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Mercer, Henry Frederick (1872–1949)

by John Tonkin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Henry Frederick Mercer (1872–1949), clergyman and rogue, was born on 30 March 1872 at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, son of Thomas Atherton Mercer, accountant, and his wife Mary, née Darricott. Educated at Giggleswick Grammar School, Henry entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1890, but remained only five terms. In 1893-94 he attended St John's College, Highbury (the London College of Divinity), and passed the Cambridge preliminary for theology in 1895. Made deacon that year, he served curacies in London and Hertfordshire. On 12 May 1896 at St Saviour's Church, Bristol, he married Eleanor Kate Hill. He was ordained priest by the Bishop of St Alban's on 27 September 1896, and appointed to St Cuthbert's, Hampstead. The Mercers' daughter was born in 1897.

In 1899-1906 Mercer was metropolitan secretary of the Church Army in London then a student at Western University, London, Ontario, Canada, from which he graduated B.A. (1906) (and later falsely claimed to have an M.A.). On 7 February 1907 he was appointed to St Columb's Church of England, Hawthorn, Melbourne, and in 1909 was given special responsibilities for men's work. Mercer's wife died in 1908. On 2 August 1909 at All Saints' Church, Geelong, he married Victorian-born Jean Miller Tannock.

Mercer's reputation for bringing men back to the Church attracted the attention of Bishop C. O. L. Riley of Western Australia who installed him as dean of Perth on 15 April 1912. A good-looking man, fair-haired, 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) in height and weighing about 11 stone (69.9 kg), he initially made a favourable impression. His stress on practical preaching and moral instruction matched Riley's interests well and he lost no time in introducing special services for men, supplemented by a mid-week social club (disbanded 1916) combining gymnastics with moral concerns such as opposition to gambling and promotion of temperance. These activities proved successful, though, according to the Truth newspaper, Mercer's observations on the temptations that men should avoid were 'so vaguely and delicately worded that any man might take his maiden aunt without fear of increasing the lady's stock of worldly wisdom'.

Meanwhile, serious doubts had developed about Mercer's character and Riley and the cathedral chapter came to believe they had been misinformed about his credentials. Moreover, by July 1916 the dean had contracted debts of over £2000, which were eventually paid by leading laymen, including Septimus Burt. A Truth columnist observed that 'Dean Mercenary was more a fool than a rogue'. Granted leave of absence on 8 September, he used the occasion to expand his earlier Citizen Military Force connexions to be appointed, on 28 September, chaplain (voyage only) in the Australian Imperial Force.

Mercer left Fremantle on 9 November 1916 in the troopship Argyllshire. Reaching England in January 1917 he was chaplain at No.2 Auxiliary Australian Hospital, Southall, London. He resigned as dean of Perth on 1 March and his A.I.F. commission in May. His wife and daughter returned to Melbourne where, in 1919, they unsuccessfully applied to the Department of Repatriation for a free passage to England. The family was never reunited. Jean Mercer was to die at Armadale, Melbourne, in 1947.

Mercer was a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from August 1917, and captain in the Royal Air Force in 1918-19. By 1921 he was teaching in an English school at Calcutta, India, styling himself 'Dr H. F. Mercer (late Captain A.I.F.)'. He was gaoled at Zürich, Switzerland, for twenty days in 1927 for failing to pay his hotel bill. In England between 1930 and 1948 he was imprisoned on five other occasions for periods of from six to eighteen months, for charges of minor fraud. From 1930 a woman said to be twenty years younger accompanied him; police attributed his problems mainly to 'the intemperate habits of the woman he calls his wife'. Mercer died on 22 February 1949 in Wandsworth Prison Hospital. An inquest returned a verdict of death by natural causes, the prison doctor testifying that 'he seemed to be a happy man and very cheerful up to within half an hour of his death'.

Select Bibliography

  • Western Australian Church News, 1 Mar 1912, p 61
  • Western Mail, 23 Mar 1912, p 16, 20 Apr 1912, p 19, 6 July 1912, p 42
  • West Australian, 18 Apr 1912, p 4, 22 Apr 1912, p 9
  • Truth (Perth), 13 July 1912, p 42, 27 Jan 1917, p 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1933, p 4
  • Sunday Sun (Sydney), 22 Sept 1946, ‘Fact & Opinion’, p 1
  • Wandsworth Borough News, 11 Mar 1949, p 3
  • B2455, item Mercer, Henry Frederick (National Archives of Australia)
  • C. O. L. Riley diary (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

John Tonkin, 'Mercer, Henry Frederick (1872–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/mercer-henry-frederick-13095/text23691, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 5 December 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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