Henry Holland was born in the village of Nafferton, East Yorkshire, England, on 7 December 1859, the son of Ann Robson and her husband, Robert Holland, a farm labourer. The family arrived in New Zealand in October 1863 and took up an undeveloped small farm at West Melton, North Canterbury. Henry was educated at a West Melton private school and the Halkett public school. In 1881 he began farming for himself on 100 acres at Greendale. On 7 October 1885 he married Jane Eastwood, a schoolteacher, in Christchurch. They were to have five sons and three daughters.
During the early 1890s Holland became a haulage contractor transporting wool and other goods by traction engine to and from the Lake Coleridge district, and driving an engine himself. In 1898 he bought the Christchurch firm of W. A. McLaren, general haulage contractor and importer of farm machinery, including traction engines. He also developed the Midland Engineering Company, and, with his brother Stanley, the Christchurch Mechanical Works. The latter firm produced a number of patented products, including a knapsack sprayer.
Holland became a justice of the peace in 1907. He had developed an interest in local government during a visit to England, and was elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1911. Standing as an independent, he was a friend of T. E. Taylor, the prominent Christchurch radical liberal and prohibitionist who was elected mayor. Taylor died later that year, and in 1912 Holland won the mayoralty on a pledge to continue his friend’s programme of large-scale civic improvements, including electrification. He was endorsed by the Labour Representation Committee. However, his re-election in 1913 was endorsed by the conservative Christchurch Citizens’ Association and opposed by a Social Democratic Party candidate. Re-elected three further times, Holland retired from office in 1919. He also served long terms on the Christchurch Drainage Board, the Christchurch Fire Board and the Lyttelton Harbour Board (1919–38). A staunch prohibitionist, he served on the Selwyn and the City of Christchurch licensing committees.
From the mid 1880s Holland was a local preacher of the Primitive Methodist Connexion, which had a strong following in Greendale. In Christchurch he was a prominent member of its Cambridge Terrace chapel. He served as New Zealand secretary of the Primitive Methodist Sunday school movement, as its conference vice president, and as lay delegate to its English conference in 1908. Following the unification of the New Zealand Methodist churches in 1913, he spoke at the Christchurch celebrations on ‘The layman’s place in the united church’, and served as vice president of the united conference.
The First World War had a marked impact on Holland’s private and public life. One son, Percy, was killed in action and another, Sidney, was invalided home with a serious illness after the battle of Messines (Mesen). On the outbreak of war Holland became chairman of the Canterbury Patriotic Fund, and thereafter served on numerous organisations assisting the war effort, including the National War Funds Council and the Lady Liverpool Fund. He was also active in the Red Cross, the Citizens’ Defence Corps, the Disabled Soldiers’ Re-establishment League, and the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association, of which he was made a life member. Other charitable organisations for which he laboured included the Sir Arthur Pearson Memorial Fund for the New Zealand Civilian Blind and the McLean Institute. He was prominent in organisations fostering Imperial links, serving as president of the Overseas Club and becoming a life member of the Victoria League. For his wartime work he was made an OBE and was subsequently made a CBE; Jane Holland was also appointed an OBE.
In 1919 Holland stood as an independent Liberal for Christchurch South and attempted to distance himself from the leadership of Sir Joseph Ward. Six years later he won the Christchurch North seat for the Reform Party, and held it in 1928 and 1931. Holland spoke infrequently in Parliament and generally concentrated on extolling the accomplishments of Reform and, after 1931, the coalition rather than attacking their opponents. However, in 1933 he strongly criticised his own government’s decision to force a lowering of the exchange rate, and he was a firm supporter of continued tariff protection for New Zealand’s secondary industries. His moral and religious beliefs made him a fierce opponent of any further relaxation of the laws against gambling. A fortnight before the 1935 election he was injured in a fall and obliged to relinquish his candidature, which was taken up by his son Sidney (later to become prime minister).
Henry Holland died on 29 December 1944 in Christchurch Hospital. He was survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters. Holland was notable for his strong religious convictions, quiet sincerity and businesslike approach to the numerous public duties he undertook.