Zwar > Biographies

< back to index

Henry Peter Zwar (E10)

  • Born: 2nd December1873
  • Parents:
    Michael and Agnes Zwar nee Zimmer
    • Married:
    • Jane Freier Cunningham in 1899 in Beechworth
  • Lived:
    In Victoria, Australia
  • Died: 12th January 1959
  • Buried:

Detailed biography

The tenth child and sixth son of Michael and Agnes Zwar.


Henry Peter Zwar was born on the farm at Broadford on 2nd December 1873, the tenth child and the youngest of the six sons born to Michael and Agnes Zwar. Five months later Anna, his oldest sister, made some room for Henry in the Zwar home when she married George Bidstrup; and Henry was hardly walking when he became an uncle for the first time! (to Charles Bidstrup, who was 15 months younger than his uncle Henry). In 1878, before Henry was quite 5 years old, his father went on a trip to Europe to visit his birthplace. About 70 years later Henry would recall his early days:

“At six years of age I commenced school walking about one and a half miles. At 7 years I milked six cows before and after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. When 12 years of age, I entered a district school competition. I won the prize, two large volumes of ‘Livingstone’s Travels’ which are still in my home. Encouraged, I entered for the first Government Scholarships – valued at £40 available for boys and girls who could not afford college charges. I was then about 13 years old – my sister was married and had a farm about 6 -miles from Broadford. The school there had an attendance of 30 or 40 students. The teacher boarded with my sister. The teacher took an interest in me and tutored me day and night with the result that I won the scholarship. In 1887 – 14 years of age – I went to Melbourne Grammar School. It was strange for a country boy. I outstripped the other boys, especially in Geography and Arithmetic, but I had certain difficulties with the languages. German was an important language for business but our parents, who did not teach us, hated the Prussians. I was getting on well when I broke my arm. This set me back. After 6 months, I had to leave for home and take charge of the farm. I was just a nipper in short pants and with the help of a lad from the Industrial School milked 30 cows. He was a good lad and received £1 per week and tucker. I got only my tucker. I was pleased to be the “Boss” however and did not bother about the money. We did all the farm work – feeding stock, killing pigs and calves for the Melbourne market. Scalding the pigs was a big job – I tested the hot water with blood from the pig and if it curdled it was too hot. We did a good job and between milking cut enough wood to keep a hand made brick kiln going. When fifteen, a brother came home and took charge as I left to learn the Tanning Trade.”


Henry learnt the tanning trade under his brothers William and Albert at Beechworth. They had just bought the Ovens Tannery at Beechworth and Henry joined them in September 1888 only a few months after they started operations. Even though Henry’s brothers ran the tannery, they did not make life easy for their 15 year old young brother. (He was younger by 12 and 10 years.) About 60 years later Henry recalled the early days at Beechworth:

“I worked 54 hours a week, received 15 shillings in wages and paid 15 shillings for board. I painted the factory after hours and on Sunday mornings. Attended Church on Sunday evenings. I earned enough to buy clothes and to go to a night school to improve my education. My teacher was the Rev. Canon Potter, and later Mr. Poynton B.A., brother of Mr. Poynton, Labor M.H.R. I was in turn Apprentice, Improver, Journeyman, Foreman and Manager. Award wages then were 42 shillings per week for 54 hours. As Foreman, I received 48 shillings per week and then I married.”


Henry married Jane Freier Cunningham on 28th March 1899 at Beechworth. He was 25 years old, and she was 7 months older. They rented a house of 5 rooms for 7shillings a week. Henry had been at Beechworth for 10 years.

Parkside Tannery Preston

The following year his brother William bought the Parkside Tannery at Preston, near Melbourne. William offered Henry his third share in the Beechworth Tannery, but Henry could not manage it at the time:

“I was offered a third share in the business, but could borrow only enough to buy a ninth of third share.” H.P.Z. 1949

Family Life

Their first child, Beryl Carrick Zwar, was born on 8th March 1901. Two years later to the day Enid Jean Zwar arrived and two and a half years later Herman Richard Zwar completed their family. They lived at Newtown about a mile out of Beechworth. The children were driven to school in a phaeton by their mother or a spring cart by one of the tannery men. […Beryl] Later they lived in a house at the tannery about five kilometres out of town.


After Henry’s brother William had been operating a tannery in Preston, a suburb of Melbourne, for about ten years he decided to leave and take up a property on King Island.

“On January 1st 1911 Albert and Henry Peter entered into partnership in the Preston Tannery which had been operating under the name of William Zwar and Co.” J.J. Macaulay.

Henry became the tannery manager at £5.10.0 per week. William then retired from the tanning industry although he retained a financial interest for some years. Henry and Jane Zwar moved to Preston with their three children in 1911. The parents were 37 years old.

“For two years they lived in Roseberry Avenue, and in 1913 they bought the large home called ‘Rothesay’ at 38 Gower Street, now 260 Gower Street. There was room for a croquet lawn and a tennis court beside the house. Later Henry bought the block the other side of the house and extended the dining room sideways and then added a billiard room towards the street. His and Jane’s idea was for the family to bring their friends home and many happy times resulted with tennis, billiards and songs round the piano, which Jane played.” Beryl Hughes

About 40 years later Henry recalled the early years at Preston:

“I had the usual ups and downs. War broke out in 1914. I gave four years honorary service. Tanners kept the troops supplied with all leather requirements – it was a big job, as there were no motors or tractors and an enormous quantity of leather was needed. I did not ask, nor did I receive a penny for out of pocket expenses…. After the war I put thousands of diggers through the Repatriation. I met Colonel McPhee, head of the Repatriation a couple of years later, when running a sports meeting for mentally sick diggers at Mont Park. On being introduced to the Colonel, he said, “Zwar, you are the best known man in Australia to me, but I have never met you. You sent thousands of diggers to me, for the first hundreds I put on two officers to check up on your statements and found that you were doing a better job than my men, so put them to other jobs and gave pensions on your recommendations – thousands of them”. It cost me all the cash I had to help diggers.”

Medal of Merit

Henry had a great love for his country and a real concern for those who served her in wartime. He investigated thousands of cases for the Repatriation Department.

“Henry Peter Zwar was the only Victorian civil civilian presented with the R.S.L’s Medal of Merit following World War I.” (Newspaper cutting 13.1.59)

In his autobiography Henry alludes mysteriously to secret service work he carried out for Prime Minister Billy Hughes, but there are no details.

Tannery Sole Owner

The year following the end of the War Henry became sole owner of the Tannery at Preston, and his brother Albert Michael the sole owner of the Beechworth Tannery.

“The long partnership between Albert Michael and Henry Peter was finally dissolved by Deed on July Ist 1919 leaving Albert Michael the sole owner of Zwar Bros. and Co. and Henry Peter retiring to William Zwar & Co. Pty Ltd. where he continued to operate under the name of Henry P. Zwar Pty. Ltd. Albert Michael relinquished all his interest in the Preston Tannery and from then onwards both companies were independent with no association in any way.” J.J. Macaulay

The Zwar tannery at Preston, now renamed the ‘Henry P. Zwar Pty Ltd’, was soon employing more than 100 hands. In 1939 ‘The News’ of May 30th devoted a half page to Henry and his tannery, and included the following:

“Some idea of the quality of the leathers produced by this firm can be gathered from the fact that it supplied the whole of the original leather coverings for the first and second class carriages of the Adelaide express, and today those same coverings are giving excellent service. “Prestonite” Leathers were specially chosen for upholstering the Victorian Railways’ “Spirit of Progress”. The quality of this leather has been greatly regarded. It is highly recommended because of its beauty of colourings, finish, and softness of texture. The firm also supplied the leather used in the upholstering of the special railway car used during the visit of the Duke of Gloucester. The leather for the upholstering of the furniture at Australia House in London, and the C.T.A., Melbourne, was also supplied by Henry P. Zwar Pty. Ltd. Special leathers have been supplied to the Metropolitan Tramways Board for their trams and new buses.”

The newspaper article also includes an aerial photograph of the tannery. Although running the tannery must have taken up much of his time Henry was also involved in a prodigious number of organisations and bodies. It would be impossible for anyone to list them all! Carole Woods summed Henry up as

“A tall dignified man with a brush moustache, H. P. Zwar was gregarious and had a strong philanthropic trait.” Australian Dictionary of Biography manuscript.


At Beechworth Henry was a cricketer, rifleman and Australian Rules footballer (who rucked the four quarters without a change). His interest in sport grew with the years to the extent that “The Bulletin’‘ (May 24 1944) records:

“Henry Peter Zwar M.L.A., president of Victorian Football Association in place of the late J.J. Liston, is a member of over 100 sports organisations and President of 40. The list includes every known Australian sport except two-up.”

At Preston

“He was President of the following local clubs: 
Football, Cricket, Rowing, Soccer, Lacrosse, Rifle, Jika
Cricket Association and the Amateur Athletic Club. In addition,
he was connected with amateur and professional cycling clubs,
swimming, tennis and bowling club…” P. 63 Brief Biographies of Prominent Preston People

Football Association for Youths

Towards the end of World War II when Henry was about 70 years old, he was

“called to Preston Police Station as a J.P. to bail out some boys who were in trouble. He formed the impression that they were more in need of help than of punishment.
This led to a meeting of 40 boys and parents, which resulted in the formation of the magnificently successful Preston District Junior Football Association. It started with seven clubs covering 150 boys and has since grown to many clubs which have provided recreation for thousands of boys.” The Post 1.14.1959

Henry was President of the Preston Bowling Club for over 35 years; Jika Cricket Association for 27 years; Preston Football Club 26 years; Preston Cricket Club 26 years – and President of a number of other clubs for shorter terms.

“H. P. Zwar Reserve”

Henry’s interest in sport is commemorated in the “H. P. Zwar Reserve” at Preston. It contains a number of playing fields adjoining the Preston Technical College. (One can find it in the Melbourne Street Directory).


Henry was made a Life Member of the Victorian Football Association of which he was President from 1944–47. He was also a trustee of the Mecca of Australian sport – the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Preston Council Mayor

Henry entered the Preston Council in 1929 and served until 1935. He was Mayor of Preston in 1933-34. It was during the Depression years that Henry gave a tremendous amount of aid to unemployed people:

“It was not an uncommon sight to see up to twenty people waiting to see him at his office – and no one went away empty handed.” p. 63 Unnamed Source

Henry organized a committee of working people and clergymen to collect for and feed the families of the unemployed. Preston could later boast that it did not need to run a government soup kitchen to feed the poor in these difficult years. Henry also organized the delivery of wood to the unemployed, often at considerable personal expense. (He later estimated this cost him £2000 ).

“With tanneries in the District, distribution of leather for boot-mending could be made. Parties of unemployed were transported to Whittlesea and Wallan to cut wood to distribute to the unemployed homes. Some men were assisted to travel to work over the gold-fields … even the permanently employed had to submit to wage and salary cuts…
A distressing feature of the depression years was the eviction of families for inability to pay rent …. Much of the opposition to evictions was organized by the Unemployed Worker’s Movement, a militant off-shoot of the moderate Central Unemployed Committee of the Melbourne Trades-Hall…. As the depression dragged on, militancy increased, accompanied by scuffles and riots.” p. 100 History of Preston

These were trying years for the men on the Preston Council. The militants and communists were prepared to fight in the streets. In October 1932 they held a protest outside the Town Hall where they sang the ‘Red Flag’.

“A most resolute opponent of labor militancy was H. P. Zwar, yet he and his supporters, gave assistance to the less militant unemployed.‘’ p.101 History of Preston

About 1949 Henry would write.

“I paid up my overdraft only before Christmas last year after all these years and selling up my small properties to feed and clothe these families.”


Henry was always interested in politics;

“From a lad, I always took part in elections. The day I was 21, I took 3 of my fellow workers 3 miles over a bush track to buy a vote – one bought a vote for one shilling. When the election came on, we had a vote and the others had none and were sore.”


Vote for H.P. Zwar


Although Henry was a most generous man to anyone in need, he was not a weak man. He was prepared to stand by his principles, and even to stand up to any militant or communist person, as can be seen from an event in 1917

“In 1917, we had a loyalist meeting and the Union Jack on the table. A certain crowd disloyal to the Empire came to break up the meeting and eventually the meeting got out of hand. I told the lady to play ‘God Save the King’ or there would be a riot. This calmed them down. I saw one put his fingers to his nose at a war widow in black. I did not wait to go down the steps I jumped down and thrashed three, my partner thrashed another and we won the fight and cleaned them up and they never forgot it.”

There would be similar meetings during the Depression years! In March 1927, when Henry was 56 years old, he stood for the National Australia Party for the Heidelberg electorate (which included Preston), but was beaten by 1700 votes by the Labor candidate. He won the seat however as an Independent in 1932 and held it until 1945.

‘He was no political theorist, and most of his mass contacts were of an apparently non-political character.“ p. 95 History of Preston

Community Supporter

He won support through his wide and varied contact with people – his help to the returned soldiers and to the poor and unemployed – as well as his leading role in many local organisations. The sporting bodies have been mentioned. He was a liberal supporter of hospitals, and a Life Governor of six, which included the Melbourne Children’s Hospital and the Melbourne Women’s Hospital. He was chairman of the Preston Relief Committee (1929-32); Preston Recreation Committee; School Committee (27 years); Preston Girl’s School Council (21 years); Preston Technical School; Preston Ladies Club (??); Prestonite Club (27 years); Horticulture Society 14 years; Musical Society 10 years. He supported every community body, including the Scouts and Girl Guides and the “Anti-Sweating League”. Henry was also a Justice of the Peace, and a special Magistrate of the Children’s Court.
Henry was the only United Australia Party candidate in the 1940 election to substantially increase his majority of votes from the previous election. Carole Woods wrote:

“In parliament Zwar voted independently, claiming ‘conscience as the final court of appeal’. His overwhelming concerns were the unemployed and the plight of many widows and deserted wives. As president of the Preston Unemployment Relief Committee from 1929-32, Zwar had helped numerous people and he drew on his experience to advocate more humane government policies. He was critical of the Country Party, stressed the value of secondary industries, and heaped contempt on the Labor Party’s alliance with the Dunstan Country Party government of 1935-43, arguing that this caused Labor members to betray their welfare policies.” 
Australian Dictionary of Biography manuscript

Henry’s life of community and public service was recognized in the 1950 Honors List. He received the Order of the British Empire from King George VI.

Wife Jane and Family

His wife Jane was also a leader in the community and supported many charitable organizations and auxiliaries. Their daughter Beryl recalled that her father was always sympathetic to the needs of people in the community, but he never forgot or neglected his own family. She remembers her mother Jane as a great help to Henry socially, and Jane also made a valuable contribution in her own right through her work for charities. Jane was President of the Central Council for the Eye and Ear Hospital for 12 years; a foundation member of the Preston and Northcote Community Hospital (PANCH) in July 1944 and a member until her death in 1952. She also helped form an association to assist the Mayoresses of Preston, and served as a member of the Preston Red Cross. For her services to charity Jane was awarded a medal by the order of His Majesty the King to be worn in commemoration of their Majesties Silver Jubilee on 6th May 1935, and another medal for their Coronation on 12th May 1937.

Last years

Henry had a sense of Family History long before many other people took an interest in recording the lives of their forefathers. In 1950 he sent a cheque for £250 to the Lord Mayor’s Hospital Appeal Fund and enclosed a note:

“It will be 100 years tomorrow since my parents arrived in Victoria so I’m sending this donation to the Fund”.

Two years later Jane died on 29th April 1952. Henry lived for another seven years. He died on Monday 12th January 1959, aged 85 years. He was the last of Michael and Agnes Zwar’s eleven children to pass on – 109 years after Michael landed in Australia. One of Preston’s largest funerals ever seen left the Zwar Home for the cemetery and scores of people lined the streets with heads bowed. Henry Peter Zwar had concluded his autobiography about ten years earlier with the following lines.

“I owe all my success in life to my mother who guided me along the right path. A big-hearted woman who fed every ‘Sundowner’ who came along she gave them tea, breakfast and a parcel of food to carry them to the next town. After the Old Age Pension came in, these disappeared – they were a fine body of men. We were always taught to honour the British flag. I must now pay a tribute to my wife. Throughout 50 years of married life, she has helped me in every way possible with sympathy, love and care. She gave me every help and encouragement during my 14 years in Parliament. Her charity work stands alone. Quietly efficient, doing what she thought was right and is still carrying on after 30 years Red Cross and 12 years President, Eye & Ear Hospital Auxiliary. My two daughters, son, son-in-law and daughter-in-law have all helped lighten our work, especially my son who took charge of the factory when I was in Parliament and since. 
I and my family have endeavoured throughout our lives to live up to the message in the following lines: “I shall pass through this world but once, Any kindness I can show to any human being, Let me do it now, not neglect or defer it, For I shall not pass this way again”. “

© Kevin P Zwar