James Harrison

1816-1893    |    VIC    |    Editor

The Scottish-born Harrison was the first editor, and later owner, of the Geelong Advertiser, which was the first country newspaper in Victoria and later became the first regional daily in Australia. His paper was the first to report the discovery of gold in Victoria. Harrison was an early advocate of tariff protection, a cause he later promoted strongly as editor of The Age under David Syme. Harrison made a global impact by developing mechanical refrigeration after he noticed that the ether he used to clean movable type at his Geelong paper had a cooling effect when it evaporated.

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James Harrison


Harrison was born to a fishing-farming family in Bonhill and apprenticed at 12 to a Glasgow printer for a 10-hour day, six days a week. He took evening classes at Anderson’s University in philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, mathematics and phrenology.

At 19, Harrison walked 71km to Edinburgh and took passage on a collier to work in London where he found an ad in The Times seeking a compositor to set up a publishing office for the Tegg family in Sydney. After 159 days (steerage) aboard the 400-tonne Persian, Harrison and machinery were ashore. On August 12, 1837, Harrison printed the first edition of Sydney’s Literary News.

By 1838, at 22, Harrison had foreman status. Incensed when a system of assigning convict tradesmen to masters was abolished, except for printers, he led a strike by free printers on a deputation to Governor George Gipps who, when they arrived, was busy assembling a Government Gazette with scissors and paste. Harrison quietly explained to the embarrassed Governor how this problem might be overcome and the dispute was resolved.

In 1839, Harrison was off to Melbourne and sought out John Pascoe Fawkner, a shrewd, shambling entrepreneur who cared little for Sydney ways. Fawkner had launched the Melbourne Advertiser so hired Harrison on the spot to write for and typeset the paper. When a new press arrived mid-1840, ambitious Fawkner sent the old press with Harrison to Geelong. Harrison wanted control, so Fawkner extracted an exorbitant price – with time to pay – and so the Geelong Advertiser was born on November 21, 1840.

Harrison, all of 24, was quickly a leader in the Geelong community. His first edition promised “spirited dissemination of the truth”. In a four-roomed house, one room contained printery, Harrison’s office, newsprint, stationery store and circulating library; the next room housed his bed, kitchen and parlour; across the hall a day and night school gave way to Wesleyan weekend worship; and the fourth was a saddlery, which doubled as a surgery when required. Harrison was salesman, reporter, typesetter, ‘paper boy’ and cashier. Soon, after criticising a slack postal service, he added postmaster and librarian.

He was fearless. In the Advertiser’s columns, he described Police Magistrate Fenwick as the “worst magistrate in Australia”. He cited, among “Curiosities to be seen at Corio”: a post office without mail; a pound without a poundkeeper; a customs house without power over entry or clearance; a go-ahead population ruled by a go-astern government.

Soon the Advertiser’s sole proprietor, the energetic Harrison helped form a Mechanics Institute in 1842 and Geelong Benevolent Society in 1843. His caustic writing hastened declaration of Geelong as a free port in 1848.

The Advertiser prospered, moving to daily status in 1850. When gold was discovered at Ballarat, Harrison’s Advertiser broke the story.

In 1852, he campaigned strongly for protection for Australian manufacturing and processing. Harrison wrote that free trade, as practised by the United Kingdom and USA, was fine in theory but failed in that it meant freedom for them to trade in foreign countries, yet excluded foreigners at home. Harrison’s campaign on trade had much to do with Australia accepting protectionist policies.

In 1853, he initiated a meeting to form the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, still a powerful force in Geelong today.

In March 1854, Harrison lost his younger daughter, at 22 months. The strain showed when Harrison, learning Crown Prosecutor Dr George Mackay apparently lunched too long and too well before resuming Geelong General Sessions, reported his inebriation.

Mackay sued for libel and Harrison paid 800 pounds, plus costs, for his rush of blood. Geelong stood up for him, 1500 citizens gathering in the Theatre Royal to congratulate Harrison formally; compose a petition to Governor Sir Charles  Hotham urging intervention; and subscribe to help Harrison meet the cost.

Soon after, Harrison, resilient, was elected to the Legislative Council of Victoria.

 There was another side to Harrison: the fisherman. He bought a fishing boat and caught and sold fish from Corio Bay in partnership with blacksmith John Scott, keeping fish fresh always a challenge. Harrison, made curious when cleaning type about the cooling properties of ether, with Scott devised a worm coil which, when cranked and fed ether and water, on boat or ashore, produced chilled water which gradually turned to ice.

So, in a shed beside Geelong’s Barwon River, Harrison created a machine driven by a 3.5 hp motor, producing 3000 kg of ice per day. On November 13, 1855, he lodged patents. Harrison headed to London develop his invention, leaving brother Daniel in charge. Gone but not forgotten, he filed copy for the Advertiser frequently while manufacturing icemakers which he sold across Britain. Harrison designed a small machine which produced cool air – air conditioning in infancy!

 He returned to Australia in 1858, opened ice works in Geelong, Melbourne and Sydney, sat in Parliament as a MLA until 1860, toyed with gold mining and extraction, all while running the Advertiser.

Inventor’s fever caught up with Harrison in 1861, his savings gone on unprofitable refrigeration ventures. The Advertiser dutifully reported Harrison insolvent; the Douglass family taking ownership. James and Daniel remained at the Advertiser as editor and assistant.

Geelong feted Harrison when he left Geelong to steer Melbourne’s International Exhibition of 1866/67. He began writing for The Australasian, found the style ‘uncongenial’ and moved to The Age, as an editor under David Syme for six years, writing editorials and special features.

Harrison wrote plain English, often sarcastic or ironic. He pulled no punches. When a hotly contested Victorian parliamentary seat was won by engineered votes, Harrison blamed “the Poodles of the Melbourne Club”.

 Returning to England in 1873, Harrison was London correspondent for The Age for many years. Harrison corresponded with Darwin, Faraday and Huxley, warned vegetarians about “pumpkinheadedness”, championed women studying medicine, wrote of vaccination and inoculation, butter versus margarine and a universal language.

Harrison suffered pleurisy in 1891, returned to live outside Geelong and, though frail, trudged often into town to send copy to The Age. On September 3, 1893, he died in bed, an unfinished article beside him.

Dale Jennings, OAM, a former journalist (Walkley Award 1979) and general manager of the Geelong Advertiser and past president of Geelong Chamber of Commerce, is a member of Geelong Historical Society.

The office of the Geelong Advertiser.


Patent improved ice making machine designed by James Harrison.






Further reading


'Harrison, James (1816 - 1893)', L. G Bruce-Wallace, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1966.


The History of Geelong and Corio Bay, W.R. Brownhill, Victoria, 1955 (p71-75).


James Harrison – Pioneering Genius, W.R. Roy Lang, Neptune Press, 1982.