Born in Albury, New South Wales on 17 September 1862, Ernest Henty was the son of squatter Richard Henty, who was the first white child to be born in the colony of Victoria. The famous Henty brothers, James and Edward, were his great-uncles. As a youth Ernest Henty worked as a clerk for James Henty & Co., spending some years with the firm in Fiji. In 1883 he moved to Melbourne, working as a journalist for the World and then the Melbourne Daily Telegraph. From 1885 to 1890 he was editor of the Upper Murray and Mitta Herald, a Tallangatta newspaper. On 12 June 1890 he married Katherine Mary Harvie Alberta Cobham; they would have two sons and a daughter. At the time of his marriage his occupation was given as grazier.
Shortly afterwards, Henty emigrated to Western Australia with his brother-in-law, and the men established themselves as merchants under the name Henty, Cobham & Co. Henty became a wine, spirit and tea agent. By 1895, the company had branches in Geraldton, Southern Cross and Coolgardie.