Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John Harrison (1866–1944)

by Elaine Lawson

This article was published:

Sir John Harrison (1866-1944), building contractor, was born on 1 July 1866 at Shildon, Durham, England, son of John Christopher Harrison, mason, and his wife Jane, née March. He was educated at the Shildon Church of England National School, and privately at Bishop Auckland. Aged 16 he was apprenticed to Thomas Richardson & Sons, engineers, where he remained until he sailed for Australia with his parents in the Liguria, arriving in Sydney on 30 June 1885. The firm of John C. Harrison & Son, master builders, was soon established and constructed several large buildings in Sydney.

Harrison's business interests took second place to community works from the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He organized transport and outings for disabled soldiers, and his sympathy for the problems of returned servicemen led him to support a proposal by the Voluntary Workers' Association of New South Wales to establish the Matraville Garden Village for disabled soldiers and the widows of soldiers. After he became chairman of the board of control, Harrison's leadership, enthusiasm and professional building skills helped to transform seventy-five acres of sandy coastal country eight miles from Sydney into a model suburb. He personally supervised both the paid and voluntary workers, and obtained donations of £27,000 for the scheme. The premier John Storey made labour available for the construction of roads and by 1920 the project was completed—it was a great personal triumph for Harrison. He was a member of the board of control of the Matraville Garden Village in 1917-30, and also of the Subsidiary Disposals Board, War Service Homes, in 1921-23. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1923.

A member of the Federal Capital Commission in 1924-29, Harrison was directly involved with the planning of Canberra after the departure from Walter Burley Griffin's original plan. Parliament House, the Commonwealth offices, the Hotel Canberra, Telopea Park High School, the arcaded shopping blocks at Civic, the prime minister's lodge and the remodelling of Government House, Yarralumla, were all either begun or completed during his term on the commission.

A man of considerable height and bulk, Harrison was well liked by his colleagues, although he displayed an abundance of nervous energy which some found exhausting. Keenly interested in sport, he had been president of the Ashfield Bowling Club, Sydney, and a state selector; he was also first patron of the Canberra Bowling Club. His fondness for cigars, bridge and billiards was well known, as were such idiosyncrasies as his determination to have wax matches banned in Canberra because he considered them dangerous.

At Armadale, Melbourne, Harrison had married with Wesleyan forms Edith Avice Moran on 20 September 1899. He was, however, a supporter of the Church of England throughout his life. He died at his home, Chandos Street, Ashfield, on 22 June 1944 and was cremated. A son and a daughter survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £89,321 in two States; he left £2000 (stg) to found a scholarship at his old school at Shildon.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Community News, July 1926, Apr 1927
  • Australian National Review, Dec-Jan 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 2 Jan, 14 Mar 1923, 18 Oct 1924, 4 Jan 1929, 23 June 1944
  • Canberra Times, 29 Jan 1966
  • private information.

Citation details

Elaine Lawson, 'Harrison, Sir John (1866–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1866
Shildon, Durham, England


22 June, 1944 (aged 77)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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