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Harris, Richard Deodatus Poulett (1817–1899)

by E. L. French

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Richard Deodatus Poulett Harris (1817-1899), by J. W. Beattie

Richard Deodatus Poulett Harris (1817-1899), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125645283

Richard Deodatus Poulett Harris (1817-1899), schoolmaster and Church of England clergyman, was born on 26 October 1817 at Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, eldest son of Charles Poulett Harris, bookseller and private schoolmaster of Manchester, and his wife Anna Maria, daughter of Richard Stout, judge and member of the governor's council on Cape Breton Island. His mother came from a family of American Loyalists and his father, the illegitimate son of John, fourth Earl Poulett, was commissioned in the 60th Regiment; when it was reduced in 1817 he returned to England. Richard was enrolled in 1837 at Manchester Grammar School and in 1839 entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1843; M.A., 1852). Interested in the physical sciences and modern languages, and evangelical in outlook, he chose to become a schoolmaster. He was second master at Sheffield Collegiate School in 1843, vice-principal of Huddersfield College in 1844-47 and second master in 1847-49, and classical master at Blackheath Proprietary School, Middlesex, in 1849-57. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Sumner of Chester in 1847 and priest by Bishop Prince of Manchester in 1849. On 25 June 1844 he had married Catherine Prior, eldest daughter of William Hall, a brewer of Cambridge; they had two sons and four daughters.

Through the agency mainly of Rev. Robert Whiston, M.A., headmaster of the Cathedral Grammar School, Rochester, Harris was induced to accept the rectorship of Hobart Town High School, a proprietary school founded in 1848 by leading Presbyterians and Free Churchmen. Keen to get his services and those of his brother-in-law, Rev. F. W. Quilter, M.A., who was to be second master, the shareholders increased their indebtedness from £300 to £715 and appointed him for three years at a salary of £800 with half the school fees above that amount. His wife died on 27 June 1856 and five months later he sailed from Gravesend in the Mercia with his daughter Charlotte and two sons, arriving at Hobart on 17 March 1857. On 13 July 1858 he married Elizabeth Eleanor (b.24 October 1833), eldest daughter of John Wilward, merchant, of Tessierville, Hobart; they had four daughters.

Harris soon won confidence and respect. By 1860 more than 100 parents, Christians of all denominations and Jews, had enrolled their sons. Despite the high enrolment the shareholders felt obliged in 1861 to lease the school to Harris who was to pay an annual rent of £100 and maintain two (Newcastle) scholarships valued at £12 a year. In 1862 the school's finances were still insecure and the building was offered to the government for £1800 as a university college, on the assumption that Harris would become the first principal. When the government refused, the shareholders made a new agreement with Harris. He was charged with assaulting boys with a cane in March 1860 and June 1868, the first case being dismissed and the second settled out of court, but he maintained the school's pre-eminent position in the colony until 1878 when he lost his midlands boarders to Horton College and Launceston Church Grammar School. Thereafter his health declined and in 1885, suffering acute physical pain and mental depression, he surrendered to Christ College, with the shareholders' agreement, all leasehold rights in return for an annuity of £300. The school was closed on 15 August 1885 and he retired to his home, Cliff House, Peppermint Bay, Woodbridge. In his rectorship High School pupils had won five exhibitions, ten gold medals and twenty-two scholarships at the Council of Education's annual examinations and nine times headed the degree list, a record approached only by his competitor, the Hutchins School. Though keen for success in public examinations he also insisted on broadening his pupils' experience. Instruction was given in singing, mechanical drawing and carpentry while participation in sport was encouraged and regular dances were organized for boarders.

In retirement Harris regained health sufficiently to continue his long-standing connexion with the movement for a university. At the royal commission on superior and general education in 1859 he had argued the importance of secondary schools for a university or surrogate institution, and in 1860-90 he was an appointed member of the Council of Education. For the royal commission of 1883 he prepared a plan to transform the council into a university senate and sought a public system of education from primary school to university under the unified control of a government department. His part in the negotiations preceding the University Act in 1889 is obscure. On 16 May Rev. James Scott recommended a teaching university with a salaried chancellor and proposed Harris for the position 'as one who has done the state pre-eminent service'. The proposal was rejected but in 1890-96 he was the first warden of senate.

He divided his leisure mainly between his books, Church, Masonic Lodge and sport; he was a trustee of the Cricket Association and a member of the Hobart Club. He read widely in the sciences and cultivated an inherited facility with modern languages. He established in 1872 a prize for French at the High School and became proficient enough in German to conduct divine service for German migrants on 22 November 1870 and take charge of the German consulate in 1872 in the consul's absence. A member of the Tasmanian auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a thoughtful expositor of scripture, he was in demand as a preacher, especially at Trinity Church where he was a communicant. Melancholy in outlook and prone to depression, he had much sadness in his family life. He mourned the separation from the three daughters left in England and the early death of his son Richard from severe burns. His second daughter Charlotte Maria became of unsound mind, was committed to an institution in February 1872 and died a few years later. He died at Woodbridge on 23 December 1899.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brown, A History of the Island of Cape Breton (Lond, 1869)
  • J. M. Browne, Family Notes (Hob, 1887)
  • Rector and Grand Master: Being a Memoir of the Late Rev. Richard Deodatus Poulett-Harris Rector of The High School, Hobart and the First Grand Master of the Tasmanian Masons (Launceston, 1903)
  • Parliamentary Papers (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1889 (145)
  • Hobart Town Courier, 12 Jan 1854, 18, 20, 28 Mar 1857
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 25 Jan 1855, 18, 21 Mar 1857
  • Mercury (Hobart), 17, 22, 23 July, Aug 1855, 28, 30 Aug 1860, 29, 31 May 1862, 19 Apr 1864, 7 Aug 1866, 2, 3 June 1968, 25 Dec 1872, 1 Oct 1875, 4 Oct 1876, 8 Mar, 10 Oct 1877, 22 Aug 1881, 12, 22 Dec 1882, 27 July 1885, 25 Dec 1899
  • Tasmanian Mail, 28 June 1890, letters testimonial, 5 Feb 1847 (Cheshire Record Office)
  • Davenport diaries, 1861-88 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • M. Allport letters, 4 Jan 1875 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Shoobridge papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Walker papers (University of Tasmania Archives)
  • Hobart Town High School ledger (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSD 8/2/725, 16/25/290 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • WO 31/379.

Citation details

E. L. French, 'Harris, Richard Deodatus Poulett (1817–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-richard-deodatus-poulett-3726/text5855, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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