Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harris, George (1831–1891)

by Clem Lack

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

This is a shared entry with John Harris

John Harris (1819-1895) and George Harris (1831-1891), businessmen, were born in London, sons of John Harris and his wife Sarah, née Walton; their grandfather was probably the emancipist, John Harris. As a carpenter their father was given free passages for himself, his wife and six children in the Indiana and arrived on 15 October 1833 at Sydney; he became a publican and died aged 56 on 29 May 1844 and was buried in the La Perouse cemetery.

His elder son John joined the business of his uncle Joseph Underwood in April 1842 and on 3 May married his cousin, Catherine Lucy Underwood. In June with George Thornton as his partner he set up a mercantile and shipping agency at Brisbane. In November the partnership was dissolved but John continued the agency. In the squatting rush of 1848 the business expanded rapidly and in August George arrived in Brisbane to work for John. The brothers quarrelled often and in 1852 George went to the goldfields at Bendigo. At John's invitation he returned to Brisbane and became a partner in the agency. Soon afterwards John went to London to set up an office as resident partner. Under John the business had been confined to wool export, wharf management, shipping agencies and wholesale imports from London. George was more venturesome; he added a fleet of coasting ships, opened a fellmongery, tannery and boot and harness factory, and when cotton boomed in the American civil war bought suitable land and set up a processing plant near Ipswich. On 13 October 1860 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Ipswich, he had married Jane, daughter of George Thorn; they had three sons and three daughters. One daughter married Richard Gardiner Casey and another Charles Hill.

In the 1870s George speculated in mining properties at Gympie and Stanthorpe but lost heavily. His brother, increasingly alarmed at the firm's seeming instability, visited Brisbane several times and sent agents to report on its progress. George resented this interference and, attributing it to parsimony and over-caution, decided that the partnership had broken down. On 29 August 1876 he petitioned to have the firm declared insolvent. The proceedings for winding up the firm ended in October 1878 and he soon opened his own business as George Harris & Co.

With his wide interests George was prominent in Brisbane affairs. In May 1860 he was appointed to the Queensland Legislative Council and served until August 1878. At various times he was consul for the United States of America, for Italy and for Belgium. In 1862 he had leased Newstead House, the old government residency, and later bought it. There he entertained lavishly until the property was lost during the bankruptcy proceedings. He died on 28 March 1891 at North Quay, Brisbane, and John on 27 May 1895 probably in England.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bartley, Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences, J. J. Knight ed (Brisb, 1896)
  • L. E. Slaughter, Newstead House (Brisb, 1955)
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 9 May 1891
  • C. Lack, ‘A merchant prince of the sixties’, Brisbane Courier, 24 July 1937
  • Colonial Secretary's land letters, 2/7874 (Queensland State Archives)
  • insolvency file 188/1876 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Royal Historical Society of Queensland records
  • CO 385/5.

Citation details

Clem Lack, 'Harris, George (1831–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-george-3907/text5847, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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