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Henry Gyles Turner (1831–1920)

by Iain McCalman

This article was published:

Henry Gyles Turner (1831-1920), banker, historian and littérateur, was born on 12 December 1831 at Kensington, London, son of William Turner, tailor of Worcester, and his wife Caroline, née Gyles. Turner spent four years at the Poland Street Boys' Academy, revealing an early love of literature and history in his capture of several school prizes, extensive reading and attempts at historical narrative and verse composition. However, in 1845 his father apprenticed him to Aldine publisher-bookseller William Pickering preparatory to a business career. Turner enjoyed the chance to browse and meet notables like Charles Dickens and Archbishop Manning; but in 1849 he learned that his mother's legacy had been squandered by her husband and a dishonest trustee.

Next year Turner began work with the London Joint-Stock Bank as a clerk, the low pay, limited prospects and mediocre status being viewed with disfavour by his prospect mother-in-law. An attempt to ease the monotony by forming a reading club amongst his colleagues back-fired after their first publication satirized a senior bank officer. Failing to obtain promotion in 1854, he decided to try 'another hopeful land where wealth might wait on honest work and will'. With the help of a family friend he left Southampton for Melbourne in the Argo on 4 October 1854 to work for the Bank of Australasia. He arrived on 6 December amidst the furore of Eureka. His fiancée Helen Ramsay followed him and on 28 September 1855 at Prahran they were married according to the rites of the Church of Scotland; their association was to be saddened only by childlessness.

After tedious clerical work Turner became chief accountant in 1864, but he had pursued a wide range of cultural and recreational interests. On the voyage out he had befriended George Coppin and he later performed for the Melbourne Histrionic Club in city theatres and country towns. In 1856-57 Sydney Gibbons, an aspiring journalist, offered Turner space in the Illustrated Journal of Australasia and Monthly Magazine and introduced him to Melbourne's literati, including James Smith, (Sir) Archibald Michie, George Gordon McCrae, Nicholas Chevalier and fellow bank employee Marcus Clarke. With their encouragement he helped to launch the short-lived Australian Monthly Magazine on 1 September 1865, and contributed articles to weekly periodicals such as the Melbourne Spectator, Clarke's Colonial Monthly and James Smith's satirical Touchstone. He was also a founder, leading contributor and first president in 1868-70 of the Eclectic Association.

Turner was tall and muscular, with a great love of the outdoors: he initiated the Banks Rowing Club and helped to defend their annual trophy in the 1860s, later serving for many years as president of the Victorian Rowing Association. On holidays he explored the Victorian countryside, climbed the You Yangs, tramped eighty-five miles in three days along the Mornington peninsula and rode on horseback up to the Murray River and into New South Wales. His social and sporting interests influenced him to decline three managerial transfers in the 1860s, but his patience was rewarded in June 1870 when the Commercial Bank of Australia offered him the general managership in Melbourne.

The bank was on the edge of ruin, but fifteen years later Turner could boast deposits of £2,250,000, a reserve fund of £120,000, a 10 per cent dividend, and new branches throughout the Mallee, Goulburn Valley and the Western District, and in London, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane. No financial genius, Turner rescued the bank through hard and conscientious work, wooing mercantile and farming interests and distributing shareholders' profits with caution. But as Victoria prospered in the aftermath of the gold boom, he advanced easy credit on the basis of land securities, a practice which stimulated the bank's expansion and which he justified as essential to the colony's growth. By the late 1880s his success and impressive articles in financial journals had made Turner one of Melbourne's most influential bankers. Elected fellow of the Bankers' Institute, London, in 1880, he was asked by the Victorian government in 1882 to help to negotiate a £4 million loan in England and to serve as commissioner to the Bordeaux Wine Exhibition. In July 1886 he became a founder and first president of the Bankers' Institute of Victoria, and next year honorary treasurer of the Queen's Fund and sole banking appointee to the royal commission on banking. He also served as president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1889-92 and chairman of the Associated Banks three times between 1875 and 1900.

Turner's literary achievements were equally remarkable. While trustee-treasurer of the Yorick Club and founder-president of the Kew Literary Institute and Free Library in the early 1870s, he became aware of Melbourne's need for a 'high class literature magazine'; in November 1875 a dozen friends, including Alexander Sutherland, Arthur Martin and Arthur Maning Topp, gathered at his Albert Street home to launch the Melbourne Review. Its reputation as Australia's first successful quality review, acquired in a decade of production, owed much to Turner's efforts as contributor, editorial committee chairman, and editor in 1881-85. He became a trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery in April 1884, and commissioner of the Centennial International Exhibition in 1887-88.

Turner was also involved with the Melbourne Unitarian Church, of which he had been secretary in 1860 and one of six elected lay preachers in 1870. His talented younger sister Martha arrived for a visit on 11 October 1870 and was persuaded by the congregation to take over the pastorate. Her decision to marry and settle in the colony and news of his mother's death in 1876 weakened Turner's attachment to England; after a trip to London next year he returned convinced of Melbourne's superiority in living conditions, life-style and public entertainments. After a further visit in 1882 work began on his permanent home, Bundalohn, a stately St Kilda mansion completed in 1886, where he entertained with a lavishness typical of the decade.

In Rome in 1889, Turner learned that 'the boom has bust'. A steady loss of deposits swelled to a rush in 1893 when the bank announced the sale of shares at half-price, culminating in suspension of trading on 7 April 1893. But for a scheme that lowered interest and delayed repayment to creditors, the bank would have collapsed. Turner blamed the disaster on dishonest finance companies, government ineptitude, and the reckless policies of his locum in 1888, but he was equally culpable through injudicious backing of land speculators; and he suffered by remaining in an uncongenial post, from which he had twice tried to resign, until satisfied in 1901 that reconstruction was complete.

Turner welcomed his retirement at 70 with undisguised relief. Having joined with Sutherland to produce The Development of Australian Literature in 1898, he was impatient to begin on a book first mooted in August 1856. In 1904 his two-volume A History of the Colony of Victoria From its Discovery to its Absorption into the Commonwealth of Australia was published in London, followed in 1911 by The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth, and two years later by Our Own Little Rebellion: The Story of the Eureka Stockade, both published in Melbourne. Thereafter he continued to foster a high culture and a community of letters in Melbourne.

Turner was a paradoxical figure. Renowned for his humanity, he was interested in a wide range of community bodies, including hospitals, schools and charities; yet he was an extreme Spencerean individualist, notorious for advocating eugenics for pauperism and crime. A banker who attacked socialism, trade unionism and economic protection, he presented an easy target for the labour press; but his denunciations of capital punishment, British imperialism, Aboriginal murders and White Australia led Bernard O'Dowd to suggest playfully in 1911 that he was an 'anarchist-communist'. He was certainly a libertarian in theology, inclining towards naturalistic Theism. Hatred of ecclesiastical tyranny moved him to support George Higinbotham and Charles Strong in the Scots Church conflict in 1883, to become a committee-man of the anti-Sabbatarian Sunday Liberation Society the same year and in 1907 president of the Education Act Defence League. He was prominent in the early years of the Victorian Historical Society.

Much of Turner's journalism is laboured and unoriginal, particularly the literary criticism which is strongly prejudiced against the 'Bulletin school': but it has flashes of wit and insight. His history is uneven; most of the post-1860 material is marred by excessive personal bias and lack of affinity with 'records of conventional politics and … prosaic competition for place and power'. Yet in his writings on early Victoria Turner produced history of outstanding quality and lasting value. Few possessed better qualifications: active personal experience, an intimate knowledge of the Victorian countryside, half a century of observation and notation, empathy with the themes and skills of the great romantic literary historians and a compelling moral purpose — his wish to revive the spirit of Victoria's pioneers and indigenous people. Predeceased by his wife on 30 May 1914, he died on 30 November 1920 at Bundalohn and was buried in the St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £29,233, and in his will Turner left the charge of his household to Sutherland's widow Elizabeth, a close family friend. Apart from legacies to friends and relations, his bequests included £1000 to the University of Melbourne for a scholarship encouraging the scientific study of agriculture and he also directed that the chief librarian of the Melbourne Public Library choose books on Australian subjects from his personal library.

Apart from his four monographs Turner published some dozen pamphlets, including in Melbourne, The Aims and Objects of a Literature Society (1903) and The War, With Some Thoughts on its Aftermath in Australia (1916), and over forty essays and reviews in journals and newspapers. His papers contain a number of unpublished literary works and an early monograph on the history of the Delaware Indians. An oil portrait by Emanuel Phillips Fox was presented to the Victorian National Gallery in 1914.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Bankers' Institute of Australasia, Journal, Oct 1887, Dec 1889
  • Journal of Australasia, Aug 1856
  • Melbourne Review, 1 (1876), 10 (1885)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1890, 3 Dec 1910, 1 Dec 1920
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, June 1901
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Dec 1904, 1 Dec 1920
  • Punch (Melbourne), 28 July 1904
  • R. Kugler, Henry Gyles Turner (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1971)
  • H. G. Turner papers and manuscript material in pamphlet collection (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Iain McCalman, 'Turner, Henry Gyles (1831–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 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

Life Summary [details]


12 December, 1831
London, Middlesex, England


30 November, 1920 (aged 88)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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