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Sir Henry Ayers (1821–1897)

by S. R. Parr

This article was published:

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Henry Ayers (1821-1897), by unknown photographer

Henry Ayers (1821-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22763816

Sir Henry Ayers (1821-1897), legislator and businessman, was born on 1 May 1821 at Portsea, Hampshire, England, son of William Ayers, of the Portsmouth dockyard, and his wife Elizabeth, née Breakes. He was educated at the Beneficial Society's School in Portsea, and in 1832 entered the legal office of S. W. Blyth in Portsea. Less than a month after his marriage to Anne Potts at Alverstoke he emigrated, as a carpenter, with free passages for himself and his bride, and arrived in 1840 in Adelaide. He worked as a law clerk in the office of (Sir) James Fisher until 1845, when he was appointed secretary of the South Australian Mining Association; its copper mines at Burra Burra yielded fifteen dividends of 200 per cent each in the next five years. Ayers had bought forty-five of the original £5 shares, and by 1850 controlled sufficient votes of absentee shareholders to be elected managing director of the association. He also became agent for some absentees, particularly J. B. Graham who had 415 shares, lending their money at 10 per cent interest and investing in land and other mines. By 1875 he was so well known for his wealth that (Sir) Henry Parkes sought his help in opening a coalfield near Jervis Bay, New South Wales, but Ayers saw no profit in it.

On 9 March 1857 Ayers entered the first Legislative Council under responsible government in South Australia, the youngest member elected. Though still fully occupied with his own and his clients' lucrative business, he soon made his mark as a forceful politician. In 1861 he resisted overtures to accept the premiership because his family wanted to visit England. The trip was postponed indefinitely and on 4 July 1863 he became minister without portfolio in Francis Dutton's cabinet. However, the council demanded that it should have an executive minister to represent the government. When Dutton refused and had to resign after only eleven days in office Ayers, as premier and chief secretary, formed his own ministry on the 15th. On 22 July 1864 his cabinet was reconstructed but fell on 4 August. He then became chief secretary in Arthur Blyth's ministry until its defeat in March 1865. Ayers continued as chief secretary in Dutton's second administration until it fell on 20 September, and then formed his third ministry. He was defeated a month later for refusing to grant what he believed was excessive relief to the drought-stricken northern pastoralists. He was premier again from May 1867 to September 1868 and in October formed his fifth ministry which lasted only twenty days and was defeated on its land policy. On 22 January 1872 he became premier again and after reconstruction on 4 March his seventh ministry lasted until July 1873. The House of Assembly was enlarged in 1875 and he was never premier again, although he held office as chief secretary in Colton's ministry from June 1876 to October 1877.

Ayers represented South Australia at several intercolonial conferences: uniform tariffs and inland customs duties in March 1863; transportation of criminals from Britain to Western Australia in December 1864 and October 1865; ocean postal services in 1867; the Suez mail contract in 1873; and duplication of the cable and improvement of telegraphic communication with Europe in 1877. For his part in the 1873 conference, where arrangements were made for overseas mail steamships to call at Glenelg, he was especially thanked by the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce and presented with an address stating 'it is doubtful whether any South Australian cabinet has ever had a better organizer'. In 1879 he was elected acting president of the Legislative Council, and in 1881 became president, an office he held until his resignation in December 1893; he was then the sole surviving member of the first Legislative Council under responsible government in 1857.

Ayers was appointed C.M.G. in 1870, K.C.M.G. in 1872 after completion of the transcontinental telegraph line, and G.C.M.G. in 1894. He died in Adelaide on 11 June 1897, and his estate was valued for probate at some £225,000. He was predeceased by his wife in 1881. Of their eight children, two died in infancy; Frank Richman entered legal practice in Adelaide; Frederic also practised and became a member of the Council of the University of Adelaide and dean of the faculty of law; Harry Lockett and Arthur Ernest were partners in a trustee and financial agency in Adelaide.

Prominent in the small group which dominated the colony's financial and commercial affairs, Ayers was a director of several organizations. He was a trustee of the Savings Bank of South Australia for twenty-five years, a director of the Bank of Australasia, and a founder of the Bank of Adelaide. In 1862-97 he was chairman of directors of the South Australian Gas Co. In 1873 he joined the South Australian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, later becoming chairman. He was governor of the Botanic Gardens Board for thirty-five years and treasurer of the University of Adelaide in 1874-86. An Anglican, he gave generously to local charities and for some years was chairman of the Wyatt Benevolent Fund. Always interested in the early settlement of the colony, Ayers became the first president of the Old Colonists' Association. In 1891 he published Pioneer Difficulties in Founding South Australia, a lecture given to the Australian Natives' Association. He also encouraged exploration of the interior and subscribed to several expeditions. Ayers Rock, in Central Australia, located in 1873 by William Gosse, was named after him.

At his death a friend told the Legislative Council that Ayers saw life as a battle; he had fought well and 'the world gave him much that his heart desired'. In his struggle for wealth and political leadership he had been cautious, hard and deliberate. His handwritten memorabilia shows in meticulous detail every penny of his income, spending and saving over many years. A client complained that he seldom revealed any emotion, and according to John Baker 'his conduct said “I govern this colony and no one else shall interfere”.' In private letters Ayers professed no desire for prominence, yet he enjoyed immense influence in his prime; even the squatters who opposed his land policy conceded that he had 'a master mind' and 'great talent'. Shrewd and forceful, he also had the gift of convincing others of his unbounded faith in the colony's future, and he had no fear of opponents whom he described as 'city capitalists'. Despite his personal power and successes his greatest pride was in the development of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • L. L. Ayers, Sir Henry Ayers, K.C.M.G. and His Family (Adel, 1946)
  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • Register (Adelaide), 12 June 1897
  • P. L. Edgar, Sir James Boucaut (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1961)
  • J. B. Graham letters (National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

S. R. Parr, 'Ayers, Sir Henry (1821–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Ayers (1821-1897), by unknown photographer

Henry Ayers (1821-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22763816

Life Summary [details]


1 May, 1821
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


11 June, 1897 (aged 76)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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