Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Henry Briggs (1844–1919)

by Toby Manford

This article was published:

Henry Briggs (1844-1919), by unknown photographer, 1898

Henry Briggs (1844-1919), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-46

Sir Henry Briggs (1844-1919), headmaster and politician, was born on 17 March 1844 at Kettering, Northamptonshire, England, son of George Briggs, shoemaker, and his wife Sarah, née Tibbutt. Educated at the Collegiate School, Leicester, under Canon Fry, he won the Queen's scholarship at 18 and entered St Mark's College, an Anglican teacher-training centre at Chelsea, London. He subsequently became headmaster of the College of Model Schools for three years and of Mottram Grammar School for twelve years.

Briggs was appointed foundation headmaster in 1882 of the Anglican Fremantle Grammar School. He introduced his students to a wider curriculum than that common elsewhere in the Australian colonies, which followed English tradition by emphasizing classical studies. Despite financial limitations, Fremantle Grammar was soon the leading school in Western Australia; prominent citizens no longer had to send their sons to England or the eastern colonies. When Briggs decided to resign in 1889 to open his own school, the choice of almost all his pupils to follow him forced the Church of England to close the school to allow him to become its proprietor. With an enrolment increased from 29 to 120, it remained under his control until 1897, when he retired to enter politics.

As a bachelor, Briggs was able to devote much more spare time to literary, political and civic interests. A member of the examining board of a weak and inexperienced Education Department, he helped to raise educational standards. He sat on a committee established by the Legislative Council in 1889 to investigate technical education, and demonstrated the need to adapt curricula to colonial conditions. In 1903 he became a trustee of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. More significantly, he was one of the first to urge the establishment of a university and was a member of the royal commission which preceded the University Act of 1911.

Briggs had gained political influence as secretary of the Western Australian Chamber of Commerce in 1883-95 and in June 1896 he won the West Province of the Legislative Council by a large majority. A heavy man of more than 18 stone (114 kg), he spoke well though slowly, ponderously and didactically. Although not particularly outspoken, he could be forceful on major issues; he was always a humanitarian on industrial questions. In June 1900 he became chairman of committees and in 1906 succeeded Sir George Shenton as president of the Legislative Council, an office which he filled with dignified success until his death.

Briggs was examiner for a scheme of commercial qualification launched by the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce in 1904. While president of the Fremantle branch of the Australian Federation League, he represented the colony at the Federal convention of 1897-98 in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, but was largely 'a spectator and a vote'. He was knighted in 1916.

A prominent Freemason, Briggs took the preliminary steps in creating the Royal Arch Chapter in Western Australia, but when he died on 8 June 1919 his will directed that there should be no Masonic rites at his funeral; he was buried with Anglican rites in Fremantle cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £19,477, was left equally between the Home of Peace at Subiaco and an English cousin.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly, History of West Australia (Perth, 1897)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • D. Mossenson, State Education in Western Australia, 1829-1960 (Perth, 1972)
  • Herald (Fremantle), 4 Mar 1882
  • West Australian (Perth), 9 June 1919
  • CSO 1667/1888, 3489/1889 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Toby Manford, 'Briggs, Sir Henry (1844–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 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

Henry Briggs (1844-1919), by unknown photographer, 1898

Henry Briggs (1844-1919), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-46

Life Summary [details]


17 March, 1844
Kettering, Northamptonshire, England


8 June, 1919 (aged 75)

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