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Harris, George Prideaux Robert (1775–1810)

by E. R. Pretyman

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

George Prideaux Robert Harris (1775-1810), surveyor, spent his early life at Exeter, Devon, England. In 1803 he was appointed deputy-surveyor, at a salary of £91 5s. on the civil establishment allotted to David Collins when he was sent out to form a settlement at Port Phillip. Soon after he arrived there, Harris set out in a boat party led by Lieutenant Tuckey to survey the bay. They were away for nine days, had an unfortunate encounter with the Aboriginals from which they were lucky to escape alive, and reported very unfavourably on the area.

After Collins moved to the River Derwent in February 1804 Harris examined the cove on which Hobart now stands and recommended settlement there. In June, when he was appointed a magistrate, he made a survey of Betsy Island near the mouth of the Derwent, and traced the Hobart Town Rivulet up the Table Mount (Wellington). In August the government was building a town house for him, and he had begun to cultivate a farm at Sandy Bay. In November because Collins had been told that cedar could be found, Harris examined Bruny Island, Storm Bay Passage and the Huon River; on the land around the latter he reported unfavourably, as he did on Pitt Water, part of Frederick Henry Bay, when he examined it in May 1805. Meanwhile he had married Ann Jane, sister of Lieutenant James Hobbs on 17 February.

Next year he was granted 100 acres (40 ha) at Sandy Bay where his farm was doing well; he was appointed collector of quitrents; he shot and he fished; he entertained, and in February drew likenesses of some visiting Maoris; but he sadly missed books to read, and could not compile the illustrated work on local fauna that he planned, because of the lack of paper; six water-colour bird drawings, now in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, are all that survive. In 1806 he sent to England the first description of the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), and later a specimen of the 'razor-grinder' cicada (Tettigonia harrisii).

As time went on he became more and more irritated by conditions in Hobart, and in 1808 he was glad to go to Port Dalrymple to define the boundary between the northern and southern areas of the island. He got on well with the commandant, Colonel William Paterson who shared his interest in natural history; he made more bird drawings for him, and drew landscapes, some of which were later copied by John Lewin. Though an indifferent artist, he must have had some grounding in drawing. When he returned to Hobart he became involved in December 1808 in a dispute with Lieutenant Edward Lord, who seems clearly to have been ill tempered and in the wrong; although it was said that Harris was drunk when the quarrel began, this may have been the onset of epilepsy. When the matter was reported to Sydney, Paterson, who was then in charge there, refused to intervene. Harris sent a memorial to the Colonial Office, but his death prevented him from pressing the matter with that dilatory and distant authority.

When Leonard Fosbrook resigned in August 1809, Collins had appointed Harris deputy-commissary, and the next year he edited Hobart's first newspaper, the short-lived Derwent Star and Van Diemen's Land Intelligencer. After Collins died Fosbrook returned in June 1810 and took over the commissariat. Harris continued as deputy-surveyor, but by this time he was suffering from epileptic attacks and his death on 16 October 1810 was not unexpected. Some of his papers were missing and his 'negligence or ignorance' in measuring caused many disputes about farm boundaries in the settlement, so he left considerable confusion in both the commissariat and the surveyor's office.

Lachlan Macquarie's view of Harris as 'a very indolent and dissipated man' may well have been based on prejudices inspired by Lord's self-interested reports. His own letters suggest a man who had received an education better than average, who was an enthusiastic naturalist, who could not fit in with the 'loose way of living which is so frequently an accompaniment of employment at outposts of Empire', but whose 'health and lack of training' handicapped his survey work.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 7, series 3, vol 1
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • R. and T. Rienits, Early Artists of Australia (Syd, 1963)
  • W. H. Hudspeth, … Hudspeth Memorial Volume: An Introduction to the Diaries of the Rev. Robert Knopwood, A.M., and G.T.W.B. Boyes (Hob, 1954)
  • G. P. Harris, 'Description of Two New Species of Didelphis from Van Diemen's Land', Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, vol 9, 1808, pp 174-78.

Citation details

E. R. Pretyman, 'Harris, George Prideaux Robert (1775–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-george-prideaux-robert-2161/text2767, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

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