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A plaque but no statue

Plaque commemorating James Harrison's refrigeration plant.

Every day, large numbers of backpackers, school groups and tourists in buses make their way down the street near the Victoria Market on their way to experience Melbourne and what made it the city it is today. Few notice the small plaque marking the position of the Victoria Ice Works built by James Harrison. Those who do are highly unlikely to find the name of James Harrison in their guide books. Other cities have built statues to people of lesser importance, but in Melbourne Harrison has to make do with a small plaque.

James Harrison arrived in Melbourne as a young Scot working in the printing trade. Long hours of compiling type could be just another tedious job for many, but it allowed young James to read every word of a wide range of publications. Romances were all very well, but publications about the latest scientific theories and how things worked meant you could go home and try them out. When he first arrived in Sydney his editor was William a’Beckett whose name now adorns a street nearby the Harrison plaque. When Harrison arrived in Melbourne he started working for the irascible Johnny Fawkner, but the young Scot soon wanted to strike out on his own. He set up the Geelong Advertiser (now just known by the locals as the Addy) and started working on scientific and engineering ideas. With the arrival of the gold rush Geelong became a boom town but was mainly exporting gold and greasy wool with no value added to any product. Victoria had a surplus of sheep and there were millions in Britain near starving. However meat could not survive the trip across the equator and sheep were being rendered down for tallow. Instead of exporting food we were exporting raw material for making candles.

Harrison had been experimenting with mechanical refrigeration in a hut by the Barwon River and realised that if he was to take his ideas further he needed access to the precision engineering available in England but not yet possible in the fledgling settlement. He set off for England where he designed and built the first successful refrigeration machinery. On returning to Geelong he set up the world’s first commercial ice making plant. He sold ice chests at cost. Long before the inkjet printer industry he realised that you keep the entry price low and make your money on the consumables. During his absence, the newspaper business had not been well managed and together with the expenses incurred in developing his invention he ended up insolvent and had to sell the newspaper.

Faced with a lack of money and working for an employer in the business he had founded Harrison stooped to build up his life and business with worn-out tools. By 1859 he had an ice works in Melbourne while continuing his work as a writer, Member of Parliament and serving on various citizens’ committees. He knew the mineral boom of the time would not last and was determined to find a way to transport refrigerated meat to Europe. In the 1870s he fitted out part of a ship with cooling apparatus to transport 10 tons of meat to England. Part way into the voyage the cooling brine had irretrievably leaked away, possibly due to poor workmanship in the tanks, pipings and seals. The meat and Harrison were ruined.

In England Harrison returned to his trade as a writer providing columns for The Age in Melbourne while continuing to improve the design and patents of his refrigeration machinery. By the time he returned to Geelong, others, building on his pioneering work, had solved the problems of refrigerated shipboard transport and the economy of Victoria was placed on a sustainable basis that would serve it well for the best part of a century.

In Florida you can find a statue to a Dr Gorrie for his contributions to refrigeration. Dr Gorrie never succeeded in making a commercial refrigeration machine. Harrison, using a different design and sound engineering principles, did. Dr Gorrie has a statue and was proclaimed one of Florida' two most distinguished citizens because of his work on refrigeration – Harrison has a small, much-ignored plaque in Melbourne. In Geelong, Harrison has a carved bollard, and a very fine one it is. However in Melbourne, tourists hurry past the Harrison plaque on their way to see important things.

Harrison, the creator and entrepreneur of one of the most important inventions of his age, died in Geelong in reduced circumstances. Perhaps his most telling monument is not the plaque in Melbourne but his tombstone which reads "one soweth, another reapeth".

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Monuments of Melbourne:

Seven Monuments of Melbourne - overview

No.1 – A Monument to Sydney-Melbourne Rivalry
No.2 – Two Yarra Bookends
No.3 - An Antarctic Monument
No.4 – Troubles on the other side of the world
No.5 - A Plaque but no Statue
No.6 - Two Pillars of Melbourne
No.7 - Two Horse Troughs

James Harrison as represented in Jan Mitchell's carved bollard on the Geelong waterfront
James Harrison as represented in Jan Mitchell's carved bollard on the Geelong waterfront

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