A collection of convict tokens, inscribed with messages from loved ones ‘back home’, is currently touring around Victoria.
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Today, it is a matter of quiet pride if one is descended from a convict or two. However, a hundred and more years ago, such descent was shameful and something to be hidden at all costs.
So, it is difficult now to identify the names of the convicts who sent the tokens to their loved ones.
So it was with Jonathan Harris. He was born in 1800 in Mayfield on the coast of England in Sussex.
Mayfield was a large village about fifteen kilometres from the spa town of Tunbridge Wells.
In Mayfield, Harris married Elizabeth Baker when he was twenty-one. He worked as a labourer. They had three children, John, Elizabeth and Henry.
In 1825, Harris was charged and convicted of multiple charges of burglary, defined at the time as unlawfully breaking into another’s dwelling by night and removing goods belonging to another.
The goods stolen by Harris amounted to $41.30. At the time, theft of goods worth more than $2 was a felony punishable by death.
Harris was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
He spent four months on a prison hulk at Portsmouth before being transferred to the convict ship Marquis of Hastings with 151 other male prisoners.
The journey to New South Wales took over four months. On arrival, Harris was assigned to Charles Thompson, a convict farmer in Clydesdale near Sydney.
In 1828, Harris petitioned the Government to permit his wife and children to join him. They arrived in March 1831 aboard the Kains.
Harris was assigned to his wife. The couple lived in Windsor in Sydney and had three more children.
In 1836, a cart driven by their eldest son overturned near Cobbity. Harris’ first wife, Elizabeth Harris, died as a result.
The next year, Mr Harris was charged with robbery in that he had stolen three bullocks. He was acquitted because a key witness, indispensable to the Crown’s case, very conveniently drowned in a creek near Jugiong.
In 1838, Harris obtained a ticket of leave to remain in the district of Yass. In 1841, it was amended to allow him to remain in the Goulburn district. That year, Harris received a conditional pardon. The year before, Harris, now thirty-nine, had married for the second time to 21-year-old Anne Grubb. They had two children.
In 1842, less than a year after receiving his pardon, Harris was again committed to trial for robbery, this time along with his eldest son.
They had robbed Alfred King of $94 in a public house along the Sydney road.
Part of the money taken was concealed in one of their drays. Both Harris and his son were convicted and sentenced to 15 years and 10 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, respectively.
Harris’ son arrived there towards the end of 1842. Harris was initially transferred to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, where he spent a year before being transferred to Van Diemen’s Land on the Sir John Byng towards the end of 1843.
His wife remained in New South Wales. She married William Oliver in 1861. Apparently, she saw no need for a divorce at first.
In 1849, Harris was granted a ticket of leave after six years in Van Dieman’s Land. In 1851, he received a conditional pardon for the second time after serving nine years of his 15-year sentence.
In 1853, Mr Harris received approval to marry for a third time. That year, Mr Harris, claiming to be 50, married Mary Anne Squires, aged 25. She, too, was a convict.
She had arrived on the ship Anna Maria in 1851. He, too, saw no reason to seek a divorce from Anne Grubb.
There were to be no further charges laid against Harris or his third wife. They settled into life as good and responsible citizens, hiding their ‘convict stain’ at all costs.
Over the next twenty years, Mr Harris and his third wife had another eight children. The first two of these children were born in Tasmania, and the remainder in Victoria. This means that Harris had sixteen children by three wives.
When Harris died in 1891 at the age of ninety-one and was buried in Benalla cemetery, he had been a respected and unremarkable resident of Benalla for 34 years.
Mary Anne Harris joined him in 1899. At least four other members of this convict family, children of the couple, are buried in the Benalla cemetery.
Few knew their shameful secret.
– John Barry.