reported in the local newspapers, added to the institution's woes. [12] For his troubles, Holden agreed to waive the usual fee, asking only to be paid for out-of-pocket expenses.

Despite these difficulties, Holden joined the Committee. In June 1853 he delivered the opening public lecture of the new season in the main hall, titled 'The Moral and Intellectual Culture of the People Essential to Secure the Advantages of High Wages and Political Privileges'. Holden, speaking in lieu of the President, Arthur a'Beckett, outlined, amongst other issues, the advantages of the SMSA to Sydney in both general and specific terms. Holden noted that the city was swarming with young men coming and going from the gold fields, mostly unconnected to any local family or relations. The SMSA, Holden thought, could provide refuge from the temptations of the city, and those who appreciated its benefits might feel inclined to contribute from their gold funds to its upkeep.

Further to this immediate benefit, Holden saw the potential of the SMSA to disseminate knowledge of the latest scientific and technological advances to its audience. As Australia was a thinly populated nation, any advance in technology that could save on labour would benefit the economy and keep Australia in the forefront of agriculture and manufacturing. [13] As an example, Holden pointed to the rapid advances in the development of the electric telegraph which was at the time being established in Europe. The delivery of messages over vast distances quickly could transform the way the nation did business and interacted. Holden saw the role of the SMSA in the teaching and dissemination of this type of technology as central to its mission.

Although he had joined at a tumultuous time, at the Annual General Meeting in February 1856 Holden was elected as President of the SMSA. Remaining in the position until 1865, Holden oversaw the rebuilding of the SMSA, both figuratively and literally. Together with senior vice-president John Woolley and the treasurer Nicholas Eager, Holden successfully negotiated with the government a change to the SMSA Act, allowing the president, vice-president and treasurer to approve the sale of the SMSA land and building to allow for the construction of a larger building. In 1859, architect John Bibb was commissioned to expand the building next door into the former Independent Chapel which the SMSA had purchased. With a new façade across the block and a reconfiguration of the internal spaces, the new SMSA building was completed in September 1862. The expansion of the facilities of the SMSA in the new building saw a steady increase in members, with 1579 recorded in 1863, a five-fold increase in just ten years. [14]

At the same time as the new building was being completed, Holden oversaw the SMSA Industrial Exhibition which was staged between February and April 1861. Attracting over 17,500 people, the exhibition lifted the profile of the SMSA while at the same time raising a modest profit to go towards the ongoing building works and programs.

Associations and later life

As well as being a member of the Legislative Council, barrister, SMSA President and Examiner of Titles, Holden was involved in a number of other high profile colonial institutions. In 1861 he was a founding member of the Acclimatisation Society of New South Wales, which until 1867 held its monthly meetings in the rooms of the SMSA. [15]

The Society's aim was the introduction, acclimatisation and domestication of 'useful or ornamental' birds, fish, insects, vegetables and other exotic species. Among other species discussed and introduced by the Society during the 1860s, were alpacas, sunflowers, watercress, pheasants and water moles. The society was also active in importing Australian species into New South Wales and Sydney, including Murray cod in 1864. During this period, the Acclimatisation Society also erected a number of cages in the Botanic Gardens in which they kept a collection of introduced birds such as pheasants, blackbirds and thrushes, which acted as part storage aviary and part exotic zoo. [16]

In his later life, Holden suffered from severe neuralgia, enough to force him to retire from public life. After a long illness, Holden died in April 1874, aged 67.


[1] Obituary, Mr George Kenyon Holden, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1874, p 6

[2] Sydney Herald, 20 June 1833, p 3; Australian, 19 July 1833, p 2; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 December 1833, p 4

[3] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 August 1837, p 2

[4] TH Irving, 'Holden, George Kenyon (1808–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, vol 4, 1972, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holden-george-kenyon-3781/text5975, viewed 29 May 2012

[5] Obituary, Mr George Kenyon Holden, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1874, p 6

[6] Petition to Queen Victoria, Australasian Anti-transportation League New South Wales, January 1851, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library, Aa25

[7] TH Irving, 'Holden, George Kenyon (1808–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, vol 4, 1972, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holden-george-kenyon-3781/text5975, viewed 29 May 2012

[8] TH Irving, 'Holden, George Kenyon (1808–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, vol 4, 1972, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holden-george-kenyon-3781/text5975, viewed 29 May 2012

[9] Real Property Act of 1861 25 Vic. No 14, Section 12

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 1852, p 3

[11] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1853

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 1852, p 2; Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Annual Report 1853 and 1854

[13] GK Holden, The Moral & Intellectual Culture of the People Essential to Secure the Advantages of High Wages ad Potential Privilege, Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Lecture, 1853, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library, ML 374/H

[14] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Annual Report, 1863

[15] Acclimatisation Society of New South Wales, Annual Reports 1861–68, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library

[16] E Wilson, The Wishing Tree: A Guide to Memorial Trees, Statues and Fountains in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Domain and Centennial Park, Sydney, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1992, p 30