Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Hellyer (1790–1832)

by Shirley M. Eldershaw

This article was published:

Henry Hellyer (1790-1832), explorer and surveyor, second son of eleven children of John Hellyer and Betsy Maine of Portchester, Hampshire, England, arrived in Van Diemen's Land on 4 March 1826 in the Cape Packet with other officers of the newly-formed Van Diemen's Land Co. as architect and surveyor. A month later Hellyer, with the other surveyors, began exploration in the north-west of the island where the company had been promised a grant of 250,000 acres (101,173 ha). For the following six months he made journeys in the vicinity of Port Sorell and the Mersey River, particularly in its upper reaches and was probably responsible for such names as Black Bluff, Mounts Claude and Van Dyke, and the Minnow and Dasher Rivers. In October 1826 the company's agent, Edward Curr, decided to establish its headquarters at Circular Head and it was from here in the following February that Hellyer set out on his journey to the 'peak like a volcano' which had been observed by Matthew Flinders in 1798. Commencing its ascent on 14 February, Hellyer named it St Valentine's Peak. This journey was a decisive one for the company, for Hellyer's report of extensive, open and apparently desirable country to the north and south of the peak, which he named the Hampshire and Surrey Hills, elated Curr, who immediately recommended that the company should make arrangements to locate their lands in the area. He praised Hellyer as 'a most intelligent, useful and indefatigable person [who has] encountered greater difficulties, dangers and privations than any individual in the service'.

Hellyer was sent to lay out a road from Emu Bay to the Hampshire Hills, but on his first visit to the area, Curr realized it had few of the qualities which made the settled part of the island so suited to sheep, and he wrote of Hellyer: 'he may he said to look upon everything with a painter's eye and upon his own discoveries in particular with an affection which is blind to all faults'. But once the area was allocated to the company Curr was anxious to have it accurately surveyed and mapped, and during 1828 Hellyer continued his explorations. In February he journeyed to the summit of Black Bluff, its first known ascent, and in March 1831 to Cradle Mountain. The whole Surrey Hills block was thoroughly traversed in every direction from Mount Bischoff in the west to Black Bluff in the east, and as far south as the Cripps Range, an area which thus became the best surveyed and most thoroughly identified in the island. Perhaps his most arduous journey was that to the south of the Surrey Hills in company with Joseph Fossey and two other seasoned explorers, Alexander McKay, then an assigned servant of the company, and Isaac Cutts. This time they penetrated as far south as Mount Farrell and the Murchison River, despite incredible difficulties and wintry conditions.

Hellyer continued his survey and mapping work until his usefulness to the company was at an end. He was appointed to the Survey Department on Surveyor-General George Frankland's recommendation in May 1832. But he never took up his appointment. His belief that slanderous reports were circulating about him apparently worked on his over-sensitive and reserved nature to the point of desperation and he committed suicide at Circular Head at 9 September 1832.

Hellyer was a man with great powers of physical endurance, but the success of his explorations was mitigated by his lack of colonial experience and his inability to judge the type of country which was required by the company for its operations. He was a first-class draughtsman and surveyor, but his drawings, while interesting, have little or no artistic merit.

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Hellyer (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Shirley M. Eldershaw, 'Hellyer, Henry (1790–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




9 September, 1832 (aged ~ 42)
Circular Head, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.