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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


HOLLAND, Henry Edmond


Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

A new biography of Holland, Henry Edmund appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

H. E. Holland was born on 10 June 1868 at Ginninderra, New South Wales, a few miles from Canberra. His father, Edward Holland, worked a small farm in the district and later became a building contractor. Young Harry attended a provisional school at Canberra and the Ginninderra public school; at the age of 14 years he was apprenticed as compositor on the Queanbeyan Times. His life in Australia was harsh and marked him with a certain bitterness and inflexibility. Shortly after his marriage in 1888 (to Annie McLahlen), he was for several years unemployed. This experience, combined with his voracious reading (especially Henry George, Edward Bellamy, and Marx), the influence of early associates, and the economic and political environs of Sydney in the nineties converted him to a socialist viewpoint. It also caused him to leave the Salvation Army, to which he had been hitherto a devoted adherent. He spent the next 20 years of his life – until his departure for New Zealand in 1912 – editing various left-wing journals, organising unions, and engaging in political agitation to the left of the Australian Labour Party. In this period he was twice imprisoned; in 1896 he served three months for publishing a libel in his journal The Socialist, and in 1909 he was sentenced to three years for sedition, for inciting a crowd of men during the Broken Hill mine strike. He was released, however, after serving five months.

A picture of Holland the radical was given by Tom Mann, in 1908: “… a sturdy well filled man who looks about forty years of age with an interesting face, clean shaven, a delightful smile which comes seldom, a voice pitched rather high, his speech tumbling from him spurred on by the press of matter, impatient of the delay caused by applause, as full of his subject at the close as at the beginning of his effort, hammering with relentless force on point after point …”. In 1911 his health deteriorated and he suffered a knee infection which left him partly crippled. The following year, at the invitation of the Waihi Miners' Union, he came to New Zealand at the time of the Waihi mine strike. The New Zealand Labour Party Movement at this juncture was divided into two camps – the “moderates” represented by the trades councils and their Labour Party, and the “militants”, represented by the Federation of Labour and its weaker political associate, the Socialist Party. Holland's sympathies, of course, were with the “militants”. But the vigorous and novel methods used by the new Reform Government to defeat the Waihi strike frightened all sections of the Labour Movement and led, in 1913, to a serious attempt to attain unity. It was at the Basis of Unity Conference in January 1913, at which he represented the Socialist Party, that Holland first had opportunity to make an impression on the New Zealand Labour Movement.

Perhaps in consequence he was appointed editor of the Federation's paper the Maoriland Worker that year, a position he held until 1918. Shortly after his appointment, in the course of the 1913 strike, he was convicted of sedition and sentenced to his third term of imprisonment. Holland's ability in Court, which had been displayed as a union advocate in Australia and sometimes, because less judiciously, to his own disadvantage in self-defence, was again exemplified on this occasion and his Speech from the Dock, a defiant and dignified statement of his socialist beliefs, was subsequently published as a pamphlet. After his release, in September 1914, he stood for Wellington North in the 1914 general election as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party, but he was well beaten.

As editor of the Maoriland Worker during the First World War, Holland placed a socialist interpretation on the origins of the conflict, regarding it as a struggle between rival capitalist classes. He was an outspoken opponent of conscription, believing it to represent not only an intensified effort to prosecute an unjust and unnecessary war but also a means by which the governing class sought to coerce the workers and to destroy the growing strength of the socialist movement. The belief of Holland and some of his colleagues that the war was evidence of an international crisis in capitalism and, more specifically, that the unpopularity of wartime exigencies would make the New Zealand Government extremely vulnerable, was an important ingredient in their efforts in 1915–16 to secure unity in the Labour Movement.

Holland attended the Joint Conference in July 1916 at which the New Zealand Labour Party was formally established. In March 1918 he unsuccessfully stood for Labour at a by-election in Wellington North. A few months later, in June, when P. C. Webb was obliged to forfeit his seat as a military defaulter, he was elected for Webb's constituency of Grey. In the first session of 1919, Holland was elected Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, after a contest with James McCombs. The voting resulted in a tie and Holland won on the drawing of lots. In the subsequent 14 years, he led the Labour Party in five successive (and unsuccessful) general elections. From time to time, when Labour was the larger of the opposition parties and after the formation of the Reform-United Coalition in 1931, he was also Leader of the Opposition. As such, he died at Huntly on 8 October 1933, after he had collapsed at the funeral ceremony for Te Rata Mahuta, the Maori King. He was survived by his wife, five sons (a sixth died in infancy), and two daughters.

Almost throughout his leadership and certainly until the onset of the depression, Holland's chief tactical concerns were, first, to drive the Liberals and the Reform Party together in order to establish Labour as the only real alternative governing party; secondly, to win for the Labour Party the full support of the whole trade union movement. His fear of the role of the Liberal alternative was justified by Sir Joseph Ward's remarkable victory in 1928 – although had Labour won that year it might well have been denied the long tenure of office which followed after 1935.

The second question is more complex. Holland had to contend in the 1920s initially with the hostility and later with the aloofness of a new industrial organisation, the Alliance of Labour. It was one of his most consistent purposes to persuade the unions of the Alliance to affiliate with the Labour Party and, further, to win the votes of the members of those unions. He expounded the concept of “full unionism” as denoting support for the Labour Party in the political field and membership of and support for the union in the industrial field. The trade unionist who did not support the Labour Party might be an industrial unionist but he was a “political non-unionist”. It was to the failure of all trade unionists to support Labour that Holland attributed the 1928 defeat. As leader of the party he also spoke regularly in rural centres and he was a strong supporter of the “usehold” land policy. But one senses that, especially after the virtual abandonment of that policy in 1927 for the more popular refrain of cheaper credit, he was less interested in the need to broaden the base of Labour's support beyond the cities than were some of his politically more astute colleagues.

He was deeply interested in international affairs and often projected on to the international scene a partisan and rather oversimplified view, based on his domestic socialism. But despite his conspiratorial interpretation of capitalist crises, he sometimes showed a better grasp of the problems of the post-war world and a more mature conception of the developing Commonwealth relationship than did his more conventional adversaries on the opposing benches. It was the shock of Holland's international approach, the antithesis of “my country right or wrong” which most sharply marked him (and his party) as radical. The Reform Party counted it an advantage in an election advertisement to call Holland “an internationalist”. Massey, of course, was a patriot.

Holland was not, strictly speaking, an orthodox Marxist or a “scientific socialist” although he had read very widely and Marx had strongly influenced his thinking. He accepted the class struggle and, conditioned perhaps by the bitterness of his experiences and by a passionate temperament, he exhibited an often irrational militancy. But he came to believe that the aspirations of the working class could best be attained by the conquest of political power. The revolutionary socialist of earlier days gradually evolved into a democrat and a parliamentarian. He retained, however, a tendency to see issues too simply in terms of black and white and his emotional, often uncritical, attachment to a series of minority causes was reflected in his speeches and in his numerous pamphlets. As Leader, he exercised a stern discipline over the Parliamentary Labour Party, even prescribing appropriate reading for its members. In Parliament and on the platform he was a commanding figure, clear and compelling, armed with an apparently inexhaustible fund of knowledge and tending, with his metallic voice, to crush more than to persuade his listeners. He was not the man to allay the doubts of middle-class voters. While discontent was not openly expressed, there was some restiveness in the party in the later twenties and a feeling that a more astute, more varied, and less sectarian approach was necessary in order to win wider support.

Although Holland had considerable personal charm, he was never “popular” in the usually accepted sense. His dogmatism, his relentless logic, his lack of humour, and his disinclination to compromise did not win him public acclaim or private affection; rather they inspired respect or fear. Yet as he mellowed in the New Zealand political environment – aided, to some degree perhaps, by a sense of personal fulfilment – and as New Zealand became more accustomed to the presence of “extreme Labour”, respect came to outweigh fear, and often admiration replaced respect. His qualities of character and intellect, his triumph over ill health, his breadth of knowledge, and sensitivity of mind, spirit, and expression, well exemplified in his verse, commended themselves to his colleagues and percolated gradually into public opinion. His sudden death on 8 October 1933 inspired a wave of posthumous public affection and brought him tribute never given during his life.

Holland remains a great figure in New Zealand Labour history. But it may be doubted whether, had he lived, he could have equalled the success which Savage achieved in the later thirties. For essentially Holland's politics and leadership were of the era of the minority party.

by Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.

  • Standard, 6 May 1937
  • New Zealand Worker, 8 Nov 1933
  • “The Life Story of H. E. Holland”,Standard, 31 Oct 1940–13 Feb 1941
  • The Rise of New Zealand Labour, Brown, Bruce (1962).


Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.