1847 - 1918







John Forrest - the explorer - Battye Library 001268d
John Forrest - The explorer



John was born to Scottish parents (William and Margaret) who immigrated to Western Australia in 1842 aboard the ship Trusty.

The family migrated to Australia on the understanding that they would be working for Dr. John Ferguson but Ferguson did not make a success of his farming business and returned to medical work in Perth. (Ferguson was later to establish the Houghton vineyard in the Swan Valley.)

The Forrests established first a wind driven and then a water driven mill on the Picton River.

William and Margaret's first born (a daughter) had died before they left for Australia and their second child (William Jr.) was born aboard ship.

Next came James (1845), John (1847), Alexander (1849), David, Robert, Mathew, George and finally Augustus, (Augustus died by drowning aged only 14 months).

From humble beginnings at Picton (near Bunbury) John Forrest was to rise to lofty heights, coming within one vote of being Prime Minister of Australia.


John was born on the 22nd of August 1847 and although he had eight brothers (his one sister died before John was born) John was to have no children of his own.

His initial education was at a school in Bunbury and continued at Bishop Hale's school in Perth between 1860-63. On finishing school he was indentured to a land surveyor in Bunbury (Thomas Campbell Carey in 1863).

John (called Jack by his family) had a great admiration for the early explorers and a great love for the outdoors. This was to serve him well in years to come.

He was schooled well in the arts of survey and navigation and was one of the few explorers who mastered the ability to get an accurate fix on their latitude. While this practice was common at sea, it was not used much by land based explorers. Due to the lack of accurate time keeping devices, fixing longitude was still very difficult.

On finishing his apprenticeship he became the first locally born land surveyor. He then went to work for the Survey Department.

In 1869 an expedition was proposed to search for the explorer Leichardt who had gone missing in 1848. Forrest was appointed second in command at the age of 21 but when the man chosen to lead the expedition (Dr Ferdinand Mueller) withdrew, Forrest was asked to be the leader. He led the expedition over 3200 kilometres but found no trace of Leichardt.


John Forrest
John Forrest


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 Edward 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 (1) ) 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 Charles O'Coonnor. 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 honour.

He worked on the expansion of King's Park and was the first President of the King's Park Board. John 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).



Later the same year Forrest was most unwell and boarded the troop ship Marathon on route England to seek medical treatment. He was advised by his doctor not to go but the pragmatic explorer and statesman simply said:

'I have faced death before and I will face it now. What does it matter if I die at sea?'

He died at sea on the 3rd of September at the age of 71. His body was returned to Perth for burial. It seems somehow fitting that this great explorer was to pass away on a final voyage and not in a hospital bed.

Today when we see the Indian Pacific train, drink fresh water in any of the towns leading to the goldfields or simply visit Fremantle harbour, we should spare a thought for the man who dreamed of all these things and then set about making them reality. We owe John Forrest a lot.

A final humorous note:

The man who had successfully led several expeditions across the barren wastes of Australia had the bad luck to lose his way in Kings Park while working out the route for a second road. His party finally emerged near night fall on the wrong side of the park.


An older John Forrest - Battye Library 000995d
An older John Forrest




1847 - Born August 2nd.

1860 - Attended Bishop Hale's school in Perth until 1863.

1863 - Indentured land surveyor Thomas Campbell Carey.

1865 - Became a temporary government surveyor.

1869 - Led an expedition to try and find out what had happened to the missing explorer Leichardt.

1870 - Backtracked Edward Eyre's footsteps from Western Australia, along the south coast to Adelaide.

1871 - Appointed surveyor for the northern district.

1874 - Led an expedition from Geraldton to the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line and then south to Adelaide.

1875 - Went to England and published the journal of his travels called 'Explorations in Australia '. Given a grant of 5000 acres of land for his efforts.

1876 - Appointed as Deputy Surveyor-General, received the founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society and on February 29th he married Margaret Hamersley. (2)

1878 - Served as acting surveyor-general and commissioner of Crown lands.

1880 - Became acting Superintendent of Convicts in May.

1882 - Awarded the CMG.

1883 - Became the first native born Western Australian to be appointed to the Executive Council.

1883 - Accompanied an exploration to the Kimberley for several months.

1886 - Visited the newly opened gold-field in the Kimberley.

1887 - Visited London to represent the colony at the first Colonial Conference.

1890 - Elected unopposed as member for the Legislative Assembly electorate of Bunbury. In December he was sworn in as colonial treasurer.

1891 - Awarded a K.C.M.G. in May.

1894 - Became colonial secretary until April 1898a and won the Legislative Assembly election.

1897 - Won the Legislative Assembly election again.

1901 - Elected unopposed to the electorate of Swan in the House of Representatives. Acted as postmaster-general and minster for defence and awarded a G.C.M.G.

1903 - Minister for home affairs.

1905 - Treasurer in five governments 1905-07, 1909-10, 1913-14, 1917-18, 1918.

1918 - Resigned from the ministry due to ill health in March.

1918 - July 3rd, left Albany with his wife and a nurse aboard the troopship Marathon, headed for London with A.I.F. reinforcements.

1918 - Celebrated his 71st birthday on board.

1918 - Died on September 3rd before reaching England.


(1) - Margaret Elvire Hamersley was born at Le Harve, France, on October 22nd 1844.
(2) - Did this mean he only had to give his wife an anniversary present once every 4 years ?


Links to more information:


Forrest, Sir John (1847-1918)

John Forrest

John Forrest (1843-1918)




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