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Harper, George (1802–1841)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

George Harper (1802?-1841), public servant, natural history collector and settler, was born probably near Abbotsford, Roxburghshire, Scotland. He reached Sydney in May 1821 in the Westmoreland with an introduction from Sir Walter Scott to Lachlan Macquarie supplemented later by one to Sir Thomas Brisbane. Another introduction to William Wemyss, lately arrived from Scotland as deputy commissary general, secured him appointment as storekeeper in the commissariat. Though Brisbane wrote favourably of him to Scott, he failed to secure the promotion he sought to deputy assistant commissary. In 1826, after (Sir) Ralph Darling's arrival, an investigation into irregularities in the bonded store under Harper's charge led to his arrest on a charge of larceny, and though he was acquitted it was clear that there had been, at best, considerable laxity in his conduct of the store. He applied for two years leave with pay to visit England and, on this being refused, he resigned and sailed from Sydney in the Portland on 7 February 1827.

Soon after reaching Sydney Harper had sent Scott 'a few Australian seeds which may perhaps be a rarity in Scotland', and six months later offered to send 'a Brace of Black Swans, Emus or Kangaroos'. On his departure from the colony he took with him, according to the Australian, 'one of the finest collections of natural curiosities that have ever been made within the Colony', including 1675 bird skins. Part of this collection he sold to the Scottish naturalist, Sir William Jardine, and part to the Edinburgh museum, where they still are. He also presented two live emus to Sir Walter Scott, who accepted them in the belief that they were 'some sort of blue and green parrot', but was dismayed to discover that they were 'little better than a kind of cassowary or ostrich'. (Journal … Edinburgh, 1891, 2, 8, 17 July 1827).

Macquarie had promised Harper a grant of 400 acres (162 ha) which he took up on 2 May 1822 near the present site of Picton, on the south side of Stonequarry Creek, naming it Abbotsford in acknowledgment of Scott's patronage. On his return to Australia in the Triton in June 1829 he took up residence there, adding to the property by purchase and lease, and becoming known as a horse breeder. In 1829 he proposed to lay out a township, but his offer of land for a church, school and court-house was rejected in favour of another site about a mile away. In March 1840 he advertised a subdivision of forty-five town blocks for sale by auction at 'a day which will be named in future advertisements', but this sale does not seem to have taken place.

Harper died at Abbotsford on 23 March 1841 aged 38. In 1828 he had married, during his visit to Scotland, Margaret Eleanor Howey, who survived him. They had three sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 9, 14
  • J. Jervis, ‘Settlement in the Picton and The Oaks District’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 27, part 4, 1941, pp 276-98
  • newspaper indexes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under George Harper (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Harper to Scott, 14 Aug 1821, 14 Feb 1822, 31 Jan 1823, Macquarie to Scott, 24 Nov 1821, Brisbane to Scott, 25 June 1825, letter books of Sir Walter Scott (National Library of Scotland).

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Harper, George (1802–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-george-2157/text2757, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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