Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Challis, John Henry (1806–1880)

by David S. Macmillan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Henry Challis (1806-1880), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 6 August 1806 in England, son of John Henry Challis, sergeant in the 9th Regiment, and his first wife. His father remarried in 1819 and retired as a lieutenant in the 1st Royal Veterans in November 1828. Challis had been educated in several schools and trained as a clerk. On 9 May 1829 he arrived at Sydney in the Pyramis as a steerage passenger without fortune or expectations. He soon entered the commercial office of Marsden & Flower and in 1842 became a partner in the reconstituted firm of Flower, Salting & Co., dealing in wool and other merchandise. According to Henry Barff, he was given this junior partnership 'on his merits and, it is believed, without capital'. The firm encountered difficulties in the slump of the early 1840s but assured its fortunes in the boom conditions after gold was discovered.

Among his activities outside the firm Challis opposed the squatting regulations of Governor Sir George Gipps in 1844 but refused to identify himself with the 'injurious expressions' of the Crown Lands Grievances Committee. He was associated with the employers who tried in vain to bring coolies from India as a substitute for convict labour, and with other groups of promoters, such as those who launched the New South Wales Assurance Co. He acquired much real estate, including a large holding at Potts Point and valuable wharf properties. He also held pastoral licences for over 12,000 sq. miles (31,080 km²) in southern New South Wales in 1850, running more than 3500 cattle and 11,000 sheep. Interested in sailing, he helped to organize regattas in the 1840s and 1850s. As a leading citizen he shared in the movement to found a grammar school and generously subscribed in 1856 for the stained glass windows in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney; in 1859 he gave £750 for the 'Royal Window'. In 1855 he sold his interest in Flower, Salting & Co. and went to England, where he invested part of his wealth. He visited Sydney in 1859 but mostly travelled on the Continent. He died at Mentone, France, on 18 February 1880 and was buried in England.

Challis left an estate valued for probate at £60,000 in England and £101,000 in New South Wales. He left annuities to many friends and relations, and the residue to the University of Sydney, subject to provisions that his wife Henrietta, whom he had married about 1878, should have the income from the residual estate until she died and that it should then accumulate for five years before coming under control of the university. After Henrietta died at Hove, England, on 19 September 1884, the English Inland Revenue Commission claimed legacy duties on the estate in New South Wales because Challis had been domiciled in England. However, the chancellor of the university, Sir William Montague Manning, argued with such pertinacity that the commissioners abandoned their claim. In 1889 the Challis bequest, then valued at about £200,000, was transferred to the university, bringing a transformation to an institution which had long lagged behind the University of Melbourne. In 1890 the fund was used to establish chairs in anatomy, zoology, engineering, history, law, logic and mental philosophy, and modern literature.

A statue of Challis by Simonetti is in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Barff, A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney … 1852-1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887, 3, 703
  • Town and Country Journal, 6 Mar 1880, 15 Jan 1881
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29, 30 Sept 1894
  • Senate minutes and chancellors' addresses (University of Sydney Archives)
  • W. M. Manning memorandum, MS 1107 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Challis, John Henry (1806–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/challis-john-henry-3186/text4779, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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