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Alfred Peach Hensman (1834–1902)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published:

Alfred Peach Hensman (1834-1902), attorney-general and judge, was born on 12 May 1834, the second son of John Hensman, solicitor, and his wife Mary, née Wilkinson, of Springhill, Northampton, England. He went to India and was commissioned in the 1st Madras Fusiliers, but soon resigned because of ill health. He entered the Middle Temple in 1852 and the University of London (B.A., 1853). Called to the Bar in 1858, he became counsel for the Treasury at the Leicestershire Assizes and later a revising barrister. In December 1882 he was appointed attorney-general for Western Australia.

With his wife Emily, née Rowden, and two children Hensman arrived at Perth in the Ballarat on 11 May 1884. He soon won repute as a dignified and reliable lawyer but socially was reserved and somewhat haughty; only intimate friends appreciated his dry humour and genuine benevolence. He was diametrically opposed in temperament and political philosophy to Governor Sir Frederick Broome, whose inability to distinguish between administrative and legal matters increasingly irritated him. The governor questioned Hensman's right to give legal advice officially to stipendiary magistrates sitting in civil jurisdiction on cases between private litigants. Hensman tried to indicate the different functions of the attorney-general as judicial officer, and the governor as executive officer, but to little avail. He also maintained that Broome should confine his opinions to points of law and not extend them to questions involving the application of law to facts, especially as he seemed to have privately advised one of the litigants. In the Executive Council on 24 March 1886 the governor presented a minute accusing Hensman of 'disloyalty and improper official conduct', of anti-government conspiracies and actions designed to cripple the administration. Hensman was not permitted to answer the charges and immediately resigned, finding it 'impossible for a man of honour, or for one who has any respect for himself to do otherwise'. He expected his resignation to be transmitted to London and was appalled when Broome not only accepted it but also interdicted him, suspended his salary and demanded his resignation from the Legislative Council. Hensman declared his interdiction illegal and refused to resign from the Legislative Council pending advice from the Colonial Office. Lengthy dispatches passed between Broome and the Colonial Office, and the affair was aired in the House of Commons. In January 1887 Edward Stanhope, the secretary of state for colonies, vindicated Hensman and ordered Broome to pay his salary in full. At the same time Hensman was offered the attorney-generalship of the Barbados, which he refused. Not satisfied he side-stepped protocol and solicited the aid of his brother, Arthur, to act as his 'representative' in London. These efforts were thwarted by a statement from the new secretary for state for colonies: 'With regard to your brother's complaints … that in a quarrel reaching the length attained by that between Sir F. N. Broome and Mr. A. P. Hensman, both parties are so carried away by their antagonism as to put themselves more or less in the wrong, whatever may have been the merits of the original dispute'.

Many colonists sympathized with Hensman, and on 6 November 1886 a public meeting in the Town Hall, well attended by his supporters, indicated that he was moving into the political arena. With his liberal background, he was concerned with social and political reforms. He had always been a staunch advocate for responsible government and since his student days supported the move for the emancipation of women: in convocation of the University of London in 1874 he had urged that they be admitted to degree courses and in Western Australia he pressed for female suffrage and opportunities for higher education. He represented Greenough in the Legislative Council in 1887-89 and practised as a barrister until his elevation to the Supreme Court as puisne judge in 1892. He strengthened it with his command of legal principle and his practicality, always treating the rules of court as servants, not masters. In keeping with his liberalism he was a champion of local autonomy, never yielding to English practice or precedent unless bound to do so. He published a handbook on English constitutional law and an address on Western Australia, which he delivered to the Royal Colonial Institute in London in 1889. Aggravated by continuous disparagement in the West Australian, Hensman sued the proprietors, Charles Harper and (Sir) John Hackett, for libel in 1888. The case was decided in favour of the plaintiff who received £800 damages, but it had sordid overtones when the defendants formally objected to its being heard by the chief justice, (Sir) Alexander Onslow, an old friend and supporter of Hensman.

A competent violinist Hensman was active in encouraging musical appreciation in Perth and in recognition for his contribution he was presented with a baton by the Perth Musical Union in October 1889. On a visit to England he died on 5 October 1902, survived by his wife and son, Harold William, a barrister in his father's firm in Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia) 1886
  • Executive Council minutes, Parliamentary Papers (Western Australia) 1886, 1888
  • P. J. Boyce, ‘The governors of Western Australia under representative government, 1870-1890’, University Studies in History, 4 (1961-62) no 1
  • West Australian, 16 Jan, 17 Apr 1883, 31 Mar, 1, 14 Apr, 13 Sept 1886, 16 May–21 Aug 1888, 20, 29 Mar, 30 Oct 1889, 8 Oct 1902
  • Daily News (Perth), 23 Nov 1886
  • Inquirer (Perth), 29 Dec 1886
  • Twentieth Century Impressions, 134 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Hensman papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Supreme Court records, 270, 1888 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CSO, 1883-87 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • CSR, 1886-87 (Government House, Perth).

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Hensman, Alfred Peach (1834–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 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]


12 May, 1834


5 October, 1902 (aged 68)

Cultural Heritage

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