Skip to main content
The Convict Trail Project

Heneage Finch



Heneage Finch appears on the Great North Road scene quite early in its history as an Assistant Surveyor. It was mentioned that he was a rather arrogant, rather insufferable man who was a grandson of the Earl of Winchelsea and was 22 years old when he left England for Australia. Thanks to Michael Hodgetts, also a Chartered Surveyor and whose mother was a Finch, we have more background about this man.

The Finch Family History

The Earls of Winchelsea had been a major political family in England over several hundred years. Sir William Finch had been an attendant knight of Henry VIII. Sir Moyle Finch had married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Heneage, former Vice Chamberlain of Queen Elizabeth I. She was widowed early, became Viscountess Maidstone, then Countess of Wichelsea and that title passed to her male heirs. Her third son was Sir Heneage Finch, Speaker of the House of Commons and his son, Heneage, became Solicitor General and first Earl of Nottingham. He had twin sons, Daniel and Heneage. Daniel succeeded as Earl of Nottingham and seventh Winchelsea and twin brother Heneage went through Christ Church Oxford and into the House of Commons, being made a peer in 1705 as the first Earl of Aylesford. Down to the third Earl of Aylesford whose second son was Admiral William Clement Finch who had two sons, William and Heneage. If you have taken in this family history, it was this second son Heneage, who was our Australian pioneer. His father died in 1794 so Heneage could not have been born in 1802 (22 on arrival in Australia in 1824!). He was actually 31 when he arrived in Sydney. Furthermore, although he made have said he was a member of the Winchilsea family and a grandson of the Earl of Winchilsea but of a collateral family, the Aylesfords.

Heneage Finch had graduated from Christ Church at Oxford in 1815 with a High Distinction in Mathematics. According to the University records, he had become a Deacon in the Church of England but he seems to have opted out of that life because he undertook a course in Surveying. He was introduced to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who recommended him for the Surveyor Heneral’s Department in Sydney. Heneage Finch and his wife Eliza left Gravesend on the Grenada on 2 October 1824. After 113 days at sea, the ship arrived on 23 January 1825 with the Sydney Gazette recording their anchoring off Pinchgut Island on 27 January. The Australian newpaper had a short notice on behalf of official passengers who included Lt Ogilvie, wife and four children and Mr Heneage Finch and Mrs Eliza Finch and family. Their marriage date is not known so there may have been a child or children with them. There were ten children eventually. Apart from the ship and newspaper records, there is only one other mention of Eliza much later as the joint owner of the Laguna farm of which more mention will be made in “Finch in NSW”.

Heneage Finch in NSW

It is not immediately apparent how much of Heneage Finch’s family background was known. The name Winchilsea was a well known and rather feared name and it seemed possible that not many would have known of the name Aylesford. One who would have known of it was Governor Darling. As a young man, he served as Military Secretary in America and the West Indies when three brothers Captain William Finch, Captain Seymour Finch and their soldier brother Edward Finch had all been in those theatres of war. It seems possible that he might have suffered some slights at the hands of these perhaps lofty and arrogant Finch brothers. Darling would certainly have known who Mr Finch was as well as his father and uncles. This Mr Finch would be rival to his brother-in-law William Dumaresq for the post of Deputy Surveyor General.

In September 1826, Governor Darling wrote to Under-Secretary Hay asking for the promotion of Captain Dumaresq to Deputy Surveyor General and reminded Mr Hay that Finch and Rodd in the Surveyor General’s Department were only Assistants. The office needed an officer of more importance. In March 1827, the person who had suggested that Mr Finch should go to NSW was the Lord Bathurst and he rejected Captain Dumaresq – another officer had been selected as Deputy Surveyor General, Major Thomas Mitchell, late of the Peninsula War. Major Mitchell as Deputy Surveyor General would stand next to Mr Oxley, “whom he will ultimately succeed”.

When Major Mitchell arrived in NSW, he took a very poor view of the men under his command. He wrote scathingly to the new Secretary of State, Sir George Murray, his former commanding officer. That was something of a blow to Governor Darling. The one person Mitchell had not met was Heneage Finch and, when he did, he corrected his earlier letter: “Mr Heneage Finch AB has lately emerged from the Woods where he has been employed as an Assistant Surveyor for nearly three years. He is an able mathematician and I find him very useful in the Department, he being nearly the senior assistant in it.”

Major Mitchell went to the country, leaving Mr Finch in charge of the Office as Acting Deputy Surveor General. The task was something Finch thought he could do easily and perhaps after all he might succeed to the position of Surveyor General. He had not reckoned with Governor Darling who notified England on 28 May 1828 of the death of Mr Oxley. Mitchell was now Surveyor General, in accordance with orders. Darling replaced Finch with Mr Hoddle, asserting he was the more senior officer although on a smaller salary than Finch. Mitchell returned and was in a rage about the meddling in his Survey Department. When Darling proposed Hoddle as Deputy Surveyor General, Mitchell vetoed him. If Mitchell proposed Finch, Darling would veto him.The result was that just a list of men was sent to London. Downing Street did what was convenient and sent out Captain William Perry, an Instructor at Woolwich and a contemporary of Dumaresq in the Army. Perry was Deputy Surveyor General for over 20 years but Mitchell would never trust him.

Finch was sent back to Laguna to work on the Great North Road. By August 1828, the road was advanced with the expectattion that carriages would be able to drive to Wallis Plains in another year. However, a further exchange between Darling and Mitchell over Finch resulted in Finch being recalled to Sydney, replaced by an Assistant Surveyor on the Great North Road project. Finch sold Laguna to his friend Richard Wiseman. The vitriolic despatches from Darling on Finch in his Laguna farm arrived in London after Viscount Goderich had replaced Sir George Murray as Secretary of State. The change might have been a blow to Mitchell but the despatch from London written on 15 March 1829 did not reach Sydney until October – it relieved Darling of his appointment.

Major Mitchell wrote of Finch in September 1832: “Finch was actuated by the best principles and intentions, but was rather unfortunate. He quarrelled with me in official correspondence regarding his duties. His conduct even General Darling condemned. He spoke of resigning more than once. He was employed at his earnest entreaty on my journey to the interior. I should have known that his peculiar eccentricity was unfavourable where the maintenance of order and obedience among prisoners was most essential. He lost all his stores, cattle, and two of his men, and nearly his own life since which I have felt no great kindness towards him. But he has been a serious loser in property as the cattle were chiefly his own and the Governor refused to remunerate him. His reports are fraught with complaints of his men, of the cattle, of broken instruments, but I consider much allowance due to a man of honour and a scholar.”

Meanwhile, Finch had resigned in 1837 but he was reappointed at Perry’s wish. In 1839, Finch was again warned of severe punishment because he had lost two men killed by natives. He had been found insubordinate when he continued writing to Perry complaining of a lack of support to surveyors. In 1839 he resigned again. It looked as if he might win a commission in New England but Governor Gipps blackballed him: “On four separate occasions Finch was informed I would not again employ him in any matter. He is one of the most insubordinate of a department by no means remarkable for its regularity.”

On 19 September 1850, the unfortunate Mr Finch died at Hoxton Park on the horns of a bull. As Michael Hodgetts wrote in his Forum paper, “Somehow it seems a controversial and dramatic way for this extraordinary man to die. The plaque on the wall in the Liverpool church says Ardensis major par secundus – it is always harder for the second son.






Download a Map

Convict Trail MapThe NEW and updated map of the Great North Road is available in visitor information centres and is also available for download here.