Richard Harnett was a leading landowner on the lower North Shore who played a role in local politics. Born in Oyster Have, County Cork, Ireland in 1819, Harnett migrated to the colony of New South Wales on the China, arriving at the infant settlement of Melbourne on 4 May 1840. After a few days there, he took passage to Sydney on William the Fourth, but a major economic depression had hit the colony and employment was difficult to find.
The resourceful young Harnett walked via Maitland to the settlement of Wellington, where he found temporary employment in the pastoral industry and traded in cattle. By 1845 he was back in Sydney living at Blues Point where he worked for the general importers Row and McNab & Company. Two years later he had become a broker with his own office in Hunter Street. He married Margaret Sheehy in 1847 and they settled in North Sydney near St Thomas Church. Ten children were born of the marriage between 1850 and 1865. From 1860 to 1871, the family lived at Gore Hill, where he leased part of William Gore’s Estate.
Richard Harnett senior is described as ‘an astute, industrious man of considerable personal charm, but a quiet man who shunned publicity.’1 He cared little for public life, though he became the first auditor of the North Willoughby Municipal Council and served as mayor in 1870.
Margaret Harnett died in 1868 and the following year Richard married the much younger Charlotte Mackenzie at Hotspur, Victoria. From 1872 to 1888 the family lived at Mosman where Harnett held extensive land interests. He referred to his wife as ‘Chatty’ and his second marriage resulted in another six children.
In 1870 Harnett senior entered into partnership with the Scottish land speculator, Alexander Stuart (1824-1886), who assisted him financially and in other ways. Educated at the Edinburgh Academy and the University of Edinburgh, Stuart had been manager of the North of Ireland Linen Mills in Belfast before joining a mercantile banking house in Calcutta. He settled in New South Wales and quickly gained influence in commercial circles and in 1874 he was elected to the NSW Parliament, becoming Colonial Treasurer in 1876. Stuart was appointed leader of the opposition in August 1882 and became Premier in January 1883. He received a knighthood in May 1887, but was forced by ill health to resign from parliament in October of that year.2
While at Mosman, Richard Harnett senior developed his land interests there, developing many roads, opening a large sandstone quarry and pioneering horse-drawn omnibus services. His eldest son, Richard Hayes Harnett junior (1850-1938), joined his father in his land speculation activities and became the first mayor of Mosman Council when it was inaugurated in 1893.3
Harnett’s chief interest was real estate speculation. An early acquisition was the 900 acre Kings Plains Estate from the pioneer landowner Isaac Nicholls and in 1876 he opened up a sub-division of this land which he called Chatswood Estate.4 The blue gum forest over area was largely cleared for farming and grazing activities by this time. As a prominent landowner, Richard Harnett senior was an active supporter for the North Shore Railway and he was rewarded in 1885 when Henry Parkes again became Premier on a platform to construct the line. Harnett sold portion of the estate to the government for the railway formation, together with Chatswood station and goods yard and he had commenced sub-division of his Willoughby Park Estate (near the railway route) in from 1884.
Two legacies from Ireland enabled Richard Harnett senior to purchase additional land on the western foreshores of Middle Harbour in June 1885, but this time his judgement much of it in partnership with Alexander Stuart, while other portions were purchased by the partnership of Richard Harnett junior and Alexander Stuart. Richard Harnett senior and Stuart became supporters of a bold scheme promoted by James Alexander Brown in 1887 to build a tramway from North Sydney to Willoughby via a high-level suspension bridge over Long Bay. They sold their Middle Harbour lands to the North Sydney Investment & Tramway Company in the late 1880s, but the company became a victim of the 1890s depression and some 650 acres land passed into the hands of the London-based debenture holders.5 These portions of land were purchased by Walter Burley Griffin’s Greater Sydney Development Association in 1920.
Harnett retired from business about 1888 and returned to Chatswood to live at his daughter’s modest weatherboard residence Comeen in Orchard Road. He died there in 15 November 1902.
1Leslie, Esther, The Suburb of Castlecrag: a community history, Chatswood, Municipality of Willoughby, 1988, pp 57-59.
2Nairn, Bede, ‘Stuart, Sir Alexander (1824–1886)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stuart-sir-alexander-4661/text7703
3Mosman Council, ‘A brief History of Mosman’, http://www.mosman.nsw.gov.au
4Booker, Nancy, and Bennett, Ida, The West Ward, Chatswood, Municipality of Willoughby, 1988, pp 6 and 24-25. Local folk law has it that Harnett named the estate after ‘Chatty’s Wood’ on account of his wife’s love of walking in the remaining timbered portions of Kings Plan Estate and this has been repeated in a number of published sources. Verification of this claim has not been established.
5Leslie, Esther, as above, pp 30-36, 43-46.