Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Peter Henry Scratchley (1835–1885)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published:

Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885), by unknown engraver, 1885

Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885), by unknown engraver, 1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S11/02/85/20

Sir Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885), military engineer and colonial administrator, was born on 24 August 1835 in Paris, thirteenth child of Dr James Scratchley, Royal Artillery, and his wife Maria, née Roberts. Educated in Paris where his father practised medicine, he became a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, England, under the patronage of his father's school friend Lord Palmerston. He had indifferent health, but with the help of private tutoring he passed out first in his class in February 1854. Commissioned on 21 April, he served in the Crimean war in the 4th Company, Royal Engineers, until 11 June 1856 and won the Crimean and Turkish medals. From July that year to October 1857 he was employed on engineering works at Portsmouth. He then served in the Indian mutiny, was mentioned in dispatches three times and was awarded the Indian war medal with clasp.

Promoted to captain in October 1859, Scratchley was given command of a detachment of engineers to erect in Melbourne defence works which he had designed. Arriving in the Ottawa on 13 June 1860 he reported on 21 September with detailed recommendations for the defence of Melbourne and Geelong. He considered the estimated cost of £81,200 as 'insignificant … when compared with the revenue, wealth and security of the people of the colony', but lack of funds prevented almost all construction. He served as engineer and military storekeeper and became honorary lieutenant-colonel of the embryonic Victorian Artillery. He supported a delegation to form a unit of Victorian volunteer engineers and the corps was formed at a meeting on 7 November 1860. To the public regret of Victorian ministers, he returned to England late in 1863.

Scratchley commanded sappers at Portsmouth until October 1864. He had been promoted brevet major in March, then was in turn assistant inspector and inspector of works for the manufacturing department of the War Office. His experience included experiments in disposal of sewage for irrigation, improving the manufacture of hydrogen for balloons and training in assaying coins. He remained interested in Australian defences, claimed to have constantly considered Melbourne's security, and in 1865 wrote a report on South Australia's defence. He became a major on 5 July 1872, brevet lieutenant-colonel on 20 February 1874, lieutenant-colonel on 1 October 1877, and brevet colonel on 20 February 1879.

Scratchley returned to Australia on 8 March 1877 in the Tudor to join Sir William Jervois in advising the colonies on their defences. After Jervois was appointed governor of South Australia, Scratchley became commissioner of defences in 1878, covering in time all the six colonies and New Zealand. His plans were again thorough and were largely implemented, so that by 1885 he was satisfied that 'the colonies, excepting New Zealand, are fairly well prepared'. His ideas had changed little since 1860 although he was aware of technological improvements. He believed that land defence works should be near key ports, advocated torpedoes for offence and submarine mines for defence, supported the obstruction of shipping channels and argued for a limited number of paid volunteers, sufficient to repel minor invasions. At sea he favoured floating batteries and unarmoured gunboats with heavy guns, and opposed expensive ironclad vessels.

The clearest statements of Scratchley's views appear in the evidence he gave to the 1881 commission on New South Wales defences, of which he was vice-president and chairman of the military sub-committee. He retained his belief that threats to Australia were limited, because of British sea power: volunteer land forces with able officers were needed only 'to meet the contingency of the naval defences not meeting the enemy at sea'. Opposed to excessive copying of the system of training of British regulars, he argued that Australian fighting conditions would be different. Well aware of the difficulties of obtaining support for defence spending, he saw his central problem as the establishment of an effective force 'at the lowest possible cost'.

Scratchley retired from active military service on 1 October 1882 as honorary major-general, but was still employed by the Colonial Office as defence adviser for Australia. In April 1883 he visited England to consult the War Office on a general colonial defence plan and on 22 November 1884 was appointed special commissioner for the new British Protectorate of New Guinea, which was seen as an important shield for Australia. But he had little power and Sir Samuel Griffith argued that Scratchley had 'no legal jurisdiction and authority of any kind'. With few men and limited funds, he found his short term of office marked by fruitless requests for regular contributions from disgruntled colonies.

Knighted on 6 June 1885, Scratchley reached Port Moresby on 28 August and shaped policies sympathetic to the natives. He believed that they had been maltreated and justified their murders of European adventurers. Convinced that 'New Guinea must be governed for the natives and by the natives', he planned to appoint chiefs representing British authority and tried to protect native land rights. He discouraged private exploration but on his own second official journey to the mountain camp of H. O. Forbes, he contracted malaria and died at sea between Cooktown and Townsville on 2 December 1885. His body lay in state at his Melbourne home before being buried in St Kilda cemetery with military honours on 16 December. His remains were reinterred in the Old Charlton cemetery, Woolwich, England, on 30 April 1886.

At St John's Church, Heidelberg, Melbourne, on 13 November 1862 Scratchley had married Laura Lilias, sister of T. A. Browne, 'Rolf Boldrewood'. Two daughters and one son survived him, eventually to share his estate sworn for probate at £14,979. Fort Scratchley at Newcastle and Mount Scratchley in the Owen Stanley Range perpetuate his name. Though reserved, Scratchley gained respect from his unusually wide experience and conscientious effort. Despite his long, waxed military moustache, his achievements and ideas were sometimes unusual for a professional soldier who believed that 'war is a stern necessity'. He resisted the formation of a military caste in Australia, compromised with the popular wish for economy in defence expenditure and gave promise of a humanitarian attitude in New Guinea administration quite out of keeping with his orthodox image.

Select Bibliography

  • C. K. Cooke, Australian Defences and New Guinea (Lond, 1887)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1860-61. 2 (D9), 3. 2. 1864-65, 4 (45)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1878 (37)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1881, 4, 624
  • G. S. Fort, Report on British New Guinea, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1886, 2, 939-983
  • J. E. Price, ‘A history of the defences of Port Phillip Bay’, Sabretache, Mar 1972
  • Australasian, 28 Apr 1877, 5, 12 Dec 1885, 17 July 1886
  • Governor's and Treasurer's papers (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Scratchley, Sir Peter Henry (1835–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885), by unknown engraver, 1885

Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885), by unknown engraver, 1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S11/02/85/20

Life Summary [details]


24 August, 1835
Paris, France


2 December, 1885 (aged 50)
at sea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship