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Harper, Charles (1842–1912)

by O. K. Battye

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Charles Harper (1842-1912), agriculturist, legislator and newspaper proprietor, was born on 15 July 1842 near Toodyay, Western Australia, only son of Charles Harper and his wife Julia Gretchen, née Lukin. He was educated by his father, a barrister of Gray's Inn who became a colonial farmer and later an Anglican clergyman. According to family legend, his mother gave him at 16 a horse and cart, a gun, a barrel of salt pork and £50, and sent him to find himself a farm. He travelled south-east and leased land between York and Beverley, where he farmed for several years and developed the 'Harper fence', using local timber instead of imported wire. In 1861 and 1864 he joined the search for pastoral land in the Yilgarn district and made botanical and geological observations. In 1866 he sailed for Roebourne with sheep and, after a year of exploration with S. Viveash, was fluent in the local Aboriginal language and took up pearling. He and Viveash spent a year building the boat Amateur, and with the proceeds of pearling Harper was able to buy a one-third interest in the 883,000-acre (357,341 ha) de Grey station in 1871. In 1878 Harper sold his share in de Grey and joined Alex McRae in a smaller station, Yanrey, in the best Ashburton country; he held this interest until 1904.

In 1879 he bought the Western Australian Times with Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell as his nominal partner and managing editor. On 23 March Harper married Fanny, daughter of Robert de Burgh of Caversham, and settled at Woodbridge, near Guildford, on the 470 acres (190 ha) selected by Governor Sir James Stirling in 1829. There he developed a productive sheep, dairying and orchard property of major significance in local agricultural research. He was the first to irrigate with artesian water in Western Australia, and designed successful earthworks to conserve for his orchard the rich silt washed down the Swan River. He co-operated with George Compere, government entomologist, in a search for parasites to combat indigenous pests, sent to Japan for orchard stock, consulted Swan Valley vignerons about improved methods and vines, invented a shearing machine and patented a food product from the core of the blackboy tree and a process for treating septic tank effluent.

An early advocate of mixed wheat and wool farming, Harper wrote extensively on agricultural and pastoral topics, passing on the results of his experiments and reading through his daily West Australian and the rural weekly Western Mail, both founded in 1885. He advocated experimental farms, giving a lead on his own properties and in partnership with William Catton Grasby, whom he brought from South Australia in 1905 to be agricultural editor of the Western Mail. Harper and his son Walter, working with Grasby, discovered the soluble-phosphate deficiency of local soils long before superphosphate was generally used in the colony. They are also credited with developing the first local wheat varieties, Gresley and Wilfred, named after two Harper sons killed at Gallipoli on 7 August 1915. These wheats were used in Western Australia and New South Wales for many years. Harper supported the co-operative movement and early guaranteed an overdraft of £10,000; his son, Walter, was chairman of the Westralian Farmers Co-operative Ltd for thirty years.

Believing that public life demanded the highest integrity, Harper was persuaded to enter politics only after thorough personal stocktaking, but he soon won respect and distinction. He represented the North District in the Legislative Council in 1878-80, York in 1884-90 and Beverley in the new Legislative Assembly in 1890-1905. In parliament he showed the breadth of his knowledge in quiet, clear speeches. A strong supporter of land ownership, he contended that the state, in parting with land, did not part with the power to tax it, but opposed a project for a land tax in 1887 because the colony had so few wealthy landowners. He served on several select committees, was chairman of royal commissions on customs in 1893, the Coolgardie water scheme in 1902, forestry in 1903 and immigration in 1905, and was chairman of committees in 1897. In many ways an 'independent English country gentleman', he disliked urban concentration, heavy government spending and disciplined party politics. In 1886-88 he and his newspapers took the conservative side in the quarrels surrounding Governor Sir Frederick Broome and in the controversy over Rev. John Gribble's allegations of maltreatment of the Aboriginals. In 1899-1900 he broke with Sir John Forrest over Federation and lavish public spending. In December 1903 he was nominated Speaker by the Liberal premier, (Sir) Walter James. After the 1904 elections he declined reappointment and went into opposition to James, thus becoming one of the few independents responsible for the accession to power of Western Australia's first Labor government, although he believed that the party needed experience in office to temper its radical tendencies. In August 1905 he voted against the Labor ministry and retired before the next general election. However, the findings of his royal commission on immigration provided a framework for expansive rural policies in 1906-14.

Harper died at Woodbridge on 20 April 1912, survived by three sons and four daughters of his ten children. Among his memorials is the Guildford Grammar School, which originated in 1896 in the billiard-room at Woodbridge with fourteen pupils, three of them Harper girls, and after moving to its present site in 1901 was bought by the Anglican Church in 1911.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly, History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • F. R. Mercer, The Life of Charles Harper (Perth, 1958)
  • F. K. Crowley, Australia's Western Third (Lond, 1960).

Additional Resources

Citation details

O. K. Battye, 'Harper, Charles (1842–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-charles-3721/text5841, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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