Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Brewer (c. 1739–1796)

by A. J. Gray

This article was published:

Henry Brewer (1739-1796), provost-marshal, apparently was a carpenter before he studied architecture and became a clerk in 'a great concern in the building line'. For reasons which he would never discuss, he lost his job, and when almost 40 joined the navy as a volunteer. Edward Spain, one of his naval associates, observed that he had 'coarse harsh features, a contracted brow which bespoke him a man sour'd by disapointment'. He generally wore 'a blue coat of the coarsest cloth, a wool hat … cock'd with three sixpenny nails, a tolerable waistcoat, a pair of Corderry breeches [and] a pursers shirt none of the cleanest'.

Whatever his reaction to Brewer's appearance, eccentric dress and odd manners, Governor Arthur Phillip, who made his acquaintance in H.M.S. Alexander, found him 'a very useful person' and was deeply impressed by his aptitude for clerical work, skill in drawing, versatility and honesty. For his part, Brewer became one of Phillip's naval 'followers' so wholeheartedly that when the First Fleet sailed for Botany Bay, although he was then approaching 50, he was rated a midshipman in H.M.S. Sirius. David Collins said that he came out with Phillip 'as his clerk', and Spain suggested that he was 'just such a man as the Governor wanted', adding rather waspishly that he would draw 'excellent plans, drafts and views of places' which the governor might send to his patrons.

On arriving at Sydney Cove Phillip had to appoint a provost-marshal to act in place of George Alexander, who had not sailed with the fleet. He selected Brewer who had performed the duties satisfactorily during the voyage, and appointed him by warrant dated 26 January 1788 to act pending the British government's decision. After requests repeated for four years, Brewer received his commission. His salary, £91 5s., was equal to that paid to the assistant-surgeons.

During the first two years at Sydney Cove when his official duties were not onerous, he appears to have been active as a building superintendent, and Major Robert Ross spoke of him as 'the architect granted by the Governor for directing the artificers and sawyers employ'd on and for the barracks'. As the settlement grew, his work as provost-marshal demanded much more of his time. Apart from his routine court duties, he directed the convict constabulary, was responsible for the maintenance of good order in the community, and indeed acted as an impounding officer; but towards the end of 1795, through failing health, he became incapable of carrying out his duties. In February 1796 Hunter replaced him with Thomas Smyth, who had arrived as a corporal in Captain Watkin Tench's company of marines and had been a storekeeper in Sydney since August 1792.

Brewer died on 8 July 1796 aged 57. His name lives on in Brewer Street, Concord, which marks approximately the southern boundary of the fifty acres (20 ha) granted to him in 1793, but his epitaph is in Edward Spain's 'Reminiscences': 'if honesty merits heaven, Harry is there'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2, vols 2-3
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • W. Tench, A Narrative of an Expedition to Botany Bay (Lond, 1789)
  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • E. Spain, reminiscences, 1774-1802 (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

A. J. Gray, 'Brewer, Henry (c. 1739–1796)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


c. 1739


8 July, 1796 (aged ~ 57)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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