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Harper, Nathaniel White (1865–1954)

by Ann Hoddinott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Nathaniel White Harper (1865-1954), mine-manager and investor, was born on 18 March 1865 at Tullynewy, Antrim, Ireland, son of John Harper, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née White. During his childhood he went to school for six months in the year and in the other half helped his father in the potato fields.

In 1883 Harper migrated to New Zealand where he worked in a gold-mine and gained his first experience of hydraulic sluicing in Otago. He moved in 1887 to Broken Hill, New South Wales, where he rose to mines foreman with the Broken Hill Proprietary Co., and in 1889 to Zeehan, Tasmania, where he managed his first mine but was also vice-president of the local miners' union. On 19 September 1891 at Naseby, New Zealand, he married Margaret Jane Thomas. Next year he went to Western Australia as manager of Fraser's mine at Southern Cross, moving in 1895 to Kanowna where he managed the White Feather Main Reef. He also became owner-manager of the Koh-I-Nor in 1898 and manager of the Golden Pile in 1903-10. An efficient manager, skilled in hydraulic problems, he was a fair employer. Although he failed in a bid to become first mayor of Kanowna in 1896, he succeeded next year and was also chairman of the local hospital board, justice of the peace, and acting coroner. In 1897 he stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of North-East Coolgardie as an advanced democrat but was beaten by F. C. B. Vosper. Harper could be cantankerous: in 1901 a newspaper referred to his reputation for being 'one of the solidest "stoushers" in Western Australia'.

By 1900 he was diversifying his interests. On the Swan River foreshore he built Perth's Esplanade Hotel, an elegant redbrick building noted for its interior panelling; for half a century it was Perth's best hotel. It was the centre of a big strike against the employment of Chinese waiters in 1921. He also bought a farm near Beverley and in 1910 became Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly for the district, defeating Sir Walter James; but although he succeeded in securing a branch railway for his electorate he was burnt in effigy by his constituents after delays in its construction and lost his seat in 1914. Next year he was in Siberia and Japan promoting English and Western Australian mining interests. Later he provided financial backing for W. J. Winterbottom, who had the local franchise for several makes of motor car, including Dodge, Chrysler and Austin; they founded the Winterbottom Motor Co. in 1927. It prospered, and Harper also became a director of Wentworth Motors and Harper Motors. At the time of his death at his home in West Perth on 3 January 1954 his estate was valued at £384,428. His major philanthropy had been the foundation in 1947, in conjunction with the State government, of the Nathaniel Harper Homes for mentally retarded children at Guildford and Bassendean; one of his sons was handicapped. Harper was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Presbyterian forms.

His first wife had died in 1921. They had two sons who predeceased him and a daughter Ethel May, who became the mother of W. L. Grayden, a Western Australian cabinet minister (1974-78, 1980-83). On 5 February 1924, in Scots Church, Melbourne, Harper married Olive Estelle Story. By her he had a daughter and a son who survived him.

Harper's strongest claim to fame arose from his persistent belief that he was responsible for convincing Sir John Forrest of the feasibility of the Coolgardie goldfields water pipeline scheme, which was constructed under C. Y. O'Connor between 1896 and 1903. From 1910 until his death he pressed his case with characteristic tenacity, in old age even commissioning the writing and production of a play setting out his account of events. It is unquestionable that when Forrest visited Kanowna on 24 November 1895 he was present at a dinner when Harper made a speech urging the pumping of water from the Avon River to the eastern goldfields, and later that night spent some time discussing Harper's ideas with him. At that date O'Connor was already collecting data in support of a long-distance pipeline, but he never claimed to have originated the scheme and there is no evidence that Forrest was then committed to supporting it. The debate centres around the extent to which he was convinced by the arguments of Harper, an expert on the water question, whom Forrest is known to have consulted on other occasions. The controversy preoccupied Harper's old age and has overshadowed his other achievements.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander et al, The Origins of the Eastern Goldfields Water Scheme in Western Australia (Perth, 1954)
  • Western Australian Mining and Commercial Review, Oct, Nov 1938
  • Town and Country Journal, 29 Dec 1915
  • West Australian, 25, 27, 28 June 1921, 28 Oct 1936, 5 Jan 1954
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann Hoddinott, 'Harper, Nathaniel White (1865–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-nathaniel-white-6571/text11303, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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