Thursday, September 4, 2003

Herbert Holt

The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography has the following entry;

“Holt, Sir Herbert Samuel (1856-1941), financier, who was born in Dublin, Ireland on February 12th 1856.  He studied civil engineering in Ireland and came to Canada in 1875.  For several years he was employed on the staffs of several railways in Ontario and Quebec as an engineer and in 1883/’84 he was engineer and superintendent of construction on the prairie and mountain divisions of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He then became a railway contractor and between 1884 and 1892 he carried out several contracts in different parts of Canada, the last in partnership with Messrs. MacKenzie and Mann.  After 1892 he turned his attention to banking and finance, and he was president of the Sovereign Bank from 1902 to 1904 and of the Royal Bank from 1907 to 1934.  He then became Chairman of the Board of the Royal Bank and he retained this position until his death at Montreal, Quebec on September 29th 1941.  He was created a knight bachelor in 1915.”

The brief entry for Holt who was the most powerful Canadian businessman for more than 40 years prior to the Great Depression makes no mention of his links with Athy.  Holt was born on 12th February 1855 to William Grattan Holt of Geashill, Co. Offaly and his wife Mary Jane (nee Hannon), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Hannon of Prumplestown Mills, Castledermot.  Geashill was the place of birth and not Dublin as stated in the Macmillan Dictionary and the child was baptised in St. Mary’s Parish Church, Geashill the following 26th April.  William Grattan Holt was the youngest son of Samuel and Ann Holt who held leases of lands totalling more than 450 acres at Coolavacooace and Haggart Farm, both near Carbury in Co. Kildare.  On marrying Mary Jane Hannon, William Grattan Holt took a five year lease on a 291 acre farm known as Ballycrystal in Geashill, Co. Offaly.  It proved not to be a successful enterprise and on expiration of the lease Holt moved to a smaller farm at nearby Alderboro.  This too proved to be an unsuccessful venture and the sudden death of William Holt in December 1862 at the age of 35 years plunged his wife and four young children into poverty.  Mary Jane Holt had no option but to give up the Alderboro Farm and move to Portarlington where she got work as a housekeeper.  Her two sons, Thomas, aged nine years and Herbert, one year younger, were taken into the care of their uncle, Henry Hannon, who had succeeded his father John as proprietor of Prumplestown Mills in Castledermot. 

The two young Holt boys were placed in the Dundalk Institute, an agricultural school already attended by members of the Hannon family.  There they remained for two years and after that the Holt brothers attended Athy Model Agricultural School.  Attached to the Model School which had opened on the Dublin Road on 12th August 1852 the Agricultural School was intended to showcase the best farming methods in the South Kildare area by using up to date techniques and offering advice and guidance to local farmers.  It also offered training for young men desirous of becoming Agricultural Teachers or Land Stewards and the pupils attending the Agricultural School did so as boarders.  Athy’s Model Agricultural School when opened in 1852 had approximately 19 acres of farmland.  It was extended three years later to 64½ acres and under the guidance of William Ledlie who was appointed Agriculturist in 1860, the school flourished.  Thomas and Herbert Holt remained as pupils of Athy’s Agricultural School for 1½ years.  During the principalship of Mrs. Ellis Kemp who retired in the 1960’s, a press was found on the school premises which bore the name “H. Holt” carved into it.  I wonder is it still there?

The Holt brothers next transferred from Athy to the Albert Agricultural Training Institute in Glasnevin, Dublin where they spent the next two years.  All this time they were in the care of their uncle Henry Hannon of Prumplestown Mills who later came to live in Ardreigh House, Athy where he died in 1904.  Within the Hannon family it is believed that Henry Hannon presented Herbert Holt and his brother Tom with £100 after both had finished in the Albert Institute to enable them to travel to Canada “to make their fortunes”.  Herbert, the one time pupil of Athy’s Agricultural Model School would do just that in spectacular fashion and would in time become Canada’s most prominent businessman.

The Holt brothers arrived in Canada in 1873 and not 1875 as stated in Macmillan’s Dictionary of Biography.  Herbert held a variety of jobs before making his fortune helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1883 and 1886.  He took up residence in Montreal in 1892 and before long he got control of the gas and electricity outlets for the city when he successfully managed a merger of existing public utility companies to head up the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company.

However it is as President of Canada’s Royal Bank, which position he occupied from 1901 to 1934, that Herbert Holt is best remembered today.  He joined the Royal Bank after an earlier stint as President of a Toronto based bank, “The Sovereign”, and led the bank’s expansion which saw it become in time Canada’s largest banking institution.  At the same time Holt was a board member of numerous commercial companies including such prestigious ones as Canadian Pacific and Sun Life.  Holt’s name was synonymous with corporate business in Canada and he was believed to be Canada’s richest businessman.  When the Great Depression came in 1929 and business failures became the order of the day Holt, like everyone else, was placed under tremendous pressure.  In his case, however, having played such a prominent part in the development of Canadian business he became associated in the public mind with the problems stemming from the Depression.  One unfortunate result of this was the attempted assassination of Herbert Holt in 1932 by the President of the Montreal Stock Exchange, W.E. Luther.  Mr. Luther who suffered substantial losses in stocks and shares held in companies controlled by Herbert Holt, shot at Holt as he arrived in his offices in Central Montreal.  Believing he had killed Holt, Luther returned to his own home and committed suicide.  Holt was in fact uninjured and his power and influence in Canada and Montreal was amply confirmed by the local and National newspaper’s failure to publicise what had happened. 

Holt retired as President of the Royal Bank in 1934 and concentrated his energies on the building of a mansion on the outskirts of Nassau in the Bahamas.  When it was finished, he called his summer retreat Ballycrystal, recalling the name of the farm his father had leased in Geashill, Co. Offaly but which he lost when the young Herbert Holt was just one year old.

Canada’s most famous businessman and banker died in Montreal in September 1941.  So far as I can ascertain he never returned to Ireland after emigrating in 1873.

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