By 1874, Forrest had led three highly successful expeditions across Australia.
The first (1869) ended near the present site of Laverton. The second (1870)
backtracked Eyre’s footsteps from Western Australia, along the south coast to
Adelaide. The last (1874) left Geraldton and crossed the arid centre to the
Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line and then south to Adelaide.
In all these expeditions, despite the hardships, Forrest never lost a man. His
careful methodical nature ensured he took no unnecessary risks. He would always
scout ahead for food and water and never pushed so far ahead that he could not
retreat to the last place of refuge. Perhaps because of the lack of drama during
his expeditions, his name does not seem to rate highly alongside failures like
Burke and Wills or Leichardt.
Speaking at a dinner in honour of John’s successful crossing of the continent
from west to east his father (William) made the following speech:
‘Ye have heard a lot tonight about John Forrest and Alexander Forrest, but let
me tell you clearly, that if it hadn’t been for me and my auld wife Margaret
there wouldn’t have been any John Forrest nor Alexander either.’
John went to England in 1875 and published the journal of his
travels called 'Explorations
in Australia '.
In February 1876 John Forrest was made Deputy
Surveyor-General and he married Margaret Hamersley (one source says Elvire but
it would appear to be Margaret Elvire Hamersley
) and continued surveying large
tracts of the state until May 1880 when he became acting Superintendent of
Convicts for 15 months.
During that time he reduced both floggings and the punishment of being kept in irons.
1882 saw Forrest awarded the CMG and in 1883, at the age of 35, he became the first native born Western Australian to
be appointed to the Executive Council. This was his first step into politics.
Not everyone was exactly thrilled at this appointment and the
following appeared in the January 17th edition of the Inquirer:
'No doubt many of our colonists will feel disappointed at
hearing of the promotion of Mr. John Forrest. "The colony must be going to the
dogs," they will mutter, "when we are not now thought worth having an English
official sent to us." '
By 1887 he had travelled to Canada, America and England and returned to W.A.
full of ideas on how to make things better. He pushed for a railway to Adelaide,
for a port to be developed at Fremantle, supported federation (eventually) and
generally started on a path that was to lead into full time politics.
At the age of 43 he became the state’s first Premier with one of his first
decisions being to employ C.Y. O’Connor.
Western Australia started off as a crown colony but in October 1890 it became a
self governing colony until January 1901 when it joined the Commonwealth of
Australia. Forrest took up the office of Premier in December 1890 when the
population of the state was a mere 48,000.
John was awarded a K.C.M.G. in May 1891 and he was the first native born West Australian to receive the
He worked on the expansion of King’s Park and was the first President of the
King’s Park Board. J.S. Roe had been the
inspiration for setting aside the park for public use some 60 years previously
and Forrest had worked under Roe as a Surveyor at one time.
Forrest was a reluctant Federalist. He understood that
Western Australia should join the federation but wanted to ensure that the state
did so on terms that would not disadvantage its citizens.
In 1901 (when the population of W.A. had expanded over 5 times to 294,000) he
stood for election in the Commonwealth Government and became Post Master
General. He held this post for just 17 days before taking up
an appointment as Defence Minister for the new Federal Government. He was also
Premier for Western Australia at the same time and had to resign, which he did
on February 13th 1901.
Forest later became Minister for Home Affairs and
Treasurer. For a short time he was acting Prime Minister and came within a
single vote of becoming Prime Minister.
In 1917 Forrest’s dream of a trans-Australian railway was finally achieved. The
project had taken 5 years to complete and Forrest was aboard the first train to
make the crossing.
In 1918 John Forrest was informed that he was to be raised to the British
peerage as 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury. (He died before 'letters patent'
were signed and so never officially became Lord Forrest. He was the first
Australian to be given this honour).