SAUNDERS, Henry John (1855–1919)
Senator for Western Australia, 1903 (Free Trade)

Henry John Saunders was born in London on 16 February 1855. He was the son of Thomas Bush Saunders, chief magistrate of Bradford-on-Avon, and his wife, Maria Albers, née Pedder. Saunders was a member of the Church of England, and was educated at Clifton College, Bristol. He then studied civil engineering, becoming an associate member of the Institute of Certified Engineers, London. Because of poor health, he was advised to migrate and he settled in Western Australia in 1884, quickly establishing himself as a civil engineer and mining agent in Perth. He was chief engineer for the Midland Railway Company and for two years was a partner in the firm, Saunders and Barrett, which was responsible for the design of the Perth Waterworks and other developments.

After the discovery of gold at Southern Cross, Saunders concentrated on mining matters. He made money by company flotation and judicious speculation. He was among the first to bring the mineral resources of Western Australia to the notice of British investors. His West Australian Goldfields Company, floated in London in 1894, paid a dividend of 40 per cent in the first year; other successful ventures were the Lady Shenton and Florence Mines on the Menzies goldfield. He headed the firm of H. J. Saunders and Company, which, by 1907, was said to be the ‘largest and most important mining bureau in the city’.

In 1889, Saunders was elected to the Perth City Council as a councillor for East Ward and in 1895 he became mayor, a position he held for two years. Saunders unsuccessfully contested the seat of East Perth for the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1890, but in 1894 he was elected to the Legislative Council for the Metropolitan Province. Re-elected for a further term in 1896, he was defeated in the elections of 1902.

In 1895, Saunders purchased Henley Park, a 5400-acre property near Guildford, with a one and three-quarter mile frontage on the Swan River, described as ‘one of the loveliest residences in the Southern Hemisphere’. The property had some 500 acres under cultivation, including orchards and a vineyard, and became well known for the breeding of horses, sheep, Ayrshire cattle and pigs. Saunders had some success in the breeding and training of racehorses, held positions on a number of racing and sporting bodies, and served as president of the Royal Agricultural Society. His prominent role in Perth’s social life was probably enhanced by his marriage (in England) to Lily, the daughter of pioneer merchant and shipping agent, George Shenton, and sister of Sir George Shenton. Sir George was the owner of one of Perth’s largest emporiums and President of the Western Australian Legislative Council from 1892 to 1906. Lily died in 1891, at the age of thirty–three. In 1893, in a Registry Office in Paddington, London, Saunders married Julia Parthenia Davey.There were two sons of this marriage.[1]

In 1901, Saunders was one of sixteen candidates in Western Australia for the Senate. He was unsuccessful, being in eighth place in the poll. In May 1901, he petitioned against the election of Alexander Matheson, alleging that Matheson had used bribery during the election, including buying the support of J. W. Croft with a payment of £50. The Senate committee of elections and qualifications never progressed beyond a discussion on the legality of the petition itself, which Saunders had failed to put to the Senate within the period prescribed by Western Australian electoral law (there was as yet no Commonwealth electoral law). It appears that Saunders had given his petition into the safekeeping of the Clerk, Edwin Blackmore, but although aware of the time constraint, had not returned to collect it in time for its presentation to the Senate. Many senators, notably Senator O’Connor, were dissatisfied with the whole matter, which became the catalyst for the Senate to ‘insist on the creation of an independent court of disputed returns’.[2]

Saunders’ political fortune rose again two years later, when, in May 1903 Norman Kirkwood Ewing, one of the senators elected for Western Australia in 1901, resigned. This was only the second casual vacancy to occur in the Senate. The State Government approached J. H. Thompson, who had been placed seventh in the 1901 poll. When Thompson was not interested in taking the position, Saunders, who, as we have seen, had been placed eighth, was appointed by the Governor-in-Council.

Saunders was sworn as a senator on 4 June 1903 and on 29 July a joint session of the two houses of the State Parliament confirmed his appointment. The fact that he had taken the oath of allegiance before his appointment had been confirmed by the State Parliament caused President Baker to make a ruling over that of the Chairman of Committees, Senator Best, who had felt Saunders should have been sworn twice in order to vote. Baker held that once was sufficient, pointing out that a fundamental feature of the Australian Constitution was that ‘no State shall be at any time unrepresented or partially represented in the Senate’. There was also some concern (in Western Australia) that Saunders had been the only nominee. Some members of the state opposition declared that they would have liked to nominate others. The actions of the Government were said to have made the selection cut and dried, a fait accompli. Both Ewing and Saunders were Free Traders, but there was no mention of their party affiliations at the joint sitting.[3]

Saunders attended all sittings of the Senate, but spoke only three times. He contributed to a debate on standing orders concerning the suspension of senators for misbehaviour, and spoke twice during debates on the Patents Bill.[4] In 1903, he stood for re-election, but was unsuccessful, coming fourth after three Labor men elected on a party ticket. There are suggestions that ill-health caused his partial retirement, but in 1918 he was re-elected to the Legislative Council. He died in office on 13 October 1919. After a service at St George’s Cathedral, he was buried in the Anglican portion of the Karrakatta Cemetery. His wife and sons, John and Cecil, survived him.

Saunders was described as ‘One of the best-dressed men about town, and at the same time one of the most unassuming. Of medium height, inclined to be stout, kindly face, dark complexioned, bald, carefully-waxed black moustache’. In parliamentary tributes at the time of his death, he was said to be ‘a genial personality’ and ‘of a jovial disposition’, and ‘one of the most kindly disposed gentlemen it was possible to meet’.[5]

Having one of the shortest terms in the Senate, Saunders was scarcely able to play an important role therein. He was more important in the history of Western Australia, though his career has some interest for the light it sheds on the method of filling casual vacancies, and the type of man selected by the state parliaments.


Joan Rydon

[1] W. B. Kimberly (comp.), History of West Australia, F. W. Niven, Melbourne, 1897, pp. 42–43; J. S Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol. 2, 1913, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, pp. 248–249; ‘For more than 40 years George Shenton was the head of one of what were sometimes referred to as the “six hungry families” who allegedly ran Western Australia’—Brian de Garis, ‘Sir George Shenton: The Merchant’, in Lyall Hunt (ed.), Westralian Portraits, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, WA, 1979, p. 66; Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, P. W. H. Thiel, Perth, 1901, p. 27.

[2] CPD, 27 June 1901, p. 1670; CPP, Reports of the committee of elections and qualifications upon the petition of Henry John Saunders, 12 July, 3 October, 11 October 1901; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 106–107.

[3] J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, p. 110; CPD, 3 September 1903, pp. 4576–4578, 4 September 1903, p. 4653; WAPD, 29 July 1903, pp. 229–233.

[4] CPD, 18 June 1903, p. 1071, 16 July 1903, p. 2213, 11 August 1903, p. 3326.

[5] ‘Truthful Thomas’, Through the Spy-glass, Praagh & Lloyd, Perth, 1905, p. 70; WAPD, 14 October 1919, pp. 840–842; West Australian (Perth), 14 October 1919, p. 6, 15 October 1919, p. 6, 16 October 1919, p. 7.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 350-353.

SAUNDERS, Henry John (1855–1919)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1903

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, Metropolitan Province, 1894–1902, 1918–19