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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harris, Sir Matthew (1841–1917)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir Matthew Harris (1841-1917), alderman, was born on 18 September 1841 at Magherafelt, Londonderry, Ireland, third son of John Harris (d.1846), merchant, and his wife Nancy, née McKee. On inheriting part of his great-uncle John Harris's estate, his father migrated to New South Wales with his family, including Matthew and John, and reached Sydney probably in August 1844. Matthew was educated at the Normal Institution, Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1863). On 4 August 1868 in Sydney he married Frances Lane (d.1915) with Free Church of England rites.

On reaching the age of 21 Harris had inherited considerable property including some twenty acres (8 ha) in the Sydney suburb of Ultimo. Like his three brothers and sister, he built a big house, Warrane, at Crown Road, and surrounded it with terraces, and spent his time managing his real estate.

In 1883-1900 Harris represented Denison Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council. A free trader and staunch supporter of (Sir) George Reid, he represented Sydney-Denison in the Legislative Assembly in 1894-1901. In the House he rarely spoke, but in 1896 carried the Municipal Council of Sydney Electric Lighting Act. He was mayor of Sydney in 1898, 1899 and 1900 but faced with a large deficit—including that on the Queen Victoria Building (which he opened in July 1898)—and allegations that the council was inefficient, he was unable to introduce reforms (or electric lighting) and complained that the council lacked the power to sweep away slums. In mid-1899 he put forward a unitary plan for a 'Greater Sydney' in which a metropolitan council would replace existing authorities and be given the power to control water supply, sewerage, abattoirs, traffic, building regulation, parks, libraries, art galleries and fire prevention. While mayor he became a friend of the governor Earl Beauchamp, helped to organize the Commonwealth inaugural celebrations and welcomed the governor-general Lord Hopetoun.

A director from 1896, Harris was president of Sydney Hospital in 1912-17, and regularly attended its weekly house committee meetings. He was also a vice-president of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales and president of the Wentworth Park trust and of the Australasian Pioneers' Club (1912). Knighted in 1899, he had bought Etham, Darling Point, in 1900. He built up a fine library with many rare Australiana books and was a notable collector of objets d'art, particularly Japanese. Bearded and handsome, if somewhat solidly built, he was apt to 'roar like a lion' at his family.

On 8 June 1917 Harris died in hospital at Potts Point and was buried in the family vault at Rookwood cemetery with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by six sons (two of whom served with the British Army in World War I) and by two daughters; the elder, Nancy, married Dr C. Carty Salmon, the younger, estranged from her father, challenged his will in the Supreme Court. His estate was valued for probate at £32,792—he had given some £250,000 to his children in 1913.

His portrait, painted posthumously by Herbert Beecroft, is in Sydney Town Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • F. A. Larcombe, The Stabilization of Local Government in New South Wales (Syd, 1976)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • John Harris, ‘Governor's errors, silly, but colossal’, Canberra Historical Journal, Mar 1981
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 July 1894
  • Sydney Mail, 25 Dec 1897
  • Town and Country Journal, 10 June 1899, 13 June 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 1917, 5 July 1918, 8 Oct 1919, 18 Mar 1937
  • Sir Matthew Harris papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Harris, Sir Matthew (1841–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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