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Finn, Henry (Harry) (1852–1924)

by Chris Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Henry Finn (1852-1924), by T. Humphrey , c1906

Henry Finn (1852-1924), by T. Humphrey , c1906

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 49555

Henry (Harry) Finn (1852-1924), soldier, was born on 6 December 1852 at Tenterden, Kent England, son of Samuel Finn, tailor, and his wife Elizabeth Frances Austen, née Hilder. He was educated at Tenterden and joined the British Army on 11 May 1871 as a private in the 9th (Queen's Royal) Lancers at Aldershot. During the Afghanistan War of 1878-80 he participated in severe fighting, was mentioned in dispatches, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery.

After almost ten years in the ranks, Harry Finn was commissioned second lieutenant in the newly formed 21st Hussars in March 1881 and promoted lieutenant next July. In 1882 he was appointed instructor of musketry to the regiment and on 1 July 1884 became adjutant. He married in 1886 Catherine Scott in Dublin. He was still adjutant where the regiment was sent to India in November 1887, when he was promoted captain. From 1890 he filled several general staff appointments at Bangalore in the Madras command, and in Burma, and was promoted major in 1894 before returning to his regiment in 1898.

Finn's regiment was that year converted to the 21st (Empress of India) Lancers and sent to Egypt, where it took part in the Nile Expedition into the Sudan in August. Finn commanded the Lancers' left wing during their famous charge at Omdurman on 2 September and was mentioned in dispatches and promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel in November. In 1899 he accompanied his regiment to Newbridge, Ireland, but was there only three months before he was offered, and accepted, the post of commandant of the Queensland Defence Force with local rank of colonel. He arrived to take command on 11 April 1900. During his tenure in the post the Australian colonies were federated, and Finn was selected to preside over a Commonwealth Defence Pay Committee which met in Sydney in 1901 to consider rates of pay and allowances for the forces.

Finn was soon offered the post of commandant in New South Wales with local rank of brigadier general, and began duty on 1 January 1902. In terms of seniority he was second-in-command of the Commonwealth Military Forces following the arrival in 1902 of another British officer, Major General Sir Edward Hutton, as general officer commanding. Hutton considered Finn 'an experienced and valuable officer' and specifically named him to the membership of a board of advice which he proposed in 1904 be established to co-ordinate the functioning of the Defence Department under the minister.

In other respects Finn's association with Hutton was not so happy. In April 1904 Senator Lieutenant-Colonel John Neild complained that, following speeches made by him in the Senate, Hutton and Finn had attempted to have him retired from his militia appointment. A select committee called Finn to give evidence on 17 May; its report in October exonerated him but not Hutton. Finn was also called to give evidence in June 1904 before another Senate select committee inquiring into whether an officer retrenched by Hutton had been justly treated.

He was granted brevet rank of colonel in the British Army in February 1904. In October he was a member of the Commonwealth Defence Committee which assembled in Melbourne and, after Hutton's departure for England at the expiration of his appointment on 15 November, Finn assumed temporary command of the Commonwealth Military Forces. On 24 December he was appointed inspector general, the Commonwealth's new senior military post, but retained powers of the G.O.C. pending the establishment of a military board of administration. He was given local and temporary rank of major general from February 1905.

As inspector general, in 1905 Finn became chairman of the promotions board, and president of the Commonwealth Defence Committee charged with drafting a Commonwealth defence scheme. He also sought to discharge conscientiously his duties of examining the condition of the country's defence works, the efficiency of the troops and preparedness for war, by undertaking extensive visits to all States. Although allotted a staff officer, he had no aide-de-camp and no clerical staff; none the less he produced detailed and comprehensive observations concerning the efficiency of the forces for 1905.

Finn's efforts went largely unappreciated by the government of the day, although in the Senate in 1906 he was described as 'the ablest military man in the Commonwealth' and a man possessing 'grit, determination, ability, and backbone'. Defence minister Thomas Playford, however, spoke disparagingly of Finn's endeavours, criticizing him for constant travel to visit corps in the 'backblocks' instead of inspecting State commandants and their staffs. Playford later asserted that Finn 'disapproved of everything that had been done—the Council of Defence, the Act of Parliament we had passed, the objection to the appointment of Imperial officers and so on'. Reports submitted by Finn in 1906 speak of the disabilities under which he laboured, particularly the continuing inadequacy of his staff and the futility of having an inspector general if the Military Board was not a competent body to grasp and implement his recommendations. It seems probable that frustration and animosity with the minister were behind Finn's decision to retire, ostensibly on grounds of ill health. He left for England on 3 September 1906 on leave in anticipation of the expiry of his appointment at the end of the year. He was appointed C.B. in 1907 and upon his retirement that year after a brief period of half-pay, he engaged in commerce in London.

In 1912 Finn was nominated by Mrs Walter Hall as secretary of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust in Sydney, and he held this post from December 1912 until his death. He was also private secretary to Sir Gerald Strickland, governor of New South Wales in 1913-17, and in 1923-24 to the lieutenant-governor, Sir William Cullen. Finn died in St Luke's Private Hospital, Sydney, on 24 June 1924. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

Finn was buried with full military honours in South Head cemetery. The funeral cortège was so large that it took two and half hours for the last mourners to arrive at the cemetery following the service at his Point Piper home. A beautifully sculptured white marble Celtic cross, funded by public subscription, was erected over his grave.

Coming to Australia in the prime of his life, Finn made a strong impression as a professional soldier; among British officers who served in the Commonwealth his influence was second only to that of Hutton. Remarkable at the time as one of the few men to have risen through the ranks of the British Army—he could claim to have served in all ranks from private to major general—Finn's breezy, informal and direct manner made him well liked by the men he commanded. He did much to infuse enthusiasm into young and inexperienced troops and set an example of soldierly bearing and conduct. In this way he was prominent among the small group of professional officers who did much to lay the foundations upon which the reputation of the Australian Imperial Force was built.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1906, p 628, 6352
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1901-02, 2, 77, 1904, 2, 297
  • Parliamentary Papers (Senate), 1904, 1, 305, 1906, 2, 117
  • British Australasian, 16 Jan 1902
  • London Gazette, 4 May 1880, 30 Sept 1898
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 5 Oct 1901, 29 Nov 1902, 18 July 1903, 5 July 1924
  • Sydney Mail, 11 Jan 1902
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 24 Aug 1905
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Jan 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Oct 1923, 25-27 June, 4 July, 14 Aug 1924
  • A8, files 01/30/24, 02/30/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Finn, Henry (Harry) (1852–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/finn-henry-harry-6173/text10605, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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