Page 1: Biography
Builder, undertaker, timber merchant, sawmiller
This biography, written by Michael Roche, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Robert Holt was born at Oldham, Lancashire, England, probably in 1832 or 1833, the son of Thomas Holt, a millwright, and his wife, Sarah Leech. He served his apprenticeship as a joiner and patternmaker, later working in the Lancashire cotton industry as a millwright. Depressed conditions in the industry prompted him to emigrate to New Zealand. He arrived on the barque William Watson at Auckland on 8 February 1859.
After travelling by coastal schooner to Napier, Robert Holt worked there as a carpenter, joiner, builder and, concurrently for a time in the 1860s, an undertaker. Tall, sinewy and bearded, he played the cello and was a committee member of the local choral society. On 4 December 1860 at Napier, Holt married Elizabeth Marshall, a Scot who had also emigrated on the William Watson. The couple were to have three sons and two daughters. Although reputed to have arrived in New Zealand with only a half-crown to his name, by August 1868 Holt owned a freehold section in Napier.
Holt served in the Napier Rifle Volunteers. He was a participant in the attack at Omarunui in 1866 on a group of Maori who were thought to be a Hauhau war party advancing on Napier. In 1874 he was rewarded for his military service with a 63-acre Crown grant at Ruataniwha.
By August 1869 Holt had purchased in Napier two sections and a site for his business. After reselling one section to the Union Bank of Australia he was able to recoup his original outlay. About 1872 he relocated his business from Emerson Street to Hastings Street and installed a steam-powered sawmill. By 1880 he had further expanded his operations to include a second steam sawmill at Port Ahuriri. Holt was selling kauri imported from Auckland as well as rimu, totara and kahikatea. These woods were machined into a wide range of end-lines such as tongue-and-groove flooring, house blocks, posts, palings and scantling.
In 1886 Holt established new premises on a two-acre site in Thackeray Street, Napier, close to the railway station, and erected a sawmill at Piripiri near Dannevirke. By 1905 the Piripiri mill employed 22 hands cutting rimu, matai and totara destined for house construction in Napier and Hastings. A further sawmill was built at Kereru in 1908.
Following a fire at B. L. Knight's in 1897, Holt purchased this rival Hastings firm. The premises were situated opposite the railway line, giving Holt a more central location from which to serve the Heretaunga plain with timber, firewood and coal. His son, John Holt, formerly assistant manager of the Napier branch, became the new manager. Holt's Napier mill and factory by 1905 employed 60 staff resawing logs from his Piripiri sawmill and other local sawmills; the timber sawn was used locally for house construction and shipped coastwise. Around 1910 the firm began trading under the name of Robert Holt and Sons. Holt was a member of the Wellington Timber-merchants' Association from at least 1907 and his mill was a party to various award rulings of the Court of Arbitration from that time. He did not, however, attend timber industry conferences and meetings. He was preoccupied with his successful family firm which included his two brothers, James Albert and Walter, and sons John, James and Robert.
Robert Holt died at Napier on 21 June 1909; his wife, Elizabeth, died on 24 May 1913. After Holt's death, his sons John and Robert took over as joint managing directors. The firm became a limited liability company in 1929 and in 1971, by now public, merged with Carter Consolidated to form Carter Holt Holdings.