Whittell, Henry

Henry Rawes Whittell was born in 1857 in College Street, Sydney, where his father practised medicine. His mother, Esther, was from a wealthy Wiltshire family who owned large estates in Surry Hills.

At the age of 14 Henry joined the Merchant Navy and when 19 obtained his officer’s certificate. He left the sea the following year to become field assistant to the Government Surveyor who was commissioned to define the borders of South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, an area then almost unknown. While  here in 1877, Henry collected numerous specimens of rocks from the Barrier Ranges, which, on examination in Sydney, were found to be gold and silver bearing, long before mining commenced there. After further years in the Government Survey Office and the Survey Branch of the Department of Mines, Henry’s wide interest in botany and natural science led him to leave government employ and take a position as Secretary of the Horticultural Society of New South Wales. In 1893 he and 200 other members severed his connection with that society. He then founded the National Horticultural and Pomological Society, becoming its first secretary. This new society’s aim was to improve co-operation between growers and make the distribution of produce more efficient, especially in the fruit and bee farming sections.[1]

On the nomination of Sir William Macleay, Henry, when still a young man, was elected a member of the Council of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. He was a member of the Royal Empire Society, one of the founders of both the Geographical Society of Australasia and the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association of New South Wales. By 1894 he was growing fruit himself and was one of the delegates – representing the National Horticultural and Pomological Society – at a convention of the fruit growers of Australasia. In 1894 he was also Honorary Secretary of the National Beekeepers’ Association. He led several overseas trips to further his studies in horticulture.

In 1884 Henry married Amelia Amy Menzies who in the 1870s had left Bristol, England, with her family. The Whittells lived at first in Strathfield where their son Henry was born. In 1889 they moved into a new home in Beecroft just after the birth of their second child, Dorothy.

In the early sales of Crown Land in Beecroft in 1887, Henry had purchased five acres of land on the western side of Lilla Road and Thornleigh Road (Wongala Crescent). In 1899 his wife acquired from James Wilshire four adjoining acres to the north, facing Park Road. On the high ground of the Lilla Road property, a partially two-storeyed timber house, ‘The Glen’, was built, American in style, designed in 1889 by architect William Coward of Beecroft. Coward was paid £53/3/- for the plans and for supervising the erection of the building. The house was unusual with its two angled chimney stacks and steep gabled trimmed with shingles. Henry, eminent botanist and horticulturalist, self-taught and practical, was not, however, a man of business. He ran into debt through borrowing money to build his home and encountered severe financial difficulty.[2]

In December 1889, ‘H. Rawes Whittell’ was one of the signatories on the petition for a Post Office in Beecroft. In 1891 he and his wife were part of a small group responsible for the building of St John’s Church in Beecroft. In 1890-1892 he was secretary of the Progress Association and his surveying knowledge was useful in the dispute concerning the priority of Hannah Street over Copeland Road as the main access to the station. In 1905 he was on the committee of the Beecroft Literary and Dramatic Society.[3]

The heavy loss of life and strategic stalemate in France in the first years of World War I led Henry Rawes Whittell to invent a subterranean military torpedo and a new type of barbed-wire cutter especially for trench warfare. In 1916, carrying letters of introduction from a high army officer in Sydney and the State Premier, he took a position as officer on a merchant ship and sailed to the United Kingdom, writing ahead to the Minister of War in London offering his services in some useful position. He stated that he was 57 years old, weighed 12 stone 8 pounds (80 kg), was strong and sound in health and an Australian by birth of the fourth generation. He also wrote that he was unable to estimate the exact date of his arrival as he was sailing through enemy-patrolled waters and his ship could be torpedoed.

His reception in London was polite, and a temporary position was found for him in the munitions department of Vickers Aviation, at 36 shillings per week plus 4 shillings war bonus. His inventions, however, were turned down. Never beaten, Henry then submitted plans for a ‘lever wheel loading machine’ for munitions work but this idea also was not accepted. No doubt the ‘Controller of Munitions Inventions’ in London was faced with numerous inventions designed to win the war and the Whittell inventions were just some of many.

Henry next submitted to the Board of Agriculture plans for a machine to cultivate and fertilise exhausted soils, which, he stated, he had been working on at his land of Beecroft, Sydney, since 1907 and that he had proven to his own satisfaction that his method could increase crops by 100%. He pointed out that European soils would soon be exhausted both from centuries of use and from the effects of the war.

Once again he had no success and in 1917 Henry returned home. In 1922 he wrote to the Minister for Public Works in Sydney with details of his invention of a new metal fireproof and white-ant proof fence which would save much timber and money, the Minister being invited to a public demonstration of the fence in the grounds of Sydney University. The following year he announced another invention in the Sydney Mail, the ‘Whittell’s Patent Mouse and White-Ant Proof Farm Silo and Building Piers’.[4]

In an unusual horticultural experiment in Beecroft during the 1920s and 1930s, Henry attempted the cultivation of tung-oil trees, the fruit of which produced a valuable oil much in demand in industry and medicine in the early years of the 20th century. He had seen such trees growing in their native China and considered the Beecroft soil and climate were equal to, or better than, the Chinese. From two seeds he successfully grew close to Lilla Road a plantation of tung-oil trees
which produced much fruit, this work being largely done in his retirement.[5]

Financial difficulties had forced Henry to sell ‘The Glen’ and part of his property in 1904 and he built a smaller house, ‘Braeside’, in Lilla Road. This house was burnt down in 1933. Henry rebuilt it and lived there until his death in 1936 at the age of 80 years. He was buried in St Paul’s Cemetery, Carlingford. Amelia Whittell died
in 1943 aged 92 years. [6]

[1] Sydney Mail, 21 July 1894.

[2] Land Titles Office 899/10, 1210/9; State Records New South Wales, Kingswood branch, Deceased Estate File.

[3] State Records New South Wales, General Post Office, SP 32/1, Beecroft. McCaskill, op.cit., pp. 10-11; Cumberland Argus, 13 February 1892, 16 December 1905; Daily Telegraph, 9 January 1892.

[4] Henry Rawes Whittell Papers, Mitchell Library, MS A 2783.

[5] Farmer and Settler Magazine, undated [1933].

[6] Information from Mrs Philip Bailey of Bilgola Plateau, 1989.