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Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870–1946)

by J. H. M. Honniball

This article was published:

Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870-1946), by Sam Hood

Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870-1946), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 11982

Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870-1946), archbishop, was born on 1 April 1870 in Dublin, sixth of ten children of William Richard Le Fanu, civil engineer, and his wife Henrietta Victorine, daughter of Sir Matthew Barrington, 2nd baronet. The aristocratic Le Fanu family had migrated from Normandy, France, as Huguenot refugees in the late seventeenth century; in Ireland they shone in church, state and the arts. Armorial bearings assigned by the French king in 1595 were confirmed in 1929. Henry attended Haileybury School and Keble College, Oxford, where he took a second-class honours degree in modern history (B.A., 1893; M.A., 1901); he excelled at Rugby and boxing. After training at Wells Theological College, he was ordained in 1895. He was curate at Poplar, East London, until 1899, resident chaplain to the bishop of Rochester in 1899-1901, and chaplain to Guy's Hospital, London, in 1901-04.

On 25 October 1904 Le Fanu married Mary (Margery) Annette Ingle Dredge, a vicar's daughter. Having been appointed archdeacon, he reached Brisbane on 5 January 1905, a fortnight after Archbishop Donaldson. For five years Le Fanu was also sub-dean of the pro-cathedral and on 21 September 1915 was consecrated coadjutor-bishop. A forceful right-hand man, he managed diocesan business skilfully, and as warden of the Society of the Sacred Advent guided the sisterhood's educational and hospital work.

In 1929 Le Fanu became second Archbishop of Perth, succeeding C. O. L. Riley; he was enthroned in St George's Cathedral on 19 December. Advantage had been taken of the six months interregnum to appoint an experienced local clergyman as dean of Perth in which post Riley himself had acted since 1925. Holding that the cathedral statute and other legislation passed by synod in August 1929 were ultra vires, Le Fanu soon sought, unsuccessfully, to amend the diocesan constitution. Later, when relations with the parishes became strained over their financial obligations, he defended the Church's episcopal structure by reminding parishes that the diocese was the prime unit of the Church's organization. For nearly seventeen years he wisely shepherded a cohesive diocese and worked harmoniously with lieutenants such as the likewise Irish-born R. H. Moore, who was dean throughout, with parish clergy, lay officers and other denominations.

Le Fanu further displayed his financial and administrative acumen during the long years of Depression, drought and war. He recognized that, as financial support from England declined, his diocese must become self sufficient. Concerned for the distressed wheat-belt parishes, he devised a scheme which relieved them of growing debts; however, several parishes had to be amalgamated. Fifty-one buildings were added to the diocese's equipment in his first ten years; fourteen churches were consecrated during his episcopate and eleven buildings licensed for public worship. They included a university college, a private girls' secondary school, and a missions to seamen institute, all of which opened in 1931. His largest venture was the Mount Hospital, Perth, acquired in 1934 and extended in 1939.

Le Fanu improved both the architectural standards of churches and the quality of clergy. Though he had no local theological college, he recruited sufficient clergy and saw the proportion of graduates rise during his episcopate; 23 of the 29 men ordained in the 1930s were born or educated within the State and the diocese supported many of them during training in Adelaide. Le Fanu recruited others when in England for the Lambeth conference of 1930 and the coronation in 1937. While the later war years brought improved finances, including contributions to missions, they depleted the staff; over a quarter of the clergy served as full-time padres, and half the country parishes were vacant at war's end. When the armed forces requisitioned several Church schools and the girls' orphanage, alternative accommodation had to be found for the evacuees in the country.

Though he had been acting for twenty months, by virtue of seniority, it caused surprise when the bishops elected Le Fanu primate of Australia in March 1935. His abilities and Australian experience were considered more valuable than retaining the primacy's traditional attachment to Sydney. The vote was also a censure of the exceptionally 'low church' mother diocese for its long obstruction of efforts to establish a constitution for an Anglican Church in Australia which would be legally independent of England. Le Fanu valued the honour and was amused that Western Australians were 'extremely pleased' about it despite their campaign for secession from the Federation. He received a Lambeth doctorate of divinity in 1936 and was made a sub-prelate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

As primate Le Fanu grasped big issues, and was forthright and liberal in his actions and pronouncements. Publicly he was purely a vocal churchman, holding that the Church should be a leavening influence in the community rather than a pressure group in politics. Though he probably never considered himself a socialist, he favoured social change and propounded radical views on many social and economic questions. By 1941 he relinquished his duties as chaplain-general of the Australian forces to bishops nearer defence headquarters in Melbourne. While firmly supporting the war effort, he deplored the persecution of communists and applauded the allies' growing accord with Soviet Russia. He was an early participant in planning for post-war reconstruction.

The primate also worked assiduously for Church unity, though hampered by distance. His chairmanship of two of the normally quinquennial general synods in 1937 and 1945 won unstinted praise; shunning retirement, he hoped to lead the Australian contingent to the postponed Lambeth conference of 1948. In his seventies, heart trouble scarcely diminished his vigour and his busy schedules; he died in harness, suddenly, on 9 September 1946 and was cremated.

Having been a widower since 1926, on 26 July 1941 Le Fanu had married Winifred Maud Whiteley (d.1979), who had helped to raise his family. He was survived by her and by the three sons and three daughters of his first marriage. His portraits, by Leon Hogan, hang in St George's College and in the Le Fanu wing of Wollaston College in Perth.

Big in frame and strong in character, Le Fanu was also humble, sensitive and rather shy. He could be incisive with ready wit, but was always quick to apologize for hurt. Even when he provoked controversy, he caused little rancour. His virtues far outweighed any shortcomings. Deeply spiritual and intensely human, he was an ideal Church leader in difficult times.

Select Bibliography

  • T. P. Le Fanu, Memoir of the Le Fanu Family (Lond, priv print, 1924)
  • C. L. M. Hawtrey, The Availing Struggle (Perth, 1949)
  • F. Alexander (ed), Four Bishops and Their See (Perth, 1957)
  • Church of England, Diocese of Brisbane, Church Chronicle, 1 Oct 1929, p 241
  • Western Australian Church News (Perth), 1929-46
  • Church of England, Diocese of Perth Year Book, 1939, 1946
  • Brisbane Cathedral Notes, 5 Oct 1946, p 7
  • West Australian, 10, 12 Sept 1946
  • Times (London), 28 Sept 1946.

Citation details

J. H. M. Honniball, 'Le Fanu, Henry Frewen (1870–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870-1946), by Sam Hood

Henry Frewen Le Fanu (1870-1946), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 11982

Life Summary [details]


1 April, 1870
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


9 September, 1946 (aged 76)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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