Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Kable, Henry (1763–1846)

by D. R. Hainsworth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Henry Kable (1763-1846), businessman, was convicted of burglary at Thetford, Norfolk, England, on 1 February 1783 and sentenced to death. This was commuted to transportation for fourteen years to America, but he remained in prison until he embarked in the transport Friendship, in which he sailed in the First Fleet to New South Wales. On 10 February 1788 he married Susannah Holmes, a convict from the same village, who had already borne him a son. Before the young couple left England certain people, moved by their plight, had subscribed £20 to buy them a parcel of goods which Rev. Richard Johnson was to give them on their arrival in the penal colony. The gift was plundered on the voyage, but Kable won damages of £15 against the ship's captain in the first civil suit heard in New South Wales. This oddity may have brought Kable to the governor's notice, although Kable later claimed to have had influential letters of recommendation, for soon afterwards Governor Arthur Phillip appointed him an overseer. Three years later he was made a constable and nightwatchman, and a further three years service saw him elevated to chief constable: but he was dismissed in 1802 for misbehaviour, after being convicted for breaches of the port regulations and illegally buying and importing pigs from a visiting ship.

Kable's business activities were to keep him in comparative affluence for at least the next ten years. His early activities as a trader, probably as a middleman between the trading officers of the New South Wales Corps and the consumer, are suggested by his possession of capital sufficient to take part in the sealing industry on a considerable scale after 1800. He was also one of seventy signatories to a petition to Governor John Hunter from creditors who were anxious to prevent debtors from frustrating their demands by legal delays.

Kable's association with the emancipist boatbuilder James Underwood dated from at least as early as July 1800, for in that month he signed a partnership agreement with Underwood and a mariner resident in Sydney, Samuel Rodman Chace, who was to command Kable & Underwood's sloop Diana in sealing expeditions to Bass Strait. The agreement envisaged the working-up of sealskins into leather for boots and shoes. The partnership was to last two years, with Chace spending the coming year at Cape Barren or on other sealing grounds. The association with Chace proved transient but Kable and Underwood remained partners until 1809. At first they exported sealskins in ships controlled by Robert Campbell and his Calcutta partners who had an agent in Canton, but the depressed state of the China market persuaded them to join forces with Simeon Lord who had a valuable London connexion, T. W. & J. Plummer and Co., through which they could market their skins and oil. During the next two years Kable acted as 'ships' husband' to Lord, Kable & Underwood (Lord & Co.). The firm was involved in a wide range of speculations, including whaling, sealing, sandalwood and wholesale and retail trading, but Lord withdrew in 1808, Underwood split from Kable in 1809 and the firm dissolved in a welter of law suits not finally settled until 1819.

Like Lord and other early Sydney entrepreneurs, Kable always had a substantial landholding as a kind of 'sheet anchor'. He had been granted farms at Petersham Hill in 1794 and 1795, and in the latter year bought out four near-by grantees within a week of their grants being signed. In 1807 he owned at least four farms of about 170 acres (69 ha); in 1809 in addition he held five farms at the Hawkesbury and 300 acres (121 ha) at the Cowpastures, with a variety of real estate in Sydney itself including his comfortable house and extensive stores. He also had 40 horned cattle, 9 horses and 40 pigs. His business reputation seems to have been dubious, for he was regarded with distrust by Governor King and with active hostility by Governor William Bligh who thought him and his partners fraudulent and had them imprisoned for a month and fined each £100 for sending him a letter 'couched in improper terms'. It is certain that Kable played no part in public life comparable with Lord's multifarious activities. His commercial career in Sydney seems to have ended soon after Lord & Co. broke up, for as early as February 1810 he announced that his son Henry had taken over the entire management of his Sydney affairs.

In 1811 Kable moved to Windsor where he operated a store and brewery, the latter in association with a partner, Richard Woodbury, and his Sydney warehouse was let to Michael Hayes. In 1812 he was sending wheat down the Hawkesbury consigned to Robert Campbell junior, perhaps partly his own growth, partly the fruits of barter for his beer. He was never again a prominent businessman, although he signed a petition in distinguished commercial company for the granting of an auctioneer's licence to William Baker of Windsor in 1821. Evidence collected by Commissioner John Thomas Bigge in 1820 shows that, while he had once owned 700 acres (283 ha) by grant and a further 250 (101 ha) by purchase, he then held only ninety acres (36 ha) and a further thirty acres (12 ha) as a tenant.

Kable's commercial career cannot really be considered separately from James Underwood's, and it was of little significance compared with Simeon Lord's. In combination with these two, Kable did much to pioneer sealing and shipbuilding in New South Wales, but it was Lord who marketed the skins and Underwood who built the ships; yet Kable's achievements were remarkable for a man who could barely sign his name and had no other claim to literacy than his ability to add a column of figures.

Kable, in his own words, 'reared ten children'. At least two of them, Henry junior and James, were mariners, commanding vessels owned wholly or in part by their father. James was murdered by Malay pirates in the Straits of Malacca on a return voyage from China about 1810, but Henry remained prominent in Sydney mercantile circles for some time after his father withdrew to Windsor. There are some signs that the elder Kable may have transferred much of his property to his eldest son to avoid having to pay a judgment of £12,000 awarded to Lord in 1811. The property probably included the schooner Geordy which Henry junior owned jointly with William Gaudry who had married Kable's daughter in 1809, and the schooner Endeavour, of which Henry junior was sole owner, and which he employed in the Tahitian pork trade in 1812. A third son, John, known as 'Young Kable', was a prominent pugilist of the 1820s. Susannah Kable died on 8 November 1825, aged 63, but Henry, who was described as a farmer at Pitt Town in the 1828 census, survived her for twenty-one years and died on 16 March 1846 at the age of 84.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3-6
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-7
  • manuscript catalogue under Henry Kable (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Supreme Court records (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

D. R. Hainsworth, 'Kable, Henry (1763–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kable-henry-2285/text2941, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014