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Sir Thomas Henley (1860–1935)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

Thomas Henley (1860-1935), by unknown photographer, 1902-06

Thomas Henley (1860-1935), by unknown photographer, 1902-06

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/311

Sir Thomas Henley (1860-1935), politician and building contractor, was born on 4 February 1860 at Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, England, son of George Henley, agricultural labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Seagle. His mother was illiterate and, after National schooling only, Thomas worked as a farm-hand and for ten years 'carried the hod'. He migrated to Sydney about 1884 and was a plasterer when he married Charlotte Smith in Balmain Congregational Church on 2 July 1886.

Henley bought land at Balmain, Petersham, Five Dock and Drummoyne, building on some blocks and subdividing others for sale at £10 deposit, 6 per cent interest and repayment over five years. During the depressed 1890s he continued to buy, especially at Drummoyne, where he built Tudor House for himself. In 1898-1905 he owned the Drummoyne, West Balmain and Leichhardt Steam Ferry Co., running three ferries. As alderman for Drummoyne in 1898-1934 and four times mayor, and as a member of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage in 1902-33, Henley saw the tram-line extended to Drummoyne in 1902, its sewerage planned in 1903 and reticulation sewers laid by 1910, electricity supply introduced in 1910 and a beginning to sealing roads in 1916. As the solution to municipal indebtedness, he secured the amalgamation in 1902 of Five Dock and Drummoyne and the sale of municipal property. While an alderman for Lang Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1902-06 Henley sought extended licensing powers for the council as a measure of additional revenue. He campaigned to have the abattoirs moved to Homebush, away from where he owned property.

Twice defeated for Ryde, Henley was elected in 1904 to the Legislative Assembly as a Liberal and Reform candidate for Burwood which he represented until 1935 (Ryde, 1920-27). He developed an aggressive parliamentary style, heckling Labor about caucus control, making provocative reference to Catholics, and affirming his own success and the merits of hard work. Opponents called him the 'great “I am”'. At his own expense he was in Europe in 1908 as commissioner for the Franco-British Exhibition. Litigious, he won his case against enemies who alleged he treated his employees unfairly. In 1913-14, with Sir William McMillan and (Sir) Arthur Cocks, he incurred £3500 costs (later paid by public subscription) in a case that went to the Privy Council challenging the Labor government's plans to convert Government House to other use.

In 1915 Henley volunteered to go to Egypt as a commissioner for the Citizens' War Chest Fund. Organizing the distribution of comforts from Alexandria, Marseilles and Le Havre, France, and London, Henley personally accompanied the goods. He was gazetted lieutenant-colonel to overcome objections to civilians entering the battle zone and was appointed C.B.E. and K.B.E. in 1920. A son had died in France in 1916.

Although Henley's demand in 1920 for an investigation into convents recalled his earlier sectarianism, his old fire had gone. He served as minister for public works and for railways and housing under Sir George Fuller's seven-hour ministry (21 December 1921) and from April to June 1922, when he resigned because of ill health. Next year he was studying Fascism and in 1924 promoting the development of Canberra. He became a director of W. R. Carpenter & Co. (1926) and the North Shore Gas Co. Ltd (1928). For thirty years he had been an adroit exploiter of press publicity and self-published pamphlets. His travels to the Pacific Islands led to publication of A Pacific Cruise (1930) and an acrimonious exchange with Sir Joseph Carruthers who criticized his account of the Samoan rebellion: Henley, he said, was 'qualifying for Callan Park'. Short, square-jawed and pugnacious, Henley had become increasingly irascible and been involved in more lawsuits. Nevertheless the Bulletin claimed 'everyone liked and respected him': he was always 'Tom' to his workers.

On 14 May 1935 Henley fell from a Manly ferry and was drowned. The man who tried to rescue him reported seeing a phial floating nearby and there were rumours of suicide. The coroner found no suspicious circumstances but a record of ill health: he had recently stood down from all public offices. He was buried in Field of Mars cemetery with Presbyterian forms, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son Herbert, grazier and member of the Legislative Council in 1937-64. Henley had been a Sunday school superintendent and left money from his estate, valued for probate at £139,037, to the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, the Salvation Army and Sydney City Mission. He had been presented by his constituents in 1929 with his portrait by Norman Carter.

Select Bibliography

  • S. H. Bowden (ed), The History of the Australian Comforts Fund (Syd, 1922)
  • S. N. Hogg, Balmain Past and Present (Syd, 1924)
  • J. Jervis, The Story of Drummoyne (Parramatta, 1941)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 1916, 15 May, 6 June 1935
  • Fighting Line, 26 Feb 1920
  • Bulletin, 22 May 1935
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Henley, Sir Thomas (1860–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Henley (1860-1935), by unknown photographer, 1902-06

Thomas Henley (1860-1935), by unknown photographer, 1902-06

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/311

Life Summary [details]


4 February, 1860
Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, England


14 May, 1935 (aged 75)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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