Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Harris (c. 1759–?)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published:

John Harris (flourished 1783-1803), emancipist, watchman and innkeeper, was a labourer of St Marylebone, London, when sentenced to death on 15 January 1783 at the Old Bailey for stealing eight silver spoons. In February 1785 the sentence was commuted to fourteen years transportation to America, and altered the following month to deportation for life to Africa. His destination was finally changed to New South Wales and he sailed, with a life sentence, in the First Fleet in the Scarborough.

Harris was one of the first Jews in Australia. In the winter of 1789 he proposed to Judge-Advocate David Collins to establish a night watch, 'to be selected among the convicts for the purpose to stem the frequent commission of offences in the settlement'. This was agreed to. This first attempt at a police force in the settlement began on 8 August 1789, with Harris as one of its principal members. In 1790 he was transferred to Norfolk Island, where in 1793 he was put in charge of the police at Sydney Vale, Arthur Vale and Granville Valley. He was granted two acres (.8 ha), but deprived of them when Lieutenant John Townson and other officers chose the land for their leases. Disgusted by this treatment, Harris pressed Lieutenant-Governor Philip Gidley King for a pardon. This was granted by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose before Grose left on 6 December 1794 and after Harris had returned to Sydney in February 1796 it was confirmed by Governor John Hunter on King's recommendation 'in consideration of good services as Principal of the Nightwatch at Norfolk Island'.

Harris went to the Hawkesbury district and squatted on some six acres (2.4 ha) at Mulgrave Place near Windsor, granted him in January 1798. He built an inn on it and in September received a liquor licence, which was one of the first in the colony. In 1799 he transferred his activities to Toongabbie, where he opened another inn, and soon became one of the trusted agents of John Macarthur in his trade.

When King became governor he asked Harris to return to the police force, but he declined, not wanting to abandon a lucrative trade which afforded him and his family a better living than a government appointment. Soon afterwards King declared that he had acted against government regulations by buying rations from convicts with liquor. He was taken into custody by Samuel Marsden, and while he was detained the governor had one wall of his house torn down, his liquor casks staved open and his spirit licence withdrawn; later he deprived him of his land grant. Harris was never formally tried, and was soon released, but he estimated the value of the destroyed liquor at more than £400.

Deprived of his livelihood and afraid of King, he decided to leave the colony. By this time a convict woman had borne him a son and two daughters, Elizabeth and Hannah. He left his daughters in the care of his fellow-Jew and relation, James Larra, and embarked with his son in January 1801 in the Spanish prize El Plumier, which Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the so-called Scottish Martyrs, had bought for his return to England. After an adventurous journey, during which they were shipwrecked at Fiji, and taken prisoners by the Spanish when seeking refuge on Guam, where Palmer died, they arrived in England about October 1803. Next month, backed by Macarthur, Harris sought relief from the Colonial Office, but his memorial apparently remained unanswered and the ultimate fate of Harris and his son is not known.

His daughter Elizabeth married Walter Lang of Glasgow; their son, John George, became Australia's first native-born novelist. After Lang's death, she married Joseph Underwood. Hannah Harris married Thomas Ritchie, captain of the Greyhound, and settled at Launceston.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 4-5
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 3
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘John Harris, the First Australian Policeman’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 5, part 2, Dec 1959, pp 49-66
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘James Larra, the Commercial Nabob of Parramatta’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 5, part 3, July 1960, pp 97-130
  • C. Roderick, ‘John Lang (1816-1864): First Australian-Born Novelist’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 49, part 2, July 1963, pp 100-35.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Harris, John (c. 1759–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


c. 1759

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Key Places
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: life
Court: Old Bailey, London


Left the colony: Yes