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Harris, John (1838–1911)

by Martha Rutledge

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

John Harris (1838-1911), alderman, was born on 10 August 1838 at Maghera, County Londonderry, Ireland, son of John Harris, banker, and his wife Nancy Ann, née McKee. In 1842 he arrived in Sydney with his parents who were kinsmen of Surgeon John Harris. He was educated at Dr James Fullerton's school, the Normal Institution and the University of Sydney, but left without a degree to manage the large metropolitan real estate inherited from his father. He lived at Bulwarra House, Ultimo, where much of his property was situated. Harris Park was named after the family. In 1869 he married Lizzie Henrietta Dingle Page.

In 1874-83 and 1886-1911 Harris represented Denison ward in the Sydney City Council. In 1875 he became a magistrate and in 1877-80 represented West Sydney in the Legislative Assembly. In his first term as mayor in 1881, under power granted by the 1879 City Improvement Act and accompanied by civic authorities and the press, he made three dramatic inspections of the slums, a potential fever threat to the city. His visits, vividly described by 'The Vagabond' in the Daily Telegraph, shocked the public. Harris was ruthless in condemning buildings, including his own Central Police Court. Tall and robust, his private wealth gave him independence. As mayor he entertained in princely style and the mayoress instituted popular monthly receptions. Harris began the reclamation of Blackwattle Bay and resumption of the Rocks and Darling Harbour but the council lacked power to carry out these schemes. In December 1882 he was re-elected to the assembly for South Sydney, defeating John Davies whom Harris accused of fraudulently acquiring a cheque. In June 1883 Davies sued him for £20,000 damages for libel and won after a long and sensational trial, although Harris had to pay damages of only one farthing. In December he retired from the city council and after his wife died in 1885 did not seek re-election to the assembly.

In December 1886 Harris was re-elected to the council and in a policy of reform in December 1887 defeated Sydney Burdekin by three votes to be mayor in the centennial year. To the reformers, 'only a very rich man could afford to reduce the mayoral expenditure'. Harris himself paid for his entertainment and donated his £1000 honorarium to the University of Sydney for a scholarship in anatomy and physiology. At the same time he embarked on strict retrenchment and sacked 250 council employees without impairing efficiency, boldly attacked graft and unearthed 'corporation frauds'. On 3 May 1888 he chaired a large public meeting at the Town Hall to demand the prevention of Chinese landing from the Afghan and the total prohibition of such immigration. Heading a procession from the Town Hall to Parliament House he was 'swept into the corridor as if borne upon a tidal wave' and forced through the lobby doors while the crowds outside were in 'wild disorder'.

Harris was mayor for the fifth time in 1889 and on 27 November officially opened the new Town Hall. He left the finances of the corporation sounder than he found them and fought for a modern building construction bill to regulate the height and fire-proofing of buildings. In 1896 he urged the corporation to acquire the Australian Gaslight Co. but the government was not interested. He was five times mayor and Richard Meagher twice nominated him in vain as lord mayor as a fitting climax to his public service. Generous and benevolent, 'Honest John' was honorary treasurer of the Benevolent Asylum and a director of the Randwick Orphan Asylum and Sydney Hospital. He died on 7 November 1911 at Bulwarra from chronic nephritis and was survived by five sons and three daughters. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery with Masonic rites. He left £97,000.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • Bulletin, 28 Aug 1880
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22, 23, 26-30 June, 13 Sept 1883, 4, 5 May 1888, 8 Nov 1911
  • Town and Country Journal, 24 Dec 1887, 23 Nov 1889
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 29, 30, 31 Oct 1969
  • newspaper cuttings, vols 135, 156 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under John Harris (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/608.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Harris, John (1838–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-john-3725/text5849, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 December 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 4

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