Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Chinn (1858–1940)

by Arthur Corbett

This article was published:

Henry Chinn (1858-1940), surveyor and engineer, was born on 15 January 1858 at Collingwood, Melbourne, son of Cornish parents John Mitchell Chinn, engineer, and his wife Jane, née Ivey. Educated probably at a state school, he learned some surveying and drawing while a clerk in the water-supply branch of the Department of Public Works from July 1873 until 1877. On 5 February 1878 at St Paul's Church of England, Melbourne, he married Fanny Margaret Hood; they had two sons and two daughters.

In May he became a draughtsman in the New South Wales Department of Public Works and was licensed as a surveyor on 22 January 1882. He resigned in July, joined the railways in November but was dismissed in March 1883 at Armidale. Returning to Victoria, he worked as an engineer at Lakes Entrance, on Melbourne sewerage works and on railway jobs in New South Wales and Tasmania; he was frequently in trouble. In 1885 he set up as a consulting engineer in Melbourne and secured an extensive practice as an expert witness. When his wife died in 1887 their children were reared by her brother (Sir) Joseph Hood.

Chinn speculated in land and in 1890 was bankrupt. In 1894 he was accused of fraudulent dealings over moneylending. He returned to engineering and in 1901 was briefly employed by the Metropolitan Water and Sewage Board, Brisbane, but was discharged for absence without leave. He settled in Western Australia as a consulting engineer in 1903 and in 1907 made some political friends with articles in the West Australian criticizing the State railway administration. On 14 December 1907 in Perth he married a divorcee Helen, née Crossley, with Congregational forms. While working on an Adelaide tramway job for Henry Teasdale Smith, in May 1908, he was accused of trying to profit from a welding invention of State analyst W. A. Hargreaves.

Against technical advice, King O'Malley was persuaded to appoint Chinn supervising engineer for the transcontinental railway in Western Australia on 8 February 1912. Directed to build the track eastwards from Kalgoorlie, Chinn complained of lack of authority to engage staff and was frequently in controversy with H. Deane, chief engineer of Commonwealth railways. When O'Malley visited the works Chinn made the elementary error of going direct to the minister to obtain his consent for a deviation in the approved route. J. M. Fowler secured a royal commission into charges that Chinn had illicitly trafficked in gold and had committed frauds in 1894; the commissioner (Sir) Henry Hodges dismissed six charges but was equivocal on charges that Chinn had forged references. O'Malley supported Chinn but when the government fell in June 1913 the new minister discharged him at once. The Labor-dominated Senate appointed a select committee which recommended that he should be paid compensation for dismissal without reasonable cause, but no action was taken.

Bitter and frustrated, Chinn returned to Victoria and struggled vainly for compensation. In January 1916 he met Fowler in Collins Street and, after insulting him, blows were exchanged; both were fined. He lived in Sydney in 1916-25 probably working as a consulting engineer, and retired in 1931. Survived by two daughters of his first marriage, Chinn died as an old-age-pensioner at The Basin in the Dandenongs, Victoria, on 29 October 1940; he was buried in St Kilda cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1910, 3 (83)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1913, 3, 1245
  • Parliamentary Papers (Senate), 1, 179, 1914-17, 5, 1341
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1912, vol 64, 1425, vol 69, 7281
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1890
  • West Australian, 22 Jan–6 Feb 1913
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 8, 15 Jan 1916
  • James Mackinnon Fowler papers and King O'Malley papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A3832, RC14 (1), series A456, item W16/3/31 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Arthur Corbett, 'Chinn, Henry (1858–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 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]


15 January, 1858
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


29 October, 1940 (aged 82)
The Basin, Victoria, Australia

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