As a young man, John Forrest won fame as an explorer by leading three expeditions into the interior of Western Australia. He was appointed Surveyor General and in 1890 became the first Premier of Western Australia, its only premier as a self-governing colony. Forrest's premiership gave the state ten years of stable administration during a period of rapid development and demographic change. He pursued a policy of large-scale public works and extensive land settlement, and he helped to ensure that Western Australia joined the federation of Australian states. After federation, he moved to federal politics, where he was at various times postmaster-general, Minister for Defence, Minister for Home Affairs, Treasurer and acting Prime Minister.
Shortly before his death, he was informed that he was to be raised to the British peerage as 1st Baron Forrest of Bunbury, and he immediately began signing his name as "Forrest", as if he were already a peer. However, he died before the letters patent legally establishing the peerage were signed. References to him as "Lord Forrest" are therefore incorrect.
On 2 September 1876 in Perth, Forrest married Margaret Elvire Hamersley. The Hamersleys were a very wealthy family, and Forrest gained substantially in wealth and social standing from the marriage. However, to their disappointment the marriage was childless.
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, in the desert west of the site of the present-day town of Leonora. The following year, he surveyed Edward John Eyre's land route from Perth to Adelaide. In 1874, he led a party to the watershed of the Murchison River, and then east through the unknown desert centre of Western Australia. 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 assembled a party of six, including the Aboriginal trackers Mungaro and Tommy Windich, and they left Perth on 15 April 1869. They headed in a north-easterly direction, passing through the colony's furthermost sheep station on 26 April. On 6 May, they encountered a group of Aborigines who offered to guide the party to a place where there were many skeletons of horses. Forrest's team accompanied this group in a more northerly direction, but after a week of travelling it became clear that their destination was Poison Rock, where the explorer Robert Austin was known to have left eleven of his horses for dead in 1854. They then turned once more towards the location indicated by their guide.
The team arrived in the location to be searched on 28 May. They then spent almost three weeks surveying and searching an area of about 15,000 km² in the desert west of the site of the present-day town of Leonora. Having found no evidence of Leichhardt's fate, and Mungaro having changed his story and admitted that he had not personally visited the site, they decided to push as far eastwards as they could on their remaining supplies. The expedition reached its furthest point east on 2 July, near the present-day site of the town of Laverton. They then turned for home, returning by a more northerly route and arriving back in Perth on 6 August.
They had been absent for 113 days, and had travelled, by Forrest's reckoning, over 3,600 kilometres (2,000 miles), most of it through uncharted desert. They had 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.
Forrest's team consisted of six men his brother Alexander was second in charge, Police constable Hector McLarty, farrier William Osborn, trackers Windich and Billy Noongale 16 horses and a number of dogs. The party left Perth on 30 March 1870, and arrived at Esperance on 24 April. Heavy rain fell for much of this time. After resting and reprovisioning, the party left Esperance on 9 May and arrived at Israelite Bay nine days later. They had encountered very little feed for their horses, and no permanent water, but 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 kilometres (150 miles) 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 2 July. At Eucla they rested and reprovisioned, and also 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 this last leg almost no water could be found, and the team were compelled to travel day and night for nearly five days. They saw their first signs of civilisation on 18 July, and eventually reached Adelaide on 27 August.
A week later they boarded ship for Western Australia, arriving in Perth on 27 September. They were honoured at two receptions one by the Perth City Council and a citizens banquet at the Horse and Groom Tavern. Speaking at the receptions John Forrest was modest about his own contributions while praising the efforts of the members of the expedition and dividing a government gratuity between them.
Forrest's bight crossing was one of the best organised and managed expeditions of his time. As a result, his party successfully completed in five months a journey that had taken Eyre twelve, arriving in good health and without the loss of a single horse. From that point of view, the expedition must be considered a success. 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 this area between August and November 1871 finding further good pastures north north east of Esperance.
In August 1872 Forrest was invited to lead a third expedition, this time 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 1 April 1874, and a fortnight later passed through the colony's outermost station. On 3 May the team passed into completely unknown land. They found plenty of good pastoral land around the headwaters of the Murchison River, but by late May they were travelling over arid land. On 2 June, while dangerously short of water, they discovered Weld Springs, "one of the best springs in the colony" according to Forrest. At Weld Springs on 13 June the party was attacked by a large group of Aborigines, and Forrest was compelled to shoot a number of them. Beyond Weld Springs water was extremely hard to obtain, and by 4 July the team were relying on occasional thunderstorms for water. By 2 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 they were rescued by a shower of rain. On 23 August they were again critically short of water and half of their horses were near death, when they were saved by the discovery of Elder Springs. After this, the land became somewhat less arid, and the risk of dying from thirst started to abate. Other difficulties continued, however: they had to abandon more of their horses, and one member of the team suffered from scurvy and could barely walk. They finally sighted the telegraph line near Mt Alexander on 27 September, and reached Peake Telegraph Station three days later. The remainder of the journey was a succession of triumphant public receptions as they passed through each country town en route to Adelaide. The team reached Adelaide on 3 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 pastoral enterprise, and Forrest was convinced that it would never be settled.
In 1875, Forrest published Explorations in Australia, an account of his three expeditions. In July 1876, he was awarded the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. He was made a CMG by Queen Victoria in 1882 for his services in exploring the interior.
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 (330 miles) 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.
The major political question of the time, though, was federation. Forrest was in favour 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 organised 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 endeavours, by 1900 he was convinced that better terms were not to be obtained, and he called the referendum in which Western Australians voted to join the federation and Western Australia became a part of Australia in 1901.
The federal election of December 1903 greatly weakened the governing party, and shortly afterwards it was defeated and replaced by a Labor 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. In June 1905, Alfred Deakin's Protectionist Party formed an alliance with Labor and ejected Reid's government. They formed a new government on 7 July, with Forrest appointed Treasurer, and fifth in seniority. After a ministerial reshuffle in October 1906, Forrest became third in cabinet precedence. Five months later, Deakin and his deputy William Lyne travelled to London to attend conferences, and Forrest was appointed acting Prime Minister from 18 March to 27 June 1907.
The alliance with Labor had put Forrest in a difficult position, for he had been consistently critical and even hostile towards them. Leading up to the federal election of December 1906, he continued to attack the Labor Party, despite sharing government with them and depending on their support. In the following months, Forrest was himself heavily criticised in the press for his willingness to work with the Labor Party, and his perceived hypocrisy in attacking them during election campaigns while depending on their support when cabinet was in session. He began to feel that his reputation in Western Australia and his personal standing in cabinet were being undermined. In response, he resigned as treasurer on 30 July 1907 and joined the crossbenches, where he was a critic of, but did not strongly oppose, the government.
A few months later, Labor withdrew its support for Deakin's government, forcing it to resign. Labor then formed government under Andrew Fisher. In the following months, Forrest and a number of other members worked to arrange a fusion of the Free Trade and Protectionist parties into a single party. Eventually, the Commonwealth Liberal Party was formed, with Deakin as leader. Fisher was then forced to resign, and the new Liberal Party took office on 2 June 1909, with Forrest as treasurer. Labor eventually reclaimed office in the federal election of April 1910.
Early in 1913, Deakin resigned as Leader of the Opposition. Forrest and Joseph Cook contested the leadership, with Cook winning by a single vote. Forrest was very disappointed, as Deakin, whom he considered a friend, had voted against him. Five months later, in the federal election of May 1913, the Liberal Party returned to power, with Cook as Prime Minister. Forrest was appointed treasurer for the third time. However, the government's majority of just one seat in the House of Representatives, along with Labor's large majority in the Senate, made it extremely difficult to govern, and very little was achieved. In June 1914, Cook asked the Governor-General for a double dissolution, and Australia was sent back to the polls. Forrest retained his seat, but the Liberal Party was soundly beaten, and Forrest was again relegated to the crossbenches.
In December 1916, a split in the Labor Party over conscription left Prime Minister Billy Hughes with a minority government. Hughes and his colleagues formed the National Labor Party, and the Liberal Party joined with them in the formation of a new government. For the fourth time, Forrest was appointed treasurer. The Nationalist and Liberal Parties easily won a majority at the federal election of May 1917, and shortly afterwards the two parties merged to form the Nationalist Party of Australia.
On 20 December, a referendum on conscription was defeated, and Hughes kept a promise to resign as prime minister if the referendum was lost. Forrest immediately declared himself a candidate for the position, but the governor-general found that Forrest did not have the numbers, and asked Hughes to form government again. Hughes accepted and the previous government was again sworn in.
On 6 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 Forret in Fife in the United Kingdom. Despite the announcement, however, no Letters patent were issued before his death, so the peerage was not officially created. According to Rubinstein (1991), "his peerage is not mentioned or included in Burke's Peerage, The New Extinct Peerage, the Complete Peerage, or any other standard reference work on the subject."
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 but not from parliament on 21 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. But 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.
John Forrest was a tall, heavily-built man; in his later years, he tended towards stoutness, and he weighed about 120 kilograms when he died. He was fond of pomp and ceremony, and insisted on being treated with respect at all times. Highly sensitive to criticism, he hated having his authority challenged, and tended to browbeat his political opponents. He had very little sense of humour, being greatly offended when a journalist playfully referred to him as the "Commissioner for Crown Sands". He was, however, a very popular figure, who treated everyone he met with politeness and dignity. He was renowned for his memory for names and faces, and for his prolific letter writing.