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Henry Samuel Chapman (1803–1881)

by R. S. Neale

This article was published:

Henry Chapman, by Frederick Alexander Dunn, 1867

Henry Chapman, by Frederick Alexander Dunn, 1867

State Library of Victoria, H29509

Henry Samuel Chapman (1803-1881), judge, colonial secretary, attorney-general and Philosophic Radical, was born on 21 July 1803 at Kennington, London, son of Henry Chapman, clerk in the Barrack Department, and his wife Ann Hart, née Davies. He was educated at a private school in Bromley, Kent, and left at 15 to enter Esdaile's bank as a clerk at £30 a year. He also worked for a bill broker and in 1820-21 was his agent in Amsterdam. From 1823 to 1833 Chapman was established in Quebec as a commission merchant, transacting business for English manufacturing and exporting companies. In these years he immersed himself in the ideas of the Philosophic Radicals, began to write on economic subjects and read for the Canadian Bar.

On a visit to England in 1832 he took part in J. A. Roebuck's successful campaign to represent Bath in the reformed parliament. Returning to Canada in 1833 Chapman started the radical Montreal Daily Advertiser, the first daily newspaper in Canada. Consequently, although nominally an Anglican, he became associated with the Irish and the French Catholic majority in their demands for an elective legislative council as a step towards representative and responsible government. In What is the Result of the Election? (Montreal, 1834) he argued that the demands of the French in the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada derived from political principles and not from racial antagonism. In December 1834 English merchants ceased to buy space in the Advertiser and it closed down. Chapman returned to England in 1835 as a salaried intermediary between the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada and its friends in the House of Commons. He worked with Roebuck who was also retained by the assembly to present its case to the British parliament. Chapman's letters to Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, forecasting the demise of Toryism and the rise of 'Movement' radicalism in England were published in Canada in the Vindicator. They did much to encourage Canadian hopes of an early constitutional settlement. In so far as the rebellions of 1837 were sparked off by the frustration of these ill-founded hopes, Chapman was culpable.

Concurrently with his part in the Canadian agitation Chapman worked with Roebuck in the campaign against stamp tax on newspapers and on Roebuck's Pamphlets for the People (London, 1835-36), in which in 1835 he published a seven-point radical charter which anticipated most of the Chartist programme. He also enrolled at the Middle Temple in 1837, helped J. S. Mill to bring out the London Review, assisted (Sir) John Bowring in editing Bentham's works, and often contributed to the political quarterlies. By 1838 he had decided that the Philosophic Radicals had no future as a political party, and he accepted a post as assistant commissioner on the inquiry into handloom weavers. In London between 1840 and 1843 he founded and edited the New Zealand Journal and published the New Zealand Portfolio as a series of open letters on aspects of systematic colonization. He was a successful pamphleteer on behalf of the Anti-Corn Law League and secretary of the metropolitan branch.

In 1840 Chapman was called to the Bar and married Catherine, the daughter of T. G. Brewer, a London barrister; their first child, Henry Brewer, was born on 10 April 1841. Chapman was not successful as a lawyer. Fortunately his publications on New Zealand, together with the influence of associates, won him the appointment of puisne judge at Wellington, New Zealand, in 1843. There he helped Chief Justice Martin lay down a procedure for the Supreme Court, the forerunner of the existing code. Martin and Chapman also brought down a series of judgments relating to Governor Robert Fitzroy's land grants, which had some influence on Governor Sir George Grey's land policy.

In January 1852 Chapman was appointed colonial secretary of Van Diemen's Land where he arrived in April. There he was obliged to carry out a policy of transportation which was opposed by a majority in the new part-elective Legislative Council. Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison chose to treat a petition from the elected members for the cessation of transportation as a government question. Chapman refused to support Denison and offered to resign but was persuaded to take leave in November. On the voyage to England to appeal to the Colonial Office he wrote Parliamentary Government; or Responsible Ministries for the Australian Colonies (Hobart, 1854). The Colonial Office cancelled his leave and dismissed him. He rejected the offer of the governorship of the West Indies, as later he rejected the offers of colonial treasurership and secretaryship of Victoria, and in October 1854 began to practise successfully at the Victorian Bar.

In February 1855 Chapman was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council for South Bourke on a programme which emphasized the importance of responsible government. In 1856, when the law officers under the Haines ministry refused to draft clauses incorporating the ballot into the Electoral Act under the new Constitution, Chapman at a meeting of William Nicholson's supporters offered to do so. Thus he drafted the first efficient ballot legislation, giving shape to what became known as the 'Victorian' ballot. He was twice defeated in elections for the new Legislative Assembly and did not sit in it until the end of 1857. Nevertheless he was attorney-general in the O'Shanassy ministry from 11 March to 24 April. In March 1858 Chapman was called upon to form a government, which he did although he relinquished the premiership in favour of O'Shanassy and took the attorney-generalship for himself. This ill-starred ministry of Irish Catholics, wealthy property owners and place seekers lasted until October 1859. During its life Chapman, lampooned by Melbourne Punch as a conceited, pedantic bore, attempted to push through a reform bill creating equal electoral districts, initiated a bill providing for triennial parliaments and in 1858 amended the Audit Act of 1857, thereby establishing the basis of existing audit legislation in Australia. Although Chapman was again defeated at the poll in 1859 he acted as a judge at Ballarat. He also lectured in law at the University of Melbourne and although he was returned for Mornington to the Legislative Assembly in 1861, he resigned in 1862 to accept appointment as a temporary judge in the Supreme Court. In 1864 he was appointed puisne judge in Otago, New Zealand.

In January 1866 Chapman's wife, two of his six sons and his only daughter were drowned when the London was wrecked in the Bay of Biscay. Of the surviving sons, (Sir) Frederick Revans became a puisne judge in New Zealand, Martin became K.C., and Ernest Arthur and Charles William returned to Australia. In Victoria in 1868 Chapman married Selina Frances Carr, sister-in-law of Richard Ireland, his legal and political colleague; they had no children. In his remaining years in New Zealand Chapman built one of the first concrete houses in the southern hemisphere, lectured on the importance of railways to colonies, was active in the Dunedin Half Holiday Association and, when he retired from the bench in 1875, became chancellor of the University of Otago. He died of cancer at his home in Dunedin on 27 December 1881.

Select Bibliography

  • F. E. Mineka (ed), The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill 1812-1848 (Toronto, 1963)
  • R. S. Neale, ‘H. S. Chapman and the “Victorian” Ballot’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 12, no 48, Apr 1967, pp 506-21
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1855-59
  • Daily Advertiser, May 1833–Dec 1834 (McGill University Library, Montreal)
  • Chapman papers, vol 53 (National Library of New Zealand)
  • Chapman papers (privately held).

Citation details

R. S. Neale, 'Chapman, Henry Samuel (1803–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 April 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 Chapman, by Frederick Alexander Dunn, 1867

Henry Chapman, by Frederick Alexander Dunn, 1867

State Library of Victoria, H29509

Life Summary [details]


21 July, 1803
London, Middlesex, England


27 December, 1881 (aged 78)
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand

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