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.
Forrest was one of 10 children of William and Margaret Forrest, who came out as servants under Dr John Ferguson in 1842. He was born at Preston point near Bunbury in what was then the British colony of Western Australia. He was also known as Jack to his family. Among his seven brothers were Alexander Forrest and David Forrest. He attended the government school in Bunbury under John Hislop until the age of 12, when he was sent north to Perth to attend the Bishop's Collegiate School, now Hale School, starting there in January 1860.
In November 1863, he was apprenticed to a government land surveyor named Thomas Carey. When his term of apprenticeship ended in November 1865, he became the first man born and taught in the colony to qualify as a land surveyor. He then commenced work as a surveyor with the government's Lands and Surveys Department.
On 2 September 1876 in Perth, Forrest married Margaret Elvire Hamersley. The Hamersleys were a very wealthy family, and Forrest gained substantially in wealth and social standing from the marriage. However, to their disappointment the marriage was childless.
Between 1869 and 1874, Forrest led three expeditions into the uncharted land surrounding the colony of Western Australia. In 1869, he led a fruitless search for the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt in the desert west of the site of the present town of Leonora. The following year, he surveyed Edward John Eyre's land route, from Perth to Adelaide. In 1874, he led a party to the watershed of the Murchison River and then east through the unknown desert centre of Western Australia. Forrest published an account of his expeditions, Explorations in Australia, in 1875. In 1882, he was made a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by Queen Victoria for his services in exploring the interior.
Search for Ludwig Leichhardt
In March 1869, Forrest was asked to lead an expedition in search of Leichhardt, who had been missing since April 1848. A few years earlier, a party of Aborigines had told the explorer Charles Hunt that a group of white men had been killed by Aborigines a long time ago, and some time afterwards, an Aboriginal tracker named Jemmy Mungaro had corroborated their story and claimed to have personally been to the location. Since it was thought that these stories might refer to Leichhardt's party, Forrest was asked to lead a party to the site, with Mungaro as their guide and there to search for evidence of Leichhardt's fate.
Forrest assembled a party of six, including the Aboriginal trackers Mungaro and Tommy Windich, and they left Perth on 15 April 1869. They headed in a north-easterly direction, passing through the colony's furthermost sheep station on 26 April. On 6 May, they encountered a group of Aborigines who offered to guide the party to a place where there were many skeletons of horses. Forrest's team accompanied this group in a more northerly direction, but after a week of travelling it became clear that their destination was Poison Rock, where the explorer Robert Austin was known to have left eleven of his horses for dead in 1854. They then turned once more towards the location indicated by their guide.
The team arrived in the location to be searched on 28 May. They then spent almost three weeks surveying and searching an area of about 15,000 km² in the desert west of the site of the present-day town of Leonora. Having found no evidence of Leichhardt's fate, and Mungaro having changed his story and admitted that he had not personally visited the site, they decided to push as far eastwards as they could on their remaining supplies. The expedition reached its furthest point east on 2 July, near the present-day site of the town of Laverton. They then turned for home, returning by a more northerly route and arriving back in Perth on 6 August.
They had been absent for 113 days, and had travelled, by Forrest's reckoning, over 3,600 kilometres (2,200 mi), most of it through uncharted desert. They had found no sign of Leichhardt, and the country over which they travelled was useless for farming. However, Forrest did report that his compass had been affected by the presence of minerals in the ground, and he suggested that the government send geologists to examine the area. Ultimately, the expedition achieved very little, but it was of great personal advantage to Forrest whose reputation with his superiors and in the community at large was greatly enhanced.
Later that year, Forrest was selected to lead an expedition that would survey a land route along the Great Australian Bight between the colonies of South Australia and Western Australia. Eyre had achieved such a crossing 30 years earlier, but his expedition had been poorly planned and equipped, and Eyre had nearly perished from lack of water. Forrest's expedition would follow Eyre's route, but it would be thoroughly planned and properly resourced. Also, the recent discovery of safe anchorages at Israelite Bay and Eucla would permit Forrest's team to be reprovisioned along the way by a chartered schooner Adur. Forrest's brief was to provide a proper survey of the route, which might be used in future to establish a telegraph link between the colonies and also to assess the suitability of the land for pasture.
Forrest's team consisted of six men his brother Alexander was second in charge, Police constable Hector Neil McLarty, farrier William Osborn, trackers Tommy Windich and Billy Noongale (Kickett); 15 horses. The party left Perth on 30 March 1870, and arrived at Esperance on 24 April. Heavy rain fell for much of this time.
After resting and reprovisioning, the party left Esperance on 9 May and arrived at Israelite Bay nine days later. They had encountered very little feed for their horses and no permanent water, but they managed to obtain sufficient rain water from rock water-holes. After reprovisioning, the team left for Eucla on 30 May. Again, they encountered very little feed and no permanent water, and this time the water they obtained from rock water-holes was not sufficient. They were compelled to dash more than 240 kilometres (150 mi) to a spot that Eyre had found water in 1841. Having secured a water source, they rested and explored the area before moving on, eventually reaching Eucla on 2 July. At Eucla, they rested and reprovisioned and explored inland, where they found good pasture land. On 14 July, the team started the final leg of their expedition through unsettled country: from Eucla to the nearest South Australian station. During the last leg, almost no water could be found, and the team were compelled to travel day and night for nearly five days. They saw their first signs of civilisation on 18 July and eventually reached Adelaide on 27 August.
A week later, they boarded ship for Western Australia, arriving in Perth on 27 September. They were honoured at two receptions: one by the Perth City Council and a citizens' banquet at the Horse and Groom Tavern. Speaking at the receptions, Forrest was modest about his own contributions but praised the efforts of the members of the expedition and divided a government gratuity between them.
Forrest's bight crossing was one of the most organised and best managed expeditions of his time. As a result, his party successfully completed in five months a journey that had taken Eyre twelve and arrived in good health and without the loss of a single horse. From that point of view, the expedition must be considered a success.
However, the tangible results were not great. They had not travelled far from Eyre's track, and although a large area was surveyed, only one small area of land suitable for pasture was found. A second expedition by the same team returned to the area between August and November 1871 and found further good pastures, north-north-east of Esperance.
In August 1872, Forrest was invited to lead a third expedition, from Geraldton to the source of the Murchison River and then east through the uncharted centre of Western Australia to the overland telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide. The purpose was to discover the nature of the unknown centre of Western Australia, and to find new pastoral land.
Forrest's team again consisted of six men, including his brother Alexander and Windich. They also had 20 horses and food for eight months. The team left Geraldton on 1 April 1874, and a fortnight later, it passed through the colony's outermost station. On 3 May the team passed into unknown land. It found plenty of good pastoral land around the headwaters of the Murchison River, but by late May, it was travelling over arid land. On 2 June, while dangerously short of water, it discovered Weld Springs, "one of the best springs in the colony" according to Forrest. This later became Well 9 of the Canning Stock Route, but it proved unreliable as a water source.
At Weld Springs, the party came into conflict with a group of Martu people. In his diary, Forrest recorded that 40 to 60 men had appeared on the hill overlooking the springs, "all plumed up and armed with spears and shields". They then rushed towards the camp brandishing spears, to which Forrest and his party responded by firing their weapons. The group retreated up the hill before charging again, and more shots were fired. On the following day, Forrest found blood near the camp, speculating that two men had been shot and at least one had suffered a severe wound. Fearing another attack, Forrest and his men constructed a stone hut (or "fort") with a thatched roof, approximately 7 feet (2.1 m) high and 10 feet (3.0 m) by 9 feet (2.7 m) in area. There were no further confrontations between the groups. According to Martu oral history, the initial conflict occurred after one of the white men approached Martu singing around a fire and was threatened with a spear. The second incident occurred after the fort was built and resulted in some of their men being killed. It has been suggested that the expedition may have intruded upon a ceremonial gathering.
Beyond Weld Springs water was extremely hard to obtain, and by 4 July the team relied on occasional thunderstorms for water. By 2 August, the team was critically short of water; a number of horses had been abandoned, and Forrest's journal indicates that the team had little confidence of survival. A few days later, it was rescued by a shower of rain. On 23 August, it was again critically short of water and half of their horses were near death, when they were saved by the discovery of Elder Springs.
Then, the land became somewhat less arid, and the risk of dying from thirst started to abate. Other difficulties continued, however: the team had to abandon more of their horses, and one member of the team suffered from scurvy and could barely walk. The team finally sighted the telegraph line near Mount Alexander on 27 September and reached Peake Telegraph Station three days later. The remainder of the journey was a succession of triumphant public receptions by passing through each country town en route to Adelaide. The team reached Adelaide on 3 November 1874, more than six months after they started from Geraldton.
From an exploration point of view, Forrest's third expedition was of great importance. A large area of previously unknown land was explored, and the popular notion of an inland sea was shown to be unlikely. However, the practical results were not great. Plenty of good pastoral land was found up to the head of the Murchison, but beyond that, the land was useless for pastoral enterprise, and Forrest was convinced that it would never be settled. Forrest also made botanical collections during the expedition that were given to Ferdinand von Mueller, who, in turn, named Eremophila forrestii in his honour.
In 1875, Forrest published Explorations in Australia, an account of his three expeditions. In July 1876, he was awarded the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. He was made a CMG by Queen Victoria in 1882 for his services in exploring the interior.
He was an outstanding surveyor, and his successful expeditions had made him a popular public figure as well. Consequently, he was promoted rapidly through the ranks of the Lands and Surveys Department, and in January 1883 he succeeded Malcolm Fraser in the positions of surveyor-general and commissioner of crown lands. This was one of the most powerful and responsible positions in the colony, and it accorded him a seat on the colony's . At the same time, Forrest was nominated to the colony's Legislative Council. After Britain ceded to Western Australia the right to self-rule in 1890, Forrest was elected unopposed to the seat of Bunbury in the Legislative Assembly. On 22 December 1890, Governor William Robinson appointed Forrest the first Premier of Western Australia. In May of the following year, he was knighted KCMG for his services to the colony.
The Forrest Ministry immediately embarked on a programme of large-scale public works funded by loans raised in London. Public works were greatly in demand at the time, because of the British government's reluctance to approve public spending in the colony. Under the direction of the brilliant engineer C. Y. O'Connor, many thousands of miles of railway were laid, and many bridges, jetties, lighthouses and town halls were constructed. The two most ambitious projects were the Fremantle Harbour Works, one of the few public works of the 1890s which is still in use today; and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, in which the Helena River was dammed and the water piped over 550 kilometres (340 mi) to Kalgoorlie. Forrest's public works programme was generally well received, although on the Eastern Goldfields where the rate of population growth and geographical expansion far outstripped the government's ability to provide works, Forrest was criticised for not doing enough. He invited further criticism in 1893 with his infamous "spoils to the victors" speech, in which he appeared to assert that members who opposed the government were putting at risk their constituents' access to their fair share of public works.
Forrest's government also implemented a number of social reforms, including measures to improve the status of women, young girls and wage-earners. However, although Forrest did not always oppose proposals for social reform, he never instigated or championed them. Critics have therefore argued that Forrest deserves little credit for the social reforms achieved under his premiership. On political reform, however, Forrest's influence was unquestionable. In 1893, Forrest guided through parliament a number of significant amendments to the Constitution of Western Australia, including an extension of the franchise to all men regardless of property ownership. He also had a significant role in repealing section 70 of that constitution, which had provided that 1% of public revenue should be paid to a Board (not under local political control) for the welfare of Indigenous people, and was "widely hated" by the colonists.
The major political question of the time, though, was federation. Forrest was in favour of federation, and felt that it was inevitable, but he also felt that Western Australia should not join until it obtained fair terms. He was heavily involved in the framing of the Australian Constitution, representing Western Australia at a number of meetings on federation, including the National Australasian Conventions in Sydney in 1891 and in Adelaide in 1897, and the Australasian Federal Conventions in Sydney in 1897 and in Melbourne in 1898. He fought hard to protect the rights of the less populous states, arguing for a strong upper house organised along state lines. He also argued for a number of concessions to Western Australia, and for the building of a trans-Australian railway. Although he was largely unsuccessful in his endeavours, by 1900 he was convinced that better terms were not to be obtained, so called the referendum in which Western Australians voted to join the federation, and Western Australia became a part of Australia in 1901.
On 30 December 1900, Forrest accepted the position of Postmaster-General in Edmund Barton's federal caretaker government. Two days later, he received news that he had been made a GCMG "in recognition of services in connection with the Federation of Australian Colonies and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia". Forrest was postmaster-general for only 17 days: he resigned to take up the defence portfolio, which had been made vacant by the death of Sir James Robert Dickson. On 13 February 1901, he resigned as premier of Western Australia and as member for Bunbury.
In the March 1901 federal election, the first one ever, Forrest was elected, unopposed, on a moderate Protectionist platform to the federal House of Representatives seat of Swan. He held the defence portfolio for over two years. After a cabinet reshuffle on 7 August 1903, he became Minister for Home Affairs.
The December 1903 federal election greatly weakened the governing party. Shortly afterwards, it was defeated and replaced by a Labour government under Chris Watson. Forrest moved to the crossbenches, where he was a scathing critic of the Labour government's policies and legislation. After George Reid's Free Trade Party took office in August 1904, he remained on the crossbenches but largely supported the government.
In June 1905, Alfred Deakin's Protectionist Party formed an alliance with Labour to end Reid's government. They formed a new government on 7 July, with Forrest appointed Treasurer, as fifth in seniority. After a ministerial reshuffle in October 1906, Forrest became third in cabinet precedence. Five months later, Deakin and his deputy, William Lyne, travelled to London to attend conferences, and Forrest was appointed acting Prime Minister, from 18 March to 27 June 1907.
The alliance with Labour had put Forrest in a difficult position, as he had repeatedly opposed it. Before the December 1906 federal election, he continued to attack the Labour Party despite sharing government with it and depending on its support. In the following months, Forrest was himself heavily criticised in the press for his willingness to work with the Labour Party when Cabinet was in session and for his attacks on the party during election campaigns.
He began to feel that his reputation in Western Australia and his personal standing in cabinet were being undermined. In response, he resigned as treasurer on 30 July 1907 and joined the crossbenches, where he was a mild critic of the government.
A few months later, Labour withdrew its support for Deakin's government, forcing it to resign. Labour then formed government under Andrew Fisher. In the following months, Forrest and a number of other members worked to arrange a fusion of the Free Trade and Protectionist parties into a single party. Eventually, the Commonwealth Liberal Party was formed, with Deakin as leader. Fisher was then forced to resign, and the new Liberal Party took office on 2 June 1909, with Forrest as treasurer. Labour reclaimed office at the April 1910 federal election.
Early in 1913, Deakin resigned as Leader of the Opposition. Forrest and Joseph Cook contested the leadership, with Cook winning by a single vote. Forrest was very disappointed, especially since Deakin, whom he considered a friend, had voted against him. Five months later, in the May 1913 federal election, the Liberal Party returned to power, with Cook as Prime Minister. Forrest was appointed treasurer for the third time. However, the government's majority of just one seat in the House of Representatives, along with Labor's large majority in the Senate, made it difficult to get anything done. In June 1914, Cook asked the Governor-General for a double dissolution, and Australia was sent back to the polls. Forrest retained his seat, but the Liberal Party was soundly defeated and Forrest was again relegated to the crossbenches.
In December 1916, a split in the Labor Party over conscription left Prime Minister Billy Hughes with a minority government. Hughes and his colleagues formed the National Labor Party, and the Liberal Party joined with it in the formation of a new government. For the fourth time, Forrest was appointed treasurer. The National Labor and Liberal parties easily won a combined majority at the May 1917 election, and the two parties soon merged to form the Nationalist Party of Australia.
On 20 December, a referendum on conscription was defeated, and Hughes kept his promise to resign as prime minister if the referendum was lost. Forrest immediately declared himself a candidate for the position, but the Governor-General found that Forrest did not have the numbers and so asked Hughes to form government again. Hughes accepted, and the previous government was again sworn in.
On 6 February 1918, Forrest was informed that he was to be raised to the British peerage as "Baron Forrest of Bunbury in the Commonwealth of Australia and of Forrest in Fife in the United Kingdom". Despite the announcement, however, no letters patent were issued before his death, so there is uncertainty whether or not his peerage was officially created.
Forrest had been suffering from a cancer on his temple since early in 1917, and by 1918, he was very ill. He resigned as treasurer on 21 March 1918, and shortly afterwards boarded ship for London, where he hoped to obtain specialist medical attention. He also hoped to be able to take his seat in the House of Lords. However, on 2 September 1918, with his ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, he died. He was buried there, but his remains were later brought back to Western Australia and interred in Karrakatta Cemetery.
He was replaced in his seat by Edwin Corboy, of the Labor Party, in the 1918 Swan by-election. At 22, Corboy was the youngest member of the Parliament of Australia until 2010. The shock victory of a Labor Party candidate in a seat that Forrest had occupied since its creation was because of a split in the votes. To prevent the situation from recurring, the government changed the voting system to the preferential vote.
He was a tall, heavily built man; in his later years, he tended towards stoutness, and he had a mass of about 120 kg (260 lb) when he died. He was fond of pomp and ceremony and insisted on being treated with respect at all times. Highly sensitive to criticism, he hated having his authority challenged and tended to browbeat his political opponents. He had very little sense of humour and was greatly offended when a journalist playfully referred to him as the "Commissioner for Crown Sands".
His upbringing and education were said by his biographer, F. K. Crowley, to have compounded in him "social snobbery, laissez-faire capitalism, sentimental royalism, patriotic Anglicanism, benevolent imperialism and racial superiority." He was, however, a very popular figure who treated everyone he met with politeness and dignity. He was renowned for his memory for names and faces and for his prolific letter-writing.
Forrest's legacy can be found in the Western Australian landscape, with many places named by or after him:
- the small settlement of Forrest on the Trans-Australian Railway;
- Glen Forrest;
- John Forrest National Park;
- Forrest River;
- Forrest Chase;
- Forrestfield and
- John Forrest Secondary College in Morley.
In addition, the electoral Division of Forrest was created in 1922; the suburb of Forrest, Australian Capital Territory is named after Forrest, as one of the many suburbs of Canberra named after Australia's first federal politicians.
He is one of many railroad builders featured as a possible computer-controlled competitor in the simulation game Railroad Tycoon 3.
On 28 November 1949, the Australian post office issued a commemorative stamp that featured Forrest.
The Lord Forrest Hotel opened in Bunbury in 1986 even though he was never correctly known by that name. It is still running today and proudly displays his pictures on the walls. It is the largest hotel in Bunbury.
- Some sources give the date as 3 September 1918
- "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
- John Forrest - Biographical Register: Parliament of Western Australia
- 1906 House of Reps WA: Adam Carr
- The Candidates: The West Australian 12 December 1906
- Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage Knightage, and Companionage. 1920. London. 1920. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
- Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage. London: Kelly's Directories. 1931. Retrieved 5 February 2018.
- Muir, Alison & Dinee (1982). Forrest Family, Pioneers of Western Australia, 1842–1982. J.R. Muir & Son. ISBN 0-9592883-0-9.
- Ancestors of Marina Garrison Archived 20 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- F. K. Crowley. "Forrest, Sir John (1847–1918)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
- Explorations in Australia illustrations by G.F. Angas; with an introduction by Valmai Hankel. Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 1998. ISBN 1-876154-19-5 – see also Project Gutenberg Australia for online copy
- Some historians like Ernest Favenc discuss the rumours of Leichhardt's fate (as well as other killings of Europeans) as being "murdered by the aborigines". Indigenous Australians take offence at the characterisation of events and have called the killing of the Europeans an act of war or an act of defence.
- Richards, Ronald (2003). The McLarty Family of Pinjarra (soft cover ed.). J.D.McLarty. pp. s 76–78. ISBN 0-9750632-0-0.
- "Explorations in Australia". gutenberg.net.au. Retrieved 9 March 2019.
- "Well 9 Canning Stock Route". Western Australian Museum. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
- "Forrest, John (1847 - 1918)". Australian National Botanic Garden. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
- Chinnock, R.J. (Bob) (2007). Eremophila and allied genera : a monograph of the plant family Myoporaceae (1st ed.). Dural, NSW: Rosenberg. p. 492. ISBN 9781877058165.
- Meyers, Gary (2006). What Good Condition? Reflections on an Australian Aboriginal Treaty 1886-2006. ANU EPress, Canberra. ISBN 1-920942-90-4.
- McLeod, Donald (1984). How the West was Lost: The Native Question in the Development of Western Australia. Self-published. ISBN 0-9590466-0-7.
- "No. 27261". The London Gazette. 1 January 1901. p. 1.
- "Summary Of Record Information". Metropolitan Cemeteries Board. Retrieved 16 September 2011.
- Place names search, Geoscience Australia Archived 5 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- "John Forrest Secondary College - About Us". Retrieved 21 May 2013.
- Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue Part 1 British Commonwealth
- Black, David; Bolton, Geoffrey (2001). Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia, Volume One, 1870–1930 (Revised ed.). Parliament House: Parliament of Western Australia. ISBN 0730738140.
- Crowley, Frank (2000). Big John Forrest 1847–1918: A Founding Father of the Commonwealth of Australia. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 1-876268-44-1.
- Forrest, John (1875). Explorations in Australia. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle.
- Reid, Gordon Stanley and Oliver, Margaret R. (1982). The Premiers of Western Australia 1890–1982. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 0-85564-214-9.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Rubinstein, W.D. (1991). The Biographical Dictionary of Life Peers. New York: St Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-01911-4.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Forrest, John". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
- The Constitution Centre of Western Australia (2002). Governors and Premiers of Western Australia. West Perth, Western Australia: The Constitution Centre of Western Australia. ISBN 0-7307-3821-3.
- Kimberly, W.B. (compiler) (1897). History of West Australia. A Narrative of her Past. Together With Biographies of Her Leading Men. Melbourne: F.W. Niven.
- Works by John Forrest at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about John Forrest at Internet Archive
- Forrest, John (Sir) (1847–1918) National Library of Australia, Trove, People and Organisation record for John Forrest
- Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911. .
|New title|| Premier of Western Australia
|New title|| Postmaster-General
| Minister for Defence|
| Minister for Home Affairs
Sir George Turner
Sir William Lyne
|Parliament of Australia|
|New division|| Member for Swan