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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harris, Sir John Richards (1868–1946)

by Lloyd Evans

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir John Richards Harris (1868-1946), medical practitioner, vigneron and politician, was born on 24 January 1868 at Chiltern, Victoria, second son of Cornish parents Thomas Henry Harris, miner, and his wife Mary Richards, née Hollow. He was educated at Rutherglen State School, Grenville College, Ballarat, the Ballarat School of Mines, and the University of Melbourne, where he completed medicine with outstanding results (M.B., 1890; B.S., 1891; M.D., 1902). He returned in 1892 to Rutherglen where he established a successful general practice and, later, a private midwifery hospital. On 16 December 1896 with Presbyterian forms he married Jessie Lily Prentice, daughter of a local vigneron. In 1909 he bought a farming, grazing and vine-growing property east of Rutherglen.

Believing his eldest son too frail for active service, Harris represented the family in the Empire's cause when he enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps on 9 August 1917. On arrival at Cairo on 20 October he served as medical officer of No.1 (initially No.67) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. He became ill in late 1918 and was repatriated, arriving in Melbourne in January 1919. He subsequently resumed practice at Rutherglen.

On 2 September 1920 Harris was elected to the Legislative Council for North-Eastern Province. One of few representatives in the council of the Victorian Farmers' Union (later the Country Party), he rose rapidly to prominence and influence, becoming an honorary minister in the Allan-Peacock ministry from July 1925 to May 1927. He was unofficial leader of the House from November 1928 to April 1935, apart from a brief period in May 1932, when he resigned in protest at his failure to gain selection in the Argyle ministry and then accepted the unanimous request of a meeting of members to resume the office. While unofficial leader he asserted that he was independent of party loyalties; in 1934 he refused to take the pledge required by the Country Party's new constitution. However, he took the pledge before he was appointed minister of public instruction and public health under (Sir) Albert Dunstan and government leader of the House from April 1935 to January 1942. He was chairman of the State Emergency Council for Civil Defence from October 1939 to January 1942, and a member of the Council of Agricultural Education in 1925-45. In May 1937 he was knighted. Harris was returned unopposed from 1928 to 1946, when he was defeated by another Country Party candidate.

Diligence and a driving ambition for advancement, influence and honours, together with what he called 'old-fashioned conservatism', characterized Harris's political career. He astounded the council with his authoritative addresses on a range of subjects and is said to have shown 'phenomenal' ability in the management of business.

As minister of public health his most valuable achievements were his sponsorship of the Anti-Cancer Council (1936) and, following a visit to inner-Melbourne slums in 1935, his strong support for the health amendment bill of 1937. As minister of public instruction he took a special interest in technical and agricultural education, the work of the curriculum and research officer (1938) and the Australian Council of Education (1936). Probably his most constructive decision was the appointment of a departmental advisory committee in 1939. On balance, however, he must be held responsible for his government's failure to repair the damage inflicted on the state system of education by the drastic economies of the Depression budgets and to adopt policies to extend educational opportunities.

Dr Harris was a competent medical practitioner who served his district conscientiously. He was active in local affairs as a member of the Australian Natives' Association, district medical officer and also as a prominent Freemason. As a vigneron he made the sweet red and white fortified wine of the district and had unorthodox views on the propriety of adding as a preservative salicylic acid, forbidden by the Wine Adulteration Act of 1900. In the 1920s he experimented with a dry sherry style made from Palomino grapes, and his 'Dr John' sherry, made in the Spanish manner, won many show awards.

In his prime Harris was a large man, with broad face, high forehead, dark eyebrows and small, quick eyes. He was irascible, brusque and domineering, except with his wife and friends who agreed that his bark was worse than his bite. Predeceased by his wife in 1937 and survived by his three sons, Sir John died on 16 September 1946 and was buried in Carlyle cemetery, Rutherglen. His estate was sworn for probate at £16,327.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1945, vol 2 (Canb, 1970)
  • Education Dept (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • G. C. Bishop, Australian Winemaking, the Roseworthy Influence (Adel, 1980)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1945-47, p 224, 2202
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 May 1937, 17 June, 17 Sept 1946
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 27 May 1937
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Sept 1946
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Nov, 4, 9 Dec 1939, 17 June 1946
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 18 Sept 1946
  • J. B. Paul, The Premiership of Sir Albert Dunstan (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1961)
  • Harris letters and diary, Army Medical Corps, Aug 1917–Dec 1918 (privately held)
  • Harris papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lloyd Evans, 'Harris, Sir John Richards (1868–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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