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Benjafield, Harry (1845–1917)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Harry Benjafield (1845-1917), medical practitioner and entrepreneur, was born on 8 March 1845 at Silton, Dorset, England, son of Charles Benjafield, yeoman, and his wife Mary Ann, née Cross. Harry grew up on the family farm in Wiltshire, himself working on it as a youth. Interest in medicine impelled him to study first at University College, London, then at the University of Edinburgh (M.B., Ch.M., 1871)—always having to earn his livelihood. On 8 February 1873 at Zion Chapel, Stockport, he married Amelia Pywell, daughter of the presiding Baptist minister. Fulfilling Harry's long-indulged dreams of sunny Australia, the couple immediately sailed for Hobart. There he succeeded to the practice of Dr Ebenezer Atherton, said to be the city's first homoeopathic practitioner. In 1874 the tyro gave several public lectures on medical matters; lucid and informed, they perhaps offered most interest when following H. F. Maudsley on psychological issues. 'Nearly all our actions are animated by emotions in the shape of desire', went one dictum (in his 'A Lecture on ''The Mind”'). While the mainstream profession spurned homoeopathy, the industrious and dynamic Benjafield enjoyed remarkable success.

Claiming to own but £20 on arrival, by 1879 he was building a splendid home, The Willows, later Mimosa, reputedly costing £5000. There he raised five sons and five daughters. One son died in infancy. Several of the children helped their father's business ventures. The paterfamilias insisted that women could have no fulfilment but marriage.

Benjafield remained in active practice virtually life-long, stories telling of his skill, and readiness to serve the destitute without fee. He sought greater effectiveness of vaccination against smallpox by using calf (rather than human) lymph, and sent the product throughout Australia. In 1882 Benjafield contested the Hobart General Hospital's refusal to allow a homoeopathic ward, and later moved to establish a homoeopathic hospital (St John's, 1899). The man's most enduring enthusiasms were for the health-giving quality of pure air, clean water, ample sunshine and fresh food. He proposed an outdoor camp in bush Tasmania as a cure-resort for consumptives, such ideas running counter to the waxing popularity of supervised bed-rest as the best treatment. In disputing plans for a tuberculosis sanatorium in Hobart, Benjafield showed himself a bitter controversialist. He served as medical officer for various local government agencies.

Benjafield proved an entrepreneur. Buying a property, Derwent Park (later Albert Park, its homestead Dorset House), in Hobart's northern exurbia in 1881, he planned large-scale dairying. Labour costs impaired the operation. In 1891-92 scandal hovered as he sold the property to the government and then rebought it for less. The doctor and some relations, brought to Hobart for this purpose, remained interested in dairying, this story entailing tragedy in 1896 as the kin's business became the channel for fatal diphtheria. When inspected, Benjafield's own dairy was found but moderately clean. From around 1883 he had developed orchards at Albert Park and on a property at Nubeena, Tasman Peninsula. In time they prospered, and Benjafield was a major figure in the history of Tasmania's fruit industry. Building extensive cool-sheds and otherwise attending to market presentation, he exported much high-quality produce. The propagation of the Tasma (later Democrat) apple, and the introduction of many pome varieties were claimed for him, and the Royal Horticultural Society recognized his work. Sale for suburban development of part of Albert Park gave another bonus. The Benjafields moved to semi-retirement and Albert Park around 1905.

Since early days in Hobart, Benjafield preached and wrote in gospel/moralist style, and he did much to establish the city's formal Baptist Church. One complement was his support of the Friends' High School. Back in 1879, Benjafield had joined a Protestant reformist move in municipal politics, and he was later active on the Mount Stuart town board which he chaired in 1896-99. In 1895 he argued for bimetallism in a radical way; later words contemned 'political labourites', but on his death the leftist Daily Post was to eulogize 'A Life of Usefulness'.

In various British journals, as in 'The Tasmanian'—his autobiography written in 1914—Benjafield proclaimed the glorious beauty of Tasmania. Whereas his lectures of 1874 hinted that he found Tasmanians often dirty and shiftless, he now applauded their virtue, notably in surmounting the convict legacy. The veteran found neither desire nor time to return to Britain. Vigorous to the end, he died of a heart attack on 13 June 1917 at his home, his estate to be valued for probate at over £31,000. His wife and nine children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Rowston, One Hundred Years of Witness (Hob, 1984)
  • A. Alexander, Glenorchy 1804-1964 (Glenorchy, Tas, 1986)
  • M. Roe, Life Over Death (Hob, 1999)
  • L. Gannell, Inasmuch: St John’s Hospital, Hobart: 1899-1999 (Sandy Bay, Tas, 1999)
  • Dr Benjafield and the Derwent Park Estate, Journal and Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), paper no 108, vol 26, 1892
  • Diphtheria in Hobart and Neighbourhood, Journal and Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), paper no 21, vol 35, 1896
  • Cold, 7, 1916, p 87
  • Tasman Peninsula Chronicle, no 8, Apr 1998
  • Mercury (Hobart), 29 Apr 1879, p 3
  • 14 June 1917, p 6
  • NS 677/1 and AD960/38 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Benjafield, Harry (1845–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benjafield-harry-12793/text23085, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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