George Harris MLC Queensland ca. 1870

George Harris, merchant and politician (1831-1891).

George Harris, after whom Harris Terrace on George Street is named, was a well-known merchant and politician in the first decades of Brisbane as a free settlement and then an independent colony.

George’s family emigrated from Britain in 1833, when George was aged two. His early years were spent in Victoria and New South Wales. Harris owed his start in the merchant business to his brother John, who began trading in South Brisbane in 1842. In 1848, when George was aged 17, he started working with his brother in the business. For the next few years the merchant business continued to expand with the addition of three new ships. All were destined for the trade between Moreton Bay and Sydney, carrying both goods and passengers. In 1850 the brothers’ premises at South Brisbane were chosen as the second Brisbane Bond store.

Unfortunately George Harris and John Harris did not make good partners and argued constantly, to the extent that George left briefly in 1852 to go to the gold fields in Bendigo. He returned in 1853 and again went into partnership with John, trading under the name of J and G Harris, general merchants and commissioning agents. The year 1853 saw the building of a new Customs House at the lower end of Queen Street. As a result, John Harris sold the South Brisbane premises and moved the shipping business to North Brisbane, occupying the wharf and lower store built originally by Mr Richardson, below the new Customs House.

John Harris and his family left for England in December 1853 leaving 22-year-old George in charge of the business. In early 1854 he oversaw the building a stone store in Short Street with a riverside frontage close to a wharf, which, on an 1865 map of Brisbane, is called Harris’ Wharf. The modern building known as 1 William Street has been constructed over where Short Street once ran, between Margaret and Alice Streets.

John Harris and his family returned to Brisbane in December 1856 but did not stay, returning to London in January 1858 to set up J & G Harris as an agency in London to facilitate trade between Brisbane and London. This gave George free reign to expand the business with the inclusion of a tannery, fellmongery, boot and harness factory, situated on 52 acres (21.4 hectares) with Kedron Brook flowing through much of it.

In October 1860, George had married Jane Thorn, the daughter of George Thorn MLA of Ipswich, linking him to one of the founding families of the Ipswich area. In another sign of his growing prosperity, George leased Newstead House, the former Government Residency occupied by Wickham, in 1862. In 1865 he employed local architect George Cowlishaw to repair and redesign Newstead, resulting in much of the house that can be seen today. In 1866, Harris used Cowlishaw again to design ‘Harris Terrace’, on George Street. The rents from these six residences allowed Harris to purchase Newstead House, which then became one of the centres of the social scene in Brisbane, hosting many distinguished guests including H.R.H Duke of Edinburgh in 1868.

The 1860s were a good decade for George. His appointment by Governor Bowen to the first Legislative Council of Queensland (the Upper House), on 23 May 1860, was a sign of his standing in the community. He continued to take every opportunity to establish himself in the business world. Taking advantage of the demand for other sources of cotton during the American Civil War (1861-1865), George set up a processing plant in Ipswich and in 1864 built a two storey brick store for housing the product. He also expanded the firm’s shipping interests by establishing a fleet of river and coastal craft.

The warehouses and wharf in Short Street played a major role in the development of the Queen’s Wharf area over the next twenty years. By 1862, the warehouses were bonded stores. That same year Harris decided to begin trading with the Clarence River Districts in competition with merchants based in New South Wales, something that was applauded in the newspaper report of the time. By 1868, the Harris enterprise was sending as much as 1,000 bales of wool, 50 casks of tallow and 500 hides in one shipment to London. In 1869 George Harris applied to extend the wharf in front of the Short Street allotments 1-4, on which the warehouses stood, by 30 feet (9.1 metres) into the river. This was approved and the result, shown on an 1896 survey map, dwarfs the Pettigrew and Victoria wharves upstream.

As shipping agents J and G Harris were strongly linked to immigration in the early 1870s. Ships such as the Indus with 475 immigrants, the Star Queen with 352 immigrants and the Juliet with 459 immigrants all arrived at the Harris’ wharf in 1873-74 period. Close to the William Street Immigration Depot, their wharf was an ideal location for the disembarkation of new arrivals.

Always looking to expand in new businesses, in 1872 George purchased a one-twelfth share in a coal mine in Gympie for £350. He already had shares in the Blue Mountain Tin Mining Company and the Potosi Silver Mining Co. Ltd (which failed) and was a partner in a gold prospecting venture at Enoggera. That same year the Supreme Court appointed George as official liquidator of the Bank of Queensland. His salary consisted of £200 each year, as well as 5% of all monies he collected.

Other of his involvements in the commercial life of Brisbane included election to the committee of the Chamber of Commerce (1874), followed by his appointment as Chairman in 1875. He was appointed a member of the Marine Board, also in 1875.

Yet all was not well. In early August 1876, John Harris filed for insolvency in London. The debt was listed as £300,000. George Harris filed for insolvency at the Supreme Court in Brisbane on 30 August 1876. According to newspaper reports at the time, this was not unexpected as the firm had not been taking on new contracts and most of their workers had been let go. As it was understood most of the debt was in London, it was hoped it would not affect other businesses in Queensland too greatly.

The case was heard in the Supreme Court in Brisbane from October 1876 to April 1877. A certificate discharging George Harris as bankrupt was granted on 3 April 1877. As a result, George lost all his business interests including the warehouse in Short street and the business in Ipswich. He resigned from the Legislative Council. Harris Terrace was returned to the mortgagee, James Taylor, who also bought Newstead House, where Harris and his family had been living since 1862. Taylor, then made it available for Harris to lease.

George Harris had not waited for the court decision before he began trading as George Harris & Co. in September 1876. He re-established his business interests by opening another scouring and fellmongery business in South Brisbane. He became the agent for the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (later known as P&O) and also became a Commission Agent advertising cash, credits and advances of money from his premises at 178 Queen Street. During the 1880s Harris was the Queensland Consular Agent for the United States, Italy and Belgium at various times.

Throughout, Newstead House remained the Harris family home. All of George and Jane’s children were born at Newstead. The eldest, Kate May, died at age three months in 1862 and the youngest, a boy, was stillborn in 1868. Of the four surviving children it was the two girls, Edith Maud born on 10 December 1865, and her younger sister, Evelyn Jane born on 7 March 1867, who are best remembered. Edith married George Condamine Taylor JP, the second son of James Taylor, the ‘King of Toowoomba’, on 28 August 1883 at St John’s pro-Cathedral on William Street in a service performed by Archdeacon Glennie. Evelyn married Richard Gardiner Casey MLA on 23 May 1888 at St John’s pro-Cathedral, the service again performed by Archdeacon Glennie. Their son, Richard Gavin Gardiner Casey (Baron Casey), was Governor-General of Australia from September 1965 to April 1969.

The Harris’ lived at Newstead House for a total of 27 years, maintaining their position as leading lights of the Brisbane social scene. George and Jane Harris left Newstead in April 1890, following a big flood the previous month when the flood water was described as reaching from Newstead House right into Fortitude Valley. In April 1890, under the instructions of the trustees of Mrs George Harris the entire contents of the house were put up for auction. The newspaper reports of the auction show how lavish their life style had been. They moved to Bankside, North Quay, where George died suddenly on 28 March 1891.

Additional Reading

Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for George Harris