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Henry Alfred Lenehan (1843–1908)

by Harley Wood

This article was published:

Henry Alfred Lenehan (1843-1908), astronomer, was born on 28 August 1843 in Sydney, eldest son of Andrew Lenehan (1815-1886), cabinetmaker, and his Irish wife Susannah, née Templeton. Born in Sligo, Ireland, Andrew probably reached Sydney on 31 August 1835 in the Jane Goudie. Later described by Governor FitzRoy as 'an ingenious and reputable cabinetmaker', he used both local and imported timber to make furniture, examples of which are prized. He was elected to the Sydney Municipal Council in 1850 and was a fellow of St John's College, University of Sydney.

Henry was educated by the Benedictines at St Mary's College, Lyndhurst, and worked in his father's business until he joined the Australian Joint Stock Bank as a clerk in 1865. Sent to Ipswich, Queensland, he was transferred to Rockhampton, then became a draftsman in the Railway Department. Returning to Sydney he was appointed assistant to the government astronomer, H. C. Russell, on 9 August 1870. Next year, on 4 November at Hunters Hill, he married Louisa Ann Templeton, née Cullen, and widow of his cousin; she died childless in 1875. At Villa Maria, Hunters Hill, he married Bertha Rose Phillips on 9 September 1876; they lived at North Sydney.

For thirty-seven years Lenehan worked under the forthright and uncompromising Russell and was responsible for cataloguing accurate star positions, using the transit instrument. His work was increased when Sydney Observatory agreed to share in a plan to make a photographic catalogue of the stars over the whole sky. During Russell's absences he was acting government astronomer in 1875, 1887, 1901 and from November 1903 until he was appointed government astronomer on 1 January 1907.

Lenehan reorganized the transit work and many thousands of observations were made. In 1903-04 he co-operated with Otto Klotz of the Dominion Observatory, Ottawa, in making observations of trans-Pacific longitudes and closed the circuits of longitudes around the world. Measurements of the force of gravity were made at Sydney Observatory and of magnetic elements at the branch observatory at Red Hill, near Pennant Hills, in 1904 by Oskar Hecker of the Zentralbureau der Internationalen Erdmessung, Berlin, and in 1906 by Alberto Alessio from the Italian cruiser Calabria. Lenehan erected at Red Hill a small building for magnetic work no longer possible in Sydney because of the electric trams. He had constant trouble with the meteorologist H. A. Hunt: on 21 November 1905 he recorded in his diary that 'Mr Hunt is doing his best to press his own importance upon his subordinates and the public generally—in fact trying to usurp management'. In 1908 Lenehan organized the observatory's participation in an expedition to Flint Island to observe a total solar eclipse, observations of Daniel's comet and preparations to observe Halley's comet.

A keen sailing man, Lenehan was an early member of Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. Elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in 1894, he was a council-member of the Royal Society of New South Wales for many years (president, 1905-06) and 'always to the fore when any work was to be done'. He had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in 1892 and spent six months leave in Britain and Europe. He died suddenly at Normanhurst on 2 May 1908 and was buried in the Catholic section of Gore Hill cemetery. His wife and their three sons and three daughters survived him; he was held in great affection by his family.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • C. Craig et al, Early Colonial Furniture in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Melb, 1972)
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notices, 69 (1909), p 248
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 42 (1909), p 33
  • Descent, 6 (1972), no 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1908.

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Lenehan, Henry Alfred (1843–1908)', 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

Life Summary [details]


28 August, 1843
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 May, 1908 (aged 64)
Normanhurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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