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Henry Teesdale Smith (1858–1921)

by G. C. Bolton and Jenny Mills

This article was published:

Henry Teesdale Smith (1858-1921), timber-miller and contractor, was born on 22 December 1858 at Merino, Victoria, eleventh child of George Smith, district road board collector, and his wife Ellen, née Teesdale, both born in India. He was educated at Hamilton College and from 1874 worked for C. & E. Millar, railway contractors and sawmill proprietors. On 30 September 1885 he married Lydia Kate Johnson at Wesley Church, Melbourne. Three years later Smith set up as a railway contractor on his own account, building the Ulverstone railway in Tasmania before moving to Western Australia in 1893 to construct the Picton-Busselton line.

Very quickly Smith acquired valuable timber leases throughout the northern jarrah forest to supply railway-sleepers for his business. In 1894 he agreed to become local manager for C. & E. Millar, timber merchants of Albany, who by 1897 had established a sawmilling empire with leases and concessions along the length of the Darling Range and four sawmills working at top capacity. Western Australian timber exports trebled from £45,000 in 1895 to over £141,000 in 1896. To secure additional capital Millars' became London-based. Smith, through the local Timber Merchants' and Mill Owners' Association, encouraged an amalgamation of the larger London-based companies to minimize unnecessary competition and government wharfage and freight charges. In August 1902 eight companies merged to form Millars' Karri & Jarrah Co. (1902) Ltd (often known as 'the Combine').

Teesdale (or Teasdale) Smith, as he was usually known, became manager. He earned the nickname 'Little Napoleon'. Between 1901 and 1904 he represented the timber constituency of Wellington in the Legislative Assembly, supporting the conservative Throssell ministry. At his election the Westralian Worker described him as 'a cute customer of the eel family, will want a lot of watching and will not do more than he can to help the worker'. Almost immediately some of his transactions with the railways were questioned by a board of inquiry, and he confronted conservation pressures from parliamentary colleagues disturbed by 'the Combine's' large forest holdings and the wasteful practices of contract sleeper-hewers, while smaller timber entrepreneurs complained of its price-fixing. A royal commission in 1903-04 resulted in a stricter and more equitable system of permits for timber-cutting.

Beleaguered by a declining market and anxious London shareholders who had received no dividends, Teesdale Smith between 1902 and 1907 played a wary game with the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration and the Amalgamated Workers' Association. But a strike between March and June 1907 led to the formation of the federated timberworkers' union and a settlement which gave the men a higher minimum daily wage. In 1908 Teesdale Smith resigned as manager. Reputedly he too was dissatisfied with his pay.

Although by 1906 he owned grazing properties—Elorby and Marranup, Northam district; Mount Barker estate; Esperanza, Harvey district; and Wokalup and Coast Run—he was henceforth based in or near Adelaide and resumed operations as a railway contractor, sometimes with his old partner Joseph Timms of Melbourne. They constructed the electric tramway system in Adelaide (1908-10) and Smith was involved in building the Gawler-Angaston (1911), Nurioopta-Truro (1917), Balhannah-Mount Pleasant (1918) and Palmer-Sedan (1919) railways. He also invested in H. D. McIntosh's newspapers in Sydney.

In 1911-12 Teesdale Smith built the troubled Port Hedland-Marble Bar line. Because of the heat, labour was hard to get, and his use of Italians stirred up criticism. The State government had to take over the final stages of construction. In 1914 the Federal government granted him a three-month contract without tender for a difficult 14-mile (23 km) section of the transcontinental railway west of Port Augusta. The Labor Opposition was very critical, but a Senate select committee declined to proceed when denied access to the relevant documents. Smith & Timms also contracted for the Gloucester-Taree section of the New South Wales north-coast railway, but did not complete the work and dissolved their partnership after a disagreement.

In 1915-16 Henry Chinn alleged that Teesdale Smith had infringed Thermit patents by using a manufactured material, Ferrignite, on the construction of a Melbourne tram-line, but the Commonwealth attorney-general found the matter too complex to pursue. The New South Wales government's acceptance in 1918 of Teesdale Smith's tender to build a huge terminal wheat-silo (5 million bushels capacity) and grain elevator at White Bay, Sydney, and signing the £1 million contract without agreed safeguards led to a ministerial crisis, followed by a public outcry at Teesdale Smith's connexion with McIntosh. Two years later the 'silo scandal' contributed to Premier W. A. Holman's downfall.

In his later years Teesdale Smith lived near Adelaide at Arthurs Seat, Crafers, and also had houses in Sydney and Melbourne. A member of the Perth and Adelaide clubs, he enjoyed prowling round agricultural shows. He died suddenly of cerebral haemorrhage at Menzies Hotel, Melbourne, on 25 February 1921 and was buried with Anglican rites in Stirling East Crafers cemetery. His wife, four sons and a daughter survived him; one son Malcolm was killed at Gallipoli. His estate was valued for probate in four States at £201,814. The Bulletin commented: 'Now and then Smith's tactless loquacity landed him in trouble with his toilers, but from first to last they had a curious liking for him, which was independent of strikes. Long ago they came to the conclusion that the bark of the argumentative, bearded man was worse than his bite'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1940)
  • J. Mills, The Timber People (Perth, 1986)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Feb 1921
  • Bulletin, 3 Mar 1921
  • Observer (Adelaide), 5 Mar 1921
  • J. R. Robertson, A History of the Timber Industry of Western Australia (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1956)
  • R. F. Keane, The Western Australian Timber Workers' Strike of 1907 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1971)
  • Attorney General's dept, A456/1, W16/10 (2) (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton and Jenny Mills, 'Teesdale Smith, Henry (1858–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Smith, Henry Teesdale
  • Teasdale Smith, Henry

22 December, 1858
Merino, Victoria, Australia


25 February, 1921 (aged 62)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.