John Forrest

John Forrest, 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury (1847-1918), was an Australian explorer, administrator, and political leader. He gained a reputation as a capable and resolute expedition leader, but his greatest achievement was the economic development of Western Australia.

John Forrest was born in Bunbury, a small town south of Perth, Western Australia, on Aug. 22, 1847. He was educated at Bishop's School, Perth, and joined the colonial Survey Department in 1865. Four years later, as leader of an expedition in search of a long-missing exploring party, he penetrated well beyond settled areas.

In 1870, with his brother Alexander, Forrest led an expedition from Perth to Adelaide (over 1,500 miles) along the Great Australian Bight, generally traversing desolate tracts that had been crossed only once, 30 years before. A second grueling expedition—again undertaken with his brother—was the crossing in 1874 from Champion Bay, on the west coast, to the Musgrave Ranges in central Australia, during which the economic value of this vast area was reviewed.

These expeditions gained for Forrest a variety of honors and established his reputation as a man of intrepidity and initiative in practical matters. He received a grant of 5,000 acres of land, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him its Gold Medal, and European institutions honored him with awards.

In Colonial Administration

In 1876 Forrest was appointed deputy surveyor general of Western Australia. He was commissioner of crown lands and surveyor general from 1883 and led an expedition to the Kimberley district in the far northwest of the colony in preparation for its occupation by cattlemen. As a respected member of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council, Forrest was the natural choice as premier and treasurer when responsible government was introduced in Western Australia in 1890. He was knighted the following year.

With the unearthing of large quantities of gold in the Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie areas, Western Australia's economy boomed in the mid-1890s. From 50,000 inhabitants in 1891, the colony's population increased to 150,000 in less than 7 years, and Forrest provided stable government and a steady hand. Railways were extended, farming methods were improved, and a water pipeline was built to the distant desert gold fields. Education was extended and fees abolished in public schools. In 1899 women were granted the franchise.

Forrest attended the 1891 convention called to discuss federation of the Australian colonies, and the follow-up convention of 1897-1898; generally his attitude to federation was cautious, with the emphasis on the need to protect the rights of less populous states, and it was only a wave of popular sentiment that carried Western Australia into the Commonwealth.

In Federal Government

With the setting up of the federal government, Forrest resigned from Western Australia's legislature to join the ministry of Edmund Barton, which was sworn in on Jan. 1, 1901. Forrest was elected to the House of Representatives in the March poll. At first postmaster general, he transferred later to the Ministry of Defence (1901-1903). He served in all non-Labour ministries until 1914 and was acting prime minister from March to June 1907. However, lacking political finesse, Forrest never gained a large personal following. His reputation was built on rugged honesty and able administration (even though he was not an active deviser of policies). His reputation as treasurer rested mainly on his conservative tendencies. Forrest strongly advocated a transcontinental rail link; work on this began under Labour—his political opponents—in 1910.

When William Morris Hughes broke with the Labour party in 1917 and formed a coalition ministry, Forrest was appointed treasurer. In February 1918 he became the first native-born Australian to be raised to the peerage. He resigned office with the intention of taking his seat in the House of Lords, but while en route to London he died at sea on Sept. 3, 1918. He was buried in Sierra Leone; later his remains were taken to Perth for reburial.

Further Reading on John Forrest

Forrest's reports on his explorations are Journal of an Exploring Expedition to the Country Eastward to Port Eucla and Thence to Adelaide (1870); Journal of Proceedings of the Western Australian Exploring Expedition through the Centre of Australia (1875); and Explorations in Australia (1875). Forrest's Notes on Western Australia (1884) provides background material. See also Geoffrey Rawson, Desert Journeys (1948). Forrest's premiership is covered in Sir Hal Colebatch, ed., A Story of a Hundred Years: Western Australia, 1829-1929 (1929), and in Frank K. Crowley, Australia's Western Third (1960). The federal governments in which Forrest served are examined in H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth … 1901-1910 (1911), and in A. N. Smith, Thirty Years: The Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-1931 (1933).