John Harris - Australian Pioneer

The Surgeon John Harris

Harris, John (1754-1838), surgeon, was born in County Londonderry, Ireland, and trained for the medical profession at the University of Edinburgh. He served as a surgeon in the Royal Navy for 10 years in East Indian waters, and in 1789 was appointed surgeon's mate in the New South Wales Corps, being promoted to surgeon in 1792. He reached New south Wales in the "Surprize" in June 1790 and was posted to Parramatta. In 1793 he was granted 100 acres of land at Parramatta and he brought the property called Experimental Farm from James Ruse.
Harris was made a magistrate in 1800 and in the following year became Naval Officer (officer in charge of the port of Sydney), took charge of the police, and accompanied James Grant on a voyage of exploration to the Hunter River. Governor King reported that he performed all his duties "to the evident public benefit and conspicuous general good of His Majesty's services without neglecting an hour's duty as surgeon of the corps". Harris's efforts, as port officer, to suppress the liquor trade earned him much unpopularity and he was court-martialled in 1802 on charges brought by Lieut.-Colonel William Paterson. Of these he was unanimously and honorably acquitted. He faced another court martial in 1803, charged with disclosing to others the opinions of members of the court while acting as prosecutor at the trial of Captain Anthony Kemp. Any penalties were avoided because of an error in the charge which alleged that the offence had taken place on '19 ultimo' instead of '19 instant'. This lucky misuse of words amused Harris, who later named his Sydney home "Ultimo House". This house stood in the area which is known as Ultimo.
Meanwhile Governor King re-instated Harris in the positions from which his first court martial had automatically removed him. As magistrate he was constantly in and out of office, not from incompetence, but from the animosity of his political enemies. Governor Bligh removed him in 1807 for no apparent reason, but in January 1908, after Bligh had been overthrown, Harris was re-instated by Major George Johnston; yet three months later, Johnston, on finding him at odds with John Macarthur, dismissed him again. Paterson re-instated him in January 1809 and in March of that year, Harris, at Johnston's insistence, left for England to put the case of the rebels against Bligh.
While in England Harris retired from the New South Wales Corps; he returned to Sydney in 1814 as a free settler. Thereafter he settled down as a landowner, taking little interest in politics. He helped found the Bank of New South Wales in 1817 and became one of its first directors. In 1818 he volunteered his services as a surgeon and took part in the expedition in which John Oxley discovered the Liverpool Plains and Port Macquarie. He became a magistrate again in 1819. He died on 27 April 1838 leaving a large estate. He had married, but there were no children of the marriage.
FURTHER READING: C. H. Bertie, "Pioneer Families of Australia ... the Harris Family", The Home, vol. 13 (Jun 1932); James Jervis, "John Harris", J. Roy. Aust Hist. Soc., vol. 19 (1933).
Transcribed from;
The Australian Encyclopaedia, Volume 3, "Ferns to Ley". The Grolier Society of Australia. Reprint of the revised Third edition. 1981.

1. The Surprize was the advance ship of the second fleet and arrived 25 June 1790. With 35 members of the New South Wales Corps and 218 convicts, 100 of them sick. 42 more were buried at sea.

Places named by or after John Harris

  • Ultimo
  • Harris Street, Ultimo
  • Harris Park
  • Harris Street, Harris Park
  • Five Dock
  • Harris Road, Five Dock
  • Mount Harris
  • Shanes Park

Land Grants made to John Harris

1/4/1793: 100 acres - Parramatta 1806: 1500 acres - Concord
1803: 90 acres - Evan 1806: 9 acres - Sydney
1803: 34 acres - Brickfield Hill 1809: 14 acres - Sydney
1805: 700 acres - Evan / Bathurst 1809: 34 acres - St. George
18/12/1805: 30 acres - Parramatta 1817: 1500 acres - Evan
1806: 135 acres - Sydney 1819: 1100 acres - Bathurst

Experimental Farm Cottage

Built by John Harris sometime between 1794 and 1798, it is the best and possibly the earliest example of grand houses in the new colony. John Harris went on to build many more great houses at Ultimo, Five Dock and Shane’s Park, none of which survive today.

Located at 9 Ruse Street, Parramatta, it is owned and administered by the National Trust of Australia (NSW). The National Trust is a heritage conservation organisation which relies on subscribers and contributors for the work they do in maintaining and preserving over 30 significant houses and properties, some of which are open to the public as museums and galleries.

The property was named "Experimental Farm" by the first Governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Philip, who granted the land to a convict, James Ruse, to see if self sufficiency could be achieved by farming the land.

John Harris bought Experimental Farm from James Ruse in October 1793. This extending his property of 100 acres (now the suburb of Harris Park) granted to him by the Governor in April of the same year. In December 1805 he extended this with a further 30 acre land grant.


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