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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clarke, Henry (1822–1907)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Henry Clarke (1822-1907), by unknown photographer

Henry Clarke (1822-1907), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 14376

Henry Clarke (1822-1907), merchant and politician, was born on 22 June 1822 in Maghera, Londonderry, Ireland, son of William Clarke, cotton-printer, and his wife, née Johnston. He was educated in Maghera. To improve his position he emigrated and reached New South Wales in September 1841. Unable to find urban work he went to Broulee (Moruya) on the South Coast, where he ran a farm. He found produce hard to export and 'the blacks pretty bad'. In 1845 he returned to Sydney and set up as a produce agent. In 1847 he married Jane Rayner; they had six sons and five daughters.

In 1848 Clarke started a shipping agency in partnership with Robert Gee. In the gold rush of the early 1850s they had three ships running to Melbourne. By 1861 Clarke had 'amassed a fair fortune', and took his family to Ireland for a year. They returned in the George Marshall, which struck a reef in Bass Strait. The captain beached the ship on Flinders Island, went to Launceston in an open boat and sent a steamer to rescue the passengers who were living in tents with sealers and mutton-bird hunters. After the family reached Sydney Clarke took up Bergalia station near Moruya. In 1865 he returned to Sydney for his children's education and resumed his produce agency, Clarke & Co., in Sussex Street. He remained in business until 1894 when he handed it over to his son. He was a justice of the peace for forty-five years, and a trustee of the Savings Bank.

Clarke first tried to enter parliament in 1860 when he contested Eden; believing survey should precede selection he was opposed to John Robertson's land reform and lost to Daniel Egan. Clarke did not nominate again until 1869, when he defeated Egan. Clarke was an exemplary parliamentarian: he was usually present at divisions, created no disorder and preferred work to talk. He was a protectionist and well fitted to care for his constituents, who returned him, often unopposed, until 1904, except in 1894 when he lost his seat to a free trader for a year. In his thirty-four years in the Legislative Assembly Clarke introduced only one bill which became the Illawarra Steam Navigation Act of 1887. Clarke twice refused office but served as postmaster-general in the short Dibbs ministry of 1889. In the assembly he 'commanded the respect of all parties, and although he had not powers of oratory he was listened to with attention'. In his last years Clarke was known as 'father of the House': he was its oldest member and had sat far longer than anyone else.

On his eightieth birthday Clarke claimed to have some two hundred grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Predeceased by his wife he died after a stroke on 22 November 1907 at his home in Randwick; although Presbyterian he was buried in the Anglican section of the Long Bay cemetery. His boyhood hopes had been fulfilled: he had not only improved his position by emigrating, but had served his country well.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • Old Times (Sydney), June 1903
  • Sydney Mail, 4 Jan 1905
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Nov 1907.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Clarke, Henry (1822–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 3

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