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Ernest Henry (1837–1919)

by Clem Lack

This article was published:

Ernest Henry (1837-1919), pastoralist and founder of copperfields and towns, was born on 1 May 1837 at Harrington, Cumberland, England, the second of four sons of Captain James Henry and his wife Mary Francis, fourth daughter of John Norris of Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire. The family had migrated to North America from Ayrshire, Scotland, in the early seventeenth century and settled on land near Boston. In the war of independence (1775-1783) they espoused the Loyalist cause and the sons fought against the American rebels. The lands of the Henrys were confiscated and the grandfather, James, settled in Jamaica as a sugar planter: when he died his sons, James and Charles Edward, were taken to England by their mother.

At 16 Ernest made his first voyage to Australia as a junior officer in the Victoria of the Australian Royal Mail Steamship Co. He returned to England after the Crimean war broke out and was commissioned an ensign but was invalided before the war ended. With his brothers, Arthur and Alfred, he arrived at Melbourne in February 1858. In 1859 when Queensland was separated from New South Wales he travelled overland to Brisbane and with George Dalrymple and Philip Sellheim explored the region of the Bowen and Burdekin Rivers, following the latter to the Valley of the Lagoons. All three explorers took up pastoral runs: Henry formed Baroondah, a sheep and cattle station on the Dawson River in 1860 and in 1861 leased Mount McConnell on the Burdekin River; Selheim took up Strathmore on the Bowen and Dalrymple the Valley of the Lagoons. From Rockhampton to Mount McConnell Ernest and Arthur took the first herd of cattle to arrive on the Upper Burdekin. Henry sold Baroondah in 1863 and accompanied Hugh Devlin to the Flinders country, an exploration which resulted in his occupation of Hughenden station and the later development of the town named after his mother's home of Hughenden Manor.

In 1865 Henry sold Mount McConnell and Hughenden and abandoned pastoral pursuits. In 1866 he went exploring and prospecting for minerals and in May 1867 on the Cloncurry River discovered the rich outcrop of copper ore which was later known as the Great Australian Copper Mine. Henry and his partners worked it until 1879 when it was sold. In 1882 he discovered copper mines at Argylla, fifty miles (80 km) west of Cloncurry, and at Mount Oxide, ninety miles (145 km) from Argylla, and held these interests until 1913. Henry was a superb horseman with an iron constitution and survived many adventures and encounters with the Aboriginals. Once he abandoned his exhausted horse, walked across rough country for twelve hours, swam the flooded Suttor River and walked barefoot over burnt grass for ten miles (16 km) to Mount McConnell station. In January 1884 at Argylla he was saddling his horse when a disgruntled Aboriginal drove a spear into his back. Unarmed and bleeding, Henry grappled with his attacker who escaped. Prostrate for seventy-two hours he induced some natives to swathe him with flannels soaked in hot water; every night he heard the Aboriginals disputing if they should kill him. On the fifth day he struggled to his horse and rode to Cloncurry. His reminiscences are in the Oxley Memorial Library.

On 18 August 1870 Henry married Marion Elizabeth, daughter of William Thompson and Mary Ann, née Northcote; she was born at Manchester, Lancashire, in 1845, became a fearless horsewoman and died at Warwick on 26 December 1888. Henry died at Epping, New South Wales, on 26 March 1919. He was survived by a daughter, Ernestine Marion, and by a son, Arthur Douglas, who followed mining and grazing pursuits and at 80 died in Queensland in June 1954. Ernest left an estate of £37,000. His younger brother, Alfred, was for many years police magistrate at Clermont and Townsville, and later a journalist and sugar-planter at Ingham; he then followed journalism in Sydney where he died on 22 February 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • J. Farnfield, Frontiersman (Melb, 1968)
  • Bulletin, 3 Oct 1907.

Citation details

Clem Lack, 'Henry, Ernest (1837–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 14 April 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]


1 May, 1837
Harrington, Cumberland, England


26 March, 1919 (aged 81)
Epping, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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