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William Ernest (Bill) Henry (1920–1998)

by Christine Yeats

This article was published online in 2023

William Ernest Henry (1920–1998), public servant, was born on 4 April 1920 at Woonona, New South Wales, younger son of New South Wales-born parents John William Henry, coalminer, and his wife Harriett Amelia, née Larkin. His great-great-grandfather William Henry had arrived in New South Wales as a convict in the Earl Cornwallis in 1801. One of the earliest settlers in the Lane Cove area, he was notable for his longstanding dispute with the government over one thousand acres (405 ha) of land at Lane Cove, which he claimed was originally promised to him by Governor William Bligh and later confirmed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Young Bill and his brother, John Walter, were encouraged by their mother to finish their education at Wollongong High School and to join the public service. Obtaining his Leaving certificate in 1937, Bill also passed the entrance examination for the New South Wales Public Service. His first appointment was as a junior clerk in the Treasury from 15 March 1937.

Both Bill and his brother served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II. Bill enlisted on 3 March 1941, trained as a navigator in Australia and Canada, and was commissioned in December. Back in Australia, he saw active service from bases in Papua, navigating bombers against Japanese forces: Bostons with No. 22 Squadron (October–December 1942) and Beauforts with No. 100 Squadron (June–December 1943). He was promoted to flight lieutenant (December 1943) and mentioned in dispatches (1944), the citation noting his ‘courage and devotion to duty’ as well as ‘his cheerful personality during times of stress’ (NAA A9300). From September to December 1945, he flew in B-25 Mitchells with No. 2 Squadron, based in Borneo; the unit’s operations included locating prisoner-of-war camps and dropping supplies. On 11 February 1946 in Australia his RAAF appointment terminated. His brother, also a flight lieutenant in the RAAF, would join the State Crown Solicitor’s Office in 1954, retiring as assistant crown solicitor in 1976.

On 31 August 1946 at the Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Newcastle, Bill Henry married Christina Jessie McClelland, a nurse. The couple settled at Oatley, a southern suburb of Sydney. He returned to the State Treasury, initially as a clerk in the accounts branch, and by 1950 was in the budget branch. Graduating from the University of Sydney (BEc, 1950), his career continued to progress. An inspector in 1952, by 1960 he was assistant officer-in-charge of the budget branch. In December 1961 he became chief budget officer and in December 1963 assistant under-secretary. Deputy under-secretary by 1965, he was appointed under-secretary and comptroller of accounts, and permanent head of the Treasury in 1971.

With skill and diplomacy Henry chaired numerous Commonwealth–State working parties established following the election of the Australian Labor Party government of Gough Whitlam in 1972. Committee work seems to have occupied much of his time in the ensuing years. The Treasury, under his guidance, prepared a proposal for sharing taxation powers for a special premiers’ conference in 1976, but it had little impact. He was also a member of the State Mines Control Authority, the council of the University of New England, the New South Wales Universities Board, and the National Relief Board of New South Wales. In 1978 he would chair the Newcastle Gas Co. Ltd inquiry.

Appointed CMG in 1976, Henry stepped down from Treasury in January 1977. He and his wife relocated to London for much of that year while he served as the official secretary in the New South Wales agent-general’s office. In October 1977 he was recalled to Sydney and appointed New South Wales auditor-general. He retired in 1980 after a distinguished career over four decades. Well regarded, he was remembered for his amusing anecdotes that relieved ‘the boredom of long waits outside the Cabinet Room’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1998, 27). He died on 26 July 1998 at Katoomba, survived by his wife and their three children, Anne, Jill, and Mark; he was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Henry, W. E.
  • Golden Heritage: A Joint Exhibition to Commemorate the 175th Anniversary of the New South Wales Treasury 1824–1999. Sydney: New South Wales Treasury, 1999. Exhibition catalogue
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Bill Henry, CMG.’ 5 August 1998, 27

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christine Yeats, 'Henry, William Ernest (Bill) (1920–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/henry-william-ernest-bill-32799/text40801, published online 2023, accessed online 1 March 2024.

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