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Sir John Forrest GCMG (22 August 1847 – 2 September 1918) was an Australian explorer, the first Premier of Western Australia and a cabinet minister in Australia's first federal parliament.
As a young man, he won fame as an explorer by leading three expeditions into the interior of Western Australia, for which he was awarded the 1876 Royal Geographical Society's Patron's Medal.
He was appointed Surveyor General and in 1890 became the first Premier of Western Australia, its only premier as a self-governing colony. Forrest's premiership gave the state ten years of stable administration during a period of rapid development and demographic change. He pursued a policy of large-scale public works and extensive land settlement, and he helped to ensure that Western Australia joined the federation of Australian states. After federation, he moved to federal politics, where he was at various times postmaster-general, Minister for Defence, Minister for Home Affairs, Treasurer and acting Prime Minister. He was affiliated with the Protectionist Party from 1901 to 1906, the Western Australian Party from 1906 to 1909, the Commonwealth Liberal Party from 1909 to 1917, then the Nationalist Party of Australia from 1917 to 1918.
Shortly before his death, Forrest was informed that the King had approved his elevation to the British peerage as Baron Forrest of Bunbury.
The spasmodic efforts at governing a British Colony in its infancy are well calculated to bring the best men to the front. Either by predilection or force of circumstances they rise to the higher positions. Each Australian Colony has produced men who will be remembered in local history for their splendid pioneer political work, but it must be remembered that most of them came from Great Britain. In Western Australia, however, such is not the case, for the administrator who towers, Ajax-like, above his fellows, is native born. This is the Premier, Sir John Forrest, K.C.M.G. Born in the generous southern sunshine amid primeval solitudes, with few companions in his youth, with an education at a comparatively small school in Perth, Sir John is a true and great son of Western Australia. He loves the jarrah forests, the eternal stretches of plains and deserts, the low ranges and high cliffs, the sand dunes and granite hills, the "black boy" and fern, the outcropping quartz reef and mulga wastes, the gentle undulating sweeps of goodly pasture land, the farms and orchards and vineyards.
Throughout the sixty-eight years of the colony's history not one man has come forward who can compare with him. Indeed, one might almost say that what Cecil Rhodes has been to South Africa, and Sir Henry Parkes to New South Wales, Sir John Forrest has been to Western Australia. Early entering the Public Service under the Crown Colony régime, Sir John rapidly forced his way to positions of trust, and when twenty-two years old was chosen by the local Executive Council as the most suitable to command an exploring expedition which went into the hungry, silent deserts of the interior, to search for the remains of the celebrated Leichardt and his party of explorers. Two other exploring expeditions, which entailed herculean labour and patient suffering, were made by him with such conspicuous success that honours rained on him from England, Italy, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, not to mention the oft-shown pride of his countrymen in Australia. Then he entered the more peaceful fields of life, became head of the Western Australian Lands Department and a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. He filled other important positions and, later, patriotically assisted in the agitation for the right of West Australians to mould their own political destinies, and when that privilege was gained he was chosen the first Premier. To-day he is looked up to as the greatest man the colony has produced.
There are, probably, other local men who are competent to fill the position of Premier, but none who would be so universally respected by colonists and the outside world as Sir John Forrest. He may almost be said to have the hardihood and stability of the jarrah forests and the geniality of the Southern spring. He seems an inseparable part of the nature round him, and, may be, is unconsciously compelled to help mould the early history of self-government.
In 1843 Mr. William Forrest, the father of the Western Australian Premier, left Scotland for this colony. Thirteen years previously the first settlement was made in what was then known as New Holland, but very little advance was up to that time attained. A few farms were established here and there in suitable places, but, taking Western Australia as a whole, comparatively nothing was known of its potentialities; indeed it was many years afterwards that more knowledge was obtained on that point. A few outside centres had been formed beyond Perth and Fremantle, and amid them and the woodlands around the pioneer settlers were dispersed.
Mr. William Forrest took up his abode near Bunbury. With the somewhat primitive implements at his disposal he turned a little wilderness into a fructive farm, and in the place of the forest he raised a corn-field and garden. There were numerous romantic incidents connected with the life of the early band of pioneers. Isolated from every populated civilised centre on this broad earth, their nearest neighbours were the natives, and to live peaceably among them required no little tact. Mr. Forrest had little companionship, but with other pioneers he worked laboriously to utilise and render valuable to the world the waste lands of Western Australia.
The son of Mr. James Forrest, a Scotch Writer to the Signet, Mr. William Forrest was born near Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland, in 1819, and still lives near Bunbury. He is a civil and mechanical engineer by profession. His wife bravely accompanied him to the colony, and it was only recently that she died. In addition to following agricultural pursuits and becoming a landed proprietor, Mr. Forrest erected near his farm a flour mill, which was driven by water power fitted by himself. He took an active part in all progressive movements designed to conduce to the welfare of his district, but, unlike his son, he did not enter the more public arena of political life. His chief service was as a member for many years of several Roads Boards. Although past his three score years and ten, Mr. Forrest is still hearty and fairly active, and from his old home near Bunbury watches with never-tiring interest the public careers of his sons, Sir John and Mr. Alexander Forrest, M.L.A., in the service of the country to which he presented them.
On the 22nd August, 1847, John Forrest was born near Bunbury. The days of his boyhood were passed in that picturesque and fertile district, and daily he saw woodland scenes typical of his native country. There were the "black boy," and a certain kind of bracken, the jarrah, and numerous other woodland monarchs, and there was a congenial climate which, no doubt, has much to do in the moulding of character. In the small, old-fashioned house of his father John Forrest gained the strong grounding to a character which was destined to be the most notable of its time in the colony. His companions were often the poor black natives, tribes of whom roamed, gipsy-like, the district. Hence he became West Australian from head to foot. When old enough he was sent to Perth to be educated at what was known as the Bishop's School. This institution was founded in Perth by the late Bishop Hale, and afforded its pupils an excellent education, considering the difficulties under which it necessarily existed. The boy showed a fair aptitude for studies; when eighteen years of age in 1865, having already served an apprenticeship to surveying, he entered the Survey Department of Western Australia. His early work in that sphere was marked by energy and a determination to succeed. He mastered the ramifications of survey work, and made a close study of navigation. Thus in four years time his superiors recognised in him an exceedingly useful officer.
In 1868 news reached Perth from natives that some of them had seen the bones of white men in the interior. These were hoped to be the remains of the unfortunate Leichardt and his party, about whose fate much speculation had for many years existed. This noted Australian explorer had gone out from the eastern coast in 1848 into the darkness of the more central part of Australia, and beyond a certain point nothing more had been heard of him. The world naturally desired to discover how and where he met his death. The report of the natives was received with wide-spread interest, and it was desired to prove its correctness. Baron Von Mueller, the famous Victorian scientist, who was always stimulating and encouraging the complete exploration of Australia, proposed, early in 1869, that the Western Australian Government should test the truth of the report, and offered to lead an expedition to the place indicated. Later, however, Baron Von Mueller found that he had not time for the undertaking. Mr. John Forrest was known by his superiors to be conversant with navigation, a knowledge which is required as much in exploration as on the oceans, and he was approached to take command. He had previously accepted the post of second in command, and was therefore not backward in accepting the more important office. It coincided with his innate love of adventure, and, as he himself has written, he "ardently desired to take his share in the work." It needed considerable courage to go into such an inhospitable region as the locality indicated was known to be. Nor was courage the only quality required. Determination and fine judgment, a hardy constitution, good generalship and tact were not the least. John Forrest had imbibed into his constitution, at his home in Bunbury, the necessary hardy nature, and he also filled the popular conception of an explorer—a robust man with a keen eye, adroit, determined, energetic. He was then but twenty-two years old, and the awarding of such an important task was a great compliment to his wisdom. With the assistance of copious instructions he fitted out his expedition of three white men and two natives, and secured sixteen horses and sufficient provisions.
On the 15th April, 1869, just twenty-one years and twenty-one days since Leichardt had last been heard of, John Forrest and his companions set forth on their quest. They went in a north-easterly direction from Perth to Toodyay. They bid farewell to the farthest station to the eastward on April 27th, and then were lost in the gloom and silence of the wildernesses. Day by day they travelled farther from civilisation into the unknown, and were hid among the mulga and stunted gums, the acacia and cypress thickets. From Toodyay their course was east by north. Then at times they would make north or south, east, and sometimes a little westward. This was due to the lack of water along the route, and the consequent necessity to shape a way so as to fall in with that too scarce liquid. They proceeded through dense scrubby thickets of acacia and cypress, by granite rocks and granite outcrops, where they often found fresh water and pasturage for their horses; over sand plains which seemed interminable; along the banks of inland lakes in one of which, Lake Barlee, their horses were bogged and the men were compelled to carry saddles and provisions over distances of knee deep mud; and emerged into vistas, amid the great eternal dwarfed growth, of glistening dry lakes, empty probably for ages past. They even crossed innumerable quartz reefs, where prospectors now pursue their eager quest, and ascended hills and peaks from which were obtained views of other hills and peaks beyond, or of boundless plains. They repeatedly lived without water for many weary hours, and their horses without food. But their vicissitudes proved the stern stuff of which they were made. They met with tribes of natives, who were spellbound with fear at sight of white men. They saw and mapped out much new country, and collected interesting data of these now apparently wealthy parts, but they saw no remains. Finally they were compelled to return to Perth without extracting from the unknown anything of the luckless fate of Leichardt.
Mr. Forrest gave names to the chief points along the route, and some of them have since become quite famous. He passed along the more northerly portions of the Coolgardie Goldfields, and named Mount Malcolm, Mount Margaret, Mount Ida, Lake Carey, and many other places. It is unnecessary to detail the work of this expedition, or any of those he afterwards made, for they are fully described in our history.
After having been absent from Perth one hundred and thirteen days, and travelled over two thousand miles, the men returned on the 6th August. Although not giving any definite opinion as to the mineral value of the country passed over, Mr. Forrest wrote that "it was worth while sending geologists to examine it thoroughly." Happily this has since been done with the pleasing results that the world to-day knows of.
The members of the expedition parted with mutual good feelings, which proves that the young explorer had used his authority with tact and generosity.
A few months were spent by John Forrest in less arduous duties in the Survey Department, but his successful exploits in the Leichardt Expedition had the effect of stimulating exploration in the western part of the Australian Continent. Baron Von Mueller when he heard the result of the expedition was naturally disappointed, but wrote, that "their labours have not been without importance to geographical science." He still wished to gain some light as to Leichardt's fate, and suggested the organisation of a second expedition to start from the upper waters of the Murchison, and endeavour to reach Carpentaria. By such means some trace of Leichardt might be found, and the geographical discoveries would probably prove of the highest importance. This was a task which Mr. Forrest was not averse to undertaking, but there were difficulties in the way. Subsequently, the Governor of Western Australia, Mr. Weld, offered Mr. Forrest the command of an expedition to explore the south coast to Eucla, on the South Australian border, and thence to Adelaide the capital of the sister colony. He again accepted. He had his brother, Mr. Alexander Forrest, as second in command on this occasion, and was accompanied by two other white men and two natives. The unique feature of this party was that they were, with one exception, all born in Western Australia. It was a more onerous task even for the young leader than the preceding one. He was then twenty-three years old; anxious and ready to take all the risks and face all the dangers of so long a journey, he left Perth with a light heart. Governor Weld paid him a compliment in accompanying him for three miles on the Albany road, and when he bade adieu the young explorers resolutely set their faces to the east, determined upon doing their duty, and discovering, if possible, a route over the immense territory between them and Adelaide.
They soon passed the bounds of settlement in safety and without inconvenience, but beyond them more difficulties had to be surmounted. The south coast was reached, and they kept as close to it as possible during the whole journey, with only occasional trips inland. Water was again the main difficulty, and after that good pasture for the horses. On a few occasions, by digging near the beach, they secured plentiful supplies of water, but often they endured intense privations through the want of it. They found that much of the country passed over possessed no pasturage of any kind. In places, however, splendidly grassed valleys and plots were met with. Owing to their difficulties they arrived at Esperance Bay somewhat later than they anticipated. The Government had arranged for the schooner Adur to meet them there with additional provisions, and also that the vessel should, if possible, communicate with them further along the coast, and finally at Eucla. After spending some days at Esperance Bay, enjoying the hospitality of enterprising settlers and recouping the energies of the horses, who had already suffered from the privations of the trip, they again set out. Along the main part of their course it is impossible for vessels to draw near to the land owing to the lack of good bays and the continuity of huge cliffs, some rising hundreds of feet high. The obstacles now very materially increased, and the country passed through alternated between sandy plains with stunted growth of trees, waterless and feedless wastes, and hilly country. At some points inland "vast plains of grass and salt-bush, with scarcely a tree on them, extended as far as the eye could reach in every direction." "Clear, open, grassy downs" and undulating country were also viewed. But the distress before endured was as nothing to that now experienced. On one occasion the horses were compelled to go ninety hours without water, and the men nearly as many; but Mr. Forrest was so resourceful, and took such excellent care, that he lost neither man nor horse during the whole trip.
The Queen's Birthday was spent at Israelite Bay, where the Adur, a second time, met the explorers. To use Mr. Forrest's own words, taken from his excellent work on this expedition,
"All hands from the Adur came ashore, and I drew them up in line, under the Union Jack, which was duly hoisted near the camp. We presented arms, sang 'God Save the Queen' vigorously, and fired a salute of twenty-one guns, finishing with three cheers. I venture to record that our vocal efforts were as sincerely and heartily made in the Australian wilderness as any which rang that day in any part of Her Majesty's wide dominions. We were all highly delighted, no only feeling that we had done our duty as loyal subjects, but other celebrations in more civilised places were forcibly recalled to memory."
Remaining twelve days at Israelite Bay, where ample food and water were obtained, the further march to Eucla was accomplished amid the usual vicissitudes. When this chief point of the whole tour was seen, there was great joy among the party, and the cliffs from which they first sighted Eucla rang with many English hurrahs. They had overcome the most difficult portion of their journey, and so glad were they that day (1st July) that John Forrest wrote in his diary:—"I trust we all recognised with sincerity and thankfulness the guiding and protecting Hand which had brought us through in safety." The Adur was soon sighted at the port, and again the explorers gave their horses rest while the head of the expedition went inland to observe the nature of the country. They left Eucla, looked once more on the Adur, which was returning to Fremantle, and again were lost to the sight of their fellow men. They travelled along the lonely silent route by day, and the primeval woods echoed with the sounds of white men and their horses. They camped at night, with little to relieve the monotonous silence but the clank of the horses' hobbles as they browsed on the scanty grass. Fowler's Bay was the last but one point of the coast line touched, and then, nearer to civilisation, the party made their way across the jutting land to Port Augusta, at the head of Spencer's Gulf, South Australia. From thence they soon journeyed to Adelaide, and their arduous exploration was completed. Once more the young man had proved himself a highly efficient commander, and with the willing aid of his companions was thus the second to penetrate over that portion of the continent. He had proved the feasibility of the overland telegraph line, which was subsequently erected. The credit due to John Forrest during this expedition cannot be over-estimated. His reception in Adelaide was a highly cordial one. Parties went out from the city to meet him on the road, and a long procession escorted him to Government House, where the Governor (Sir James Ferguson) paid him many compliments, and thanked him for his great services. He and his party were received with recurring cheers in the streets, and the populace eagerly looked upon the men who had braved such a journey, and examined with interest their accoutrements and horses. The latter were somewhat weakened by their long trip of nearly 2,000 miles, but the men appeared bronzed and hardy. After being much féted in Adelaide, Mr. Forrest left that city on board a steamer, and reached Perth on the 27th September, 1870. Here his reception was a royal one, and great were the acclamations of all classes when the hero of the day entered the capital. A four-in-hand drag was sent to meet him as soon as he landed at Fremantle, and a procession of carriages and men on horseback followed him on the way to Perth, to the strains of music from the Volunteer Band. His Excellency Governor Weld, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, met him five miles from Perth, and received him with the heartiest congratulations and expressions of friendship. The young man, of a few months more than twenty-three years old, was conducted in heroic fashion to the boundaries of Perth, where the Governor handed him over to the municipal council members, who in their turn conducted him to the Government offices. An enthusiastic crowd had gathered at this point; flags were flying from the town hall and housetops. Upon alighting from his carriage, John Forrest was heartily welcomed by his Excellency and the people, and the chairman of the City Council (Mr. Glyde) presented him with an address of welcome. A complimentary banquet was subsequently given to Mr. Forrest, when the chairman (Captain Roe), whose name will ever be found in histories of the colony in connection with exploration, proposed the toast of the guest in highly flattering language. The Governor and the leading men of the colony were present on this occasion, which, with his previous reception, must have proved an ample reward to the explorer for his services to science and the colony. The Governor sent a letter of congratulation to Mr. Forrest's father, and also one to the explorer himself. Thus ended his second travels of exploration.
And now followed a few more quiet months in Perth. But it was not long before he again desired to more completely explore certain portions of Western Australia. His previous success had made him anxious to penetrate through the interior to South Australia, to prove to the world what the country contained, and the wisdom of certain speculations as to there being a great watershed in the centre and northern part of this colony. He longed for more enterprise—for more exploits. Upon his return from the previous expedition he resumed his duties in the Survey Office, and in July, 1872, he wrote to the Surveyor-General, Mr. (now Sir) Malcolm Fraser, suggesting that he should in the following year leave Champion Bay, follow the Murchison River to its source, and afterwards go right through the interior to the overland telegraph line in South Australia, which was then nearly completed. This undertaking was an immense one, and would entail great privations, and even considerable risk of loss of life, owing to the water difficulty. Yet, could he but accomplish it, light would be brought to bear on the dark interior, and the geographical and scientific results would be substantial. The proposition was forwarded to Governor Weld, and by him to the Legislative Council, with an encouraging minute advising that the proposals be agreed to. In this minute his Excellency wrote:— "Should he (Mr. Forrest) succeed in this journey, his name will fitly go down to posterity as that of the man who solved the last remaining problem in the Australian Continent; and, whoever may come after him, he will have been the last (and certainly, when the means at his disposal and the difficulties of the undertaking are considered, by no means the least) of the great Australian explorers." The requisite grant of money and leave of absence were made by the Legislative Council. But it became known that South Australian explorers were striving at the time to cross the continent. This, and it being necessary for Mr. Forrest to immediately make very important surveys, caused the trip to be postponed. The South Australian explorers—two or three parties—were unable to negotiate the task, and, therefore, on the 18th March, 1874, Mr. John Forrest left Perth for Champion Bay, whence he started on his perilous journey on the 1st April. His brother again accompanied him, and two other white men, and two natives, one of whom, Tommy Windlob, had been with him on his previous expeditions.
If the reader for one moment conjures up to the mind the dangers which lay before the young explorers on this journey, they will the better appreciate the great bravery and indomitable energy of the leader and the other members of the party. Most previous explorers had, without success, endeavoured to make the journey on camels, which often go from ten to twelve, and even more, days without water. But this party only used horses, lent by settlers, and these animals cannot undertake such work without water once every twelve hours, or at least every twenty-four. Before the explorers, then, were nearly 2,000 miles of country, believed to be sparsely watered, and inhabited by unfriendly natives. Huge spinifex plains, as barren as any in Africa, had to be crossed. Let the horses but perish, and so must all the men. On the other hand, it was possible that some fertile country would be explored. At Wallala Spring the party took their farewell of the last white man they were to see for many months, and again with stern determination they set forward. Going north they soon struck the bed of the Murchison liver, along whose banks they travelled for many days. There they passed through excellent pastoral and agricultural country, and the knowledge they gave to West Australians, caused squatters to open up the land. There, too, they sometimes saw innumerable wild ducks, which, coming within range of their guns, proved excellent additions to their meals. Mr. John Forrest on all his expeditions made a point of camping, where possible, every Sunday, when he conducted Divine Service—a strange and unique picture there, wrapt in plaids of silence, alone with the Creator of the eternal deserts. After going N.N.E. to the source of the Murchison River, the party took a more easterly course, and beyond unpleasant and tedious deviations necessary to find water, kept this direction right through. Much of their way lay along ranges of hills, and as far as what the leader named "The Weld Springs" good country was occasionally passed over, interspersed with long spinifex stretches. These springs were surrounded by a singular oasis, beyond which in the eastern direction the more barren country was met with. All round the springs was beautifully grassed land, and in the middle a clump of trees, beneath which the party rested. It was a pleasing retreat, so that they remained there for several days, allowing the horses to regain some of their lost strength, and giving time for the re-stuffing of the saddles. There was much game in the locality, such as emus and kangaroos, pigeons and parrots. Hence the men fared quite sumptuously. A few natives had been seen near by, and one day, while two of the party were away, about fifty members of the dusky race appeared on the spur of the hill above the camp, and came down with spears aloft. The four men left in the party stood in a row, with guns to shoulder, ready for battle. When the natives came within thirty yards of them, Mr. John Forrest gave the order to "Fire!" and the hills resounded with the echoes of the guns as of one report. No natives were killed, but all hurried back to the hill-top. After a while they attacked again, and on this occasion the explorers fired more carefully, and wounded two of the blacks, and all thereupon went away frightened, and left the lonely few in peace.
The sullen dangers of the party were met after leaving "Weld Springs." The hardships now endured were sometimes terribly trying and many times the plucky leaders were apparently doomed. Yet no one murmured, and all bravely and courageously pushed forward. Sometimes the horses would be so undone that they had to be forced along. Two were left behind in one place and one in another. Mr. John Forrest and his fellows had to walk hundreds of miles over ugly, endless spinifex deserts and red sand hills. They became as weary almost as the poor beasts. Yet they were not disheartened, and went on undismayed, with the courage of Spartan warriors. When absent from the main party to mark a route their rations would often give out. Deserts lay before them as far as the eye could reach, which had to be crossed. By following the hills as nearly as possible, and debouching north and south, they usually got sufficient water to sustain life, while in two or three places springs were found, sufficient to last for some days, and there the horses recouped on the dead grass. On the way, too, many rocky cavities were discovered, in which water was conserved when rain fell. Natives were seen, more or less, over the whole distance, and occasionally numbers of them were observed. A second attack was made on the party, but the dread of the loud-sounding guns soon drove the aborigines away in intense fear. Crawling along slowly, day after day, the tired men got further east. When about one thousand miles from the settled parts of Western Australia, their condition was most dangerous. It was impossible to return, as the horses had consumed nearly all the water in the sandy or rocky reservoirs. Before them the out-look was just as unpromising. By going forward more quickly to find water, and leaving the rest to follow on their tracks, the leader or his brother managed to get through this awful country. Just at the time when a collapse was impending, they had the great good fortune to fall in with good springs, and so were saved. On and on they went until, on the 27th of September, 1874, the load of anxiety, naturally accumulated, was lightened by the sight of the overland telegraph line, and again ensued cheers and great rejoicings and thankfulness. Thus the deserts had been spanned, and the light made to penetrate the darkness. Civilisation was quickly reached, and the way of the hardy men to Adelaide was marked by the loud applause of all they passed. In nearly every town or village of the settled parts addresses and banquets were extended to them, and from Salisbury to Adelaide a huge procession followed the little band. The people of Adelaide and suburbs went out to meet the party, and friendly societies' members and members of other institutions fell into line, while bands supplied the music of triumph. In Adelaide their reception was most enthusiastic. The members of the South Australian Cabinet, the officials of the Council, and the leading residents, vied with each other in doing honour to the successful explorers. Thus, what with banquets and excursions into the country and to Melbourne, many days passed pleasantly. In December they returned to Western Australia, where the honours of the previous occasion were again gone through, and a banquet and a ball were given to the redoubtable John Forrest and his brother.
This last feat marked John Forrest one of the great Australian explorers, and honours fell upon him thick and fast. The Governor and the Legislative Council of Western Australia specially thanked him for his services, and the Imperial Government made him a grant in fee of five thousand acres of goodly land. Governor Weld, in 1874, in writing to Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in regard to the Eucla trip, said," Mr. Forrest's expedition has bridged the gap that separated West Australia from the other colonies; has led to settlement on the shores of the Great Bight, and to the connection of this colony with the rest of the world, by electric telegraph. I never doubted of the future of West Australia from the day when the news of Mr. Forrest's success reached Perth." In 1875 John Forrest visited England, where he was received with every demonstration of respect. In 1876 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, in presenting which the President, Sir Henry Rawlinson, remarked: " Never since John McDougall Stuart in 1860 traversed Australia from south to north, and explored the route on which the line of the electric telegraph was subsequently laid, has a journey been undertaken of the same magnitude and difficulty as that recently accomplished by Mr. Forrest, and never certainly either in Australia or any other country has a more conscientious and exhaustive survey been executed of the route traversed in so long and arduous a journey." In the absence of John Forrest, the medal was received by Mr. Lowther, Under Secretary for the Colonies, who, replying to the remarks of the President, said:— "His noble friend, Lord Carnarvon, would have had great pleasure in attending had he not been unavoidably detained, but even if his lordship had been present he would not have been the real 'lion'—that honour belonged to the absent traveller ..... Mr. Forrest had performed a feat which not only involved considerable physical and moral courage, but which, it might be sincerely hoped, would be of lasting service to the cause of mankind. His travels had not been pursued merely for pleasure, or the greed of gain, but they had been undertaken on public grounds, on the call of the public authorities, in the interests of the community. Lieutenant Cameron had been complimented on the accuracy with which through all the difficulties he had to encounter he had maintained his records; and in Mr. Forrest's case no small portion of the gratitude which he had so deservedly earned was owing to the very great accuracy with which, under circumstances of extreme difficulty and danger, he had continued to make his observations, thus adding a very important chapter to scientific geography." In addition to this in the same year he was created a Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Italy by Victor Emanuel, and subsequently he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Italian Imperial Geographical Society. Later he had the distinction conferred upon him of Honorary Fellow of the Vienna and St. Petersburg Geographical Societies. In 1876 Mr. Forrest published a diary and a more enlarged account of his explorations. This volume is typical of a successful explorer, and simply and plainly tells the story of his great hardships, without egotism of any kind. He extended his experience as an author some years later by publishing "Notes on Western Australia, 1884-5-6-7."
The year 1876 was an eventful one for Mr. Forrest, for, in addition to those honours already mentioned, he received an important appointment and was married. He was appointed Deputy Surveyor General of Western Australia, a position he deserved and was well able to fill. Soon afterwards he was married. His wife, Margaret Elvire, is the eldest daughter of Mr. Edward Hamersley, of the well-known Hamersley family, Pyrton Manor, Oxfordshire, England. The Hamersleys are now among the largest landed proprietors in Western Australia.
Mr. Forrest and his wife took up their residence in Hay Street, Perth, where they continue to reside. The next few years were spent by Mr. Forrest performing important duties in the Survey office. In 1875 he conducted an exhaustive trigometrical survey of the Nickel Bay district; and from September of the same year to January, 1879, he acted as Commissioner of Crown Lands and Surveyor General, with a seat in the Executive Council of Western Australia. These offices he filled with the utmost satisfaction. Subsequently he was gazetted a Justice of the Peace. From May, 1880, to July, 1881, he held the position of Comptroller of Imperial Expenditure in the colony. Then, in 1882, he made a trigometrical survey of the Gascoyne and Lyons districts, and was dignified by being created by Her Majesty a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. In the following year he was promoted to the office of Commissioner of Crown Lands and Surveyor General of Western Australia, with a seat in the Executive and Legislative Councils. By these means he was enabled to render excellent service to the colony. He was gaining more and more knowledge of the potentialities of Western Australia, and visited nearly every portion of it, acquiring a wider experience and acquaintance with its resources than any other man. In March, 1883, and in April, 1885, he proceeded to the Kimberley district, North Western Australia, to specially report in the interests of the Government on its character and resources. Then, in 1886, he visited Cambridge Gulf in the extreme north, founded the town of Wyndham, and established a government settlement there. Thus he knows all the territory of this immense colony from Eucla to the Leeuwin and to Wyndham. After his return from Cambridge Gulf he was mainly instrumental in having land laws passed by the Legislative Council in 1886, which are based on the principle that no alienation of land from the Crown shall take place, except on conditions of improvement. This he believed would tend greatly to the development of the lands of the colony, and prevent the holding of land for mere speculative purposes. His career now began to partake more and more of a public nature from a political point of view. In 1886 he was a member of the local commission for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, and was one of the delegates of Western Australia to the Colonial Conference, held in London in 1887. This Colonial Conference was one of the most important of its kind held up to that time, and many matters of Imperial concern and Colonial responsibility were considered.
It is not, after all, a very great transfiguration for a noted explorer to become a leader in politics. The qualities of generalship and tact and diplomacy are needed in both positions, but in politics the man who succeeds must be gifted, more or less, with strong oratorical powers. During the years that John Forrest was a member of the old Legislative Council, his public utterances bespoke careful research. When he spoke on any question, the listeners knew that he would say something worth hearing, and thus he became a man of importance among them. But the limited powers of the Legislative Council precluded the possibility of his attaining any notability. When the agitation for Responsible Government was begun, Mr. John Forrest early showed that he was an earnest believer in it, and more, that he would work zealously to bring it about. This is not the place to recount the many steps taken to secure the much desired privilege, sufficient to say that Mr. Forrest took a part in them. After much deliberation and continuous agitation, Western Australia was granted a Constitution in 1890, and was thereby allowed to more completely guide her own destinies. In December, 1890, the elections for the first Legislative Assembly took place, and Mr. John Forrest was returned unopposed for his native district of Bunbury. The proclamation of the new constitution had the effect of abolishing his appointment of Commissioner of Lands and Member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, but he was specially permitted by Her Majesty to retain for life the prefix of "Honorable" to his name.
After the elections it was a most felicitous decision on the part of the Governor of the day, Sir William Robinson, G.C.M.G., to send for Mr. John Forrest to form the first Cabinet under Responsible Government, and to confer on him the honour of being the first Premier. He it was who had served his colony above all his contemporaries, whose whole career had been distinguished by undoubted integrity and patriotism. Mr. Forrest, taking the portfolio of Treasurer, willingly set to work to form a Cabinet from among the pioneer members of the Assembly and the Legislative Council, which should be talented enough to inaugurate the era of Self Government, and place the various State Departments on a sound basis. It is one thing for a government to enter office when the machine of State is in full swing, quite another matter to start that machine and overcome all the initial difficulties of friction, &c. But Mr. Forrest, with the aid of his colleagues, was as equal to this occasion as he was in the leading of his exploring expeditions. By dint of continuous work he has guided public affairs through a period of most phenomenal prosperity, so great as to have been hardly equalled in any British dependency. The discovery of gold has certainly helped him, but his wise leadership and progressive laws and Public Works policy have done wonders. Early in his Premiership, in March, 1891, he went to Sydney to represent Western Australia at the historical Convention which sought to weld together the various Australasian Colonies under one flag, with one common object. The remainder of the year was devoted to inaugurating useful laws during the first session of the newly-constituted Parliament. In June, 1891, the Queen, in recognition of his splendid career, conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, and no Australian ever deserved the title more than Sir John, as will be conceded by every one reading this biography.
To successfully guide the colony through the last four years has been a problem of paramount importance. So many new interests have sprung up requiring new laws, and problems of such magnitude entailing the greatest anxiety have had to be faced, that the most experienced legislator might well have been daunted. This applies more particularly to meeting the requirements of the goldfields. Gold discoveries have been made from place to place over an immense area, and without any absolute proof of their permanency it needed great enterprise, tempered with caution, to serve them with the necessary complement of facilities. They were near those parts visited by Sir John on his first expedition, and as difficult of access as one could conceive. After careful recapitulation of all the circumstances surrounding the goldfields, and their probable ultimate value to the colony, Sir John and his cabinet decided on supplying them with railways and all the facilities so requisite to the stimulating of a mining industry. Thus Coolgardie is already linked to the seaboard by the railway, as also is Kalgoorlie, Cue, and other valuable goldfield centres. There are telegraph lines and post offices, regular services of mails, police protection, magistrates, and mining laws calculated to suit the peculiar necessities of the fields. Much expenditure has been incurred, yet naturally enough many people have been found who are only too eager to accuse the Premier and the Government of want of enterprise. Comparing this colony with what has been done under similar circumstances elsewhere, shows, even to the biassed, that the Government has been more than usually courageous in their policy. The agitators in their ignorance expect to find in the inhospitable interior all the conveniences of populated cities.
Sir John Forrest was very fortunate in the men whom he took into his first cabinet, for they one and all worked hand in hand with him in re-organising the Government Departments. Of his first colleagues only the Hon. S. Burt now remains in office. Without going too fully into the details of measures Sir John has been instrumental in placing on the Statute Book, only the principal are here mentioned. In the Constitution Act the qualification required by a candidate for a seat in the Assembly was £500 worth of freehold property; the elector's qualification was £10 household. Sir John has caused these restrictions to be wholly removed. He is responsible for "The Homesteads Act," which presents splendid opportunities to people in the colony and those taking up their residence here to acquire 100 acres of land without monetary consideration, provided they comply with certain conditions. This measure should have wide-reaching effect, and is at one with all Sir John's career in his efforts to place the local resources of soil on a stable footing. Closely related to both in progressiveness and incidence is the "Agricultural Bank Act," by which agriculturists may borrow from the State under special circumstances. The establishment of a Royal Mint in Perth is due to Sir John Forrest. The Leeuwin Lighthouse is another result of his exertions. In keeping with progressive goldfields policy, Sir John is active in supplying Fremantle with every facility in harbour accommodations. He wishes to make the port able to accommodate the great ocean liners, and harbour works are being actively pushed on, which will ultimately cost about one million pounds. While paying due attention to these matters, and especially to railway connection with the various goldfields, Sir John recognises that the landed industries must be stimulated, that the agriculturists and the pastoralists may have encouragement to serve the gold producers, and vice versa. He has already had railways laid to Bunbury, Vasse, and Blackwood, and he advocates still more activity in this direction.
Still in the turmoil of office the Honorable Sir John Forrest leads a busier life than ever. In the earlier days, when out surveying or exploring, he was the most eager and energetic of the parties, and let there be a hill to climb from which to take observations, no matter how rough the ascent, Sir John was the first to essay the task. In leading his expeditions he suffered with the rest, and would even rather undertake the most tiring work himself than ask his companions to do it. To-day in his political life he is just the same. He is a cautious general, and works continuously and energetically. He leaves no stone unturned to further what he conceives the true and patriotic cause of Western Australia. His heart is still securely in the colony, and though he is burdened with many honours, he remains a friend of rich and poor.
There may be many people in Western Australia who do not coincide with his political views, yet they all look upon him as the greatest man among them, and admire his resource, courage, determination, and the heart which tempers everything he does. Sir John is just at that age when ripe experience is best coupled with strong energy, and his country may yet expect many valuable services from him.
[In 1897 Sir John Forrest attended the Federal Convention in Adelaide, and represented the colony at the Queen's Reign celebrations in England.—Ed.]
Kimberly, WB 1897, History of West Australia: A Narrative Of Her Past Together With Biographies Of Her Leading Men, Niven, Melbourne: 88-90. Available online from Wikisource. Second photo above by Greenham & Evans from this book.
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