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Sir Edmund Yeamans Walcott Henderson (1821–1896)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published:

Sir Edmund Yeamans Walcott Henderson (1821-1896), soldier, administrator and police commissioner, was born on 19 April 1821 at Muddiford, Hampshire, England, son of Vice-Admiral George Henderson and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Walcott-Sympson. Educated at Bruton, Somerset, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers and in 1839-45 served in Canada. In 1848 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, he married Mary Murphy.

In 1849 Earl Grey appointed Henderson comptroller of convicts in Western Australia and he sailed in the Scindian with seventy-five convicts, seventy pensioners and some free migrants; they arrived at Fremantle on 1 June 1850. He was instructed to 'examine and report upon the public works which can be undertaken with the most advantage … and to exercise a general control of convict labour', but no accommodation had been arranged and he had to lease premises, commenting that a 'wool-shed makes excellent barracks'. His work was hampered by an anti-transportation party and by the arrival of more convicts. The first transportees had been chosen for their physical fitness and were soon sent to private employment to relieve the labour shortage without contaminating the morals of the community. Henderson thought highly of these convicts, urged that their terms of servitude be shortened and was pleased when they married. He informed Governor Charles Fitzgerald of improvements in the English penal code but was snubbed when the Executive Council reduced wages and rations for ticket-of-leave men. In retort Henderson appointed prisoner-constables and refused most of the normal duties of the commissariat and the Ordnance Office.

Despite the arrival of sickly, turbulent Irish convicts in 1853, Henderson had the complicated system in working order by 1855. A permanent gaol of limestone had been built at Fremantle with officers' quarters and cottages for the guard, and he had planned a harbour. Fitzgerald was replaced in June 1855 by (Sir) Arthur Kennedy who respected Henderson but differed on 'matters of principle'. His wife had died and he returned to England with his son in February 1856. He gave evidence on the abolition of transportation to a select committee of the House of Lords and advocated a system of marks, a scheme proposed by his energetic superintendent, Thomas Dixon. The system, based on industry and education, enabled prisoners to earn recommendation for tickets-of-leave by accumulating marks, but Henderson was distressed when he learned that Dixon had been summarily dismissed for fraudulent insolvency. In 1857 he married Maria, daughter of Rev. J. Hindle of Higham, Kent, and returned to Western Australia in 1858.

As a supernumerary of the Royal Engineers, Henderson agreed to take over the colony's public works but when the corps withdrew after three years he had much difficulty in carrying out any but the most ordinary work. By 1862 he told Governor John Hampton that the department should be less costly under charge of a civilian. The convict system was then established with limited transportation and Henderson wanted to resign. Nearly 6500 convicts had arrived, fifteen hiring stations were established, road-gangs were working all over the colony and 'remarkable order and quiet' prevailed. Humane and liberal, he had reduced corporal punishment to a minimum and established in the gaol a library, classes and lectures. He was also patron of the Fremantle Workingmen's Association. With complimentary addresses from both colonists and convicts, he left the colony in the York on 7 February 1863.

In England Henderson gave evidence on penal systems and transportation to a royal commission, sold his commission as lieutenant-colonel and accepted appointment as director of convict prisons. When Sir Joshua Jebb died in 1863, Henderson became surveyor-general of prisons and inspector-general of military prisons. In 1869 he became chief commissioner of the metropolitan police which he expanded from 9000 to 13,000. He also instituted a criminal investigation department and a police orphanage. He was made C.B. in 1868 and K.C.B. in 1878. On 8 February 1886 a demonstration of unemployed in Trafalgar Square led to serious riot and much damage to public property. The failure of police to control the crowds was blamed on Henderson and he resigned. Through the Home Secretary, Hugh Childers, he was given the highest rate of pension, £1000. He was also presented with a purse of £1000 and a portrait by Edwin Long, and London cabmen gave him a silver model of a hansom cab. Henderson had a good sense of humour, wide repute as a raconteur and competence in water-colour sketching. He died on 8 December 1896 in London, survived by several daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Yates, Celebrities at Home, vol 3 (Lond, 1879)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain), 1856, 1863
  • Inquirer (Perth), 28 Jan 1863, 10 Sept 1873, 11 May 1887
  • Vanity Fair, 6 Mar 1875
  • Illustrated London News, 4 Dec 1886, 6 Dec 1896
  • 'Obituary: Sir Edmund Henderson', Times (London), 10 Dec 1896, p 8
  • Testimonials 228, 229A, Feb 1863 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CO 18/97, 102
  • CSO 1850-1863 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Henderson, Sir Edmund Yeamans Walcott (1821–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 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]


19 April, 1821
Muddiford, Hampshire, England


8 December, 1896 (aged 75)
London, Middlesex, England

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