History of West Australia/Henry John Saunders



THE honourable office of Mayor is in every British community the highest gift of the citizens to a distinguished townsman. To wear the robes and golden chain of office, to be the chief magistrate of a city, are dignities to which very few members of a council may aspire with grace and fitness. To be Speaker of the House of Commons or Lord Mayor of London is to be the unquestioned possessor of intellectual endowments of a very special order; and the same rule applies in every constitutionally governed portion of the Queen's dominions. The corporate honour of a parliamentary Assembly or of a civic body is so closely bound up in the character and calibre of its president, that the members are jealous to ensure that their leader shall win his place by the display of qualifications that will impart a lustre to the performance of the duties of the post. In Perth, the watchfulness to allot the mayoralty by merit is sharpened by the fact that, while in most, if not all, of the neighbouring colonies, the election is made only upon the vote of councillors, in the capital of Western Australia the whole of the burgesses have a voice in appointing the civic head, so that none but an able man, and one of unblemished character, has any chance of receiving this laurel wreath of fame.

Henry John Saunders HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Henry John Saunders was born at Broadford-on-Avon in 1855, where his father was chief magistrate, and at an early age he was sent to Clifton College, whose curriculum he passed with credit. On leaving the college he, following the bent of his inclinations, learned civil engineering, but after successfully practising the profession for eight years, his health declined, and it became necessary or him to seek a change of air. The genial climate of Western Australia presented itself agreeably to his friends, and in 1884 he emigrated to this colony. A business opening soon presented itself and he went into partnership with Mr. James Barrett, the designer of the Perth Waterworks. The firm of Messrs. Saunders and Barrett, civil engineers, flourished for two years, and then Mr. Saunders, upon the discovery of the Southern Cross Goldfield, resolved to identify himself exclusively with the mining interest, of which be speedily became one of the leading promoters. He was one of the first to bring the valuable mineral resources of Western Australia into notice in London, "the market of the world," and this virgin field of enterprise has richly rewarded him for his efforts on behalf of his adopted country. As a company promoter, he almost stands alone in the extent of his operations, and the confidence which they have inspired on both sides of the globe. While he made it a rule never to associate himself with any property whose bona fides could not bear the strictest investigation, he has been indefatigable in obtaining the aid of capitalists for the development of first-class leaseholds, with the result that it has only been necessary for a projected flotation to bear the imprimatur of Henry J. Saunders in order for its capital to be more than fully subscribed long before the day appointed for the opening of the application for scrip. In most of his ventures he has worked with Mr. Allen H. P. Stoneham, forming a conjunction of business talents and peculiar strength and fitness for the work in hand, similar in the greatness of the results which has been achieved to the powerful influence exerted in a different sphere by the singularly harmonious union of Cobden and Bright, who towered above all their opponents. Among the first flotations which Mr. Saunders carried through was that of the West Australian Goldfields Company Limited, the objects of which are to explore the auriferous territory of the colony, and acquire payable leaseholds discovered by its well-equipped and well-paid prospecting parties. During the first year of its existence, this company paid a dividend of 37½ per cent., and in 1895 an interim one of 40 per cent. Nett profits for the year ending 31st March, 1896, were £232,000 upon a capital of £100,000. The Lady Shenton Company has, if possible, added even more to Mr. Saunders' renown. This splendid property was created under his auspices, with a capital of £160,000, and how well it has borne out the promises which were contained in the prospectus is too well-known to call for recapitulation here. The Florence, the second of the great mines of Menzies, embraces in its history another of the records of which Mr. Saunders has reason to be proud, for he found no difficulty in raising £120,000 for the purchase of the ground from the prospectors, Messrs. Menzies and McDonald, and it is satisfactory to be able to add that the shareholders who showed so much faith in Mr. Saunders' judgment have had every reason to congratulate themselves upon their purchase. To enumerate all the companies which have been indebted to Mr. Saunders' perfect knowledge of his business, and the familiarity of his name on all the great Stock Exchanges of the world, might be tedious to the reader; but he has taken a leading part in the launching of the following corporations, whose titles may be cited as being best known to the general public:—Mount Margaret Company, The Town Properties of Western Australia, White Feather Reward Company, Gold Lands Corporation, Mount Jackson Gold Mines Limited, and the Mount Sir Samuel. In spite of all he has accomplished, Mr. Saunders' work would appear to have only begun in the direction of developing the gold-producing resources of the country, as at the time of writing (1896) he has several other properties on the London market. The increase of the business of the firm has been so great that it has been found necessary for Mr. J. C. Hills, whom Mr. Saunders took into partnership, to go home to personally superintend the large interests that are at stake. The Perth office, in St. George's Terrace, is the largest and most important mining bureau in the city, employing a clerical staff of fourteen, Mr. Harris M. Saunders being private secretary to Mr. Saunders.

In public life Mr. Saunders has made as deep and honourable a mark as he has done in the mining world. He first stepped out of the private sphere in 1888, when he was elected to represent the ratepayers of the East Ward in the City Council, a position which he continued to hold until 1890, when he found the pressure of his professional work too severe to enable him to continue to serve the citizens without injury to his health. But his temporary retirement was only preparatory to entering upon a higher position; it was a pause to rest, and to gather strength for greater labours and responsibilities. The opportunity for returning to the Council with the mark of the high approval of the people came in 1895, upon the occasion of the retirement of Mr. Alexander Forrest from the mayoralty. Mr. Saunders determined to contest the vacancy to which Councillors T.J. Molloy and Hurst put forward a strong claim, on the ground of long and uninterrupted service. The contest was a keen one, yet, withal, it was fought with perfect good temper on both sides, but close observers predicted that Councillor Molloy was fighting a forlorn hope against a man who had displayed such pre-eminent ability in the management of large affairs, fraught with such great benefit to the colony, as Mr. Saunders had done. On the night that the poll was declared there was unwonted excitement in the city, for against any of his brother councillors Mr. Molloy would have been a strong antagonist, but Mr. Saunders had an easy victory, and he has since upheld the dignity of his high post in a manner that redounds to the credit of the capital of the colony.

As a politician, Mr. Saunders has also enjoyed some triumphs which must be especially pleasing to him after a career of remarkable commercial success, which has turned the strong light of public scrutiny upon his probity and intellectual parts. A few years ago he was elected to represent the Melbourne Province in the Legislative Council, and he discharged the duties of that high office so much to the satisfaction of his constituents that when he had occasion to go before them again last year he was returned unopposed.

As a foil to the more serious business of his life, Mr. Saunders has other pursuits which most men would deem sufficient to fill up their working hours, but which are to him merely recreative hobbies from which he is able to draw new stores of energy. He invested a large sum of money in the purchase of Henley Park, near Guildford, which is picturesquely situated, and capable of being greatly beautified by art, and art is being lavishly bestowed upon it to make it one of the loveliest residences in the Southern Hemisphere. Mr. Saunders is also known as the owner of a first-class stable of racehorses, whose stamina and fleetness have adorned his sideboard with many handsome trophies of the sport of kings. He is the president of more than one athletic club, and his hospitality in taking a leading part in the social life of the city is proverbial.

In Western Australia, Mr. Saunders has reached the highest rung of the ladder of professional success, wealth, and the applause of the community in which he lives. When Western Australia was poor and neglected, he gave her a strong helping hand, and she has not been ungrateful, it is pleasant to be able to write, to her benefactor. Other men had the golden opportunity that was presented to Mr. Saunders, but they lacked the courage and the perception to see the dawning of the great future of the colony, and perhaps if they had amassed his wealth they would not imitate his example in making a wise and patriotic use of it. For it is one of the best characteristics of Mr. Saunders, who has never failed anything that he has attempted, that he invests his capital almost exclusively in the colony which created it. He is one of the most solid supporters of the mining interest, a large employer of labour, and a charitable man. No worthier representative is ever likely to be invested with the mayoralty, or occupy the position of the chief magistrate of the city.