A Proposal For a TV Programme About the Holian Family




On June 7, 1841, the sailing ship Frankfield berthed at Sandridge (later Port Melbourne) at the top of Port Phillip Bay ending a 4 month journey from the English port of Liverpool. It was only six years after the settlement of Melbourne. Amongst the 301 passengers was an Irish family named Holian made up of the parents, two sons and two daughters (the family had previously travelled from Galway, Ireland, to catch the ship to Australia).




This was the beginning of the Holian story in Australia. It is the story of how the Holian family expanded to over 3650 descendants (traced and/or researched) in 2011. It is an ordinary story, but also a remarkable story. It is truly an Australian story - of immigrants coming to Australia and going about their lives and forging a new nation. The post-WWII migrations of Italians, Greeks and other nationalities are well documented, but little is known about the lives of these very early settlers. The history of these pioneers is not written in scholarly books, or PhD theses, with well-documented sources, but by small groups of enthusiastic descendants wanting to know about their family origins.


Most of the information in this paper comes from The Holians, A Galway Family in Australia by Des Regan (assisted by many other enthusiastic Holian descendants). If the reader would like more information about a particular issue, they should first refer to this invaluable source.


The following story is broken into a number of parts. Part 1 is about the arrival of the migrants. Part 2 is about the first generation. As such it tells how the new immigrant family established itself in the Port Phillip District. Part 3 is about Holians relocating to North East Victoria and the rapid expansion of the family. At the end of Part 3 there are suggestions about possible stories of Holian descendants which illustrate the lives of the children of this first generation born at St James/Devenish. Part 4 tells stories about various Holian families and how the Holian family tree was constructed. Part 5 is about the connection the Holians had with the Kelly gang.



Mr and Mrs Holian werenÕt young parents. Both Michael and Catherine were 55 years of age when they stepped off the Frankfield at Sandridge. Their eldest child Bridget was 19, Patrick was 18, Margaret 16 and John 13. The reasons for the family coming to Australia arenÕt known. They left Ireland 5 years before the devastating potato blight caused a complete failure of the potato crop and the Famine of 1846. The Victorian (Victoria was not yet a colony) gold rushes didnÕt occur until gold was discovered at Ballarat (then still bushland) 10 years later in 1851. Their success as farmers in Australia is a strong indication they were farmers in Ireland where many farmers worked tiny allotments due to population pressures and a limited amount of land. At that time, the wide-open spaces of America, Canada and Australia held out the promise of land enough to support a family and that one day it might become their own. It is thought this was their reason for emigrating and is supported by what the family achieved in Australia.


The reason the Frankfield berthed at Sandridge was the Yarra River at that time was in its natural state and very different to now. Gary Presland says "Navigating on the river had always been a problem because of its narrow width and the fact the water contained many snags and obstructions. É mudflats posed a regular hindrance" (The Place for a Village, 2009). Kristin Otto confirms "it could take days by sail to pass the lower reach of the river, from Queens Wharf in the centre of Melbourne across Hobsons Bay to Williamstown. You might get stuck on a mudbank waiting in deep tedium for the tide É or be becalmed and wait for wind in Humbug Reach, where the Yarra did one of its 200-degree turns, picking up the Maribyrnong River on the way" (Yarra, A diverting HISTORY, 2005). Gary Presland adds "many new arrivals walked to the town from Sandridge É The time taken to walk the distance of just over three kilometres took less time than a boat to make the longer trip up the river, although the trek across marshy land posed some problems". The trip by boat was 9 km.


Soon after disembarking, the Holians experienced a blow which must have cast a deep pall over their arrival in their new land. Setting off on foot with other passengers for Melbourne, somehow the young John became separated from the rest of the family. We donÕt know how it happened or how they responded, but no matter how hard they looked, the 13 year old couldnÕt be found. They had lost him! Happily, John and his family were eventually re-united, but it wasnÕt until the late 1840s when the family was living in the Geelong area. What happened to John in the meantime and how they were re-united isnÕt known.



Soon after arriving in Melbourne the Holian family went to work for a squatter Dr Edward Hobson on Kangerong Station on the Mornington Peninsula near present day Tootgarook. They remained a little over two years. In late 1843 they moved to the Geelong area to work as farm hands. Around 1847 they stepped up from hired hands to become tenant farmers renting a farm in the Barrabool Hills west of Geelong.


The Holians were a devout Catholic family which carried on through the generations. In March 1845 Bridget married a Patrick Gavin. Four years later in April 1849, Patrick married Bridget Costello, a Famine Orphan from Moylough, Galway who had arrived in Victoria in December 1848. Bridget married Patrick; Patrick married Bridget. Must have been popular names!


In February 1851, the Geelong area and wider afield experienced devastating bushfires. On February 6 the Barrabool Hills were hit by an inferno and The Australian and New Zealand Gazette reported Michael Holien had the produce of 102 acres of ground, with his houses and one barn burnt; he has saved but one hut. The work of four years was wiped out in a single night. In those days there wasnÕt the government support programs available today.


The spelling of the Holian name should be noted. The family had been re-united with their lost son John, but seems that during his period of separation a different spelling of his name crept in (it is understood John was illiterate when he arrived in Australia) resulting in a ŌHolienÕ wing of the family coming into being.


A few months after the devastating bushfires a rich goldfield was discovered north of Geelong in an area which became known as Ballarat. This discovery, and others soon to follow in a narrow arc of Bendigo, Castlemaine, Stawell and Ararat, transformed the colony with a huge goldrush which increased the population of the colony from 77,000 in 1851 to 500,000 in 1860.


It seems the Holians were resilient. They built up the farm again and it is said they built a profitable business using their bullocks and drays to haul provisions to the nearby goldfields. They resisted the temptation to try their luck at the diggings.


As the four Holian children grew up and married, some went their separate ways. The younger daughter Margaret married Matthew Florio in 1852. The Florios appear to have been fisherman, so it is likely Margaret and Matthew lived in Geelong. John married Hannah Demsey in 1853 and settled at Mount Duneed (south of Geelong). Bridget had married in 1845 (see above) and appears to have spent the rest of her life around Ballarat.


Around 1857 Old Michael and Catherine, together with Patrick, Bridget and their children left their Barrabool Hills farm and went to work for wealthy squatters, the Armytage family, who constructed a pastoral empire in the Western District and built their beautiful Melbourne residence Como in South Yarra, which is now owned and maintained as a historic home and garden by the National Trust.


The Holians moved to Bambra Parish (halfway between Lorne and Birregurra with the parish centred on Deans Marsh) and spent 17 years in the employ of the Armytages. By 1862 Patrick was sufficiently well off to select 235 acres. He later relinquished half the acreage, but fully paid off 117 acres at the rate of £1 per acre. He also purchased 119 acres near Geelong. Old MichaelÕs wife Catherine died suddenly in August 1866 at the age of 80 years.


Patrick was evidently keen to expand his land holdings, but by the early 1870s there was little suitable land in the Geelong area so Patrick began to look further afield. By mid-1874, the decision had been made to select land in North East Victoria in the adjoining parishes of St James and Devenish (30 km north of Benalla).



Selection of land was important for the Holians as a means of acquiring land. It was made possible by the 1869 Land Act which made all Crown land, not previously occupied in Victoria, open for selection. The aim of the legislation was to encourage settlement on lands and development of land. A maximum of 320 acres could be selected by one individual.


A would-be selector had to delineate the chosen land with conspicuous trenches and rock cairns around its perimeter and then apply for a Licence. The licence allowed three years to fence the land, cultivate 10% and prove residence of two years. An annual rent was paid to the Crown of two shillings per acre. At the end of the three-year licence, if the requirements had been met, the selector could apply for a seven-year lease. The same rent was paid and after ten years, the selector would have paid £1 per acre - the purchase price of the land - and the selector could obtain a crown grant of the land. During the seven-year lease the selector could, at any time, pay out the balance of the purchase price and obtain the grant.


At the beginning of November 1874, Old Michael and Patrick, Bridget and their family of twelve children (oldest 24 years of age and the youngest less than one year) loaded up their bullock drays and began the long, slow trek to North East Victoria taking around four weeks to cover the 200 miles (320 km). It must have been quite a sight. There werenÕt made roads or bridges.


Although an individualÕs selection was limited to 320 acres, family members could act as individuals and apply for allotments of adjoining land. Because Patrick retained his previously selected 117 acres at Bambra, he was only permitted to apply for 202 acres. As Old Michael hadnÕt previously selected land, he applied for the full 320 acres (at the age of 89!). PatrickÕs son, Young Michael applied for 279 acres (heÕd already selected 35 acres at Bambra in 1873 at an age of 23).


The family decided to live on Old MichaelÕs selection and set about building a seven-roomed house, 30 feet (9.1 m) long by 20 feet (6.1 m) wide. Once settled, the family selected more land. PatrickÕs daughter Catherine selected the adjoining block to the east.  Later in 1877, the final piece in the Holian land jigsaw was put in place when PatrickÕs brother John selected 99 acres of wattle scrub between PatrickÕs selection and Young MichaelÕs selection (this was the land Thomas Walker acquired before marrying Bridget Holian – see 4. The Holians Spread Out).


The 1883 Survey Maps of Devenish and St James Parishes (see 5. An Overview of Holian Land Selections) show Old MichaelÕs selection spanned the border of the two parishes with the much larger part in Devenish. The house was on the Devenish (southern) side of the St James/Devenish boundary road. CatherineÕs selection was in Devenish between Old MichaelÕs selection and the future railway line. However, all of the other Holian selections were in St James Parish on the north side of the road. Today the road, which is still unmade, is the border of Moira Shire and Benalla Rural City.


Old Michael died September 10 1875 (aged 90), less than a year after the family had arrived. Patrick took over Old MichaelÕs Selection Licence, bringing his total area of land held under Licence to 598 acres. In 1877 and 8, having complied with the licence conditions, Patrick applied for 13 and 14 year leases so that the rent payments would pay off the properties. On June 16 1891, Patrick received a Crown Grant for his 202 acres, and on July 14 1892 received one for the 320 acres he had taken over from Old Michael. Fifty years of hard work had paid off.


All of Patrick and BridgetÕs children were born before departing the Western District and none of the children were married (it should be noted there was a 24 year spread in birth dates). However, it wasnÕt long before a number had tied the knot. 1877 was the first year a child of Patrick and Bridget married and it was a busy one with three getting married and a fourth in 1878. Overall, ten of Patrick and BridgetÕs children married and had children. And they were a bountiful lot producing a total of 76 offspring. In other words, in the first Holian generation at St James/Devenish there were 76 Cousins, hence the name of this story.



It isnÕt easy to write about Patrick and BridgetÕs children and their 76 offspring as very little is known about them. Their story can possibly be better told through the next generation who are closer to the present; there are some still alive, or their lives can be remembered.


Candidates for their story to be told will be decided in consultation with Holian descendants. Each of the candidates is a child of the 76 cousins and a grandchild of the ten productive children of Patrick and Bridget. Initial suggestions for possible  stories include the following.


Vince Michael Holian (1926 - 2014). Vince was the second child of Vincent Goodwin Holian (1891 – 1960) who was the sixth child of Michael Holian (1850 - 1914). A concise story of VinÕs life and his role in establishing the Holian family tree has been written and is available.


Sister Ursula Marie Gilbert (1932). Ursula was the first child of Jack Gilbert (1896 - 1972) who was the tenth child of Mary Ann Holian (1855 - 1930). A concise story of UrsulaÕs life and her role in establishing the Holian family tree has been written and is available.


Mary Josephine Joan Cecilia Holian (1912 - 2005). Mary was the third child of Patrick Ambrose Holian (1878 - 1919) who was the first child of Michael Holian (1850 - 1914). Mary was the mother of the author of this document. MaryÕs story is being written.