Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Harris, John (1754–1838)

by B. H. Fletcher

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

John Harris (1754-1838), by Herbert Beecroft

John Harris (1754-1838), by Herbert Beecroft

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 01161

John Harris (1754-1838), surgeon, public servant and landholder, was born at Moneymore, County Londonderry, Ireland, a son of John and Ann Harris. He trained for the medical profession at the University of Edinburgh and for ten years was a surgeon in the navy in Indian waters. In 1789 he was appointed surgeon's mate in the New South Wales Corps, reached Port Jackson in the Surprize in June 1790 and was stationed at Parramatta. In December 1791, after the resignation of his superior, Dr Macaulay, who never went to the colony, Harris was promoted to his place. At first the colony was not to his liking and his early letters home gave a gloomy picture of its condition and prospects. However, in April 1793 he accepted a 100-acre (40 ha) grant at Parramatta and bought the farm of James Ruse on which in 1798 he built the still extant Experiment Farm Cottage. Until 1800 he led a busy existence as surgeon and farmer. By the turn of the century he owned 315 acres (127 ha) of land of which 205 (83 ha) were purchased, and had acquired 431 head of stock, possessions which placed him among the foremost officer-farmers.

His diligence and devotion to duty must have won the admiration of Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson, for when Governor Philip Gidley King asked him in 1800 to nominate an administrative assistant, he recommended Harris. On 29 September 1800 he was made a magistrate and soon afterwards was given charge of the police establishment. In July 1801 he succeeded Surgeon William Balmain as Naval Officer. He played an active part on the Gaol and Orphan Committees and accompanied Francis Barrallier on his expedition to explore the Hunter River in 1801, all this in addition to carrying out his duties as surgeon. His sterling work, particularly in helping to curb the liquor trade, won for him the friendship and admiration of Governor King who described him as possessing 'the most respectable character as a gentleman, joined to an unwearied activity and intelligence', and employed him as deputy judge advocate in regimental courts martial.

The exercise of his civil responsibilities soon involved him in friction with many traders and with his fellow officers, and Paterson asked that he, like Barrallier, should be relieved of those posts that interfered with his military duties. His action, as Naval Officer, in reporting to King private conversations about the dissatisfaction of the military with supposed favours granted to the visiting French, led to his being charged in October 1802 with ungentlemanlike conduct, and six months later he faced another court martial for allegedly disclosing how two of his fellow officers had voted at a court martial over which he had presided as deputy judge advocate. On both occasions he was acquitted, but he was debarred from civil office; not until early 1804 had feelings sufficiently subsided for King to reinstate him as Naval Officer, and in June he was resworn as magistrate and controller of the police at Sydney.

Between 1800 and 1806 Harris, in his famous house at Ultimo, stood out as one of the few military officers to remain consistently friendly with King, but under his successor Harris's role changed. In May 1807 Governor William Bligh dismissed him as Naval Officer and from the bench. He became a bitter opponent of the governor, depicting him as avaricious, dishonest and tyrannical, and his antipathy to Bligh brought him back into sympathy with the military officers whose cause he espoused in the Rum Rebellion. Major George Johnston reappointed him to magistracy on 27 January 1808, but his criticism of John Macarthur, the virtual ruler of New South Wales, quickly lost him favour again. On 5 April 1808 Johnston dismissed him, and soon afterwards, to get rid of him, ordered him to London to present the rebel case to the British government. Pleading sickness Harris refused to sail, and on 22 January 1809 Paterson appointed him a magistrate once more. Three months later he left for England, where in 1811 he gave evidence at Johnston's court martial; but although loyal to his commanding officer his criticism of Bligh was moderate.

On 7 February 1814 having resigned his commission Harris returned to Port Jackson in the General Hewitt, accompanied by his newly wedded wife Eliza, with permission to become a private settler. He resumed control of his extensive properties but, though the rest of his life was devoted chiefly to farming and stock raising, he also took an active part in public affairs. He served on many committees, was one of those who supported the establishment of the Bank of New South Wales and one of its first directors elected in February 1817. In 1819 he acted as surgeon to John Oxley's expedition to Bathurst where later he acquired land. In the same year he was again made a magistrate and retained the office until he died on 27 April 1838, leaving property said to be worth £150,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2, 4-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-14
  • Proceedings of a General Court-Martial … for the Trial of Lieut-Col Geo. Johnston (Lond, 1811)
  • G. Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, 2nd ed (Syd, 1951)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • King papers, vol 8 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Harris papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Harris, John (1754–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-john-2164/text2773, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 May 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017