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Smith, Henry Gilbert (1802–1886)

by A. F. Pike

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

Henry Gilbert Smith (1802-1886), merchant, was fifth of the eight children of Thomas Smith (1767-1833), of Great Houghton and Quinton, Northamptonshire, England, and his wife Frances, née Flesher, of Towchester. In August 1827 he arrived in Hobart Town in the Lang with his brother Charles (1804-1849). Henry went on to Sydney but Charles was disgusted with Australia and returned to England in September. Henry was impressed by prospects in New South Wales and bought 2560 acres (1036 ha) on the Molonglo plain. In 1829 he went to England and returned in June 1830 to set up the importing and mercantile firm of Smith Bros in Macquarie Place, Sydney, with his brother Thomas (1795-1842) who arrived in November. Acting with great energy and initiative, they built the first steam-ferry in Sydney using an engine they had brought out with them. This 25-ton ferry, the Surprise, ran between Sydney and Parramatta, but it was not successful and in 1832 was sold in Van Diemen's Land. The firm was amicably dissolved in 1832 and Thomas turned to accountancy, while Henry continued as a merchant. In 1833 he took his 9-year-old nephew, Thomas Whistler Smith, into his office as a clerk, and gradually the business began to prosper and expand. In July 1835 Henry was elected a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and in 1853 chairman of its board of directors. Also in 1835 Henry became the virtually independent Sydney agent of the Bathurst Bank; when he sailed for England late in 1836 Thomas took over the agency and continued to conduct loans in Sydney for the bank until it closed in October 1840. By 1846 Henry was back in Sydney and in February was appointed provisional director of the proposed railway association; later he was one of the three government directors of the Sydney Railway Co. From May 1856 to August 1858 he was a member of the Legislative Council. In 1848 Henry retired from his firm with the hope that Eustace Smith, a younger nephew, would take his place but Eustace refused and the business was left to T. W. Smith.

In England in January 1839 Smith married Eleanor, of the Whistler family which was closely associated with the Smiths in business as well as in marriage. Eleanor died in October. By 1846 Smith was living at the Octagon in Darling Point, Sydney, in what he called a 'bachelor tower'. After another visit to England he lived at Fairlight, which he had built at Manly on a large area of land stretching from Sydney Harbour to Ocean Beach. There he was struck by the prospects of Manly as a seaside resort and he built cottages, a hotel, church, school, 'Vauxhall Gardens', and baths. He placed the stone kangaroo on the cliff above Manly facing the ocean and had much to do with planting the first Norfolk Island pines on the ocean front. Smith family names have been given to many streets in the area. In 1856 he donated the land for a Congregational church to be built in Wollongong. Also in 1856 Smith married Anne Margaret Thomas at Brisbane. After she died in 1866 at Manly he went to England, where he married his third wife Anna Louisa Lloyd (d.1893). He died at Brighton on 1 April 1886, leaving an estate valued at more than £66,000. His three sons, Henry Stinton, Gilbert Flesher and Eustace Alfred, lived in England and in 1889 took the surname of Smith-Rewse.

Select Bibliography

  • K. W. Street, Annals of the Street Family of Birtley (Syd, 1941)
  • S. J. Butlin, Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, 1788-1851 (Melb, 1953).

Citation details

A. F. Pike, 'Smith, Henry Gilbert (1802–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-henry-gilbert-2671/text3725, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 July 2014.

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

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