Today is the birthday (1847) of John Forrest, 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury GCMG, an Australian explorer, the first Premier of Western Australia, and a cabinet minister in Australia’s first federal parliament. John Forrest is the name I use in English-speaking countries and was my father’s and grandfather’s name as well. Hence, I had a small fascination with this Western Australian John Forrest when I lived in Australia as a boy. I have encountered multiple John Forrests in my lifetime – unsurprisingly, since Forrest is one of the most common family names in Scotland, and John for decades was the most popular given name. There are a few things that are slightly surprising, however. John Forrest had a brother called Alexander and so did my father, hence my full English name is John Alexander Forrest – also the full name of a current Australian politician. Needless to say, we are unrelated.
John Forrest was one of 10 children of William and Margaret Forrest, who emigrated to Australia 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 known as Jack to his family (as was my father). Among his seven brothers were Alexander Forrest (explorer, surveyor, and politician), and David Forrest (drover and politician). 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 educated in the colony to qualify as a land surveyor. He then commenced work as a surveyor with the government’s Lands and Surveys Department.
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 who had gone missing in the desert west of the site of the present town of Leonora. They 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.
The following year, he surveyed Edward John Eyre’s land route, from Perth to Adelaide. Eyre had crossed the Great Australian Bight 30 years earlier, but his expedition had been poorly planned and equipped, and Eyre had nearly perished from lack of water. Forrest’s expedition was to 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 Windich and Billy Noongale, 16 horses and a number of dogs. The party left Perth on 30th March 1870, and arrived at Esperance on 24th April.
After resting and reprovisioning, the party left Esperance on 9th 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 kilometers (150 mi) to a spot where Eyre had found water in 1841. Having secured a water source, they rested and explored the area before moving on, eventually reaching Eucla on 2nd 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 was compelled to travel day and night for nearly five days. They saw their first signs of civilization on 18th July and eventually reached Adelaide on 27th August. A week later, they boarded ship for Western Australia, arriving in Perth on 27th September. They were honored 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 organized 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. 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 1st April 1874, and a fortnight later, it passed through the colony’s outermost station. On 3rd 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 2nd June, while dangerously short of water, it discovered Weld Springs, “one of the best springs in the colony” according to Forrest. At Weld Springs on 13th June, the party was attacked by a large group of Aborigines, and Forrest shot a number of them.
Beyond Weld Springs, water was extremely hard to obtain, and by 4th July the team relied on occasional thunderstorms for water. By 2nd 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 23rd 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 27th 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 3rd 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 pastorage, 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 honor. 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.
Forrest 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 Executive Council. 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 22nd 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 favor 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 organized 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 endeavors, 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 the nation of Australia in 1901.
On 30th 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 defense portfolio, which had been made vacant by the death of Sir James Robert Dickson. On 13th 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 defense portfolio for over two years. After a cabinet reshuffle on 7th 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.
I won’t go into the ins and outs of Forrest’s time in the federal government. The early days of Australian federation were fraught with complexities that I would rather not get into. It’s all part of the historical record. On 6th 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 in 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 21st 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.
Lord John Forrest was a big man. He was 260 lbs when he died. This tells me that he did not spend his evenings dining on short commons and bush tucker, although he would have been no stranger to the latter on his explorations. My posts have given plenty of Australian recipes, bush tucker recipes, and Scottish recipes as well (the land of his roots). His family came from Fife, which is reflected in the full title of his peerage. Fife is a region in Scotland that at one time was a kingdom with a venerable history, and birthplace of numerous luminaries in science, exploration, engineering, politics, and history. Fife is also well known for its beef, lamb, and fish, along with oats, peas, raspberries, and other mainstays of Scottish cuisine. As Scots immigrants to Australia I expect Forrest’s childhood, much like mine, was dominated by traditional British cooking. My father, John Forrest, loved his breakfast porridge and his Sunday roast lamb every bit as much as any Scots immigrant to Australia. In that sense, you can take any Scots recipe as a celebratory dish for the day. Because Forrest was also a notable Victorian, I am going to take a slight left turn and give you this recipe from Mrs Beeton for snow cake. She claims it is a “genuine Scotch recipe” but it definitely has a colonial feel because one of the chief ingredients is Bermuda arrowroot, rather than regular flour.
Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) is one of the oldest cultigens from the New World. There is evidence that it was cultivated as early as 8200 BCE (around the same time that plants were first being domesticated in Mesopotamia). The root is dried and pounded into a flour, which these days is more often used a thickener than as a chief ingredient. I used to use it all the time for sauces because I find it superior to both regular flour and cornstarch. I have not tried this recipe, which seems to be rather like angel cake – light and airy. In Beeton’s time this was an expensive endeavor.
(A genuine Scotch Recipe.)
- INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of arrowroot, 1/2 lb. of pounded white sugar, 1/2 lb. of butter, the whites of 6 eggs; flavouring to taste, of essence of almonds, or vanilla, or lemon.
Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; stir in the sugar and arrowroot gradually, at the same time beating the mixture. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, add them to the other ingredients, and beat well for 20 minutes. Put in whichever of the above flavourings may be preferred; pour the cake into a buttered mould or tin and bake it in a moderate oven from 1 to 1-1/2 hour.
Time.—1 to 1-1/2 hour.
Average cost, with the best Bermuda arrowroot, 4s. 6d.; with St. Vincent ditto, 2s. 9d.
Sufficient to make a moderate-sized cake. Seasonable at any time.