Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Ernest Searle (1866–1889)

by Scott Bennett

This article was published:

Henry Ernest Searle (1866-1889), by unknown engraver, 1890

Henry Ernest Searle (1866-1889), by unknown engraver, 1890

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/01/90/5

Henry Ernest Searle (1866-1889), sculler, was born on 14 July 1866 at Grafton, New South Wales, son of Henry Samuel Searle, bootmaker, and his wife Mary Ann, née Brooks. The family later moved to Esk Island, lower Clarence River, where they farmed at subsistence level. Searle soon learnt to scull and rowed his brother and sisters three miles ( to and from school. At 18 Searle first competed in a skiff race and for three years raced with some success at local regattas. His first important victory was the defeat of a Sydney professional in an out-rigger handicap at Grafton in January 1888.

Moving to Sydney, Searle was coached by an established sculler Neil Matterson, and with the financial backing of John and Thomas Spencer, chemists and sportsmen, he began a strenuous training programme and won four matches between June and October. After failing to get a match with the former world champion Edward Hanlan, Searle challenged the current champion Peter Kemp, and on 27 October on the Parramatta River he easily won the title. Searle, Matterson and other 'cracks', including William Beach, next competed in the 'Grand Aquatic Carnival' rowed in Brisbane between 5 and 11 December. In a heat Searle and Matterson continually and deliberately fouled Beach, for which they were disqualified from the heat but not, to the public's annoyance, from the carnival. Consequently they finished first and third in the final after Beach refused to row. In 1889 with his stocks low Searle went with Matterson to England to race the American champion William O'Connor for £1000; Searle won easily and was recognized as the world's greatest sculler.

While returning to Australia in the Austral Searle contracted typhoid fever; he left the ship at Melbourne, and died three weeks later on 10 December 1889 at the Williamstown Sanatorium, after a very public illness. The colonies plunged into mourning with editorials, poems and sermons bewailing the loss of the young hero. Thousands lined Melbourne streets to see his body pass, and in Sydney an estimated crowd of 170,000 packed the city for his memorial service. Approximately 2500 attended in stifling heat to see him buried in the Protestant section of the Maclean cemetery.

Searle was a great sculler; no stylist, he had a powerful action characterized by perfect boat control; he trained much harder than was usual and could break opponents with sudden, repeated and sustained bursts of speed. He was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, rowed at 11 stone 9 lbs. (74 kg), but weighed 13 stone 3 lbs. (84 kg) when out of training; his measurements were: chest 41½ ins (105 cm), biceps 13½ ins (34 cm), forearm 11 ins (28 cm), thigh 22 ins (56 cm) and calf 16 ins (41 cm). He was quiet with a genial and unassuming disposition.

A memorial stands on The Brothers rocks at the finish of the Parramatta River course.

Select Bibliography

  • S. C. Bennett, The Clarence Comet (Syd, 1973)
  • Town and Country Journal, 14 Sept, 14 Dec 1889
  • H. E. Searle, ‘How I won the world's championship’, Leeds Times, 5 Oct 1889
  • Australasian, 14 Dec 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16, 17 Dec 1889.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Searle, Henry Ernest (1866–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 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

Henry Ernest Searle (1866-1889), by unknown engraver, 1890

Henry Ernest Searle (1866-1889), by unknown engraver, 1890

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/01/90/5