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Cuthbert, Sir Henry (1829–1907)

by M. Martina Benson

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

Sir Henry Cuthbert (1829-1907), lawyer and politician, was born on 29 July 1829 at Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland, the eldest son of John Cuthbert, landowner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Headen. At Drogheda Grammar School he won the classical medal, and went on to study law. In 1852 he received his articles from the crown solicitor of King's County and County Westmeath, and after a year's practice in Kilkenny was admitted a solicitor in the High Court of Chancery of Ireland. In May 1854 he sailed for Melbourne in the Bloomer with his younger brother, Kingston. Later all his four brothers, his father and his sister joined him in the colony.

After Cuthbert arrived he had to wait three months before he was admitted a solicitor in the Supreme Court of Victoria. He opened a practice in Ballarat, and his success indicates that he had both ambition and ability. In his first case he established the individual's right to legal representation in the local Miners' Court. Later he was involved in some of Victoria's most celebrated cases: he won the Learmonth-Bailey dispute over the Egerton mine in 1874-77 for the defendants; defended the Great Extended Mining Co. in its triangular suit with the Band of Hope and Kohinoor mines; and, after the Ballarat Water Co. lost its case when sued by the contractors for the Gong Gong reservoir, he prevailed upon the premier to advance the money to ensure that the waterworks remained Ballarat property.

Cuthbert's interest in mining was not confined to its legal aspects. In 1857 on land held by the Learmonth brothers at Buninyong he took up forty acres (16 ha) as a leasehold claim; this was only the second such lease in Victoria because the tenure was suspect; it was not made secure until 1884 when on Cuthbert's initiative the Mining on Private Property Act was passed. Meanwhile within six months of its formation his Buninyong Gold Mining Co. had struck gold at Scotchman's lead, and later bought the whole of the Learmonths' 1100 acres (445 ha) for £20,000.

By his early interest in such local affairs as forming the Ballarat Gas Co. in 1857, Cuthbert soon established himself as a local figure; on 28 September 1860 he laid the cornerstone of the Mechanics' Institute and about the same time built his stately Beaufort House (now a teachers' hostel). On 28 May 1863 he married Emma Wilmer, née Kirby, the widow of Thomas, eldest son of Captain Hepburn of Smeaton Park; they had two sons and a daughter.

Cuthbert became increasingly involved in local affairs and amassing a fortune, until in 1874 he was petitioned to stand for election to the Legislative Council for the South-western Province; he was returned unopposed. After three years of active participation in debates he was appointed postmaster-general in the Berry administration on 3 July 1877. Liberal in tendency, he supported payment of members, the land tax bill and moderate reform of the council. In the 'Black Wednesday' crisis over the 1878 appropriation bill he refused to dismiss any postal employees: this stand and his concession of the Saturday half-holiday made him deservedly popular. He resigned his office as postmaster-general on 29 July 1878 over the question of council reform. In the Service ministry from March to August 1880 he held the posts of commissioner of trade and customs and postmaster-general. In February 1886 he became minister of justice in the Gillies-Deakin ministry, and held the post until November 1890. In 1891 the Legislative Council selected Cuthbert and Nicholas Fitzgerald as delegates to the Federal Convention in Sydney. In September 1894 Cuthbert became solicitor-general in (Sir) George Turner's first ministry. When cabinet and council disagreed over the proposed tax on unimproved land, Sir Frederick Sargood and Joseph Pratt resigned but Cuthbert remained as solicitor-general and leader of the council for the five years of the ministry. He retained his seat in the Legislative Council until 1907.

Like many contemporaries, Cuthbert's interests were diverse: as well as his legal, mining and political affairs he had a pastoral lease of 169,000 acres (68,392 ha) on the Lachlan River in 1877, and was a director of Permewan Wright & Co. At Ballarat he was a founder and several times president of the District Hospital and the Liedertafel, life governor of the Mechanics' Institute, and honorary solicitor of the School of Mines and the Orphan Asylum. He was also solicitor for the Municipalities of Ballarat and Ballarat East, chancellor of the Ballarat Diocese of the Church of England, past master of the Yarrowee Masonic Lodge and joint proprietor of the Ballarat Times. His genuine concern for the welfare of his community won him respect and liking while parliamentary colleagues praised his tact and moderation; he 'invariably enlisted the goodwill of the House for his objects, even if his means were disliked'. His ability to reconcile public service and private profit in an honourable career was recognized by a knighthood conferred in 1897. He died at Ballarat on 5 April 1907, leaving a personal estate worth nearly £117,000. Of his three children, a son, John, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • W. B. Kimberly, Ballarat and Vicinity (Ballarat, 1894)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1903
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Apr 1907.

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Citation details

M. Martina Benson, 'Cuthbert, Sir Henry (1829–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cuthbert-sir-henry-3306/text5035, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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