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George Harker (1816–1879)

by Margot Beever

This article was published:

George Harker (1816-1879), by unknown engraver, 1879

George Harker (1816-1879), by unknown engraver, 1879

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN12/05/79/68

George Harker (1816-1879), businessman, philanthropist and politician, was born at Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, England, son of Robert Harker and his wife Nancy, née Richardson. One of nine children, he was educated at local schools and at 13 was apprenticed to a Harrogate chemist. After working in Leeds, Harker had a chemist's business in Prescot where he was treasurer of the Anti-Corn Law League. In 1845 he married Sarah Rigby, by whom he had four sons and three daughters.

Harker migrated to Melbourne, arriving in February 1846. For four years he had a farm on the Heidelberg Road and then moved to Melbourne to become a grain merchant in association first with W. L. Lees and then with his brother, Thomas. Harker's business enterprises prospered and by 1856 he was financially secure enough to devote most of his time to public work. He retired from active business and was elected for Collingwood to the first Victorian Legislative Assembly. Although a democrat and connected with the Central Province Reform Association, he associated with a group of liberal, Nonconformist merchants rather than the radicals; in March 1858 he accepted Henry Chapman's invitation to become treasurer in the second O'Shanassy ministry. He lost Collingwood in August 1859 but in October won Maldon, which he held till March 1860 when he resigned to visit England with his wife and children. Representing Collingwood in 1864-65 and 1871-74 he maintained an independent course, usually liberal, sometimes staunchly conservative. He introduced bills for payment of members and the abolition of state aid to religion in 1864-65 without success and had radical views on the land question and property tax but was vehemently opposed to protection and strictly constitutional on the clash with the Legislative Council. A very active and conscientious member, if at times out of touch with the political realities, he retired from politics and went to live at Lilydale.

Perhaps more effective than his parliamentary work were Harker's years of charitable service, particularly to the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind; he was chairman of the provisional committee which founded this institution in 1866 and chairman of its board till 1879. He served on the committee of management of the Melbourne Hospital and as treasurer of the Benevolent Asylum in 1864-70, and was connected with many other charities whose interests he carefully watched in parliament. In 1871 he was chairman of a royal commission which recommended reduction of the number of charitable institutions receiving government aid. He also contributed generously to the funds of the Congregational Church, where he regularly attended but for reasons of conscience was never a member. He represented the Independents on the 1867 royal commission on public education and was a member of the Board of Education from September 1867 till December 1871, when he resigned in the course of a dispute between the board and the Catholic bishop, James Goold. Although sincere and benevolent with a strong sense of public duty and a deep concern for the poor and afflicted, he was often involved in sectarian squabbles.

When Harker retired as a merchant in 1856 he probably retained some commercial connexions, particularly with the importing firm run by his brother in Flinders Street, and became very actively involved in the development of local companies. He also had interests in mining, railways and banking, and was a founder and director of the Collingwood Gas Co. and the Victoria Life and General Insurance Co., with which he remained linked until at 63 he died suddenly in Melbourne on 25 April 1879.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Provisional Committee of the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind, 1866 (Melb, 1866)
  • Congregational Year Book, 1880
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1864-65, 1871-74
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1859
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Mar 1860, 26 Apr 1879
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Apr 1879
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Margot Beever, 'Harker, George (1816–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Harker (1816-1879), by unknown engraver, 1879

George Harker (1816-1879), by unknown engraver, 1879

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN12/05/79/68

Life Summary [details]


Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, England


25 April, 1879 (aged ~ 63)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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