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Prinsep, Henry Charles (Harry) (1844–1922)

by A. C. Staples

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry Charles (Harry) Prinsep (1844-1922), estate manager, horse-trader, artist and civil servant, was born on 5 September 1844 at Calcutta, India, son of Charles Robert Prinsep, standing counsel to the East India Co. government and occasionally acting advocate-general of Bengal, and his wife Louisa Anne, née White. Charles invested in Australian colonization—the Adelphi estate in Van Diemen's Land and the Belvedere estate in Western Australia.

Harry completed his schooling at Cheltenham, England. He was left motherless at 9, and at 11 his father returned to England in the advanced stages of paralysis; Harry's care fell to his uncle and aunt Henry Thoby and Sara Prinsep. His late teenage years were spent at Little Holland House, Kensington, where his aunt conducted her artistic and literary salon, around her resident 'lion', the artist George Frederick Watts, and family friend Alfred (Lord) Tennyson. Watts gave art lessons to her son and to Harry. The lads enjoyed lasting friendship with Tennyson's children. Harry's sister May became the second wife of Hallam, Lord Tennyson.

After his grand tour of Europe, Harry visited his late father's Belvedere estate, Western Australia, in 1866. His meeting with Charlotte Josephine, daughter of J. G. Bussell, persuaded Prinsep to remain: they married on 26 February 1868 when he took over the estate's management.

Charles Prinsep had bought Belvedere estate in 1838 to breed cavalry remounts for the Indian Army. As a supplement, Harry Prinsep exported jarrah sleepers for the Indian railways. Unfortunately in 1870, after he had loaded the Hiemdahl with sleepers and horses, and accompanied them to India, the ship was wrecked when entering the Hooghly; insurance for the cargo had been overlooked. In Western Australia Prinsep struggled for another three years; falling prices in India and the colony defeated him and the estate was sold by his creditors in 1874 to H. W. Venn.

Prinsep had been able to maintain his interest in art and literature. After 1874 he lived in Perth where he was a draftsman in the Lands and Survey Office. He led a small but influential cultural group engaged in sketching excursions, literary discussions and the theatre. With Herbert Gibbs, another artist, he published several numbers of Opossum, a humorous journal. Prinsep's 1875 and 1876 drawings of incidents in the explorations of (Sir) John Forrest and Ernest Giles were included in the published accounts of their expeditions.

In 1894, from the position of chief clerk in the Lands Department, Prinsep became under-secretary of the new Department of Mines under the minister, (Sir) Edward Wittenoom, to supervise the later stages of the gold rush. He urged the government to recognize the shift from alluvial to reef-mining and to revise mining and company laws, with little success.

After four demanding years, administrative indiscretions by Wittenoom, which caused riots on the goldfields, led Premier Forrest to transfer Wittenoom to London as agent-general, and Prinsep to the new sub-department of Native Affairs as chief protector (1898), with one assistant but the same salary. The alternative explanations, incompetence or political pressure due to Prinsep knowing too much about the shady side of mineral promotion, are not yet resolved. There was no suggestion of incompetence in the 1898 royal commission into gold-mining, nor in the coverage of the incident by cartoonist Ben Strange, who relished Forrest's dilemma, Wittenoom's blunder and his hasty translation. A shadow of scandal, in which even Governor Sir Gerard Smith became involved, settled on the mining industry.

In 1898 control of native affairs became wholly the concern of the elected parliament, which sliced funding. Prinsep's concern for Aboriginal welfare was thwarted by lack of staff and by the Aborigines Act (1897) which left him powerless to alleviate their ill-treatment and neglect. He spent five years trying; the Act was amended in 1906 and then only because of support from the 1905 Roth royal commission on the condition of Aborigines. Increased powers of direction led, under later administrators, to the disintegration of Aboriginal society in southern Western Australia.

Prinsep was a founder member in 1889 of the Wilgie Sketching Club (later the West Australian Society of Artists). He was its president in 1904-05 and exhibited oils and effective watercolours with it in 1901-08. He is represented in the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Battye Library and Little Holland House, Busselton. He took longservice leave in 1908 and revisited England and Europe. He then lived at Busselton, where he spent a pleasant and useful old age, for some years as mayor. Prinsep died there on 20 July 1922, survived by his wife and three daughters, and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Chapman, The Colonial Eye (Perth, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Western Australia), 1898, 1 (26), 1905, 1 (5)
  • Historical Studies, no 34, May 1960, p 117
  • A. C. Staples, ‘Early Days’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 1, 1955
  • A. Haebich, ‘A Bunch of Castoffs’. Aborigines of the South West of Western Australia (Ph.D. thesis, Murdoch University, 1985)
  • Prinsep diaries, 1866-1922 (State Library of Western Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. C. Staples, 'Prinsep, Henry Charles (Harry) (1844–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prinsep-henry-charles-harry-8119/text14179, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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