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John Harris (1754 - 1838):
Surgeon; public servant

Ulsterman John Harris began his career as a surgeon, and emigrated to Australia and practised there, also becoming a public servant and landholder, successful in most of his enterprises, if prone to litigation.

He was born at Moneymore, County Londonderry, a son of John and Ann Harris and qualified as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh, working for ten years as a surgeon in the navy based in India. In 1789 he was appointed surgeon's mate in the New South Wales Corps, was stationed at Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. In December 1791, after the resignation of his superior, Dr Macaulay, who never went to the colony, Harris was promoted to his place. In April 1793 he accepted a 100-acre grant at Parramatta and bought a farm on which in 1798 he built the Experiment Farm Cottage. This building, still extant, stands on the site of the first land grant in Australia, made in 1789 by Governor Phillip to the former convict James Ruse, who by 1791 had successfully farmed the site as an experiment in self-sufficiency, proving that a new settler could feed and shelter his family with relatively little assistance to get started. An Indian-style bungalow, it is one of Australia's oldest standing.

Until 1800 he led a busy existence as both surgeon and farmer. By that year he owned 315 acres of land and 431 head of stock, possessions which placed him among the foremost officer-farmers. In 1800 he was appointed administrative assistant to Governor Philip Gidley King of New South Wales, and on 29 September 1800 he was made a magistrate, soon afterwards given charge of the police establishment. In July 1801 he succeeded William Balmain as Naval Officer (that is, Officer-in-Charge of Sydney Harbour). He played an active part on the Gaol and Orphan Committees and accompanied Francis Barrallier on his expedition to explore the Hunter River in 1801, as well as continuing to carry out his duties as surgeon. Governor King described him as possessing "the most respectable character as a gentleman, joined to an unwearied activity and intelligence", and employed him as deputy judge advocate in regimental courts martial.

However, when Harris, in his capacity as Naval Officer, reported to Governor King certain private conversations with military figures, led to his being charged in October 1802 with ungentlemanlike conduct, and six months later he faced another court martial for allegedly disclosing how two of his fellow officers had voted at a court martial over which he had presided as deputy judge advocate. On both occasions he was acquitted, but he was debarred from civil office, though in 1804 was reinstated him as Naval Officer, and resworn as magistrate and controller of the police at Sydney.

Between 1800 and 1806 Harris, in his famous house at Ultimo, stood out as one of the few military officers to remain consistently friendly with the Governor. He had named his house "Ultimo" as in one of the legal cases in which he was involved, he won the case on a technicality, a clerk drawing up the legal papers mistakenly having entered the term "ultimo" (last month) instead of "instant" (this month). However, when Governor King left office he was replaced by the famous Captain William Bligh, whose Bounty crew famously mutinied in 1789. Bligh dismissed Harris as Naval Officer and from the bench, rendering him a bitter opponent of the governor, depicting him as avaricious, dishonest and tyrannical and his antipathy to Bligh brought him back into sympathy with the military officers whose cause he espoused in the so-called Rum Rebellion of 1808, when Bligh was effectively deposed as Governor by some officers in the New South Wales Corps. Harris was reappointed him to magistracy on 27 January 1808, but on 5 April 1808 was dismissed again.

On 7 February 1814 having resigned his commission Harris returned to Port Jackson as a private settler. He resumed control of his extensive properties and also took an active part in public affairs. He served on many committees, was one of those who supported the establishment of the Bank of New South Wales and one of its first directors elected in February 1817. In 1819 he acted as surgeon to John Oxley's expedition to Bathurst where later he acquired land. In the same year he was again made a magistrate and retained the office until he died on 27 April 1838, leaving property said to be worth £150,000. A relative was John Harris, who would be five times Mayor of Sydney.

Born: 1754
Died: 1838
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Australian Dictionary of Biography; website, National Trust of Australia;; Biographical Archive, Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, County Tyrone