FORREST, Sir John, first Baron Forrest of Bunbury (1847-1918)

FORREST, Sir John, first Baron Forrest of Bunbury (1847-1918)
explorer and statesman
was born at Bunbury, Western Australia, on 22 August 1847. His father, William Forrest, a son of James Forrest, a writer to the signet, came from Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland, arrived in Western Australia in 1842, and settled near Bunbury. At 12 years of age John Forrest was sent to the Bishop's School, Perth, the forerunner of Perth high school, and showed ability at his studies. On leaving school in 1863 he studied surveying, and served his articles with T. C. Carey the government surveyor of his district. Two years later he entered the survey department of the colony where his ability soon marked him out for future work. In 1869 a report was received of some human bones having been discovered which it was thought might be those of Leichhardt's (q.v.) party. Forrest was selected to lead an expedition in search of them which left on 15 April 1869. He had three white-men and two blacks with him, the route was generally north-easterly from Perth and then easterly, and they returned after 113 days, having travelled over 2000 miles. Some hardships were suffered and they found no remains, but one outcome was Forrest's suggestion that geologists should be sent to the interior to investigate indications of the presence of minerals. It was then proposed that Forrest should lead another expedition from the Murchison River to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but the project did not receive sufficient support. (Sir) Frederick A. Weld (q.v.), governor of Western Australia, however, suggested that an attempt should be made to reach Adelaide by way of the south coast. Eyre had nearly perished in the same country in 1841, but the arrangements for the new expedition were very carefully thought out, and though the members of it ran very short of water on several occasions the journey, which began on 30 March, was brought to a successful conclusion on 27 August 1870. Forrest had as second in command his brother, Alexander Forrest (q.v.), and arrangements were made for a vessel to meet them with supplies at Esperance Bay, Israelite Bay and Eucla. The expedition had a great reception at Adelaide and on Forrest's return to Western Australia he was granted 5000 acres of land. He visited England during the following year and was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1872 Forrest suggested a new expedition which was to start from Champion Bay, follow the Murchison River to its source, and then continue eastwards to the telegraph line across Australia, then nearing completion. The legislative council voted £400 towards the cost and Forrest undertook to get subscriptions for an additional £200 which he considered would be sufficient to finance it. All of his explorations were conducted at a surprisingly low cost. It happened, however, that some expeditions were being organized from the South Australian side, and it was thought better not to appear to be competing with the other colony, so Forrest's expedition was postponed until 1874. He left Perth on 18 March with his brother Alexander again acting as his lieutenant, four other men, and 18 packhorses to carry provisions for eight months. They found much difficulty in watering their horses, and Forrest regretted he could not have had camels which would have saved him many deviations in search of water. They reached the telegraph line on 27 September with but four horses left for the party of six. Several times they were in danger of death by thirst, but Forrest was a good bushman and his faithful aboriginal, Windich, who had accompanied him on former expeditions, was a great help in finding water. They arrived at Adelaide on 3 November and received an enthusiastic welcome. Forrest was able to report that there was good country to the head of the Murchison, but that the spinifex desert running to the east would probably never be fit for settlement. The whole expedition was a remarkably well-managed piece of exploration. An account of his journeys, Explorations in Australia, was published in 1875.
In 1876 Forrest was appointed deputy-surveyor-general of Western Australia and in 1878-9 acted as commissioner of crown lands with a seat in the executive council. Between 1883 and 1886 he, as surveyor-general, was engaged in settling the Kimberley district, and in the legislative council he succeeded in getting land laws passed providing that there should be no alienation of land without improvements, and he also introduced the deferred payments system. In 1885 he selected the route of the southern line of railways and worked hard for the introduction of responsible government. When it was granted in 1890 he was returned unopposed as member for Bunbury in the first legislative assembly. The action of the governor Sir William Robinson in sending for Forrest to form the first government was generally approved, and for a record period of over 10 years he continued to be premier. He brought in a vigorous public works policy including extensions of the railway and telegraph systems and important harbour improvements. The franchise was extended, and free grants of land were made to settlers willing to settle on and work it. With the growth of the gold-mining industry there came a great increase of population, the opportunities for a leader were there and Forrest proved himself to be a great leader. One difficulty was the supply of water to the goldfields. It was realized that tanks and bores could not cope with the demand, and the engineer-in-chief, C. Y. O'Connor (q.v.), brought forward his scheme for a pipeline 330 miles long. It was fortunate that the colony had in Forrest a premier who was both courageous and hopeful. In July 1896 an act was passed authorizing a loan of £2,500,000 to provide for the cost of the line. The work was begun in 1898 and in January 1903 the first water reached Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. Though Forrest was in power for so long his task had many difficulties. The influx of people from the other states to the goldfields led to some friction in the colony, the earlier inhabitants feeling that too much attention was being paid to the goldfields, while the newcomers were satisfied that the prosperity of the colony was due to the mines. Forrest though sometimes called a dictator could bow to the storm when necessary, and managed the situation with tact. There was much congestion in the post and telegraphs and railway services, and time was required to make improvements. The population of Western Australia increased by 300 per cent between 1889 and 1900 and difficulties of this kind were inevitable. In the early days of responsible government parliament had spent most of its time in the development of a bold loan policy, but towards the end of the century federation came more and more to the fore. Forrest was a member of the convention which met in 1897 and 1898 and at its close he was prepared to recommend Western Australia to adopt the constitution as it stood. Afterwards he became less favourable to it, and a select committee of the legislative assembly reported that Western Australia could not safely join the Commonwealth unless certain amendments were made in the constitution. Forrest visited the eastern colonies in January 1900 and attended the premiers' conference at Sydney hoping to secure assent to the amendments. But it was now too late for anything to be done as the other five colonies had accepted the constitution. There was too a strong federal feeling in Western Australia, especially on the goldfields, and Forrest, feeling that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, fought hard for the bill, though some of his colleagues opposed it. At the referendum there was a large majority for the proposed constitution.
Forrest was elected for Swan electorate in the first federal parliament and held the seat until his death. In the first federal ministry he was postmaster-general under Barton (q.v.) and he held office in every subsequent liberal ministry, except the Reid-McLean, as postmaster-general, minister for defence, minister for home affairs and, for five years altogether, treasurer. In 1907 he was acting prime minister while Deakin (q.v.) was at the colonial conference, but resigned from the cabinet a few weeks after Deakin's return. He was opposed to what he considered to be Labour domination, and felt he could no longer keep his place in a cabinet dependent on Labour support. In September 1911 he was greatly pleased at the announcement in the governor-general's speech at the opening of parliament that the construction of the railway from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie was to be begun. He had strenuously fought for this railway from the beginning of federation. It was completed towards the end of 1917, and Forrest was a passenger in the first train to go through and the leading figure at the celebrations of the event at Perth. He had been made C.M.G. in 1882, K.C.M.G. in 1891, a privy councillor in 1897, G.C.M.G. in 1901, and on 2 February 1918 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Forrest of Bunbury, the first native-born Australian to attain that honour. A long illness had caused him to resign as treasurer on 21 March, and he left Perth on 27 July for England seeking medical advice. He died at sea on 3 September 1918 and was buried at Sierra Leone. His remains were afterwards brought back to Western Australia. In 1876 he married Margaret Elvire Hammersley, who survived him. He had no children. His statue is in the King's Park, Perth.
Forrest did great work in Western Australia both as explorer and statesman. No prophecy of failure could deter him from going on with the scheme for supplying the goldfields with water, and he persevered with the transcontinental railway in spite of the continued opposition of the eastern states, until it was brought to a successful conclusion. His courage was unbounded, his optimism was tempered with common sense, and Western Australia found in him the man for the hour. There he reigned supreme, but in federal politics he was less successful. Possibly he was too much inclined to look upon his opponents as people to be overcome rather than convinced. In the troubled first 10 years of the federal parliament and the manoeuvring resulting from the presence of three parties in the house he never gained a large personal following. He was liked by all except possibly the Labour party, with which he fought strenuously, and no one begrudged him his reputation for rugged honesty. He was physically big, six feet in height and in later years 18 stone or more in weight, and he looked at things in a big way. During his 35 years of political life he was over 26 years in office; yet he never intrigued for office. He had faith in himself and faith in the future of his country, and he will long be remembered as one of the greatest men it has produced.
The West Australian, 5 September 1918; John Forrest, Explorations in Australia; J. S. Battye, Western Australia; Quick and Garran, Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth; H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth; Burke's Peerage, etc., 1917.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • Forrest, Sir John — ▪ Australian explorer and statesman also called (1918)  Baron Forrest Of Bunbury  born Aug. 22, 1847, Preston Point, near Bunbury, Western Australia died Sept. 3, 1918, at sea       explorer and statesman who led pioneer expeditions into… …   Universalium

  • Forrest — /ˈfɒrəst/ (say foruhst) noun 1. Alexander, 1849–1901, Australian explorer and stock and station agent; his explorations led to the opening up of much valuable grazing land between the De Grey River, WA, and Port Darwin. 2. David, pen name of… …  

  • John Forrest — Infobox Officeholder honorific prefix = The Right Hon. Sir name = John Forrest honorific suffix = GCMG, PC imagesize = small caption = order = 1st office = Premier of Western Australia term start = 22 December 1890 term end = 15 February 1901… …   Wikipedia

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