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Chester, Henry Marjoribanks (1832–1914)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Henry Marjoribanks Chester (1832-1914), public servant, was born on 30 December 1832 in London, son of William Chester, curate of Cripplegate Parish Church. After education at Christ's Hospital, the London School in Newgate Street and the Royal Mathematical School, he entered the service of the Indian navy in 1849, and remained an officer in it until its abolition in 1862. During this period he saw service in the Persian Gulf, took part in the suppression of piracy and slave-running, and was for a time political agent at the court of Oman and Muscat. Despite the experience gained in this adventurous career, he saw no future for himself in India as a civilian or as a family man. At St Luke's Church, Chelsea, on 4 December 1860 he had married a widow, Egbertha Emily Wardell, née Lucas.

In 1862 Chester decided to migrate to Queensland. After working in the Brisbane branch of the Union Bank of Australia, he entered the public service in January 1866. At first in the Lands Department he was responsible for surveying the town sites of Charleville and Cunnamulla, and then became government land agent at Gladstone in 1867 and Gympie in 1868. In January 1869 he was appointed police magistrate at Somerset, on the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula, but resigned in August 1870 and quitted the civil service for five years.

From 1875 to 1903 Chester served continually as a police magistrate. With his previous experience in outposts of empire, he was often appointed to remote and difficult communities in north Queensland. Decisive and hard-working, he had a good conceit of his office which at times verged on the pompous and autocratic, particularly in later life when his manner provoked the irreverence of village radicals. He returned to Somerset in succession to George Dalrymple in September 1875. It was a decaying settlement frequented by a rough assortment of pearlers, blackbirders, and bêche-de-mer fishers, and on Chester's advice the Queensland government transferred his headquarters in 1877 to a more central position at Thursday Island. There he ruled for eight years, establishing a relatively orderly if polyglot community with a thriving pearling industry whose annual exports were valued at £87,000 in 1885. His moment of glory came late in March 1883. Sir Thomas McIlwraith, disturbed by Britain's reluctance to annex a promising field for investment in Papua, sent orders to Chester to go immediately to the infant settlement of Port Moresby and take possession of the unoccupied eastern half of New Guinea. Sailing north in the Pearl, Chester planted the Union Jack at Port Moresby on 4 April 1883 and, as befitted an old naval officer, took the opportunity of shelling a warlike party of Motu who were thought to threaten the security of the port. This act of occupation was later disowned by the British government, who delayed claiming any part of New Guinea until after German annexation of the north-east in 1884. Chester visited New Guinea again in the Victoria in 1885, but this time with the less glamorous mission of repatriating natives illegally recruited for sugar growing.

In April 1885 Chester was transferred to Cairns, where he promoted the formation of a Volunteer Defence Corps, one of several formed then in Queensland through fear of Russian designs, and served as lieutenant. But he was not popular with the easy-going townspeople and was lampooned by a local editor as the subject of the notorious 'Cairns prayer'. In June 1887 the Griffith government was moved to transfer him to Cloncurry. Rather than accept demotion to such a remote post, Chester tendered his resignation, and in November the government appointed him police magistrate at the new Croydon goldfield. There he gave satisfaction and was transferred in 1891 to Cooktown and in 1898 to Clermont. This town struck him as filthy and insanitary, and he instigated a cleaning-up campaign which met opposition from a complacent mayor who wanted to keep rates low, and from Vincent Lesina, the local Labor M.L.A. who, on the strength of Chester's past history at Cairns, was prepared to bait him as a reactionary. This time the Queensland government was not prepared to entertain complaints against Chester and he remained at Clermont until transferred in 1902 to Gladstone. He retired in 1903 and died in Brisbane on 3 October 1914, survived by two of his three sons.

Select Bibliography

  • P. W. van der Veur, Search for New Guinea's Boundaries (Canberra, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1877, 1, 689, 1833, 1, 773, 1886, 2, 1053, 1899, 3, 485
  • Bulletin, 9 June 1883
  • Brisbane Courier, 4 Oct 1914.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Chester, Henry Marjoribanks (1832–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chester-henry-marjoribanks-3199/text4805, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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