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Henry John (Harry) Congreve (1829–1918)

Doctor, bullock driver, station hand, gold digger, journalist, and preacher! Those were some of the roles filled, at different times, by Mr. Henry John Congreve, of Walkerville road, who died on Wednesday, aged 89 years. His career was most interesting, and in many respects, remarkable. He was born in London, and was proud of the connection with the family of which William Congreve, the seventeenth-century master of comedy, was a member. Mr. Congreve had the privilege of a good education at the hands of his mother, and completed his studies in London. When 15 years of age he was articled to a London doctor, and had considerable experience for five years among the poor of the world's metropolis. He had determined to emigrate to Brazil or Mexico, when he received a letter from the Rev. J. B. Austin, and a copy of the Register, containing an article which described the fine prospects for young men in South Australia. Accordingly he changed his mind and arrived at Port Adelaide in January 1849.

His ambitions were in the direction of a bush life, and within a few months he proceeded to Port Lincoln, which was crowded with soldiers. These had been sent across to over-awe the aborigines, who had adopted a threatening attitude towards the whites. Mr. Congreve used to attend to the medical needs of the blacks, and for three months lived right among them. While on a journey in the district he was once three days without water in the height of summer. At another time he was lost for a while in a big cave which he was exploring. After having returned to Adelaide he went to Burra, bullock driving, and spent Christmas Day 1850, loading wool at Pekina which was then the furthest sheep station from Adelaide. On returning to Burra he heard gold had been found at Louisa Creek, in New South Wales and, accompanied by a "new chum” surveyor, started for the diggings by way of the big rivers. Describing this trip, Mr. Congreve said, in an interview, some years ago, "We had two days without water crossing from the Murray to the North-West Bend. I had to carry my mate's swag and drag him along, or he would have perished. We took employment in connection with the lambing at Chambers's Lake Bonney Station. The lake was a favourite fishing ground of the natives, whose bark canoes looked quite picturesque on its waters.

"We watched a corrobboree of 200 aborigines, who developed such a hostile demonstrativeness that we had to run for our lives. Next morning they came to our camp. Hearing a commotion, we seized our carbines, and went to investigate. Our cook knocked down the foremost black with a rolling pin. The others were raising their spears, when up rode a stockrider known as 'King of the Blacks,' who drove them off knocking many down like nine-pins. The journey to the diggings was continued at the beginning of the wettest winter I have ever known. Following the windings of the river, we sometimes found ourselves only 10 miles away from a starting point from which we had walked fully 70 miles. To add to our discomforts, we had to use flint and steel to get a light, and it often took us two hours to make a fire. When crossing the Murray in a native's bark canoe the bark cracked as we neared the further bank, and threw us into the water. We landed safely, but I lost in the river my precious documents dealing with aboriginal lore which I had obtained from the blacks of the Port Lincoln district.

"Reaching the River Lachlan, we heard of the finding of gold at Clunes, in Victoria. Resolved to try that place, I parted from my mate, who would not go on, and reached the diggings after a walk of about 1,000 miles, occupying six weeks. The people had left, but had opened up a reef which, subsequently became the celebrated Clunes Mine. I got a little gold from the quartz there in August, 1851, then visited the Ballarat diggings, and went on to Mount Alexander. It would not be believed if I told of the enormous quantities of gold found there by individual diggers. I was looking on when a 25lb weight was washed out of one dish, but that might have been a hoard that the digger had been accumulating for some days. About that period a commission of scientific men at Bendigo said no payable gold would be found in the reefs below 150 ft. At present they are finding it there more than 2,000 ft. I was 12 years a practical digger—the greater part of the time away from the regular 'rushes,' trying to find new fields. I made one good discovery—a nugget of 64 oz., which I came across accidentally; but on leaving the diggings was no better off than when I started the hunt for gold.

"My claim was six miles out of Inglewood (V.), and when at last I decided to leave the diggings and went into the township I noticed that the local paper—the Inglewood Advertiser—had not a single paragraph about mining. Here was my chance then. I collected particulars of the field, wrote them up, put my manuscript into the hands of the proprietor—Mr. Edwin C. Booth. afterwards editor of Home News (England) and bolted as though I had done something wrong. The paper came out with my article in a position of honour. A few days later Mr. Booth offered me the editorship of the paper, which I accepted. There was no telegraph nearer to lnglewood than Bendigo—30 miles—and the editor of the rival paper and I used to ride that distance, get an epitome of the mail from the Bendigo Advertiser, and each tear back as fast as possible, to try to get his paper out first. The biggest 'scoop' I got on my rival was when the news came of the death of President Lincoln. We had expected important news, but I waited for nothing after hearing of this, arrived home at 4 a.m., woke up the printers, and had my paper issued when the other editor reached home."

After two years the paper was discontinued, and Mr. Congreve became Secretary of the local Hospital and School Board. Before leaving the district, he was asked to stand for Parliament, but declined. On returning to Adelaide he devoted himself to literary work and preaching. He took charge of the Smithfield and Golden Grove Presbyterian Churches, and drove 34 miles every Sunday. He was editor of the Gawler Standard, and afterwards in sole charge of the Bunyip for eight years. In those papers he published four or five of his serial novels. He also wrote many tales and sketches for the Register and the Observer over the initials of 'H. J. C.' and a few articles for other Adelaide papers. At Gawler he was instrumental in the resuscitation of the agricultural society and show. In 1891, following upon a heart seizure while preaching at Smithfield, he went to live in Semaphore, afterwards at Palm Place, Hackney, and finally at East Adelaide. Mr. Congreve became a Freemason in 1872, was Chaplain of the Gawler Lodge, and held the office of Senior Warden. He has had a number of relatives at the front, including his youngest son, in South West Africa, a nephew who was awarded the DSO for gallant conduct in saving guns during the retreat from Mons; Lieut. C. R. Congreve, who also received a similar award for gallantry, and Gen. Congreve, who gained the Victoria Cross in the South African War.

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Citation details

'Congreve, Henry John (Harry) (1829–1918)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 March, 1829
London, Middlesex, England


10 July, 1918 (aged 89)
East Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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