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Sir John Forrest (1847–1918)

by F. K. Crowley

This article was published:

John Forrest (1847-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

John Forrest (1847-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23382431

Sir John Forrest, 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury (1847-1918), surveyor, explorer and politician, was born on 22 August 1847 at Preston Point, near Bunbury, Western Australia, fourth child and third son of the ten children of William Forrest and his wife Margaret Guthrie, née Hill. William was from Bervie, near Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland; Margaret came from a Dundee shopkeeping family related to the Black Campbells of Ayrshire. They had migrated to Western Australia in December 1842 as servants to Dr John Ferguson. In 1846 William Forrest completed his engagement and settled at Picton as a farmer and millwright, where they shared in the general advance of the colony after the introduction of nearly 10,000 British convicts in the years 1850-68. John and his eight brothers were taught to help with chores, and he early became a splendid rider. The boys were enrolled at the government school in Bunbury, and in 1860 he followed his eldest brother William to Bishop Hale's School in Perth. John did well particularly in arithmetic, and in November 1863 was apprenticed to T. C. Carey, the assistant surveyor at Bunbury. He completed his training successfully in December 1865, and was appointed a temporary government surveyor. Thereafter, until 1890, he was on the staff of the Surveyor-General's Office.

Forrest worked in most parts of the south-west, and in March 1869 was offered appointment as second-in-command and navigator to Dr Ferdinand Mueller on an expedition from Perth in search of clues to the fate of Leichhardt. When Mueller could not manage the trip, Forrest was chosen to succeed him. From 15 April until 6 August he successfully led six men and sixteen horses over 2000 miles (3200 km), much of it in uncharted wilderness around Lake Moore and Lake Barlee, and inland almost as far as the later site of Laverton. He found no trace of Leichhardt, and no good pastoral land. He had, however, systematically surveyed his route using the most up-to-date methods of stellar observation, and he had brought back specimens for botanists and geologists.

Later that year the governor of Western Australia, (Sir) Frederick Weld, proposed an expedition to make a proper survey of the route between Western Australia and South Australia taken thirty years earlier by Edward John Eyre. Since Eyre's hasty trip on foot along the coast from the head of the Great Australian Bight to Albany on King George Sound nobody had reached Western Australia except by ship. Forrest was appointed leader of the party, again six men and sixteen horses. They left Perth on 30 March 1870 and reached Adelaide on 27 August. The tangible results were not impressive. It was the first west-to-east crossing of Western Australia by land, and it showed that a telegraph line could readily be erected along the coastline. This was done, and the line, completed in December 1877, put Perth into telegraphic contact with London. But Forrest found only one new pastoral region, in the neighbourhood of the Hampton Range, far from any existing settlement and practically waterless.

However, the expedition brought wide-spread publicity to its leader and to his brother Alexander, and also confirmed Forrest's own confidence in his ability and in his style of command. His objectives were boldly conceived, but cautiously executed. He was rarely compelled to go forward without knowing what lay ahead; nor was he obliged to advance merely because he could not retreat. As a surveyor he could not get lost, and his occasional gamble in the daily search for drinking water and feed for his horses was always calculated well in advance.

In 1871 the newly appointed surveyor-general, (Sir) Malcolm Fraser, appointed Forrest government surveyor for the northern district. In 1872 he was nominated to lead an expedition from Champion Bay eastwards across the central desert country. However, because expeditions were already being organized by Ernest Giles, W. C. Gosse and P. E. Warburton from the South Australian side, the proposal was deferred. Only Warburton reached the western coast.

This left Forrest the opportunity to take a central route, and on 1 April 1874 he led an expedition of six men with twenty horses out from Geraldton. Moving by careful stages from waterhole to waterhole, he made a crossing of the western interior, arriving at Peake Hill on the north-south overland telegraph line on 30 September, after experiencing several hairbreadth escapes from death by thirst and some violent encounters with hostile Aboriginals. Sixteen horses died before 3 November when the men reached Adelaide, to be given a public reception rather resembling a Roman triumph. Forrest had led the first west-to-east expedition through the western centre of Australia; but he readily confessed that the practical results had not been great. Most of the country traversed was never likely to be settled.

Forrest's reputation spread rapidly throughout Australia, and press accounts of his courage and endurance attracted attention in Britain. In 1875 he was given leave to visit London, and was acclaimed as 'The Young Explorer' by a generation that fed on the glories of Antarctic, Arctic and African exploration. His leave was extended, and he was allowed to select a free grant of 5000 acres (2000 ha) of Crown land when he got home. He gave several public lectures in London, and arranged for the publication of his journals as Explorations in Australia (1875). He visited the birthplaces of his parents in Scotland, and arranged for his family to be registered with a coat of arms and a motto—Vivunt dum Vivent (While they live they flourish).

In 1876 Forrest was promoted to deputy surveyor-general and received the founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. On 29 February at St George's Cathedral, Perth, he married Margaret Elvire, eldest daughter of Edward Hamersley of Guildford, who stood in the front rank of Western Australia's territorial and social élite. Margaret, at 31, was tiny, lively and abundantly accomplished; she was a talented water-colourist, and her social aplomb was as important an asset to the marriage as the financial security she inherited from her father.

During the next four years Forrest was involved in four large-scale trigonometrical surveys, and in 1878, when he served for a time as acting surveyor-general and commissioner of Crown lands, he was the first colonial-born Western Australian to be admitted to the Executive Council. From May 1880 until August 1881 he served as acting superintendent of convicts, and in May 1882 was appointed C.M.G.: he was also elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London in recognition of his work in collecting Australian flora on behalf of Mueller.

In January 1883 Forrest became surveyor-general and commissioner of Crown lands with a seat in the Executive and Legislative Councils. This appointment was a landmark in his career. By perseverance and leadership he had by then overcome his triple disadvantage—he was colonial-born, rough-hewn, and lacked family connexions in Britain. As an administrator, he had a clear personal pattern of approach, which ensured his success in his new position. He was strong, thorough and punctilious. He made sure that the constant flow of settlers' inquiries and requests was attended to expeditiously, and often answered difficult inquiries personally. He watched expenses carefully, and his bureaucratic competence in handing official business was a rare quality in colonial Australia. His style of writing was direct, straightforward and lucid, and he was quick to reply in detail to anything he perceived as an aspersion. His characteristic mode was to write whilst he thought, and he was at his best when instructing his field staff on surveying techniques, or assessing the cost of various proposals, or explaining a complicated land transaction. In short, he carried over into his day-to-day administration of the Lands and Survey Department all those habits of thought, expression and command which he had developed as a field surveyor and inland explorer over twenty years.

After 1883 Forrest became involved in the higher levels of the colony's administration and politics, and he developed a strongly adverse opinion about the existing system of government, and the dictatorial manner in which he believed it was being managed by the newly arrived governor, (Sir) Frederick Napier Broome. As time passed, it became clear that Forrest and the other top officials enjoyed quarrelling among themselves, and were not much given to compromise or to temperate statements; indeed, in 1884-86 the proceedings of the Executive Council came to resemble a 'bear-garden'—the colonial secretary's phrase. The climax came in September 1887 when the governor suspended Chief Justice A. C. Onslow from duty. In the consequent imbroglio, which wasted much time and energy, Forrest's part did him little credit.

In 1883 Forrest organized the first large-scale survey of the Kimberley district, which had been explored by his brother Alexander in 1879, and accompanied the party for several months: it was his last field survey work. Next year he published a small booklet, Notes on Western Australia, with statistics for the year 1883, which, after several issues, was replaced by the Western Australian year book. He also visited the eastern colonies. In 1885 he was involved in a lengthy investigation into the Crown land regulations, and in 1886 toured the newly discovered Kimberley goldfield and selected the site of the port of Wyndham. He piloted through the Legislative Council a new set of land regulations, designed to do equal justice to pastoral tenants and the 'bold peasantry' whose arrival the colony was hopefully awaiting: residence, with 'improvement', was made a sine qua non of alienation from the Crown. In 1887 he again visited London to represent the colony at the first Colonial Conference and at Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations. The following year he arranged for the administration of the Pilbara and Yilgarn goldfields, and also drew up a report on a proposed government railway route from Perth to Bunbury.

As a government officer, Forrest did not take a very active part in the public debate on responsible government which agitated the colony in the late 1880s, but he strongly supported the proposal to establish a local parliamentary system in place of Crown Colony government. He did, however, take part in the Legislative Council debates on the new Constitution, and was disappointed not to be a delegate in London when the Constitution was being considered by the Imperial parliament. He had seen himself, from the outset, as the prime contender for appointment as first premier, being the only member of the old Executive Council who wished to continue in public life after the introduction of the new system; and he had manoeuvred successfully to frighten away his only possible competitor, (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker. He was elected unopposed as member for the Legislative Assembly electorate of Bunbury, and on 29 December 1890 was sworn in as colonial treasurer: the title 'premier' which he assumed was a courtesy title conferred not by the Constitution, but by usage and common consent. His experience and ability were uncontested: nobody else in Western Australia enjoyed the same sort of personal support. Head and shoulders above the others by force of personality, he also stood nearly six feet tall (183 cm) and weighed almost sixteen stone (102 kg).

Forrest was appointed K.C.M.G. in May 1891, the first native son to be so honoured, and held office as premier and treasurer until 15 February 1901. From December 1894 until April 1898, he was also colonial secretary. He thus established a record for longevity in Australian colonial politics. During these ten years his original cabinet's personnel changed completely, apart from himself. None of them achieved the same influence as Septimus Burt, his attorney-general. Parker resigned in 1894 when he found that cabinet was a one-man band, and Harry Venn was sacked in 1896 when he disagreed with the premier in public and refused to resign.

While he was not a good parliamentary speaker or debater—he had no gift for repartee, subtlety or blandishment—Forrest relied on being taken for what he was, a man of forthright rectitude, robust common sense, and homely hard-headedness. He never doubted that he knew what was best for his audience, and he based both policies and language on his perceptions of practical ways to solve practical problems. As a public speaker he had an earnest persuasiveness founded on a command of the situation as a whole, and he tended to view politics very much as he had surveyed the Australian bush—from above, from horseback or an elevated trig station. He tended also to think that political solutions were discovered easily enough if the correct levels had been taken and the right angles measured. If things turned out the wrong way, he started again. He was sensitive to public opinion, especially when it had been fully expressed on an important issue. He never lagged far behind it, but allowed it to mature, so as to enable him to give effect to demands in deliberate and calculated fashion. Thus he could forestall opposition in parliament, and claim that he was governing on behalf of the whole community. When convinced of the soundness or urgency of a proposal, he expected unwavering support from colleagues in his efforts to meet it, and subsequently full public appreciation. For a decade he usually enjoyed both.

At no time during the 1890s was Forrest challenged as premier; there was not even an heir-apparent. His government was stable, though it survived numerous defeats on individual measures; he withdrew items when the situation looked unpromising. He won the 1894 and 1897 Legislative Assembly elections, but with the increase in the number of metropolitan and goldfields seats and voters, he had to put more effort into ensuring that his supporters were voting his way. To some extent Forrest had himself created the situation, by abolishing the property qualification for electors of the assembly in 1893, and by adding three goldfields electorates that year and six in 1896.

Forrest never created a political party, or extra-parliamentary organization, or even a faction of his supporters within the parliament. From time to time he called together a caucus when drumming up support for a particular 'patriotic' or 'national' proposal. But the social round centred on his wife and his home in Perth was much more important in securing the personal loyalties on which he depended. The Forrests had a legion of relatives by birth and by marriage, many of whom were influential in parliament and business. Forrest could count on the support of his brother Alexander, a member of parliament and mayor of Perth for most of the 1890s, and also on that of (Sir) John Winthrop Hackett, editor of the West Australian. Nor was there ever a fully effective parliamentary Opposition, even when a succession of leaders emerged in the 1890s: there was no Labor Party and no party system until after 1900. Forrest had more difficulty disciplining his own supporters and preventing them from forming competing regional and interest groups. He also had some trouble with the Legislative Council, both as a nominated house and, after 1893, as a house elected on a property franchise from an electoral system very heavily weighted to favour the agricultural districts.

Forrest's main political problems arose in the later 1890s because of friction between alluvial miners and the mining companies. Under legislation of 1895 both were permitted to use the same ground, but when alluvial gold became scarce the miners began to sink shafts, and there were several serious riots when police tried to prevent them. In March 1898 Forrest was mobbed by unruly diggers at Kalgoorlie, who were protesting at the situation and later that year the government abolished the dual title, but ensured that no leases would be granted unless they contained reef gold only. The government's administration of mining was never popular. But while mining members opposed the government in parliament, they never constituted a serious threat to it.

Forrest proposed to provide Western Australia with those public works which were lacking because the previous unrepresentative government had been unable to pay for them. He expected that thereby much new land would be opened up for settlement; that the population (only 46,000 in 1890) would be increased by immigration; that ex-goldminers would settle on farms or take jobs in shops, quarries and timber yards; and that the government would have money to spend for the good of the community at large. To achieve all this he raised loans in London, and for as long as the population continued to increase, so did the colony's ability to pay the annual interest. During the ten years of Forrest's premiership, the public debt rose from £1.4 million to £12.2 million.

Forrest saw himself as the broker who decided which public works would be given to which districts by receiving deputations at his office, or else by travelling during parliamentary recesses to meet the people and learn directly about their needs. Nevertheless, he had some overriding policies. First and foremost, he believed that there should be an apportionment between the needs of the metropolitan, agricultural, pastoral and mining regions, so that provision for railways, water-supplies, hospitals, harbours, schools and other public buildings were made with a view to long-term needs. In that view, the goldfields would decline before long in their relative importance. Forrest wanted to make the prosperity of the present pay for the hoped-for success of the future; the floating population of the goldfields would help those who had a permanent stake in the country.

This did not endear him to goldminers. His policy meant high railway freights and high tariffs. The goldminers were also annoyed because whilst they got their own railways, they did not get the one they really wanted from Kalgoorlie to Esperance on the south coast.

This complaint illustrated the second major Forrest policy, which was to develop Perth as the colony's only major rail terminus and Fremantle as the port-of-call for all overseas mail and passenger services. The dredging of a new harbour on the mouth of the Swan was begun in 1892 and completed in 1898, and mail-steamers on the England-Australia run began to call regularly in 1900. By the time Forrest resigned as premier, every major goldfield was connected by telegraph or railway to Perth and all the big towns had been provided with essential services. So, too, had the south-western farming districts and their local centres.

The Forrest government was extraordinarily lucky. While the eastern colonies were suffering from droughts, depression, unemployment, financial crises and bank crashes, one new goldfield after another was discovered in Western Australia, especially after the discovery of Coolgardie (1892) and Kalgoorlie (1893). Hundreds of companies were formed in the eastern colonies and in London to exploit the gold deposits, and much capital flowed in for investment in mines, business and property. The spectacular boom reached its peak in the years 1898-1903. The population rose from 59,000 in 1892 to 180,000 in 1900. Most came from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Annual gold production rose to 1 million ounces in 1900, and trade and commerce increased rapidly. The increased demand for foodstuffs on the goldfields greatly benefited the farmers and pastoralists. In fact Forrest rode on the crest of the boom and took the political credit for it.

He also made several bold decisions from which the development of the colony benefited greatly in the long run. By the Homesteads Act (1893), the Land Act (1898), and the Agricultural Bank Act (1894) he used the credit of the government to provide for the well-being of the next generation of farmers. The Coolgardie Water Scheme, begun in 1895 and completed in 1903, not only provided water for the mines and short-term employment, but also met needs of a generation of farmers who pioneered a new wheat-belt between the western coastal districts and the eastern goldfields. And the government's purchase of the Great Southern Railway in 1896 quickly opened up much new farming land in the south-western districts, and illustrated Forrest's preference for government rather than private enterprise in the main public utilities.

The Forrest government also initiated significant industrial, social and political reforms which brought Western Australia into line with the other colonies. Notable among these was a change in the law in 1892 which enabled married women to own personal and real property in their own right, and another which gave servants greater protection and independence from their employers. Workers' compensation for injury was granted by law in 1894, and trade unions were legalized and an Arbitration Court established in 1900. Other industrial legislation of the late 1890s laid down rules for the hours and conditions of work to be observed in gold-mines, factories and in the Collie coal industry. It ensured that all workmen were paid wages owing to them, and paid in money not in goods, and it compelled employment agencies to be registered. Hours of work in shops were limited, and there was to be no work in mines on Sundays apart from maintenance. Female shop assistants and factory hands were to be provided with chairs and stools. State aid to religion and to church schools was abolished in 1895, and an Immigration Restriction Act (1897) established a dictation test so as to exclude the Chinese; Forrest was proud that he had never allowed miners' rights to be issued to Asians. Finally, women were given the vote in 1899, and from the following year members of parliament were to be paid.

To many observers Forrest appeared to be a reluctant Federalist when in 1899 Australian Federation was becoming a reality. However, he was in a difficult position, which required all his skills as a broker of competing interests. From the outset he had participated in all Federal activities. He supported the idea in a speech at the first Science Congress in Sydney in 1888. He attended the meeting of the first Federal Convention in 1891 and, as premier, all meetings of the Federal Council of Australasia. He attended all three sessions of the Conventions of 1897-98, consistently supported a political Federation and the establishment of interstate free trade in principle, and tried to ensure a strong Federal Senate to protect State rights. He also wanted to make sure that Western Australia would not suffer financially from joining the Federation. He was sympathetic yet cautious, an attitude mainly resulting from his local parliamentary situation. The settled farming areas provided the core of his support in the Legislative Assembly, yet they were most apprehensive of the financial and economic effects of Federation; they were especially worried about the likely high cost of farm equipment if eastern manufacturers were given tariff protection. The Legislative Council was strongly opposed to Federation in any form. Forrest's tactic was to resist being rushed into it by the eastern goldfields population of newcomers—who then comprised one-third of the colony's population—and yet educate his supporters in the coastal districts into accepting Federation if the conditions of entry could be improved.

In this situation Forrest was criticized from both sides. The 'Sandgropers' accused him of selling out to 't'othersiders'. The goldfields accused him of nepotistic government supported by a gerrymandered electorate, and early in 1900 started a Separation movement, aiming to make the eastern goldfields a separate colony which could then federate with the rest of Australia. Forrest tried very hard to secure last-minute concessions—in particular, the retention of the local tariff for five years; the right to divide the colony into electorates for the election of senators; and a guarantee for the construction of an east-west railway. But he secured none of these concessions. He therefore persuaded his supporters to take what was offered, lest the terms should be even more unpalatable later on. In that sense only, Forrest was a reluctant Federalist: he had, however, long since learned to make the best of a hard bargain. When the Legislative Council finally decided to allow the referendum to be held, Forrest led the 'yes' campaign, which was successful in the pastoral and metropolitan regions, as well as on the eastern goldfields.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated, Forrest was elected unopposed for the electorate of Swan in the House of Representatives. He was by then a big man by achievement, by reputation, and by personality. He also now weighed almost twenty stone (127 kg), with a 54-inch (137 cm) waist. He was one of the wealthiest of the first generation of Federal politicians, and when in Melbourne on ministerial and parliamentary duties hired a large suite of rooms in the Grand Hotel and entertained on a princely scale. He was successively postmaster-general (for a few weeks), minister for defence (1901-03), home affairs (1903-04), and treasurer in five ministries (1905-07, 1909-10, 1913-14, 1917-18, 1918). A remark commonly heard in Perth during the fifty years after his death was that Forrest was a back-number in Federal politics, that his colleagues had either obscured him or else had never taken him seriously. This view was cultivated by Labor politicians who disliked his declamations against caucus domination, and by Western Australians who were either ignorant of events occurring east of Kalgoorlie, or who (as secessionists) had a vested interest in proving that Forrest was chiefly responsible for dragging Western Australia into the Federation, and later was unable to rectify the alleged 'losses' which resulted. However, the Federal parliament was required to create new national policies and institutions, rather than public works, and Forrest's achievements during his eighteen years in Commonwealth politics cannot be measured by the miles of new roads and railways built, or by the number of new wharves, schools, hospitals and other public buildings completed.

Nevertheless, they are impressive. In 1901-03 as minister for defence he coped successfully with Australia's involvement in the last stages of the South African War. He helped to raise the first Commonwealth overseas contingents, and was involved in the early plan of integrating the six colonial forces into a unified Commonwealth Military Force, and arranging for the continuance of the British Naval Squadron in Australian waters. He also showed that in matters of national and Imperial policy and long-term planning he had as responsible and as broad a view of Australia's future responsibilities as his chief military advisor, Major General Sir Edward Hutton, though he was more of an Imperialist than most of his nationalist-minded cabinet colleagues desired. He was both Imperial-minded and an Australian nationalist, and he saw no contradiction in the dualism of his loyalty. At the Colonial Conferences of 1887 and 1897 and when in London in 1902, he supported the view that Australian defence was ultimately a question of Imperial strategy, not of colonial or dominion initiative.

While serving as treasurer in the Deakin government in 1905-07, Forrest successfully balanced the competing claims of Australia's seven treasuries under the tight Federal book-keeping system, and initiated the discussions which led to the creation of a separate Australian currency, and the subsequent adoption of the per capita system of distributing Federal revenue among the States. Under his administration the original concept of limited Federation was protected, and the States continued to be regarded as partners, though this caused his political opponents to accuse him, unjustly, of being a narrow States-righter. From March until June 1907, he also acted as prime minister and minister for external affairs whilst Deakin was at the Imperial Conference: this was the pinnacle of his career.

Meanwhile, ever since he had declined a portfolio in the short-lived Reid-McLean government of 1904-05, he had worked hard to bring about a fusion of all members of Federal parliament opposed to the new Labor party, resigning his seat in cabinet in 1907 when unable to persuade Deakin to form and lead such a coalition. From the time of the inauguration of the Labor Party in Western Australia in 1901, he had no sympathy with the 'caucus socialists', who seemed to want to found a utopia in Australia and give the spoils to those who had no real 'stake in the country'. Forrest believed that Labor members were entirely subservient to outside organizations. During the exciting times of 1908-09, when the first fully protective tariff was enacted, and while there was a short-lived Labor government, he was the leading negotiator, emissary and spokesman for the 'Corner Group' in the manoeuvres which led to the successful linking of most non-Labor members of both Houses into a new party. By 1909 Forrest was back in office as treasurer, and held third place in the cabinet. When he brought down his thirteenth parliamentary budget in August 1909, he had the distinction of being the first Federal treasurer to budget for a deficit. As treasurer in 1909-10 he paved the way for the financial arrangements between Commonwealth and States which lasted until 1927. He was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1901.

Forrest and his 'Fusion', soon renamed Liberal Party, colleagues were out of office in 1910-13, when the Fisher Labor government made effective use of its majority in both houses. However, the closely contested Representatives election of 1913 returned the Liberals to power with a one-seat majority, and Forrest was second in the cabinet led by (Sir) Joseph Cook who had succeeded Deakin as party leader, defeating Forrest by one vote in the party meeting. Forrest's budget of 1913 continued Fisher's policy of presenting his successor with a substantial reserve. Then war broke out in Europe, and Forrest and his colleagues unhesitatingly offered all of Australia's resources to help the mother country. His last act as treasurer was to authorize the payment of money for the raising of the Australian Imperial Force. Shortly afterwards his party was soundly defeated at the double dissolution election of 1914, and Forrest returned once more to the Opposition.

Thereafter, the character of Federal politic underwent a profound change, which arose particularly from the demands of the war and the controversy over overseas military conscription. In 1917, after the defeat of the first conscription referendum, a second fusion took place between W. M. Hughes and his ex-Labor group and the Liberals. Forrest was disappointed that he did not secure the leadership of the new National Party and, reluctantly, once more became treasurer, this time in a government led by Hughes, and committed to the introduction of compulsory overseas military service to reinforce the troops on the Western Front. It is difficult to make a clear judgement on the fifteenth budget of Forrest's career in 1917, which was designed for a nation at war with a vastly changed internal balance of power between Federal and State authorities. The nation was also at odds with itself, because it had again narrowly rejected conscription. However, in the same year Forrest gained great personal satisfaction from being a passenger in the first train to cross on the East-West Transcontinental Railway, a project which had formed an important plank in his first policy statement in 1890, and which had been part of his conversational repertoire ever since.

In January 1918, during the discussion between party leaders and the governor-general which followed the defeat of the second referendum, Forrest pressed his claim to be prime minister in place of Hughes. But he did not have the numbers, and he reluctantly took office in Hughes's cabinet as treasurer, for the fifth time. By then, illness and old age were against him. Late in January he attended a treasurers' conference, and soon afterwards had a second operation on his temple for a cancerous growth. On 9 February it was announced in the press that Forrest had been recommended for a barony, the first native-born to be so honoured. He was delighted, and thereafter signed only his surname, but was more than a little aggrieved that he was not also prime minister. In March, much weakened by the recent operation, he resigned from the ministry, and late in May left Melbourne with the intention of seeking further medical aid abroad, if and when war conditions would allow it. He had no intention of resigning from parliament, though he was hoping that when the legal formalities had been completed, he might sit for a time in the House of Lords as an elder statesman of the Empire.

On 30 July he left Albany with his wife and a nurse in the troopship Marathon, bound for London with A.I.F. reinforcements. He was very ill and suffering much pain when he celebrated his seventy-first birthday at sea on 22 August, whilst sailing up the west coast of Africa. He died on 3 September 1918, when the ship was anchored off Sierra Leone. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, Perth. His estate was sworn for probate at £45,160.

Forrest was the first professional politician in Western Australia, and also the most successful and influential public man in his home State during the whole of his career. As a surveyor and civil servant he was never denied a promotion, and as a State and Federal politician he never lost his seat at an election. He was well rewarded for his efforts by public esteem, titular and other honours and awards, high official salaries, and by business opportunities which made him a wealthy man. When asked to name his most significant contributions to Western Australia's development, he liked to mention his Homestead Act and Agricultural Bank, with the construction of the Coolgardie Water Scheme, Fremantle harbour, and the East-West Transcontinental Railway. Had he been asked to name his failures and disappointments, he might reluctantly have mentioned that his efforts on their behalf were not adequately appreciated by the eastern goldfields population of the 1890s; that too many of his Federal electors were ungrateful for his previous efforts as their State's premier; that his colleagues in the Federal Liberal Party did not elect him as their leader, and thereby enable him to become prime minister; and that he had no children. Nor had he received, before his death, the official document which would have legally confirmed the recommendation that he be made a peer of the United Kingdom. However, by then it was the year 1918, and the administrative style and personal-loyalty strategies which had done so much to bring him success and public acclaim were no longer suited to the conditions of Australian politics. He had been a successful political broker and gardener in a small colony, but he lacked the vision or the ideology to become a statesman in the national scene, and in his wealthy old age he appeared to be more concerned with the conservation of Empire and privilege than the betterment of Australian society. Nevertheless, when he died, he was one of the last surviving heroes of Australian exploration, and one of the last of the founding fathers of Federation. His portrait, by E. Phillips Fox, hangs in the Western Australian Art Gallery, and his statue, by Bertram Mackennal, is in King's Park, Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • G. C. Bolton, Alexander Forrest (Melb, 1958)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • F. K. Crowley, Sir John Forrest, John Murtagh Macrossan Lecture (Brisb, 1967), and Forrest
  • 1847-1918 (Brisb, 1971), and Western Australia's Lady Forrest (Perth, 1977)
  • N. Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, vol 1 (Syd, 1976)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • L. Hunt (ed), Western Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • University Studies in History (Western Australia), 1966
  • Australian Economic History Review, Mar 1968.

Citation details

F. K. Crowley, 'Forrest, Sir John (1847–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Forrest (1847-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

John Forrest (1847-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23382431

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron Forrest
  • Forrest, Baron

22 August, 1847
Bunbury, Western Australia, Australia


3 September, 1918 (aged 71)
Sierra Leone

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.