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Baker, Sir Henry Seymour (1890–1968)

by H. A. Finlay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Henry Seymour Baker (1890-1968), barrister and politician, was born on 1 September 1890 at Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of Sidney James Baker, Congregational clergyman, and his wife Lydia Charlotte, née Lee. The family emigrated to New Zealand where Henry attended Palmerston High School; with his parents, in 1907 he moved to Launceston, Tasmania. Having joined the Daily Post in 1908 as a journalist, he worked at Launceston and later in Hobart. In 1911 he was foundation treasurer of the Tasmania district of the Australian Journalists' Association, formed by local members of the Writers and Artists' Union. He studied law at the University of Tasmania (LL.B., 1913; LL.M., 1915) and was articled with Simmons, Wolfhagen, Simmons & Walch.

On 26 February 1915 Baker enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and from April 1916 served with the 4th Field Ambulance in Egypt and on the Western Front. After training in England, he was commissioned in August 1917, posted to the 13th Battalion in Belgium and promoted lieutenant in November. During the allied advance through fog and heavy fire near Le Verguier, north of St Quentin, France, on 18 September 1918, although 'suffering intensely' from a leg wound, he located and captured parties of the enemy. For his 'bravery, coolness and resource', he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order; he was also mentioned in dispatches.

Baker returned to Australia in February 1919 and his appointment terminated in May. Admitted to the Tasmanian Bar in December, in 1920 he became a pupil in the Melbourne chambers of (Sir) Owen Dixon, with whom he maintained an enduring friendship. On 19 March that year Baker married Effie Millicent Sharp at the Memorial Congregational Church, Hobart. A partner in Griffiths, Crisp & Baker and subsequently in Finlay, Watchorn, Baker & Solomon, as a barrister he had a better grasp of broad principles than of details.

In June 1928 Baker was elected to the House of Assembly as a Nationalist member for Franklin; he was immediately appointed attorney-general and minister for education. A highly conservative member of the establishment and a supporter of State rights, he served in the McPhee and Lee ministries, and was leader of the Opposition from 1936 to 1946. He entered the Legislative Council as member for Queenborough in May 1948 and was president of that chamber from June 1959 until his death. A good public speaker whose modesty, rectitude and honesty stamped him as a son of the manse, Baker earned wide respect. He was serious and principled, but rather inflexible in his views; he had difficulty in adjusting to changing values and in establishing personal relationships with those younger than he.

A long-serving member (1928-34 and 1940-63) of the council of the University of Tasmania, he was appointed deputy-chancellor in 1956 and became chancellor after the death in July of Sir John Morris. As deputy-chancellor, Baker had chaired the committee of council which investigated allegations of sexual misconduct made against the professor of philosophy Sydney Sparkes Orr. Otherwise fair-minded, Baker put what he perceived as the interests of the university above a fair inquiry. The charges were upheld and on 16 March Orr was summarily dismissed. Orr countered with legal action against the university and castigated Baker's committee as a Star Chamber. The ensuing court proceedings divided the university and the community for many years; Baker and five colleagues resigned from the council in 1963 when the university offered Orr a financial settlement.

President of the Southern Law Society (1939-41) and the Southern Tasmanian Bar Association (1953-56), Baker was vice-president (1955) of the Tasmanian branch of the International Commission of Jurists and a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society; he was also a member of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia, and of the Tasmanian, Hobart Legacy, and Naval and Military clubs. His hobbies were reading, gardening and walking. Appointed C.M.G. in 1946, he was elevated to K.C.M.G. in 1961. He took an active part in a conference of presiding officers of Australian parliaments, held in Canberra in January 1968. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, Sir Henry died on 20 July 1968 at Sandy Bay; following a state funeral, he was cremated. Postgraduate fellowships in law and in political science instituted by subscription at the University of Tasmania bear his name and were first awarded in 1971.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (Brisb, 1961)
  • R. Davis, Open to Talent (Hob, 1990)
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 24 Oct 1928
  • Mercury (Hobart), 22-24 July 1968, 14 Mar 1969
  • Mercury Southside News, 13 June 1969
  • Examiner (Launceston), 22-24 July, 4 Sept 1968, 4 Feb 1969
  • University of Tasmania Archives
  • Dixon papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. A. Finlay, 'Baker, Sir Henry Seymour (1890–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-sir-henry-seymour-9409/text16539, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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