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Sir Henry Barkly (1815–1898)

by B. A. Knox

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Henry Barkly, by Henry Sadd, c1855

Henry Barkly, by Henry Sadd, c1855

State Library of Victoria, H90.159/5

Sir Henry Barkly (1815-1898), governor, was born on 24 February 1815, son of Aeneas Barkly of Monteagle, Rossshire, Scotland, sometime a West Indian merchant. He was trained for commerce, began a business career and represented Leominster in the House of Commons in 1845-48. He was then appointed governor and commander-in-chief of British Guiana and in 1853 of Jamaica. Constitutional, social and economic problems made his tasks most exacting in both colonies, but his success won him the approval of the Colonial Office and a K.C.B.

In November 1856 Barkly was appointed governor of Victoria, with the highest salary in the empire because the Colonial Office considered the post particularly difficult. He arrived in Melbourne on Christmas Eve. Although displeased to find that the governor's participation in policy-making was not welcome under the newly-granted responsible government, he soon adjusted to his new functions as a constitutional 'sovereign'. In the colony's politics he recognized one vital task: to secure stable government without the benefit of clear party division. The McCulloch ministry, which he appointed near the end of his term, was the only one to satisfy his requirements. Barkly's earlier efforts were successful only in reducing ministerial changes to a minimum. He used nice judgment, on the whole, in selecting his premiers, considering requests for dissolution, accepting or discouraging resignations. A strong, sophisticated policy in the parliamentary chaos of 1860-61, including direct intervention in the ugly stalemate between the Houses over William Nicholson's land bill, brought abuse both from the radicals and ministerialists. But, apart from (Sir) John O'Shanassy's improper attempt in May 1862 to halve the governor's salary, disturbances were rare during Barkly's term. He suffered personal tragedy when his wife Elizabeth Helen, née Timins, whom he had married in 1840, died on 17 April 1857, a few days after the birth of her second son. In 1860 he married Anne Maria, only daughter of Sir Thomas Simson Pratt.

Personally and socially Barkly was reticent but hospitable. Henry Turner claimed that many, especially civil servants, thought him cold and unapproachable. However, he was well known for his support of philanthropic and intellectual movements, was a founder and president of the Royal Society of Victoria, and helped to found the National Gallery, Acclimatization Society and National Observatory.

As an officer responsible to the British government Barkly performed well. He succeeded in composing disputes between ministries and the garrison commander, and in encouraging moves to establish strong local defence forces, but equally important was his great ability to interpret colonial society and politics, and to assess responsible government. Unlike local Conservatives he was far from pessimistic about democratic tendencies in legislation, and unlike Sir William Denison in New South Wales had no doubt that parliamentary institutions would work in the Australian colonies. His judgments and actions were much valued by the Colonial Office and it was in no sense a criticism of him that he was moved to the government of Mauritius in 1863.

Barkly believed this nomination to be 'a step towards the charge of an Indian Presidency', but he was passed over when Bombay fell vacant in 1866. After completing a full term at Mauritius, he was sent in August 1870 to the Cape of Good Hope. There again he had to obtain the co-operation of colonists in establishing a new responsible government and came to close and friendly terms with J. C. Molteno, the first long-lasting premier. He was appointed G.C.M.G. in March 1874 but his limitations were already becoming apparent. Besides being governor of the Cape, he was British high commissioner in South Africa but seemed to lack the vision appropriate to his wider function. He was personally to blame for the acrimony of the dispute with the Orange Free State over the diamond fields annexation of 1871. When the Earl of Carnarvon later attempted to revive the idea of South African union, Barkly was entirely unwilling to urge the policy upon Molteno and disobeyed Carnarvon's instruction. Though excellent as a constitutional governor, Barkly was no statesman, and his recall in March 1877 was overdue.

This ignominious end to Barkly's colonial career was in part compensated by his nomination in 1879 to the royal commission on colonial defence. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1864 and of the Royal Geographical Society in 1870. The vast Barkly tableland of Queensland and the Northern Territory had been named in his honour in 1861 by the explorer William Landsborough, the first European to enter it while searching for Burke and Wills. The district has since been traversed by the 754 km Barkley Highway, between Cloncurry and the Stuart Highway north of Tennant Creek. In retirement Barkly devoted himself to scientific pursuits and to committee work for the London Library. He died on 20 October 1898 and was buried in Brompton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1904)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • C. F. Goodfellow, Great Britain and South African Confederation 1870-1881 (Cape Town, 1966)
  • B. A. Knox, ‘Colonial Influence on Imperial Policy, 1858-1866: Victoria and the Colonial Naval Defence Act, 1865’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 11, no 41, Nov 1963, pp 61-79
  • B. A. Knox, Lord Carnarvon, Robert Herbert and the Confederation Dispute with the Cape Colony, 1874-1876 (Royal Commonwealth Society Library, London)
  • Carnarvon papers (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • CO 48, 111, 137, 309.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

B. A. Knox, 'Barkly, Sir Henry (1815–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 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 Barkly, by Henry Sadd, c1855

Henry Barkly, by Henry Sadd, c1855

State Library of Victoria, H90.159/5

Life Summary [details]


24 February, 1815
Highbury, Middlesex, England


20 October, 1898 (aged 83)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

heart disease

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