Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harrison, John (1802–1869)

by Dorothy Kiers

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

John Harrison (1802-1869), sea captain, squatter, agitator and stationmaster, was born in Cumberland, England, son of George Harrison and his wife Anne. He joined the navy as a midshipman and was a lieutenant in H.M.S. Ganges when he retired about 18 to command his father's ships. Later he went to Sydney to join a relation, Henry Antill, near Picton. On 12 February 1831 at St Philip's Church, Sydney, he married Jane, née Howe, a relation of Horatio Wills.

Harrison visited England with his wife about 1833 and on the return voyage his father was drowned. He planned to grow sugar in Tahiti but in May 1835 his Friendship, carrying government stores, was wrecked on Norfolk Island. He sought compensation in land without success and in 1837 with his family overlanded to Port Phillip. They settled in 1838 on the River Plenty and built a homestead, but by 1844 were squeezed out by other squatters. Harrison searched for land in Gippsland but lost most of his cattle and in 1845 took up Swanwater, 70,000 acres (28,329 ha) near St Arnaud, where he ran sheep. After losing the use of his right arm in a shooting accident in 1850, he divided the run, sold it on terms and moved with his family to Fitzroy.

Active in democratic movements, Harrison had campaigned against increased taxation in March 1844 and in April attended the first meeting of the Separation Society. In June on Batman's Hill under a flag designed by Harrison with a white star centred on a crimson ground, militant squatters met to demand a clear policy on land tenure, while Harrison urged stockholders to form a pastoralists' society to fight against taxation and for separation. Always ready to air grievances in the press, his letter to the governor in Sydney in July 1845 declared that the proposed sale of crown lands by auction would enrich the wealthy but ruin poor squatters. In August he advocated more zeal for separation and in October sought better police protection and rural roads. At the first Legislative Council elections in 1851 the Victorian branch of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League campaigned in support of anti-transportation candidates and appointed Harrison as organizer on 29 July. A provocative and lucid speaker, he worked hard and travelled widely but his job ended in September when the elections began. Harrison took his two eldest sons to the goldfields but he could not dig and was soon agitating for better conditions. In December at Bendigo he presided over a large meeting in front of his tent to protest against increased licence fees. At Mount Alexander he was a delegate at a meeting of some 30,000 diggers and urged them to unite in the Victoria Gold Mining Association. With Dr W. Richmond he carried the diggers' protest to Melbourne and had some success. In October 1852 at Forest Creek he was a delegate from Bendigo at a big meeting which petitioned the governor on such subjects as police protection and a proposed export duty on gold. He joined the deputation to Melbourne, but the petition failed: extra police were sent to the area and the export duty was rejected.

Although Harrison's role as an agitator was often exaggerated by his enemies, he was undoubtedly outspoken. At a public breakfast for Edward Hargraves in December, he shocked all present by attacking the army and navy as inadequate safeguards for the colony and by hinting at republican measures. In the Argus, 25 May 1853, he appealed to the diggers to send the money they had collected for his wages. At a meeting in the Temperance Hall, Melbourne, a subscription list was organized because he had 'shown himself at all times a firm and faithful advocate of civil liberty and good order'. In September Harrison toured the country calling for the lands to be unlocked and the franchise extended to diggers. He had no direct part in the Eureka uprising, but on 7 December 1854 in Swanston Street spoke to the great gathering which repudiated the armed resistance of the miners at Eureka but supported a peaceful settlement and withdrawal of troops. In 1857 Harrison was again involved in the land question. At a meeting on 23 June he vehemently opposed the land bill which permitted the occupation rights of squatters, claiming that 'when the gold broke out the lands ought to have been thrown open to the people'. He represented Collingwood at the Land Convention which demanded free selection anywhere and abolition of auction and open pasturage.

At times Harrison had been an auctioneer and gold-buyer. In 1859 he joined the Victorian railways and became stationmaster at North Williamstown but asthma forced him to resign in 1864. Aged 67 he died on 21 July 1869 and was buried in the Williamstown cemetery. He was survived by his wife who died in 1879 and by seven children. Of his four sons, Henry Colden Antill Harrison, with his cousin Thomas Wills, was a founder of Australian Rules football.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 18
  • Y. S. Palmer, Track of the Years: The Story of St. Arnaud (Melb, 1955)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • B. Kent, ‘Agitations on the Victorian Gold Fields, 1851-4: An Interpretation’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 6, no 23, Nov 1954, pp 261-81
  • Port Phillip Gazette, 20, 23 Mar, 27 Apr, 29 May, 5 June 1844, 16 July, 2 Aug 1845
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 July, 18 Dec 1851, 31 Mar, 16 July, 19 Aug, 23 Oct 1852, 28 June, 12 Sept, 31 Oct 1853, 23 June 1857, 28 July 1869
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Aug, 12 Sept, 22 Dec 1851, 31 Mar, 23, 26 Oct, 29 Nov 1852, 22 July 1869
  • Geelong Advertiser, 12 Aug, 18 Sept 1851
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1854, 23 July 1969
  • Williamstown Chronicle, 24 July 1869, CO 201/254/153.

Citation details

Dorothy Kiers, 'Harrison, John (1802–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harrison-john-3728/text5859, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 3 October 2014.

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

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