Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hopkins, Henry (1787–1870)

by Christine Walch

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Henry Hopkins (1787-1870), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 16 August 1787 at Deptford, England. His mother was Mary, née A'Gutta, of Flemish descent. He was brought up in a pious Nonconformist middle class home and had a sound business training, spending '16 years in the wool trade in England'. He married his cousin Sarah Rout, daughter of Margaret A'Gutta, and sailed with her from Deptford in the Heroine. Among the passengers were Robert Mather and his wife and family, and George and Martha Clarke. On 10 September 1822 they arrived at Hobart Town, where Mather and Hopkins became partners, and as retailers and buyers of produce opened a small shop in Elizabeth Street. As Hobart's first wool buyer, Hopkins was credited with the entire export of the colony in 1822: twelve bales of wool bought at 4d. a pound, and sold in London at 7d.

The partnership with Mather was short-lived. Hopkins moved to his own shop and cottage, 'two rooms and a skilling', at the corner of Elizabeth and Bathurst Streets. His main stock was ironmongery, but he was keenly interested in developing the wool trade. On 28 December 1825 he applied for a land grant, offering as qualifications his long experience in the wool trade and a capital of £2000. The application failed because he would not accept the required residence conditions, but as a townsman and trader he rapidly prospered. In 1835 he built Westella, the great square stone house which still stands in Elizabeth Street, a landmark from which, in the absence of a Town Hall, were proclaimed the governor's orders on King William's death, Queen Victoria's accession, the birth of Edward Prince of Wales, and later the cessation of transportation. Hopkins also acquired other properties and in 1839 he put up for sale ten houses in Hobart, a farm and numerous town allotments. In 1837 he had visited the Port Phillip District to buy land and wool. He bought Wormbete, near Winchelsea, and stocked it with merinos from Van Diemen's Land. Later he made it over to his second son, John Rout, and acquired another Victorian property at Lake Murdeduke, for his third son, Arthur.

The whole family went to England in 1839 and were away for three years, returning in the Jane Frances in December 1842. Although Hopkins was still buying wool in 1847, he appears to have given up active trading, for in 1845 Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot noted that 'Mr. Hopkins is a gentleman retired from all business, residing in Hobart Town and living on a large independent fortune'. About this time he was engaged in enlarging the house on his farming estate, Summerhome, formerly Robert Giblin's New Town Academy for boys. Here for his remaining years Hopkins spent his summer months, returning to Westella for the winter.

In 1843 he became a magistrate and for many years was chairman of the Hobart Town General Sessions, presiding at all magistrates' meetings. In the political struggles of 1846 he accepted nomination to the Legislative Council on the resignation of the 'Patriotic Six', but could not agree with Wilmot's policy and resigned after three months. In 1849 he became a leading member of the Anti-Transportation League and its early Hobart meetings were held at his house. He was one of the trustees and later president of the Hobart Savings Bank, chairman of directors of the Hobart Gas Co. in 1857-70, president of the Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Van Diemen's Land Bank, the Tasmanian Insurance Co. and the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Co., an original subscriber and shareholder of the Hobart High School, and a generous donor to the Bible Society, Ragged School, Benevolent Society, City Mission, and innumerable churches.

The one thing this shrewd little man deemed more important than money, success or worldly goods was his religion. Brought up in an era of religious revival and missionary activity when the great missionary and philanthropic societies were being founded in England, Hopkins had a strong personal faith and that missionary spirit which impels the believer 'to go into all the world and preach the gospel', or in his case, to supply funds for spreading the Word. To all causes that appealed to him, he contributed with 'princely liberality'. The London Missionary Society and the building of Congregational churches called forth his most lavish gifts, but although firm in his own faith he was no bigot, and he gave generously to the building funds of Presbyterian and Wesleyan churches and of St David's Cathedral. When All Saints' Anglican Church was founded he was the first to come forward with his donation, while the neighbouring Davey Street Methodist Church bears his name on its foundation stone. According to his son-in-law George Clarke, 'Money he regarded as a trust and a stewardship, and all his life he acted on the principle of devoting a fixed proportion of his income to objects of Christian philanthropy. Much that he gave is known, much more is a secret that he never disclosed'.

Hopkins has often been credited with founding Congregationalism in Australia. Soon after his arrival he began to teach in the Wesleyan Sunday school, and for ten years he worshipped with the Presbyterians. But Hopkins wanted his accustomed form of worship, and in 1828 he wrote to the London Missionary Society asking for a pastor and offering him a home. This resulted two years later in the arrival of Rev. Frederick Miller and the building of the Brisbane Street Chapel. In 1835 Hopkins was again instrumental in bringing out a second Independent minister, Rev. John Nisbet. He also gave land for the Berea chapel in Liverpool Street and in 1837 built the Collins Street chapel, Hobart, at his sole expense. When this became too small and a meeting discussed the building of Davey Street Church, the minute book recorded that 'Mr. Hopkins engages to pay a sum equal to that which may be collected within the twelve months from 1st August 1853'. Many country churches also received his support, and in 1837 he asked the new Colonial Missionary Society for a minister to be sent to Melbourne, and gave money for his outfit and passage. In September 1839 Hopkins laid the foundation of the first Victorian Congregational Church, 'a neat and spacious brick building' at the corner of Collins and Russell Streets. Twenty-seven years later, when it was replaced by the present church, Hopkins again journeyed to Melbourne to lay that foundation stone. About this time, too, he gave a further £3000 to the London Missionary Society, and £1000 for a bursary to Camden College, Sydney, for the training of Congregationalist ministers. His last public act was to lay the foundation stone of the Memorial Church, Hobart, to which he donated £500.

His wife Sarah died on 17 November 1849, aged 56. Hopkins died on 27 September 1870, after a peaceful and happy old age and a very short illness. They had three sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom, Martha, married Rev. George Clarke and had eight children.

Memorials are in the Congregational Church at Davey Street and in the grounds of the Congregational Church, New Town.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 5
  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Launceston, 1852)
  • J. Fenton, A History of Tasmania (Hob, 1884)
  • A. C. Nelson, History of the Effective Establishment of Congregationalism in the Australian Colonies and New Zealand (Hob, 1930)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-4 (Lond, 1952-59).

Citation details

Christine Walch, 'Hopkins, Henry (1787–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hopkins-henry-2197/text2837, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 30 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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