John Harris (1838–1911) alderman and MLA was born in Londonderry and arrived in Sydney in 1842 when his father inherited parts of Surgeon John Harris’s estate. He left University to manage the great estate that he inherited from his father, and lived at Bulwarra House, Ultimo, amid this property.
In 1874-83 and 1886-1911 Harris represented Denison in the City Council, and in 1877-80 he represented West Sydney in the Legislative Assembly. In his first term as mayor in 1881, he made well-publicised inspections of slums which shocked the public and led to a campaign of ‘slum clearance’.
As mayor he entertained in princely style. He also began the reclamation of Blackwattle Bay and the resumption of the Rocks and Darling Harbour but – as was often the case – the state government would not empower the Council to carry out these schemes. In 1882 he was re-elected to the Assembly for South Sydney. He withdrew from public life after his wife died in 1885.
In 1886 Harris was re-elected to the council, and donated his honorarium to the University of Sydney. He also sacked 250 Council employees, attacked graft and unearthed “corporation frauds”. He made a much more popular move in May 1888 when he chaired a large public meeting at the Town Hall to demand the prevention of Chinese labourers landing from the Afghan, and the total prohibition of such immigration.
Harris was mayor for the fifth time in 1889 and opened the new Town Hall. He campaigned for a modern building construction bill to regulate the height and fire-proofing of buildings.
As a candidate for Council in 1904, he set out his broader ambitions (Sydney Morning Herald 7 and 16 July 1904): Australia for the Australians (especially not the Chinese), stronger local government, better and broader schooling – and daytime sessions of Council, to avoid “the disgraceful scenes” that he witnessed in evening sessions. Rather vaguely he “looked forward to the time when the women’s vote would prove a great factor in the social life of the State”.
“Honest John” was survived by five sons and three daughters: he was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery with Masonic rites.