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Gregory, Henry (1860–1940)

by Peter Davies

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Henry Gregory (1860-1940), by Dennis Connelly

Henry Gregory (1860-1940), by Dennis Connelly

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6481140

Henry Gregory (1860-1940), farmer and politician, was born on 15 March 1860 at Kyneton, Victoria, son of Thomas Mamby Gregory, storekeeper, and his wife Catherine, née Kelleher. Educated at Kyneton, he opened a tinsmithing business at Rochester at the age of 16 and subsequently ran an ironmonger's store. On 21 October 1885 at Sandhurst (Bendigo) he married Sarah Richards with Catholic rites; she died the following year, and on 10 February 1891 at St Kilian's Church, Sandhurst, Gregory married Ruth Belinda Cartmell. There were four sons and two daughters of the second marriage.

Almost bankrupt in 1892, Gregory moved to Western Australia where, unsuccessful as a gold prospector, he worked for the storekeepers Askin & Nicholson at Ninety Mile, near Coolgardie, in 1893. He then opened what Melbourne Punch later termed 'an unimpressive public house of corrugated iron and mulga rafters' at Menzies. In January 1896 he was elected mayor of Menzies and appointed justice of the peace. In March he forestalled a move by W. E. Clare of the Coolgardie Miner to found a paper in Menzies and established the North Coolgardie Herald & Menzies Times. In so doing he earned the lifelong enmity of Hugh Mahon, the proprietor of the Menzies Miner which Gregory and his co-directors bought out in August 1898. Gregory and Mahon also clashed over Gregory's flotation of two mining companies in 1896, the Menzies Compass and the Menzies Tornado. The bitterness reached a peak during the 1897 elections when both men, although of similar political views, stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of North Coolgardie (Menzies from 1900). Gregory won by sixty votes, and was the only Liberal to gain a mining seat. He supported Federation and payment of members and was for many years a popular spokesman for the goldfields. However, he grew more conservative and lost to Labor in 1911 amid claims from the Kalgoorlie Miner that he had 'forgotten his origins'. After his defeat he moved to his property at Wickepin.

Gregory was minister for mines, with one brief interval, in the Leake and James ministries from May 1901 to August 1904, and minister for mines and railways in the Rason, Moore and Wilson ministries from August 1905 until October 1911; he was acting premier and acting treasurer in 1910-11. His best work was done in consolidating and reforming the mining laws. The 'Gregory Act' (1904) was described by a visiting American mining commissioner as the 'most evenly balanced mining enactment in the world'; its basic principles were retained in the Mining Act of 1978. Gregory placed the granting of exemptions on a sound basis and stopped the practice of giving away Crown land in return for the conditional surrender of gold mining leases. He established state batteries and the system by which a miner could hold eighteen acres (7 ha) of mineral country without rent provided he developed it. He also initiated the Inspection of Machinery Act (1904) and the Mines Regulation Act (1906).

In 1913, now ultra-conservative, Gregory won the Federal seat of Dampier; he held Swan from 1922. He proved a well-informed, independent although prolix spokesman of inflexible principles who believed in a balanced budget and found excessive expenditure intolerable. He was admirably suited to the Joint Committee on Public Works of which he was a member in 1914-26 and 1929-31 and chairman in 1917-26. He also served conscientiously on the royal commissions on the pearling industry (1913), powellized timber (1914) and the Australian moving picture industry (1927-28). Throughout World War I Gregory actively represented the interests of the Western Australian Farmers and Settlers' Association, though he refused to sign a pledge and was never endorsed by that organization. Following the introduction of preferential voting in 1919 he became involved in the formation of the Country Party. He was deputy leader from 5 April 1921 until 2 December 1921 when he resigned after an argument with (Sir) Earle Page over the party's failure to form a coalition with the Nationalists. He was unopposed by the Nationalists at the 1922 election, but when the Bruce-Page ministry was formed the following year he was precluded from membership by his implacable opposition to the Nationalist tariff policy.

Gregory had always been a keen States-righter and his dislike of protection was reinforced by Western Australia's dependence on imported manufactured goods. He led an attack on the (Sir) Walter Massy-Greene tariff introduced by the Hughes government in 1921 and he remained Western Australia's chief advocate in the various tariff battles which lasted until World War II. Supported by John Prowse, Percy Stewart and Edward Mann, Gregory fought his lonely battle with dogged determination and lengthy speeches; his arguments for lower duties on fencing wire earned him the nickname 'Barbwire Harry'. In September 1932 he moved for a referendum on the question of altering the Constitution to allow Western Australia power over its own customs and excise laws for twenty-five years. When his motion, based on the findings of the 1924-25 Commonwealth royal commission on the finances of Western Australia as affected by Federation, was set aside by the Lyons government, he embraced the secessionist cause. In 1933 he published 'Why Western Australia should secede' in the Australian Quarterly.

Despite advancing old age and indifferent health, Gregory remained a forthright representative of his adopted State; he was last elected in September 1940 at the age of 80, the oldest member of parliament. A small man with determined features, he felt no compunction in attacking his colleagues in debate and was frequently censured in the party room. However, despite his intransigence on matters of principle he was generally liked by his peers for his otherwise congenial nature. Always interested in defence, he was awarded the certificate of merit by the Western Australian branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia for his work on behalf of returned servicemen. In 1935 he represented Australia at the jubilee of King George V in London. He was the Western Australian member of the Australian Cricket Board of Control for many years. In 1907, for his part in saving the life of an Italian miner, he had been appointed Chevalier of the Crown of Italy.

Gregory died on 15 November 1940 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter, and was buried in the Catholic section of Fawkner cemetery after a state funeral. His estate was valued for probate at £2341.

Select Bibliography

  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • F. C. Green, Servant of the House (Melb, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1940, 165, p 17, 32
  • Kalgoorlie Miner, 3 Oct 1911
  • Primary Producer (Perth), 8 Aug 1924
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Apr 1925
  • West Australian, 16 Nov 1940
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Nov 1940
  • H. J. Gibbney, Hugh Mahon (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1969)
  • P. Davies, Henry Gregory and the Australian Tariff 1921-1933 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, Duntroon, 1981).

Citation details

Peter Davies, 'Gregory, Henry (1860–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gregory-henry-6477/text11097, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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