The legacy of Arthur HoltDoug Conway
Most Trinity students will step through the doors of the Arthur Holt Library hundreds – if not thousands – of times. It’s easy to forget that the name of the library honours a man who enjoyed a quintessential Trinity experience at a time when state-of-the-art facilities were harder to come by, and dedicated much of his life to shaping the future of the School.
Born in Burwood in 1921, Arthur Bisdee Holt was the youngest of six children – five boys and one girl.
The Holt family was one of note in Colonial Australia, with his great grandfather Thomas Holt being the first Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales, among many other significant contributions through land purchases, developmental projects and magnificent buildings.
All four of Arthur’s brothers attended Trinity for varying lengths of time between 1922 – 1937, while their father served as an original member of the School Council appointed by Synod in 1928. Arthur’s early education was conducted at ‘Koorali’, a preparatory school in Burwood that was known for feeding plenty of boys to Trinity and, in 1933, he started his own Trinity education, building on the strong connection he already had with the School.
In a recorded conversation with Mr Philip Heath, on the 31st May, 1988, Mr Holt shared many of his experiences at Trinity.
“I had the privilege of knowing so much about the School,” Mr Holt explained. “Before I came [to Trinity], I knew every member of the 1st XV, the 1st XI, who were the good swimmers, who were the good athletes. I used to be brought by my parents or my brothers down here when they were playing. When I was 8 or 9 or 10 years of age, I knew all about it!
“These guys were on a very high pedestal because they were big guys to me, in those days. Then, when I came to school, it was just like another boy coming back to school, because I knew so many of them in the senior classes.”
In particular, Mr Holt notes the kindness he saw from many of his schoolmates.
At the age of three, Arthur contracted polio. Nearly 30 years before the polio vaccine was developed, the illness left many children with a debilitating paralysis that could change the course of their lives.
With the help of homoeopathy and massage, Arthur was able to recover from the illness enough to ride a bike to school and participate in many fun activities throughout his time at Trinity, but he was always restricted by his disability, unable to compete in competitive sports as his elder brothers had.
“Being lame all my life, I remember the kindness that I got from each School Captain,” Mr Holt said, decades later, rattling off a long list of School Captains he had the pleasure of knowing. “They were very kind in looking after the younger new boy of the School and it remains in your memory. Of course, even now, when those boys come back to functions at the School, it’s great to renew those acquaintances and remind them of how kind they were to me, because it was a big help.”
While a young Arthur’s physical ability may have been restricted, his enthusiasm was not, and his love for sports at Trinity comes through loud and clear in the recorded conversation with Mr Heath. With ease, Mr Holt recalled the details of specific games, listed the names of athletes who saw their moment of glory, and remembered conversations overheard after matches or during School.
“I wasn’t able to take an interest in competitive sports. I played tennis – but only socially – at the School but I wasn’t able to do athletic swimming or football or cricket because of my incapacitation. But, in my association with the boys of my vintage who were in the sporting teams, I used to hear their conversations about what they didn’t have.
“You know, there was no gymnasium, there was no swimming pool, there were no facilities that the 1st XV have now. We never had any equipment for conditioning.”
Arthur came to Trinity at the tail end of the Great Depression – and at one time, there was a threat that the Sydney Diocese may close Trinity Grammar School down due to financial difficulties – and he recalled that while many students may have wished for better or more facilities, they never felt they were missing out.
“I don’t ever remember any period of my time at school that it was ever said that ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘You can’t do that’ because there was no money. We had our competition games between the other Associated Schools … there were never any of those matches cancelled. The life of the School was never stopped because of a lack.”
Mr Holt had heard that staff may have gone without salary or postponed payment of their salary during these difficult times, but he recognised that many of the Masters of the time were willing to do this – they knew that it wasn’t just Trinity going through a tough time, a lot of other schools were going through similar difficulties.
“We were very fortunate in having a father who could afford to send us to the School. So, we didn’t see any great effect of the School closing down, but times were tough – I know that.”
In fact, Mr Holt’s father, Thomas S Holt, may have had a hand in keeping Trinity afloat throughout those tougher times and shaping it into the School we know today.
“I can only say, as I had the privilege to administer his estate on his decease, there was evidence of correspondence, of letters of appreciation thanking him for his donations, particularly in the building of the School Chapel,” Mr Holt said. “There’s a very nice letter there from James Wilson Hogg who referred to his gift. But he was not a man to discuss any monetary side of it at all.”
Throughout his conversation with Mr Heath, Mr Holt also spoke very highly of Head Master Hilliard, who was at the helm when Mr Holt started at the School.
“He always made very loud noises by his footwear in walking around the wooden boards of Strathfield and you, in your classrooms, knew that the Head was coming well and truly before he got to the classroom. Of course, when he opened the door to commence teaching, every boy was in his place and ready to listen to his opening words.”
Mr Holt’s admiration of Mr Hilliard continued when he joined the School Council later many years after leaving Trinity.
“I only had a brief episode under Mr Hilliard as Chairman – he was the Chairman of the School Council for a long time – 1940-1960. It was often said that if you were a quarter of an hour late to the School Council, you missed the School Council meeting, because that was how he conducted his meetings,” he remembers with a laugh.
Mr Hilliard even conducted Mr Holt’s wedding to Elizabeth Mercia King in 1948.
“He left as Head Master, but he didn’t really ever leave Trinity,” Mr Holt said of Mr Hilliard. Words that, now, seem appropriate to apply to Mr Holt himself.
After leaving Trinity as a student, Mr Holt joined the School Council in 1960 as the Old Boys’ Representative and continued in this capacity until his retirement in 1981, also becoming the Chairman of the Council from 1975-1981.
In 1981, his final year on the Council, Mr Holt presided over the construction of the New School, including the Latham Theatre, at a cost of approximately $2.5 million. J.A. Collins noted, on Holt’s retirement that “the stabilising influence of such a Chairman is critical, and Mr Holt’s expertise, experience, and perspicacity will be sadly missed …”
About his own efforts, Mr Holt said that his main goals were to get the School on a good financial basis and to bring Trinity to the standard of other schools.
“What decision are you going to make that’s either going to make or break the School reputation?” He recalled asking himself. “Sometimes you had to go against your own personal viewpoint to save the name of the School – and that’s far more important than what I think.”
His time on the School Council may have ended, but Mr Holt’s contribution to Trinity life certainly didn’t. In the early 1980s, he worked to establish the Trinity Foundation as a fundraising department and served as the Senior Vice President of the Foundation from its launch in 1986 until his resignation in 1994.
In 2002, the Triangle recorded his donation of $400,000 to the Library Trust and $100,000 to the Building Fund. This significant amount is what has allowed the Arthur Holt Library to become such a bustling hub within the School today.
“Consciously or not, a space sets the stage for how we work, study, and play,” said Ms Stefanie Gaspari, past Director of Library Services. “The innovative design of the Arthur Holt Library makes a statement about the School as a whole – that learning is at the heart of what we do.”
“The research tells us that if we can urge and excite our boys to read for pleasure, the value-add to their lives is limitless. Aside from the obvious communication and literacy skills, there are so many physical and mental health benefits, ranging from higher levels of self-esteem, to increased empathy and better sleeping patterns.”
“Winston Churchill is known to have said: ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us.’ The School’s investment in Library Services, made somewhat possible by Mr Holt, are a testament to the passion we share as a community to promote lifelong learning, model good reading habits, and, ultimately, to provide our boys with an enriched student experience.”
Mr Holt passed away in 2004, but it’s clear that his significant contribution to Trinity – through his time, money, efforts, and enthusiasm – is still being felt today in myriad ways.
Now, the Trinity education that Mr Holt spent decades of his life shaping and preserving, is being experienced by his Great Grandson, Oliver McComb. Mr Holt was the father of Oliver’s paternal Grandmother. Now in Year 9 and in Henderson house – the same House that his Great Grandfather was in – Oliver is proud of the contribution made by his family.
“I don’t know much about him, but I do know that he was a big part of Founders’ Building,” Oliver says. “I feel quite proud that [his name] is up there – it’s pretty cool.”
Oliver’s connection to the School has gone largely under the radar with his friends unaware of the link between the name emblazoned on the Library and their schoolmate.
“I haven’t really thought about what they’d think if I told them about it,” Oliver laughs.
Regardless of his connection to its namesake, Oliver enjoys the Library just as much as his friends, recognising how important the building is for learning and enjoyment, often heading to the ‘Other Worlds’ section to seek out his next read.
“Sci-books – they’re definitely my favourite,” he says. “If I was getting a book, that’s usually where I’d look.”
You may not find Mr Holt’s name on lists of high achievers – there isn’t even evidence of him passing Intermediate or Leaving Certificates – and his disability prevented him from competing in the sports that he loved to watch, but there is no doubt that Mr Arthur Holt had the ultimate Trinity experience, fully immersing himself in Trinity life, and finally becoming instrumental in influencing the School and facilities that continues to serve students, nearly a century after he first set foot in the School himself.