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Francis Henty (1815–1889)

by Marnie Bassett

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HENTY FAMILY: Thomas (1775-1839), pioneer, and his sons James (1800-1882), Charles Shum (1807-1864), William (1808-1881), Edward (1810-1878), Stephen George (1811-1872), John (1813-1869), Francis (1815-1889), and a daughter Jane (1805-1893). Thomas Henty had two other sons, Thomas and Henry, and a daughter Frances, who died in childhood or youth and did not come to Australia. Thomas Henty, farmer and banker, of West Tarring, Sussex, England, was the son of William Henty of Littlehampton and June, née Olliver, of Kingston, Sussex. He married Frances Elizabeth Hopkins, of Poling, Sussex, on 2 December 1799. In 1803 he became a commissioned officer in the Yeomanry and Volunteer Corps of Sussex, formed in expectation of invasion by Napoleon. In post-war years England's poor farming prospects persuaded him of the advantages of emigration and in 1828 he decided to sell his Sussex property and transfer family, flocks and capital to some part of 'New Holland', where he was already known for his Spanish merinos bred from George III's flock and where land was still granted free. His choice lay between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, but the British government's sudden decision to make a settlement in Western Australia changed the Henty plan and in 1829 the vanguard of the family, with stock and labourers, sailed for Swan River in the chartered Caroline, in charge of the eldest son James (merchant and banker, 24 September 1800–12 January 1882).

Land regulations, based on property brought into the colony, entitled the Hentys to a grant of 84,413 acres (34,161 ha), but two summers at the Swan and explorations farther afield convinced James that the country's poverty of soil made success impossible in farming and pastoral pursuits. He therefore appealed through his father, then still in England, to the British government for permission to exchange the large Swan grant for a smaller one in Van Diemen's Land. Pending the government's decision James transferred his capital in 1831 to Launceston where he settled with his wife Charlotte, née Carter, of Worthing, Sussex. Thomas joined him in 1832 with Mrs Henty, Jane and three of the four remaining sons. In the meantime changed land regulations had ended the system of free grants; the Hentys' appeal was refused, a serious blow to their fortunes. Henceforth land was to be sold to the highest bidder, and the Hentys, because of expenditure in Western Australia, had not enough money to compete. Nor was unoccupied productive land in Van Diemen's Land any longer available, a condition that turned the thoughts of many, including the Hentys, to 'the opposite coast', the enormous area of empty land across Bass Strait in the almost unknown Port Phillip District of New South Wales.

Occupation of areas not easily accessible from headquarters in Sydney was of necessity forbidden by Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke as contrary to the British government's policy of preventing the dispersion of population. This ruling was common knowledge; nevertheless the Hentys petitioned the British government for permission to buy land across Bass Strait at some place not specified, their Swan River grant to be ceded in return. James, already a successful intercolonial and overseas trader, now sailed for England with his wife on his personal business and to forward the affair of the petition. While in London he was consulted by the directors of the Van Diemen's Land Co. and by others concerned in founding a new British province in South Australia. In London, learning that the petition had been rejected, he applied to the British government again, this time for 20,000 acres (8094 ha) across Bass Strait at a named spot, Portland Bay. 'The Bay' was mainly the choice of Edward (28 March 1810–14 August 1878): trained only for farming and impatient to begin, he urged his father to risk official censure and to 'squat' in anticipation of a title to land at Portland Bay, a place known to whalers and already visited by Edward himself. Thomas, now 59, not to be persuaded without personal inspection of the bay and other possible parts of the south coast and also of Swan River, set off on a survey of over 2000 miles (3219 km) in the Hentys' own brigantine schooner Thistle, 57 tons. Armed with his father's consent, Edward then sailed from Launceston in the Thistle with stock and a small party and on 19 November 1834 the pastoral settlement of the Port Phillip District was begun. Francis (30 November 1815–15 January 1889) followed a month later, bringing the first merinos to come to the future State, whether overland or by sea.

Meantime in London, the persistent James, close to a third official rebuff, was granted a partial reprieve, thanks to the influence of another Sussex man, Lord Surrey, son of the Duke of Norfolk, and to the indecision of the earl of Aberdeen, secretary of state. Although permission to purchase had been refused, James made a new request: that if districts in the neighbourhood of Portland Bay ever became a permanent colony the Hentys should be undisturbed and their rights of settlement protected against any newcomer. Aberdeen informed Surrey that the government was unable to give this pledge, although he was 'not prepared to say that Mr. Henty's pretensions to any land actually brought into cultivation and surrounded by a proper fence, would not be favourably looked upon by His Majesty's Government at a future period'. These words, underlined by Aberdeen, were the basis of Henty activity and argument for years to come.

While still unauthorized settlers the Hentys began whaling at Portland Bay and took their flocks and herds inland to the rich areas on the Wannon River, the 'Australia Felix' described to them by their discoverer, Major (Sir) Thomas Mitchell, in 1836 when he reached Portland Bay overland from Sydney. About the same time settlement at the distant site of Melbourne was begun from Van Diemen's Land by John Batman, John Pascoe Fawkner and others, a venture repudiated by Governor Bourke as unauthorized but soon leading to official settlement. Because Batman and his associates were compensated by the British government for losses sustained through Bourke's disallowance of their 'pretended purchase' of land from the Aboriginals, the Hentys felt it unjust that the colonial government, through Bourke's successor, Sir George Gipps, should refuse compensation for the removal of Henty property at Portland when an official town was laid out there in 1839, and they resented having to bid at public auction in October 1840 for blocks of land in the town they had pioneered. A little later, to Gipps's vexation, Aberdeen's words as to cultivated and fenced lands moved another secretary of state, Lord Stanley, to allow the Hentys pre-emptive rights over such lands, and compensation for the damage done. In 1845 Gipps had to surrender; but his reluctance to offer terms and the Hentys' initial refusal of those eventually offered, together with difficulties of communication, delayed the final settlement until 1849.

From the first, while continuing as a sheep farmer, Thomas Henty had identified himself with Launceston life, helping to found the Cornwall Agricultural Society and to improve the standard of the town's racing, in which soon most events were won by progeny of his importations from the earl of Egremont's stud. But his activities in Launceston, where he was a magistrate, did not weaken his concern, as both a father and a shareholder, in the family venture at Portland Bay, which he visited with his wife in 1838. He died in Launceston on 23 October 1839. Earlier that month James and Edward had hastened to Melbourne to put their case before Port Phillip's first superintendent, Charles La Trobe; on return to Launceston they found their father no longer alive. His dying days, it was believed, had been shadowed by anxiety over the still unresolved future of his sons.

Of a generous and lively mind and a temperament that his son James considered incorrigibly optimistic; with a pride in his reputation in both England and Van Diemen's Land as a breeder of blood-horses and fine-woolled sheep and with as great a pride in the achievements of his sons; and with the support of a practical, intelligent and affectionate wife, Thomas, despite what he called 'the buffettings' he had undergone, seems to have been a happy man until near his end.

Thomas's third son, William (23 September 1808–11 July 1881) remained in England for several years after the rest had left: his father wrote that William would be 'a blockhead not to emigrate' and at last he came. He arrived at Launceston in January 1837 with his wife Susannah Matilda, née Camfield, of Burrswood, Kent; a solicitor, he entered practice in partnership with John Ward Gleadow and soon took a leading part in the Portland Bay battle although the only son never to set foot on the battle-ground. The author of a pamphlet on the Henty case written for the use of their London solicitor and influential English friends, in 1842 he was called to Sydney to inform the colonial government on their compensation claims.

The Hentys were involved during the early 1840s in the general collapse of stock and land values and the Portland Bay establishment was faced with possible ruin. Plans for reformed management were drawn up by James, William, Samuel Bryan (a wealthy farmer, husband of Jane Henty) and Charles Shum Henty (24 April 1807–18 March 1864), who arrived at Launceston in April 1832. He was married in November 1835 to Susan, daughter of Charles Boniface of Kinfield, Sussex. As former manager of the Arundel branch of the Henty Bank at Worthing, Charles was invited to straighten the affairs of the Cornwall Bank and was appointed managing director and cashier of the newly-established Launceston branch of the Bank of Australasia. The reorganization of Portland Bay affairs required Edward Henty and his wife, Anne Maria, daughter of Hugh Gallie of Plymouth, to move to Muntham, the 60,000-acre (24,281 ha) station that became widely known for its merinos, its Durham cattle and the hospitality of its lavish host. This extravagance and Edward's obstinacy led to the later degeneration of the famous flocks. While a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1856-61, Edward lived in Portland and in his Melbourne mansion, Offington, where he died in 1878. Undoubtedly capable and energetic in youth, but excitable, and later socially ambitious and somewhat vain, Edward, Victoria's first settler, is popularly regarded as the chief actor in the early history of Portland Bay; but the backbone of the growing town and the first to set up stations inland was undoubtedly Stephen George Henty (3 November 1811–18 December 1872). Arriving at Swan River in 1829 with James and John, after an attempt at farming he traded between Fremantle and Launceston before settling in 1836 at Portland Bay with his wife Jane, daughter of Captain Walter Pace of Western Australia. An enterprising explorer, merchant and trader, shipowner, whaler and magistrate, he was active in all civic affairs. His wife, although the mother of ten children before she was 40, also played a notable part. From 1856 to 1870 while he was a member of the Legislative Council they lived much at Findon, the mansion he built in Melbourne, until illness forced a return to the country, where he died near Hamilton in 1872.

John Henty (15 June 1813-1868?) was the only one of the family adversely affected by the reorganization of Portland Bay. Arriving at Swan River in 1829 as a boy, he shared his brothers' attempted farming until 1831 when he was put in charge of an unrewarding and lonely grant at King George Sound. In 1833 he joined his parents at Launceston, moving to Portland Bay in 1836 and thence, with his wife Eliza, daughter of Captain Francis Whitfield of Western Australia, to the family station of 14,000 acres (5666 ha), Merino Downs. Less sturdy of character than his brothers, sometimes drinking to excess, he mismanaged Merino Downs and, as a necessary economy, was dropped from the family concern in 1842. Equipped with stock in lieu of his share, he set up for himself on a 12,000-acre (4856 ha) station, Sandford, but was still not successful. After two attempts at farming elsewhere he returned alone to Western Australia, where he died on 21 February 1869 at Perth of an opium overdose.

In August 1842 Merino Downs was put in charge of Francis, the youngest and only tall one of the brothers. A generous friend and master, his simple wooden homestead became noted for its hospitality under the management of his wife Mary Anne, the daughter of William Effingham Lawrence of Launceston. Francis took no part in public life, devoted himself to his property, and became wealthy. Later, like Stephen and Edward, he built a house, Field Place, in Melbourne, dying there in 1889. The core of Merino Downs is still in family hands.

Of the brothers who settled in Tasmania, Charles sat in the House of Assembly in 1856-62 representing George Town, where he died in 1864. William, prominent in church, educational and horticultural activities, and with local fame as a cricketer, represented Tamar in the Assembly and became colonial secretary in 1856. Resigning in 1862 he returned to England, where he died in 1881.

In the financial crisis of the 1840s, James, while concerned as a shareholder with the affairs of the Portland Bay establishment, had also been approaching a crisis in his own business of James Henty & Co., shippers to England of wool, wheat, whale oil and other merchandise. A prosperous leader of the Launceston mercantile community, promoter of free emigration, a worker for improvement of the town's shipping facilities, a founder of the grammar school and of Holy Trinity Church, shrewd, unswervingly honest, even his solidly based business could not survive the years of depression and he became bankrupt in 1846. This failure caused Charles to resign from the Bank of Australasia, with which James's affairs were involved. Two years later, with Stephen's help, James sailed for England with his wife and seven children. Returning in 1851 on the eve of the gold discovery and the separation of Port Phillip District from New South Wales, he started business in Melbourne, again as James Henty & Co. He was elected in 1853 to represent Portland in the old Legislative Council, and from 1856 held a place in the Upper House until his death. A commissioner of the State Savings Bank, he became chairman in 1859; an early director of Victoria's first railway, he was later its chairman. He died in Melbourne in 1882, outliving all his brothers but the youngest, and to the last a man of strong principles, deep feelings and iron will.

As settlers the Henty men were notable not merely for being the first to settle in Victoria but also for their number and quality: a father and seven educated sons experienced in farming and trading, occupations of prime importance to a new colony, and importers of unusually substantial capital in money, skilled workers and thoroughbred stock.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Bassett, The Hentys, an Australian and Colonial Tapestry (Lond, 1954), and for bibliography
  • S. J. Butlin, Australia and New Zealand Bank (Melb, 1961).

Citation details

Marnie Bassett, 'Henty, Francis (1815–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Francis Henty, n.d.

Francis Henty, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, 49350374

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1815


15 January, 1889 (aged 73)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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