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Harris, Alexander (1805–1874)

by John Metcalfe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Alexander Harris, long thought to be a pen name, but now believed to be the real name of an author (1805-1874), born on 7 February 1805 in London, the son of a Nonconformist minister and schoolmaster and grandson of a jeweller and goldsmith. As a child he lived in Windsor and Berkshire and at 18 left home for London where he worked as a compositor and had prospects in publishing, but fell into atheism, took to drink and the company of fallen women, enlisted and deserted, and in 1825 was smuggled out to New South Wales, where he continued to go downhill, and worked as a cedar getter, until he became deeply religious and established himself on the land. Soon after return to England, on 27 November 1841 he married a childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Atkinson, who died from tuberculosis five weeks later; thereafter the young and beautiful victim of tuberculosis was a recurrent theme in Harris's writing. In September 1842 he married Ursula Carr, whose younger brother, Robert, he had met on the ship in which he returned to England. There were several children by this marriage.

Although his books hint vaguely at money made in Australia and business in London, his account of his life states that he worked as a missioner in the London slums until July 1843. By 1846 he was writing for working class magazines about his colonial experiences, and becoming known as an authority on emigration to New South Wales. After his second marriage broke down, he went in 1851 to America, where he seems to have lived partly on an allowance from what had come to his father from his grandfather, and partly on teaching, preaching and freelance journalism. His family joined him in 1858 but left him in 1860 to live in Canada, whilst he became an American citizen. He died at Capetown, Ontario, Canada, on 1 February 1874.

So far as is known Harris first appeared in print in the People's Journal (London), 8 August 1846, in an article 'Life in New South Wales' by 'A Working Hand'. He followed this with 'Reasons for the Entire Abolition of Flogging' over his own name in the issue for 29 August 1846.

His first and most successful book was Settlers and Convicts; or Recollections of Sixteen Years' Labour in the Australian Backwoods, by an Emigrant Mechanic (London 1847). It was reprinted in England in 1852, and in Melbourne in 1953. Under some disguise and with some fiction it shows a detailed knowledge of places and people in New South Wales, and has considerable literary merit and documentary importance as the only substantial description of life in New South Wales by a free working man in the 1830s. The Emigrant Family, or The Story of an Australian Settler 1-3 (London, 1849) is more of a novel, but with the obvious purpose of advising the capitalist migrant. It was reissued in 1850 and went into a second edition under the name of its villain, Martin Beck (London, 1852); Charlotte Brontë thought it had merit as a contemporary novel and a guide to migrants but decided that he was not a creative writer. A Guide to Port Stephens in New South Wales, the Colony of the Australian Agricultural Company (London), was also published in 1849, and his Testimony to the Truth; or, The Autobiography of an Atheist, anonymously in 1848, the fourth edition (1852) being entitled A Converted Atheist's Testimony … Being the Autobiography of Alex. Harris, Author of Settlers and Convicts, The Emigrant Family etc. This impressed Charlotte Brontë as the work of a mind of a fine and high order, and of a man whose principles, feelings and heart she admired. Clearly he had some fame as an authority on New South Wales and on emigration and as a Christian thinker. But Charlotte Brontë's references to him in private letters and other contemporary references to him were not known in Australia, and in a footnote in T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, The Brontes … (Oxford 1932) he is described as the author of the Testimony and 'other now forgotten works'. The bibliographical evidence of his existence should have been given more weight than it was but this oblivion in England explains doubts about him in Australia.

In 1858 Harris seems to have written a true confession serial for the American Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), with the title 'Religio Christi'. This was brought to Australian attention by a Canadian grandson and published in Sydney in an abridged form in 1961 as The Secrets of Alexander Harris, a Frank Autobiography … with an introduction by his grandson, Grant Carr-Harris, and a preface by Alexander Hugh Chisholm. A diary is quoted but this seems to be only an outline for the serial; it and other evidence cited are inconsistent in important details, especially of his departure from England, and no external evidence has been found to support his tales of army enlistment, desertion to Australia and royal pardon on his return home.

As in his earlier journalism and in Settlers and Convicts he shows great abhorrence of convict flogging, interest in the Aboriginals and in particular in the Myall Creek massacre of 1838, and says he organized a petition for the reprieve of the stockmen sentenced to death for it. This led to the discovery of A. Harris as 112th in 227 names of signatories in a copy of one of several petitions, which possibly indicates that, although he did not organize the petition, he had achieved some respectability and was using his own name.

Whilst showing great interest in religious, moral and social questions he showed little in politics and his forecast, for readers of the Post, that New South Wales would become no more than 'a republican oligarchy … a commonwealth of aristocrats, overriding the masses' was proven false even before he wrote it in 1858.

Citation details

John Metcalfe, 'Harris, Alexander (1805–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-alexander-2160/text2763, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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