Surgeon John Harris

John Harris (1754-1838), naval officer, surgeon and landowner, grew up in County Derry and reached Sydney in 1790 as a surgeon to the NSW Corps. Like most other officers he quarrelled (and was twice court-martialled), embezzled funds, was rewarded by factional patrons with grants of land, and used convict labour to improve this land. Unlike the others, he pieced together a single estate from several grants, and named it Ultimo (meaning ‘previous month’), to relish the technicality on which he escaped conviction in a court martial.

In 1804 he built a two-storey residence, and by 1818 accumulated 233 acres around it, taking up most of the peninsula except Macarthur’s north eastern tip (Pyrmont). At a dinner there in 1808 his guests hatched the Rum Rebellion and rushed off to arrest Governor Bligh. Harris and other officers sailed to London to give evidence in the court martial that followed the mutiny, but returned to Sydney in 1814 as a private citizen, having quit the navy.

Harris developed the estate as a quasi-English country estate of park lands and imported deer, and commissioned Francis Greenway, the colony’s architect, to extend the residence. The estate was undivided and largely uncultivated when Harris died, although a nearby brewery and a distillery polluted the air and encouraged Harris himself to move out to a sweeter-smelling suburb. Through disputes among his heirs, Ultimo Estate was not subdivided until the 1860s, although sections were leased for cottages, quarries and other industrial activities. Members of the family lived in Ultimo House until the 1890s, when it (and the last of the estate) became Sydney Technical College. The House itself was demolished in 1932.

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