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Forrest, Alexander (1849–1901)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Alexander Forrest (1849-1901), by unknown photographer

Alexander Forrest (1849-1901), by unknown photographer

ACT Heritage Library, 003613, Canberra Times Collection

Alexander Forrest (1849-1901), explorer, politician and investor, was born on 22 September 1849 at Picton, near Bunbury, Western Australia, fourth of nine sons of William Forrest, miller, and his wife Margaret Guthrie, née Hill. His older brother was (Sir) John Forrest. After education at Bishop Mathew Hale's School in 1863-65, he worked at his father's mill until in 1868 he advertised himself as a surveyor. This somewhat premature move was followed by a further period of training, but by 1870 he was experienced enough to serve as second-in-command of John's first transcontinental expedition, along the edge of the Great Australian Bright. On 1 January 1871 he was appointed to the Survey Department as surveyor-in-charge of the Albany district; but, following a reorganization later that year, he became an independent licensed surveyor working by contract for the department. This kept him constantly at work during the pastoral expansion of the 1870s until his marriage on 15 January 1880 to Amy Eliza Barrett-Lennard (1852-1897).

Old colonists considered that Alexander was a better bushman than John, quicker to accept and persevere with risks, though a less careful surveyor. In August-September 1871 he had led a six-man expedition for pastoral country on the Hampton Plains, forming a favourable impression which did not survive a second reconnoitre in 1876. In 1874 he was second-in-command of John's second transcontinental expedition, frequently acting as advance scout and proving himself a loyal confidant. Following an important survey of the North-West in 1875, he planned an examination of the remaining unoccupied area in the far north of Western Australia. In March 1879, accompanied by his brother Matthew (1857-1884) and six other men, he began a six-month exploration which resulted in the discovery and naming of the Kimberley district, the Margaret and Ord rivers, the King Leopold ranges, and a vast tract of well-watered pastoral country on the Fitzroy and Ord rivers. There were privations; much valuable time was spent in fruitless attempts to penetrate the Leopolds, so that the expedition ended in a desperate dash to the security of the Overland Telegraph Line. Yet Forrest could boast the discovery of a land of good grass and water, promising prospects for gold and tropical agriculture, and Aboriginals who showed no hostility. It became a magnet for squatters and investors.

Survey Department officials were not expected to profit from their finds and the Forrest brothers had already been criticized for their investments in North-West station properties. Alexander Forrest turned from surveying to set up as a land agent specializing in the Kimberley. He was consulted by the Duracks and Emanuels, the MacDonald brothers and many more who swarmed to take up over 51 million acres (21 million ha) of Kimberley pastoral leaseholds by 1883. Between 1883 and 1886 he also acted as local agent and adviser to Anthony Hordern, the Sydney investor who constructed a land-grant railway from Albany to the terminus of the government system at Beverley. The line was opened in 1889. During its construction Forrest acted as local agent for other speculators with proposals for land-grant railways, but none came to fruition. He was principal shareholder in the timber company supplying the colony's second land-grant railway, the Midland, and during its financial difficulties of 1888-91 assisted its contractor Edward Keane in his negotiations with the government.

In 1887 Forrest entered the Legislative Council as first member for Kimberley. He soon identified himself as a headstrong partisan of his brother John and the chief justice (Sir) Alexander Onslow in their feuds with Governor Sir Frederick Broome. For a time he was involved with the more radical wing of the responsible government movement, being one of the speakers at a mass meeting in September 1887 when Broome's effigy was burnt by a working-class crowd. During the 1887-88 tariff debates he led the protectionist lobby, successfully moving for increases in the duties on imported meat, livestock, and grain, thus insulating local producers against competition from the eastern colonies. As a local member his main concerns were the acquisition of public works and the strengthening of police protection for Kimberley pastoralists against Aboriginal raids on their stock and property. When responsible government came in 1890 he represented West Kimberley in the Legislative Assembly, easily retaining the seat until his death. He never held cabinet office, but as government whip he wielded such influence during Sir John Forrest's premiership that he was popularly known as 'the sixth minister'.

When (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker joined the Forrest ministry late in 1892 Alexander Forrest succeeded him as mayor of Perth, holding office for six years (1892-95; 1897-1900). These gold-rush years saw the city's most rapid expansion and placed great strains on municipal services. Forrest's main achievements were the establishment of Perth's first tramways; improvements in the paving of the city streets; the creation of several important parks and reserves; and the maintenance of a generous record of civic hospitality. He was adept at winning subsidies from Sir John Forrest's government. Public health was less satisfactory. A smallpox epidemic early in 1893 was followed by persistent typhoid, and counter-measures were inadequate. Forrest initiated negotiations for the purchase of the privately owned Perth waterworks; they were vested in 1896 in a government board of which he was an ex officio member from 1898, but he took little part in its proceedings and was singled out as a heavy consumer in times of shortage. During his second term of office he had too many irons in the fire to give satisfactory civic leadership and had to stave off a strong challenge at the 1899 mayoral election. However he deserved credit for his last action as mayor, the appointment as acting town clerk of the young and able William Bold.

Forrest was quick to seize the investment opportunities created by the Western Australia gold rushes. He was one of the first speculators in 1888 to float a company on the Yilgarn goldfield and, for the rest of his life, played the stock market zestfully if at times lucklessly. His greatest coup came in 1894 when he grub-staked John Dunn in the discovery of the Wealth of Nations mine north-west of Coolgardie, which was sold to British investors for £147,000. He was also a partner in the Londonderry syndicate which Sir John Forrest's government indemnified against accusations of claim-jumping. Forrest's profits went into further speculations. He was a partner or shareholder in several northern sheep stations, and owned a farm at Cubbine, east of York. He was a prolific investor in real estate and led the syndicate which in 1895 subdivided Peppermint Grove, now Perth's most affluent suburb. He invested substantially in the timber industry, and was sleeping partner in a chain of retail butchers' shops. From 1890 he held a major investment in the Albany Advertiser, though without attempting to influence its anti-Forrest political stance. When in 1896 a Perth company published the Morning Herald as an avowedly 't'othersider' daily, he found no difficulty in serving as chairman of directors. By 1895 his business reputation stood high enough for the Coolgardie Pioneer to flirt with the notion of him as a potential supplanter to Sir John, capable of running the colony on sound commercial lines; but before long the goldfields press saw him as Western Australia's arch-capitalist squeezing profit from family connexions.

Forrest came most under attack as creator of the 'meat ring', a combination of local suppliers battening on goldfields consumers. Between 1893 and 1898 he was the staunchest defender of the protective stock tax, despite repeated pressure by consumers for its reduction or abolition. Following the negotiation in 1893 of a satisfactory contract with the Adelaide Steamship Co. for serving the North-West ports, Forrest formed a partnership with Isadore and Sydney Emanuel for the shipment of Kimberley cattle to the Perth and goldfields markets. Through retail contacts Forrest, Emanuel & Co. came to dominate, though never to monopolize the livestock trade, especially after their main rivals, the Wyndham firm of Connor, Doherty & Durack Ltd, were disadvantaged by the imposition in 1897 of quarantine regulations against tick-infested East Kimberley cattle. Long and spirited controversy over the tick regulations gave rise to accusations that they were imposed partly to favour Forrest, Emanuel & Co. Anxious to parry the impression of the Forrest brothers as a self-seeking clique, the government halved the food duties in 1898. Complaints about the 'meat ring' continued nevertheless and controversy intensified during 1899 and 1900.

Unlike his brother, Alexander was a convinced opponent of Federation. As a delegate to the 1891 National Australasian Convention, his sole comment had been in opposition to payment of members and since then he had grown to fear the impact of eastern Australian competition on the young industries of the West. With Charles Harper he led the anti-Federationists in the Legislative Assembly and stumped the goldfields in a futile attempt to stem the Federal tide. In May 1900 Richard Robson, the newly elected member for Geraldton, accused the Forrest government of bribery and corruption, alleging that at least four members on the government side were financed by Alexander. A select committee found the charges unsubstantiated and Robson resigned in June and went into obscurity. In fact several members of parliament were then in debt to Forrest, his open-handed munificence making him an easy touch for those in financial trouble. There is, however, no evidence that he ever tried to influence his debtors' votes, or that he ever needed to. At the time of the Robson inquiry the Kalgoorlie Sun alleged a series of freight frauds by the Perth Ice Co., of which Forrest was briefly acting chairman of directors. Another select committee exonerated the directors of any knowledge of these frauds.

Constant criticisms took their toll of Forrest's health. The pressure lifted a little after Sir John's resignation to enter Federal politics in February 1901 and in May Alexander was delighted with his appointment as C.M.G in recognition of his services as mayor. Later that month he was shattered by news of the death in action in the South African War of his 17-year-old son Anthony. On 20 June Alexander died at Perth of complications arising from kidney trouble. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Probate was assessed at £195,238, one of the largest estates hitherto amassed in Western Australia, though probably diminished by unfortunate mining investments. In 1903 a statue of him was erected in a small reserve near his former home at the west end of St George's Terrace. This was later moved to a more prominent site at the intersection of St George's Terrace and Barrack Street.

Forrest was a man of stalwart physique, though in middle age he carried less weight than his brother. Although fully bearded as a young man, after his marriage he was clean shaven except for a moustache. He was a keen patron of sport, and as a committeeman of the Western Australian Turf Club was responsible for the establishment in 1887 of the first Perth Cup, which was won by his own horse First Prince. As a capitalist he was an uncomplicated believer in the development of Western Australia's natural resources, enjoying the gamble of speculative investment, generous in prosperity and uninterested in the acquisition of power beyond the extent necessary to serve his immediate interests. But he was careless of appearances and failed to realize that the casual practices of a small-town business community, linked by kinship and connexion, could be interpreted unkindly in a more sophisticated commercial and political milieu. Extremely kind-hearted to those in need, he tended to be imperceptive about the need for government initiatives in social welfare. On issues such as Aboriginal policy and women's suffrage he was a conservative paternalist. To his daughter and his four sons he was a devoted family man, especially after his wife's early death.

Forrest's next brother, David (1852-1917) managed the family's North-West sheep stations, was member for Ashburton in 1900-01 and later strongly supported the State's Liberal party organization; David's son (Robert) Mervyn (1891-1975) was M.L.C. for North Province, 1946-52. Another nephew, Percival Dicey Forrest (1890-1960) pioneered the use of subterranean clover in the south-west. Of Alexander Forrest's sons, the third, John (1887-1960) succeeded to the management of the family's interests and was for many years on the committee of the Pastoralists' Association of Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, Alexander Forrest (Melb, 1958)
  • F. K. Crowley, Forrest, 1847-1918, 1 (Brisb, 1971)
  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979)
  • A. Forrest papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Forrest, Alexander (1849–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forrest-alexander-6208/text10671, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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