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CHARLES HARPER, W. A. AGRICULTURIST, LEGISLATOR & NEWSPAPER MAN

The One Penny Western Australian postcard has no visible postmark and it was sent to C. Harper Esq. M.L.A., Guildford (W.A.) (Figure 1).

The reverse was printed “The West Australian Trustee, Executor and Agency Co., Ltd, St George Terrace, Perth” and it was dated 23rd May 1895.  The message was:  Dear Sir, A Meeting of the Directors of this Company will be held on Monday 27th at 11 o’clock a.m., at which your presence is requested.  Yours faithfully, Edmund S. Barker Secretary (Figure 2).

Whereas the secretary has not been identified, The Trustee Company has.  The West Australia Trustee Executor and Agency Company is now known as the Perpetual Trustees and is only one of two trustee companies in Western Australia where a bond is not payable on the death of an enrolled  person.  Charles Harper was a Director of the company.
 
Charles Harper was born on 15 July 1842 near Toodyay, W. A., the only son of Charles Harper and his wife Julia Gretchen, née Lukin.  He was educated by his father, a barrister of Gray's Inn who became a colonial farmer and later an Anglican clergyman. At age 16, he travelled south-east and leased land between York and Beverley, where he farmed for several years and in 1861 and 1864 he joined the search for pastoral land in the Yilgarn district and made botanical and geological observations.  In 1866 he sailed for Roebourne with sheep and, after a year of exploration he was fluent in the local Aboriginal language and took up pearling.  With the proceeds of pearling Harper was able to buy a one-third interest in the 883,000-acre (357,341 ha) de Grey station in 1871.  In 1878 Harper sold his share in de Grey and joined Alex McRae in a smaller station, Yanrey, in the best Ashburton country; and he held this interest until 1904.

In 1879 he bought the Western Australian Times with Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell as his nominal partner and managing editor.  On 23 March Harper married Fanny, daughter of Robert de Burgh of Caversham, and settled at Woodbridge, near Guildford, on the 470 acres (190 ha).  There he developed a productive sheep, dairying and orchard property of major significance in local agricultural research. He was the first to irrigate with artesian water in Western Australia, and designed successful earthworks to conserve for his orchard the rich silt washed down the Swan River.

An early advocate of mixed wheat and wool farming, Harper wrote extensively on agricultural and pastoral topics, passing on the results of his experiments and reading through his daily newspapers.  He advocated experimental farms, giving a lead on his own properties and in partnership with W. Catton Grasby whom he brought from South Australia in 1905 to be agricultural editor of the Western Mail.  Harper and his son Walter, working with Grasby, discovered the soluble-phosphate deficiency of local soils long before superphosphate was generally used in the colony.  He developed the first local wheat varieties, and these wheats were used in W. A. and N. S. W. for many years.

Harper was persuaded to enter politics and he soon won respect and distinction.  He represented the North District in the Legislative Council in 1878-80, York in 1884-90 and Beverley in the new Legislative Assembly in 1890-1905.  In parliament he showed the breadth of his knowledge in quiet, clear speeches.  He served on several select committees, was chairman of royal commissions on customs in 1893, the Coolgardie water scheme in 1902, forestry in 1903 and immigration in 1905, and was chairman of committees in 1897.  In many ways an 'independent English country gentleman', he disliked urban concentration, heavy government spending and disciplined party politics.  In 1886-88 he and his newspapers took the conservative side in the quarrels surrounding Governor Broome and in the controversy over Rev. J.B. Gribble’s allegations of maltreatment of the Aboriginals.  In 1899-1900 he broke with Sir John Forrest over Federation and lavish public spending.  In December 1903 he was nominated Speaker by the Liberal premier, Walter James.  

After the 1904 elections he declined reappointment and went into opposition to James, thus becoming one of the few independents responsible for the accession to power of Western Australia's first Labor government, although he believed that the party needed experience in office to temper its radical tendencies.  In August 1905 he voted against the Labor ministry and retired before the next general election.  Harper died at Woodbridge on 20 April 1912, survived by three sons and four daughters, of his ten children.

This paper relies heavily on the entry in the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography.


 
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