The Letters of Rachel Henning


Cover of Henning, R. The Letters of Rachel Henning (Edited by David Adams, with a Foreword and Pen Drawings by Norman Lindsay). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969. First published by the Bulletin 1951-2.

Years ago, I was fortunate to find amongst my mother’s many books a copy of “The Letters of Rachel Henning”. Rachel Henning wrote the letters during the period between 1853 and 1882 as she came to terms with life in colonial Australia. As a teenage reader, I was struck in particular by her letter to her sister Annie describing her trip by coach across the Blue Mountains in 1856.

I should have enjoyed it more, also, though I am no great coward, if we had not been going at a hard trot down that steep hill with an unguarded precipice on the left down which a coach was upset some time ago, and eleven passengers either killed or maimed.” (April 7th, 1856)

The picture she painted of the descent down Mt Victoria Pass still resonates each time I travel the same route with my foot wearing out my brake pads.

Apparently, the editing for the original publication of the letters in the Bulletin (1850-52) was rather free and loose (here’s a link to a quick summary ‘Have we been conned?’).  However, the original letters are available to the public in the State Library of New South Wales (catalogue MLMSS 342/ Volumes 1-3, Folder 4X).  Even more exciting is the free online availability of the letters via a number of sources, including Project Gutenberg, the Trove collection of the National Library of Australia, and as in ebook from the library of the University of Adelaide.

Corruption in high places

For those of us who live in New South Wales, it often seems that barely a week goes by without some scandal erupting in the press revealing government corruption (see the highlights of the last ten years summarised by the Independent Commission against Corruption).  Corruption has been with us from the inception of the colony, of course. Back in the early days of the colony, the exposure of such dealings could threaten the interrelationships that supported a very fragile social order. When researching something else entirely, I was side-tracked by the astonishing example of the defalcation (misappropriation of funds) by John Edye Manning.

His background

John Edye Manning (1783-1870) had been practising law in England in early 1800s, but due to insolvency moved to live on the Continent in 1814-1823, returning to England in 1824 to sell his property. He and his wife Matilda Jordan Manning (nee Cooke, 1788-1860) moved to Australia in 1829, and he took up the position of Registrar of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Following his complaints of insufficient income associated with that position, he was given the responsibility of Curator of Intestate Estates, although he had to provide a deposit of £2,000 (provided by his family in England) to take it on. He and his wife had a large family (11 births, 7 of whom lived to adulthood and had their own families). He took an active role in the Colony and was involved in many societies and business/land investments.

The problem

By 1838 it appears that people were worrying about his expenditure being in excess of his presumed legitimate income, and there were provisions made requiring him to deposit the £10,000 funds related to the intestate estates in the Savings Bank and make them available for quarterly audit. He contested this provision and although directed to return the monies, he did not comply. By 1841-42 he was in debt to the tune of £30,000 and he sought to resign.

At first the Judges of the Supreme Court refused to allow him to resign, fearing they would be unable to pursue him for the money, but Governor Gipps seems to have forced the issue and insisted they suspend him and instigate legal action against him. By 1846, the matters were only starting to be sorted out. His sons in Australia offered to pay the compensation, but it’s not clear if or when this occurred. He ended up going back to England (without prosecution), but his family remained in Australia.

John Edye Manning’s reputation does not seem to have tarnished his family’s prospects (after all, most of the inhabitants of the colony bore the ghosts of ne’er-do-well relatives). For example, his son William Montagu Manning came to the colony in 1837, became magistrate and chairman of the Quarter Sessions, commissioner of the Courts of Requests in 1841-43, then in 1844 became Solicitor-General (i.e., he reached that position after his father’s fraud was known). He went on to become Solicitor-General and was eventually knighted.