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Sir James William Harrison (1912–1971)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Sir James William Harrison (1912-1971), army officer and governor, was born on 25 May 1912 at Camperdown, Victoria, second child of Victorian-born parents James Samuel Harrison, farmer, and his wife Mary Eleanor, née Harlock. Young James was educated at Geelong College and the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, where he graduated in 1932 as an artillery specialist. After spending four years in Melbourne with the 2nd Heavy Brigade, he trained in India and Malaya in 1937-38. Returning to Australia, in May 1940 he was promoted captain and seconded to the Australian Imperial Force. At Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, on 30 September 1940 he married with Anglican rites Patricia Helen MacLean Lennox.

In 1940-42 Harrison served in the Middle East; he mainly performed staff duties and was mentioned in dispatches. Promoted lieutenant colonel, he 'displayed marked ability' while at headquarters, New Guinea Force, from November 1942 to February 1943. He was attached to the Australian Army Staff, London (1943-45), before being posted to the Directorate of Military Operations, Melbourne, where he handled 'many difficult problems' associated with the conclusion of the war and the occupation of Japan. From July 1947 he acted as liaison officer, Long Range Weapons Board of Administration, Melbourne. Having attended the Joint Services Staff College in England in 1948, he became an instructor at the Australian Staff College, Queenscliff, Victoria. In 1951 he was promoted temporary colonel and appointed first commandant of the Officer Cadet School at Portsea.

Promoted temporary brigadier and posted to London in 1954 as Australian army representative, Harrison completed the 1956 course at the Imperial Defence College. In August 1957 he took over Western Command, Perth, as temporary major-general (substantive from September 1959). Appointed O.B.E. (1953) and C.B.E. (1958), he was chairman, joint planning committee, Department of Defence, Canberra (1960-62). He was a member of the Military Board—as quartermaster-general (1962-63) and adjutant-general (1963-66)—and head of Eastern Command, Sydney (from 1966). His competence and friendly manner had made him one of the army's most popular officers.

In 1968 Harrison was invited to become the first Australian-born governor of South Australia. Appointed C.B. in January and K.C.M.G. in October, he was seconded from military duties and installed as governor on 4 December. The salary was unattractive. Steele Hall's Liberal government relieved Harrison of the responsibility for paying his domestic staff's wages when he reached the prescribed age for retiring from the army on 25 May 1969. Sir James was about 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall; his auburn hair had turned grey by the time he took office.

Don Dunstan later concluded: 'Sir James fulfilled his role as Governor quietly and in the traditional way, and left little mark on the State'. Government House social functions were limited in 1969-70 by extensive renovations to the building's fabric and by the hospitalization, first of Lady Harrison, then of her husband. In April 1970 the governor developed angina. He was obviously in pain during the opening of parliament that month and may not have suspected that the speech Hall had prepared for him was to provoke a storm on the ground that it 'politicized' the governor's office: it omitted the usual phrase, 'My Ministers advise me', from a passage threatening the imposition of water restrictions, making it appear that this was his own statement. On 9 May Harrison suffered a coronary occlusion and was ill for two months. In the following year he and his wife set off on an overseas holiday. Sir James died suddenly on 16 September 1971 while flying to Honolulu; survived by his wife and two sons, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dunstan, Felicia (Melb, 1981)
  • Australian, 23 Oct 1968
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 11 May 1970
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 5 Sept 1970
  • News (Adelaide), 18, 22 Sept 1971
  • Governor's dispatches, 1968-71 and newsclippings books, 1968-71 (Government House, Adelaide)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Harrison, Sir James William (1912–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 May, 1912
Camperdown, Victoria, Australia


16 September, 1971 (aged 59)