by G. C. Bolton
This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990 and online in 2006
Henry Whittall Venn (1844-1908), pastoralist and politician, was born on 27 October 1844 in Adelaide, second son of Robert Venn, a prosperous butcher of Port Adelaide, and his wife Elizabeth, née Evans. Locally schooled, Harry worked for the merchandisers Ormond & Co. at Robe, then joined the Melbourne-based Denison Plains Pastoral Co. which was planning to start a sheep-station in the remote north of Western Australia. The company’s representatives arrived at Fremantle in 1865 but never reached their goal. In 1866 Venn took part in two exploring parties in the Pilbara before taking up Karratha station on the Maitland River. Starting with one hundred of the company’s sheep and some Hereford cattle, he increased his stock to 8000 before selling out in 1878. He settled at Dardanup and Prinsep Park, two properties in the fertile south-west, near Bunbury. Here he spent the rest of his life with his wife Charlotte, sister of (Sir) George Shenton, whom he had married on 10 December 1874; they were to adopt three sons.
In February 1880 he won the Legislative Council seat of Wellington by one vote from the long-serving (Sir) James Steere and kept it until 1901, transferring in 1890 to the Legislative Assembly when parliament became bicameral. An advocate of bold developmental policies and responsible government, Venn came to the fore in 1882 as spokesman for a land-grant railway to the Kimberley district. In 1887 he chaired an important royal commission on agriculture which, in over three years of activity, made ‘many long and tedious journeys, at seasons not always the most pleasant or convenient’. The Venn commission’s findings foreshadowed the great agricultural push of the early twentieth century: the commission confirmed Western Australia’s suitability for wheat-growing and dairying, advocated the planting of softwoods, and recommended an agricultural bank, agricultural education and government repurchase of large estates for subdivision. In 1889 Venn also chaired an inquiry into disease among cattle.
When self-government came in 1890, Venn was commissioner of railways and director of public works in (Sir) John Forrest‘s ministry. In five years Venn trebled the mileage of government railways, doubled their earnings and kept down costs. He backed the development of Western Australia’s first coalfield at Collie. The unprecedented pressures of a gold rush, however, placed great strain on the transport system and public complaints grew. In 1894 Forrest considered transferring Venn to the Lands Department, but did not. In September 1895 Venn was widely attacked in parliament, one member complaining that his ‘pompous manner seemed to say “stand on one side”’. A bald, portly man, with a red face and heavy moustache, conventional and prolix, Venn was more competent than his manner suggested, but found himself inadequately supported and was no master of public relations. In February 1896 a Perth public meeting passed resolutions against the railway administration. Forrest asserted that funds for additional rolling-stock had never been refused. Sensing implied censure, Venn accused Forrest in the press of disloyalty. When asked to resign from the ministry, he refused three times; on 8 March Forrest requested Governor Sir Gerard Smith to withdraw Venn’s commission. As Venn put it, he was ‘dismissed in his nightshirt’.
The rest was anticlimax. A convinced Federationist, Venn was a substitute delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention from August 1897 but made no mark. In 1900 he was Western Australian commissioner to the international exhibitions at Paris and Glasgow. Out of parliament after April 1901, he failed to win the Federal seat of Perth in 1903; next year he applied unsuccessfully to become agent-general in London. Considered an austere recluse, Venn passed his final years at Dardanup where he died of heart disease on 8 March 1908; he was buried in the Anglican section of Bunbury cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate with a deficit of £7844.
- Royal Commission on Agriculture, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Western Australia), 1891-92 (1)
- Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 1895, p 905
- Wesvt Australian, 28 Feb–11 Mar 1896
- Bunbury Herald, 10, 12 Mar 1908
- B. Gleeson, The Life of H. W. Venn (manuscript, State Library of Western Australia).
G. C. Bolton, ‘Venn, Henry Whittall (1844–1908)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/venn-henry-whittall-8911/text15655, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 November 2021.