Holymans of Bass Strait
by Julian Burgess
A Holyman flagged ship hasn’t steamed up the River Derwent since 1984 but the company’s name still proudly adorns its former offices at 5 Morrison Street, Hobart.
The Wm. Holyman and Sons office was once a depot for its Tasmanian and interstate sea cargo and passenger services as well as handling bookings for Australian National Airways (ANA). The company founder, William Holyman, was a young English seaman who jumped ship at George Town on the Tamar River in 1854. By the 1860s he was in command of his own vessel trading out of the Mersey River. Within 30 years his three sons were in command of vessels in a growing fleet flying the company’s White Star Line flag around the Tasmanian coastline and further afield.
By the 1900s William Holyman Junior had moved the company’s headquarters from Devonport to Launceston, and his brother James was based in the Port of Hobart. Captain James Holyman was 34 when he took command of the SS Koonookarra, a passenger and cargo ship of 161 tonnes, bought by the company in 1901 for the Tasmanian lighthouse resupply service and to trade up the state’s East Coast. SS Koonookarra made regular trips to Maria Island, Swansea and St Helens and must have been a welcome sight for lighthouse keepers at remote places such as Eddystone Point, Swan, Goose and Deal Islands, Cape Wickham, Currie Harbour and Maatsuyker Island. In 1912 the SS Koomeela, of 191 tonnes, built for Wm. Holyman and Sons in Sydney replaced the Koonookarra. The new ship was still trading out of the Derwent up to the start of World War II.
James Holyman, who lived in Battery Point, was twice married and had eleven children. His brother William Junior also had a large family and many members of the Holyman family worked in the family businesses. On the death of William Senior in 1921 James Holyman became head of Wm. Holyman and Sons.
Over the next 20 years he and the third generation of Holymans continued to build the family’s sea, air and road transport businesses. Victor and Ivan took the family into aviation in the 1930s with Holyman Airways. Tragically Victor Holyman and the passengers in his plane Miss Hobart disappeared in Bass Strait in 1934.
Guided by Ivan Holyman (later Sir Ivan), Holyman Airways became Australian National Airways in 1936 and grew into an important player in international aviation. Ivan and his cousin, Keith Holyman, were involved in many other businesses. Keith Holyman bought Hobart’s prestigious Wrest Point Riviera Hotel in 1946 to develop the tourism potential of ANA’s air passenger services. Ross Holyman, who trained as a marine engineer, became a tutor at the Hobart Technical School and later owned the State Theatre and managed Moonah Theatres Ltd.
The Holymans’ other Tasmanian business interests included car sales (they were the first Australian Datsun dealers), food processing factories and timber mills. Their last ship was the MV Mary Holyman that made its last trip to Hobart in 1984.
The recently published book Holyman’s of Bass Strait tells the story of this family of pioneering mariners and aviators.