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Boan, Henry (1860–1941)

by Toby Manford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Henry Boan (1860-1941), retailer and sportsman, was born on 4 November 1860 at Jones Creek near Dunolly, Victoria, son of Thomas Boan, miner and road contractor, and his wife Rachel, née Isaacs. Sketchily educated at Dunolly, where his English-born parents had settled in the 1850s after some time in California, United States of America, he left his poor but secure Jewish home at 16 to work as a messenger in Flegeltaub's Ballarat warehouse for 10s. a week and keep. Promoted to town-traveller at £2 10s. a week, he soon resigned, failed to find a niche in Melbourne and, after working his way to Sydney, lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Posts in mercantile houses like Anthony Hordern's and David Jones's were lost from pride and impulsiveness. For four years he drifted from job to job in Sydney, Brisbane, Toowoomba, Charters Towers and elsewhere, and was often penniless.

Harry Boan never lost faith in his ability or prospects, and in 1886 his parents offered him their £200 savings to make a fresh start. With his brother Ernest, he opened a store in booming Broken Hill. His imaginative buying and advertising soon produced a turnover of £1000 a week. Expanding steadily, Boan Bros was soon the leading drapery establishment of the 'Silver City'. In the mid-1890s Broken Hill was crippled by strikes; in 1895 Harry sold out to his brother and migrated with another brother Benjamin to Western Australia, where gold-fever had created an expanding market. The site selected for their store was marginal and swampy, but was directly opposite the central railway station. Despite a chronic shortage of labour and materials and the need to borrow £62,000, a single-storey building was erected within four months. On 17 June 1896 in Sydney, with Hebrew rites, Harry married Sophie, daughter of the merchant Barnett Bebarfald; they had four children.

Boan had a fine physique, a neat beard and a distinguished manner. He dressed smartly, talked fluently and well, and loved an audience. His promotional methods startled parochial Perth. When Boan Bros opened on 7 November 1895 it almost sold out, and had to close for a day to replenish stock and recruit a hundred more assistants. By the 1920s it was called 'the people's store'; free trains and taxis brought customers to and from its birthday-sales. Though much was spent on lifts and other facilities, little went on frills and the floor-boards remained bare. Local enterprise was encouraged by special promotion of Western Australian goods, and a factory was established to service the store.

Benjamin's death in 1901 gave Harry sole control, and he bought land adjoining the store in 1910. Before expanding through to Murray Street next year, he toured Europe and America, seeking ideas. About 1913 his wife and children settled in England; henceforth he lived alone in Perth hotels.

Boan was elected unopposed to the Legislative Council in April 1917, but resigned suddenly in February 1918 after criticism of the opening in his store of a branch of the State Savings Bank. Soon afterwards, he floated the store as a limited company, left for England, living in Park Lane, London, and at Cobham, Surrey. In July 1919 at the Guards' Chapel, his second daughter married the earl of Athlumney, an Irish peer. In 1928 his elder daughter, widowed in World War I, married Lieutenant P. G. Agnew, R.N., who was created a baronet in 1957. Returning to Perth about 1920 Boan was re-elected to the Legislative Council as a Nationalist candidate in November 1922; he did not renominate in 1924.

Politics seemingly bored him, but horses, both on the turf and in the hunting-field, were a consuming passion. He was a fine judge of horseflesh and his racing stud brought him many trophies: Tanami cost him £300 and won over £5000, including the Australian Jockey Club Derby of 1910, while Maltfield won £1750 and Maltblossom £1250. He took a close paternal interest in the Children's Hospital, served as president of its board and made frequent generous donations.

Following the death of an elder son who had been intended to succeed him, Boan gladly relinquished control of the store to his son Frank who returned from England late in 1929. By about 1932 Harry turned to serious horse-breeding and racing, and settled in Melbourne near a brother and sister. He died at Caulfield of chronic heart and kidney conditions on 18 March 1941, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, Perth, with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • V. Courtney, Perth and All This (Syd, 1962)
  • Daily News (Perth), 2, 5 May 1928, 6 Nov 1930, 16 Oct 1931
  • Westralian Worker, 9 Nov 1928, 8 Nov 1929
  • Mirror (Perth), 24 Aug 1929, 7 Nov 1930, 30 Nov 1935
  • West Australian, 8 Nov 1931, 19 Mar 1941
  • New Call, 14 Apr 1932
  • Weekend Magazine, 7 July 1969.

Citation details

Toby Manford, 'Boan, Henry (1860–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boan-henry-5274/text8891, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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