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Allan Cuthbert (Bluey) Harris (1904–1996)

by Roger Underwood

This article was published online in 2020

Allan Cuthbert Harris (1904–1996), forester, public servant, and government-enterprise manager, was born on 18 January 1904 at Cross Roads, near Moonta, South Australia, only son and elder child of Victorian-born parents Daniel Couper Harris, Methodist minister, and his wife Edith Anastasia, née Sadler, schoolteacher. The family moved often, and Allan attended primary schools at Millicent; Broken Hill, New South Wales; and Booleroo Centre; and high school at Murray Bridge. He was a brilliant student and, after winning an exhibition scholarship in 1918, attended Prince Alfred College, Adelaide. Proceeding to the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1923), he won the St Alban and Ernest Ayers scholarships in 1923. He chose to study forestry mainly through the influence of his father, who had grown up in the bush and loved it.

In 1924 Harris joined South Australia’s Woods and Forests Department, but did not find the work challenging. Two years later he secured an appointment with the Western Australian Forests Department. He was promoted to divisional forest officer in 1928. Stationed in the northern jarrah forest, his duties included overseeing gangs of sustenance workers during the Depression, an experience that helped develop his skills in personnel management and administration. After moving to the Jarrahdale District in 1933, he supervised the full range of forestry operations, including control of the timber industry, forest regeneration, fire prevention, and firefighting. During the late 1930s he took personal responsibility for developing the technique of using low-intensity prescribed burns to protect regrowth jarrah forests from summer wildfires. In contrast to the departmental policy of fire exclusion, Harris saw regulated burning as the only effective way of preventing uncontrollable blazes.

At Wesley Church, Perth, on 24 December 1930 Harris had married Sophie Dorothy Spargo, a clerk and a divorcee. In World War II he served part time (1942–46) in the 12th Battalion (Jarrah), Volunteer Defence Corps. As a major from 1943, he commanded the unit, composed mainly of forestry workers, until hostilities ceased in 1945. Divorced in that year, he married his paramour Ruby Joyce Francis on 26 April 1946 at the Wesley Church. Soon after, he accepted an invitation to become forest manager for the State government’s fledgling Charcoal Iron and Steel Industry plant at Wundowie, east of Perth. He was responsible for the timber procurement and charcoal supplies that were used as fuel in the manufacturing process. Within two years he was appointed general manager. He became recognised as an international authority on the manufacture of charcoal iron and on wood distillation.

In October 1953 Harris was appointed to the position of conservator of forests, in charge of Western Australia’s Forests Department. He was a dynamic and determined leader, noted for his forceful personality and his vision for the forests. In 1954 he convinced the government to increase the proportion of revenue (from royalties paid by the timber industry) remitted to the department from 60 to 90 per cent. This injection of funds provided a secure financial base that enabled major improvements in forest operations. He also negotiated with his minister and the Public Service Commission to improve salaries and conditions for departmental staff, and provide better opportunities for the promotion and recruitment of professional officers.

During 1954 Harris announced a new bushfire management policy that formally established his method of the broadacre use of low-intensity controlled burns in State forests. This approach, he argued, made firefighting easier, safer, and more effective. After the setback of serious bushfires in 1961, he redoubled the department's efforts in research. Later he promoted the development of aerial prescribed burning, a method that would be adopted world-wide. Throughout his conservatorship, he resisted demands from agricultural interests to alienate forest land for farms, helping to secure the State forest estate. At the same time, the area devoted to the State’s commercial pine plantations more than trebled in size to some sixty thousand acres (24,000 ha), providing the resource for a new pine sawmilling industry. He also encouraged the utilisation of marri trees that were unsuitable for sawmilling, but made excellent paper pulp.

Within the department, Harris was seen as a hard man, someone it was best not to cross. He demanded high standards, had a low tolerance for error, and an acerbic tongue. However, 'Bluey,’ as he was known because of his ginger hair and rubicund complexion, was a sound administrator, and a clever and ruthless negotiator, renowned for out-manoeuvring political or professional adversaries. He was active at the national level, as an influential member of the standing committee of the Australian Forestry Council, and a member of the board of higher forestry education of the Canberra-based Australian Forestry School. A long-time member of the Institute of Foresters of Australia, he served as its president (1967–9) and had chaired (1946–48) the State division. In 1967 he was awarded the N. W. Jolly medal, the institute's highest honour.

After retiring in 1969, Harris chaired (1969–75) the Charcoal Iron and Steel Industry board, and undertook a number of international consultancies under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He had been a district commissioner of the Boy Scouts Association, president (1962–65) of the Perth Football Club, a Rotarian, and a Freemason. He was a life member of the Chess Association of Western Australia and was State champion in 1935. Survived by his wife, their son and two daughters, and the daughter from his first marriage, he died on 15 May 1996 in Perth and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Forestry. ‘N. W. Jolly Medal—1967.’ 31, no. 3 (1967): 173
  • Harris, Allan Cuthbert. Interview by Jean Teasdale, 1975. State Library of Western Australia
  • IFA Newsletter. ‘Allan Cuthbert Harris.’ 37, no. 3 (June 1996): 35
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W67675
  • Underwood, Roger. ‘Foresters and the WA Forest Estate.’ In Parks and Protected Areas Forum: A Sense of Place, for All People, for All Time: Program and Proceedings, 23–26. Fremantle, WA: Promaco Conventions Pty Ltd, 2007
  • Western Australia. Forests Department. Report of the Operations. Perth: Government Printer, 1954–69

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Citation details

Roger Underwood, 'Harris, Allan Cuthbert (Bluey) (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 18 April 2024.

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