Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Ebenezer Barff (1857–1925)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Henry Ebenezer Barff (1857-1925), university administrator, was born on 9 July 1857 at Tahaa Island, Society Islands, youngest son of Rev. John Barff of the London Missionary Society, and his wife Amelia, née Banes. The family came to Sydney in 1865; at Camden College, where he was educated, he met Congregational families who were influential in academic circles and he was to retain and extend those contacts. In 1873 he went to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1876; M.A., 1882), where he won the (Solomon) Levey and the (Thomas) Barker scholarships and graduated with the University Prize (Medal), in mathematics. Barff then became master of studies and in 1879 an assistant examiner and acting lecturer in mathematics. Next year, as acting registrar, he found his true niche in the administration; he was confirmed as registrar in 1882. He was also titular librarian in 1893-1914.

On 6 September 1899 at Holy Trinity Church Barff married Jane Foss, daughter of H. C. Russell; she had graduated in classics in 1886 (M.A., 1889) and had been tutor to women students. Jane Barff was active in women's education, in charitable and church activities, and as president of the University Women's Settlement in 1915-24. Barff compiled A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney … (1902) to commemorate its golden jubilee. In 1913 he helped to reconstitute the Sydney University Union, of which he had been a founding member in 1874. Next year he contributed a descriptive article on the university to the Handbook of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for its Sydney session in 1914.

For over forty years Barff was the chief administrator, responsible to the senate for all its aspects, save those within the province of the professors. In recognition of growing executive complexity in 1914 he added the office of warden to that of registrar, acquiring a general co-ordinating authority. In fact he had been steadily increasing the range of his responsibilities. In 1880 there were one teaching faculty, four professors and a handful of students; by 1924, when Barff retired, there were ten faculties, and over 3000 undergraduates. The university had survived an economic depression and World War I, quadrupled its buildings, helped to bring about a transformation in secondary education and emerged as a major tertiary institution. Throughout, Barff retained close personal contact with staff and students and kept firm control of the entire administrative process. His complete dedication to the university made him a popular figure, while an impressive dignity of bearing earned him, in his later years, an awesome respect. When he left office it was found necessary to create the position of vice-chancellor. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1923 and served briefly on the senate in 1924-25.

Barff had been a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1896; he enjoyed playing golf and was a member of the Royal Sydney Golf and University clubs. In 1922 he visited the United States of America and, next year, South Africa. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died of cerebro-vascular disease on 2 May 1925 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His portrait by John Longstaff is owned by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Sydney Union, The Union Book of 1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • J. A. Garrett and L. W. Farr, Camden College: A Centenary History (Syd, 1964)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 59 (1925)
  • Union Recorder, 7 May, 18 June 1925
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 21 June 1890
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Apr 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May 1925
  • Senate minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Barff, Henry Ebenezer (1857–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 July, 1857
Tahaa Island, French Polynesia


2 May, 1925 (aged 67)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.