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John Henry (1834–1912)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published:

John Henry (1834-1912), politician and merchant, was born on 1 September 1834 at Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland, third of the seven sons of John Henderson Henry, merchant, and his wife Christina, née Henderson. Educated at Lerwick and the Normal School, Edinburgh, John worked for an Edinburgh grocer before migrating to Melbourne with his father and brothers William, George and Charles in May 1854. His father became a storekeeper at Forest Creek, but died in Sydney in 1856. John remained in Victoria. After a year on the Castlemaine gold diggings, he tried storekeeping at Chewton and Ararat before returning to Castlemaine as a traveller for Blythe Bros; in 1861 he bought out his employers and with William opened the wholesale and retail establishment J. & W. Henry. On 7 July 1862 at Campbell's Creek, near Castlemaine, he married Annie Gravely with Congregational forms. Business prospered, a store was opened at Malmsbury, and in 1868 John moved to Melbourne to take charge of a third branch.

In 1872 he settled at Don, Tasmania, after buying into the local merchant firm Cummings & Co., renamed, initially, Cummings, Henry & Co., and in 1880 when Edwin Cummings retired the River Don Trading Co. Ltd. About 1890 the company's headquarters were moved to West Devonport; Henry, as managing director, followed in 1893 and branches were subsequently established at Ulverstone, Zeehan, Burnie, Wynyard, Penguin and Sheffield. In 1898 the company reverted to a partnership between John and Annie Henry, William Shaw and James York, but new articles of association were drawn up in 1910.

Henry began his public career in the 1870s as a member of the Forth Road Trust and as warden (master warden in 1880-86) of the Mersey Marine Board. He was member of the Devonport Town Board in 1890 and a justice of the peace from 1895. He held the House of Assembly seat of Devon East (Devonport from 1897) in 1891-98 and was treasurer in the Dobson ministry of 1892-94. In 1901-02 he represented Mersey in the Legislative Council. An ardent Federalist, Henry was a Tasmanian delegate and member of the finance committee at the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention where he opposed, against his fellow Tasmanians, financial powers for the Senate.

Patron or president of the great majority of local institutions, a director of the 1885 Mt Lyell Prospecting Association and a successful land speculator, 'the uncrowned King of Devonport' built for the town the Gentlemen's Club and the Federal Gymnasium and in 1896 attended the London conference of Empire Chambers of Commerce. He was a seasoned yachtsman, though the Norma and Tasma gave way in 1906 to the steam launch Brynhild. Remarked as a man of strong determination, and well-read in Scottish literature, Henry was appointed C.M.G. in 1907. He died on 14 September 1912 at Devonport, survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £4807.

John Henry's brother James Henderson (1830-1908) migrated to Castlemaine with his mother, three sisters and brother Frederick in 1857. A contributor to Blackwood's Magazine, James spent about twelve years in Queensland after the early death of his wife and two of his children. He then moved to Don as accountant to John's firm. He died at Evandale on 7 February 1908. The eldest brother, Robert (1828-1896), mariner, came to Castlemaine in 1864. For two years he operated a store, Henry & Brooks, at Malmsbury, before resuming a seafaring career. In the mid-1870s he began trading with various vessels from the River Don, but eventually he, too, entered John's office. Later he had charge of the sawmills and bonemills at Don where he died on 24 March 1896.

The youngest brother, Frederick Ormiston (1846?-1916), merchant, was born in Edinburgh and educated there and after 1857 in Victoria. On leaving school he managed the Malmsbury branch of J. & W. Henry until about 1868 when he departed to seek opportunities in Fiji and New Zealand. Visiting Tasmania in 1880 he was drawn to the west coast by the tin-mining boom at Heemskirk. He recognized Strahan as the only accessible coastal outlet for the area and opened a store there with Percy Fowler, later proprietor of the Zeehan and Dundas Herald. Business slumped with the decline in tin-mining but revived with the discovery of gold at Lynch's Creek and of the Iron Blow at Mt Lyell in 1883. That year Henry built commodious premises for storekeeping and gold and timber-buying at strategically placed Long Bay; he later established similar businesses at Queenstown, Gormanston and Kelly Basin and was a partner in (A.F.) Stenhouse & Co. at Devonport and Ulverstone. His shop signs proclaimed him 'Pioneer Storekeeper and Universal Provider'.

In 1891 Henry was a leader in the public outcry against the A. W. Lawder bill which sought to give a private syndicate the right of deepening Macquarie Harbour bar and charging traffic tolls. An original member of the Strahan Marine Board, Chamber of Commerce and the Mt Lyell Tourist Association, he was the largest shareholder in the Mt Lyell Prospecting Association and eventually became wealthy. But this 'corpulent, long-bearded, frock-coated little man who loved his pinch of snuff' admitted to unfulfilled aspirations to statesmanship. He was defeated for Lyell in the House of Assembly in 1900. He died at Strahan on 8 January 1916 and was buried in the local cemetery. On 16 April 1887 at Don he had married Mary Ann Lewis with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by their two sons and two daughters and left an estate valued for probate at £15,617.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • C. Whitham, The Book of Mt Lyell and the Gordon (Hob, 1917)
  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • North-West Post, 26 Mar 1896
  • Mercury (Hobart), 16, 17 Sept 1912
  • Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 10 Jan 1916
  • notes by C. Ramsay, and K. R. Von Stieglitz (copy in ADB file).

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Henry, John (1834–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 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

John Henry (1834-1912), by J. W. Beattie

John Henry (1834-1912), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125881300

Life Summary [details]


1 September, 1834
Lerwick, Shetland Isles, Scotland


14 September, 1912 (aged 78)
Devonport, Tasmania, Australia

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