Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Thomas Fox (1819–1891)

by Marian R. Henry

This article was published:

Henry Thomas Fox (1819-1891), master mariner, marine surveyor and insurance agent, was born on 31 May 1819 at Shaldon, Devonshire, England, son of William Fox, master mariner, and his wife Mary, née Langdon or Thomas. Educated at Rendell's School, Bovey-Tracey, near Exeter, he boarded his first ship, Oporto Packet, in April 1832. On 25 December 1840 he reached Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, as chief mate of the Union. His first command was the Blossom out of Port Phillip in March 1841. On 7 May he reached Sydney in the Shamrock. In 1842-50 he was master of various coastal and Pacific ships based in Sydney, including the Emma and the Phantom owned by Thomas Woolley. On 16 April 1846 at Christ Church, Sydney, Fox married Isobel Pilmor Williamson of Launceston, the sister of Woolley's wife. In 1848 he was alleged to have withheld news of the Californian gold strike from a Sydney Morning Herald reporter.

Intending to go to England, Fox sailed with his wife and daughter in the Mary Catherine to San Francisco in March 1851. He found it an 'accursed place', most of his crew deserted and after news of gold discoveries in New South Wales he returned to Sydney in November. From February to April 1852 he was at the Major's Creek goldfield near Braidwood but found it a 'vile hole'. In June he bought the Emma and sailed her on the Geelong run. On 17 July 1853 he arrived in Sydney as pilot of the American New Orleans, thus concluding his last voyage.

Fox began life ashore as a marine surveyor. From July 1854 he was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and next year was on its committee to have a lighthouse erected on King Island. In 1855 he was praised by the Empire for his lecture on the 'History of the Navigation on the Southern Coasts of Australia'. He wrote letters to the Sydney Morning Herald and in 1856 to the Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle on the need to correct discrepancies in charts. In October he was active in moves to establish a nautical school. In March 1859 he was appointed to the Pilot Board, but the government ignored its advice on the Jervis Bay lighthouse and the use of the Sea Witch as a pilot ship. The board declined to fit out the ship and in March 1862 Fox, with Benjamin Darley and Charles Smith, was dismissed. They petitioned the Legislative Assembly for a select committee and were exonerated. On 9 September 1857 Fox had become secretary and surveyor to the Australian General Assurance Co. on condition he ceased his own surveys. From 1865 he was manager of the company; he was also auditor of the City Bank. In 1861 he was appointed to the Steam Navigation Board and in 1875, with Henry Parkes's support, to the Marine Board.

A devout Anglican and a Freemason, Fox had enjoyed taking Bishop Selwyn to New Zealand in 1850. When living in Sydney he regularly attended the 'Garrison' Church. Fond of cricket, concerts and the theatre, he was described in the Empire as 'that attractive combination—the sailor, the man of science and the gentleman'. On 29 April 1891 Fox died at his home, Evandale, Burwood, from chronic bronchitis and was buried in the Newton cemetery. He was survived by five daughters and his son Harold, who became a notable tennis player and represented New South Wales against Victoria in 1886-1902.

Select Bibliography

  • Austral, Lawn Tennis in Australasia (Syd, 1912)
  • C. Bateson, Gold Fleet for California (Syd, 1963)
  • J. H. Watson, ‘Australian mariners of the past’, Scottish Australasian, 8 (1917)
  • Empire (Sydney), 5, 7 Sept 1855, 28 Feb 1856
  • H. T. Fox diaries and papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under Fox (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Marian R. Henry, 'Fox, Henry Thomas (1819–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 May, 1819
Shaldon, Devon, England


29 April, 1891 (aged 71)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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