Sydney’s first commercial dairy was built by Dr John Harris on his Ultimo estate, now an inner suburb. Harris was a naval surgeon and magistrate who became one of the colony’s largest landowners. Ultimo’s Harris Street is named after him.
The first dairy cows arrived in Australia with the First Fleet and, despite a hiatus after they escaped from their pasture, cheese and butter-making was soon taking place in the colony. Dairy Australia reports that by 1800 there were 322 bulls and 712 cows in Australia.
In 1793, Harris had bought the estate of James Ruse, Australia’s first ex-convict farmer, at Parramatta. Over the following years, he acquired more land, including estates at Ultimo and Drummoyne. By 1800 he owned 315 acres (127 ha) of land and had acquired 431 head of stock and it was on the Ultimo property that he started Sydney’s first commercial dairy.
John Harris’s duties as a surgeon and a magistrate occupied much of his life over the following decade, but from 1814 he devoted himself largely to farming. After acting as surgeon in explorer John Oxley’s expedition to Bathurst in 1819 he acquired property in that area. Bathurst became a hub for cheese production in the 1820s. Harris died in 1838 and the Ultimo estate remained as farmland in possession of the Harris family. It was eventually subdivided in 1859.
Remains of another early dairy can still be seen in Parramatta. Ex-convict George Salter had been granted land close to the Parramatta River and began building a cottage there in around 1796. He established a productive farm and continued to prosper, in 1813 selling his property to Governor Macquarie for Government use. Macquarie had the cottage converted to a dairy to supply milk to Government House. A sunken milk-processing room was constructed alongside. The cottage and the milk room remain today in Parramatta Park’s dairy precinct. It is the earliest dairy complex known to survive in Australia and is the most intact 18th-century structure, remaining substantially unaltered since around 1820.