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Henry Copeland (1839–1904)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Henry Copeland (1839-1904), by unknown photographer

Henry Copeland (1839-1904), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Henry Copeland (1839-1904), politician and mining expert, was born on 6 June 1839 in Hull, Yorkshire, England. He was educated at Trinity House School, Hull, famous for 'turning out the ablest and most adventurous captains in the English merchant service'. He qualified as a navigator at 15, failed to get into the navy and joined the merchant service. He was in a Russian port when the Crimean war broke out, saw action in the Baltic and then sailed for America. At 18 he reached Williamstown, Victoria, where he deserted and carried his swag to Ballarat. Copeland spent about fifteen years on the goldfields as a digger, farmer and contractor. In 1863 he visited England where on 20 April he married Hannah, daughter of James Beecroft, brewer, at St Leonard's Church, Malton, Yorkshire. In 1872 he went to New South Wales and soon acquired a large interest in the Adelong and Grenfell mines. In 1874 he was elected unopposed to the New South Wales Mining Board. Meanwhile he inaugurated a large mining venture and became the principal shareholder in the Long Tunnel Co. at Uralla.

In the general election of 1875 Copeland was defeated for the Goldfields South but in 1877 he was invited to contest the Goldfields North; he won unopposed. In a programme of mining reform he wanted government grants for an adequate water supply to the goldfields, abolition of the export duty on gold and retention by the Crown of mineral rights on all unalienated lands; he also claimed that the colony's land policy was 'worthy of people only fit for a lunatic asylum'. Anxious to support Sir Henry Parkes, Copeland urged him to consider his mining reforms when framing his land policy: 'I may perhaps be pardoned if I say that my opinions on this subject ought to be practical and carry some weight seeing that I have been over 20 years solely connected with mining in all parts of Victoria and N.S.W.' Parkes offered Copeland the ministry of mines in his proposed government but was unable to complete it and James Farnell became premier. Passed over when the Parkes-Robertson coalition was formed, Copeland gave the government independent support until he was estranged from Parkes after voting against the parliamentary privileges bill aimed at making the Legislative Council elective: Parkes then prevented any debate on Copeland's bill to legalize mining on private lands, although the assembly had favoured its introduction. Copeland joined the Opposition and thereafter was implacable in his hostility to Parkes.

After the abolition of the goldfields electorates in 1880, Copeland represented New England until 1882 when he won Newtown by ten votes after a bitter fight. Copeland attacked the government for obtaining a dissolution after defeat on its land bill. He claimed that the 'land laws were most pernicious in their effects' and condemned by selectors, squatters and the press alike. In January 1883 he joined (Sir) Alexander Stuart's ministry as secretary for works and was criticized for refusing the 'inferior' ministry of mines. When he stood for re-election he was defeated, both sides accusing the other of encouraging personation. Fortunately the seat of East Sydney became vacant and in an angry campaign much was made of Copeland's supposed desire to 'flood the country with Chinese'. The charge was unfair because he had supported the 1881 Chinese Restriction Act although he opposed the inhumane clauses which were later struck out by the Legislative Council. Copeland won convincingly and was 'escorted all round the city by a procession headed by a band'.

Copeland held ministerial office for only twelve weeks. At the St Patrick's day banquet he replied to the toast to the ministry while 'in a state of intoxication'. Not content with effusive thanks to the Irish for his win at East Sydney, he said 'the ministry might go to the devil' if it disliked hearing the truth. He was finally forced to sit down by the chairman. He was severely censured by the press and by Governor Loftus, who reported that Copeland was 'a clever man, but has not been accustomed to associate with gentlemen'. When he resigned, only one paper was sympathetic: 'Whatever may be said of the Hon. gentleman's conduct as a Minister, there can be no doubt that as a private member he is one of the most useful and valuable representatives in the Assembly'.

Although he never joined the Labor Party Copeland always strongly supported the working class. He fought for the eight-hour movement and introduced it in all the mines with which he was connected. A vigorous opponent of Sunday closing of public houses he argued that 'if Providence had intended that people should forego their customary beverages one day a week, men would have been provided with pouches like camels in which they could lay in a supply till Monday'. He fought for the opening of the Art Gallery on Sundays for the benefit of the working classes; in 1882 when Parkes protested that 10,000 people had petitioned against Sunday opening and none were for it, Copeland collected 24,000 signatures in its favour and persuaded the assembly to reverse its earlier decision. In 1885 he published Adam's Curse and Labour-Saving Inventions in an effort to 'benefit the poor and distressed among the great and ever-increasing army of the unemployed'. He argued that the only remedy was to effect 'a reduction in the hours of work until all can be employed'.

In 1886 Copeland became secretary for lands under Sir Patrick Jennings. He had been a convinced free trader but became converted to protection. He freely admitted changing his mind and lost his office in January 1887 when Jennings resigned as premier. He believed the root of the financial problem lay in the spending of large loans on imported locomotives and rails 'while our own men have walked about the streets in search of employment'. In 1887 Copeland was sued by a well-known barrister for occupying his reserved sleeping berth and had to pay damages of a farthing.

In 1891-94 as secretary for lands under Sir George Dibbs Copeland had his greatest legislative successes. Nine of the fifteen bills he introduced became law. In 1893, seeking opportunities for every man to become a freeholder, he carried the important land legislation which the Australian Star, 21 July 1898, claimed would 'always reflect honour upon his labour, research, acumen and integrity' and owed nothing to his department. In 1894 he succeeded in legalizing mining on private lands after the Legislative Council had twice rejected the bill. In May 1895 he tried to negotiate a 'fusion' between Parkes and Dibbs. He was defeated for Armidale in that year but later won a by-election for Sydney-Phillip and retained it until he resigned on 27 March 1900.

Copeland was an active and 'distinguished advocate' of Federation, although he only came thirteenth out of forty-nine candidates for the 1897 Federal Convention. He was a trustee of the Australian Museum and of the Art Gallery. In March 1900 he was appointed agent-general for New South Wales. He represented the Commonwealth on the Advisory Board of the Imperial Institute and at the International Telegraphic Conference in London in 1903.

Copeland's career had been conspicuously successful. He 'had worked himself up from a working-miner to a shareholder then to a director of companies, and chairman of directors', and acquired 'some wealth' in the process. He was 'a man of large natural abilities, self-educated in the best senses of the word, obstinate to a degree, but only obstinate because he was certain he was right, full of his native Yorkshire shrewdness, tempered by a good knowledge of men and matters, with the rough edges of his disposition rounded off by a kind of sturdy bonhomie'. He died at Twickenham, near London, on 22 June 1904, survived by two of his four sons and two of his seven daughters. Both his wives, Mary and her sister, predeceased him. He was buried by the dean of Bathurst at Teddington cemetery. Although sometimes accused of being insufficiently Christian he maintained that he regularly paid pew rents at St Stephen's Church of England, Newtown, where he had lived. His probate was sworn at over £2000, two-thirds of which he left to his daughters. The gold-mining district near Gloucester, New South Wales, was named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1878-99
  • Bulletin, 21 Aug 1880
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Oct 1880, 1, 4 Dec 1882, 8, 9, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25 Jan, 19, 20 Mar 1883, 25 June 1887
  • 'Obituary: The Hon. Henry Copeland', Times (London), 24 June 1904, p 10
  • Times (London), 28 June 1904, p 6
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/598/200
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Copeland, Henry (1839–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 15 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 Copeland (1839-1904), by unknown photographer

Henry Copeland (1839-1904), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1839
Hull, Yorkshire, England


22 June, 1904 (aged 65)
Twickenham, London, England

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