Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benjamin Cosway Harriman (1830–1904)

by Carole Woods

This article was published:

Benjamin Cosway Harriman (1830-1904), civil servant, was born on 17 November 1830 at Tiverton, Devon, England, son of John Harriman, manager of a lace factory, and his wife Phillipa, née Cosway. His father had followed the lace machinist, John Heathcote, from the Nottingham district to Tiverton after the Luddite riots. Benjamin was educated at schools in Tiverton. He arrived at Melbourne in 1854, became a clerk in the police department and as an expert shorthand writer was often deputed to report on Yarra bank political meetings. He also assisted Professor William Hearn and others to organize Mechanics' Institute lectures. Although he never completed a degree in the University of Melbourne he took first- and second-year classes in 1861-62, gaining second-class honours in both years. In 1858 he had married Isobel Ellen, daughter of a government shorthand writer, J. H. Webb, and niece of George Webb.

After entering the Victorian Law Department in 1860, Harriman became chief clerk in 1870 and secretary in 1872. He supervised his department conscientiously, dispensed with much red tape through efficient and courteous service, tried to offer the best advice to the Berry government in the constitutional conflict of the late 1870s, and maintained the smooth functioning of the courts and the transaction of the colony's legal business despite the public service disruption of 1878. When his health began to deteriorate under the strain of work he was given a year's leave in 1884 to visit England. On his return to Melbourne he undertook the additional responsibilities of reorganizing the Titles Office, investigating frauds in the Registrar-General's Department and extirpating fraudulent practices from his own department. A severe illness forced him to take eight months' leave in 1890 and next year he retired on a substantial allowance.

One of the few criticisms made of Harriman's generally exemplary public service career was that as secretary of the Law Department his affability sometimes resulted in the injudicious disclosure of information to the press. An example of his indiscretion occurred after his retirement when he exacerbated an uneasy situation in the Chaffeys' Mildura irrigation colony in September 1892 by informing disgruntled settlers that they were entitled to free water. A Freemason, Harriman held office in many Victorian societies. After his retirement he lived at Ellendale, Frankston, but died at Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 26 May 1904 at his daughter's home and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery, Victoria. He left a widow, three sons and three married daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Table Talk, 11 Feb 1887, 24 Jan 1890
  • Leader (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1890
  • Mildura Cultivator, 10 Sept 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 May 1904.

Citation details

Carole Woods, 'Harriman, Benjamin Cosway (1830–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 April 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

Life Summary [details]


17 November, 1830
Tiverton, Devon, England


26 May, 1904 (aged 73)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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