Sisters at a Glance #4 Frances Emma Harris

By Michele Leggott and Brianna Vincent
Close-up of Frances. From Clarke, William Henshaw 1831-1910: Portrait of Frances Harris. Alexander Turnbull Library. PA2-0491.

Frances Emma Harris
14 February 1842-17 September 1892

My daughter Frances Emma I should have told you was born in the timber house before we had it removed Feb 14th 1842 & was christened by Bishop Selwyn 1842, Mrs Merchant & self, sponsors. (Sarah Harris to sisters. New Plymouth, [1842])

We had left the Henui & were living nearer the bush section my father had bought & was building a house on. I think we used to give way to Frances very much although there were two younger little sisters Mary & Augusta. One day we did something to offend & displeasure her very much, and she exclaimed ‘Now you have made me cross you will have to please me again. Mamma said so’ and no doubt we had to do our best to please her imperial highness. No doubt it was bad for her. but my dear mother had far too much work to do for her little ones to be able to give special training to one who wanted it more than the others. How she must have worked for us & how she tried to teach us as well. When we went to live in the bush there were plenty of things to excite and amuse us, but for my father, mother & brother it must have been dreadful. The hard work, the disappointments & worries were enough to kill anyone brought up as my parents had been. Father had no natural bent for farming & that was his mistake.

What hardships we underwent and privations but I think we must have been a cheerful lot & got fun and amusement out of everything. We used to swing on the great creepers hanging from the forest trees, climb trees like boys and walk across the clearings from one log & branch to another without touching the ground. Frances could walk all round the stock yard on the top rails. Once she went down a very deep well in a bucket to get a duck that had fallen in. The forest was our playground, we knew every berry & flower – But it was not all play by any means. We children had to work very hard in the house, taking the different work by turns. Also we had to try (encouraged by our dear mother) to educate ourselves but it was not easy work with so many interruptions. Had we known what kind of life was before us we could have done more, I might have & Frances also. She could not lose her childish good looks. I remember hearing a stranger say ‘what a very beautiful girl,’ but as far as I recall no girl was ever less conscious of it than she was. When I think how deeply she regretted and with cause her want of education in after years, the more I lament how her life was spoilt for the want of the opportunity.

I must pass over years, and write the first letter I can find. We were very fond of poetry, and used to learn a great deal to recite to each other, never to other people, we were too shy for that. Someone offered Frances half a crown if she would learn the Curfew in a very short stated time, which she did. (Emily Cumming Harris, Notes on Frances Emma Harris. Nelson, 12 June 1898)

On the morning of March the 11th I arose shortly after 5, finished my preparations for our expedition to the mountain and after taking a cup of cocoa was ready to start by 6.30.

My travelling costume consisted of a short dress of grey homespun, black jacket; a hat; strong leather boots, riding gloves et cet; my swag contained a rug, and a few necessaries for “camping out,” I had a small basket for ferns, wild flowers et cet, which I could strap on my back, that being the easiest mode of carrying it.

Our party consisted of three ladies and three gentlemen and a guide. One lady was under the impression that we were only going to the ‘ranges’ and thought that we meant to return that night. On being assured that we had plenty of blankets she exclaimed: “at least I might have brought a tooth brush.” She was offered the loan of one, which caused no little amusement.

Our intention was to [be] absent four days, to ascend Mount Egmont on the second day, and visit “Bell’s” falls on the third, and return to town on the fourth. We started at 7.15 in an express, with a pair of strong horses, carrying with us tents and provisions. The morning was lovely! We drove eleven miles inland along a rough but picturesque country road. We passed on the way a second party, of nine men and boys under the leadership of Sergeant Brooking, also bound for the mountain. (Frances Emma Harris, ‘Ascent of Mount Egmont. March 11th 1879.’ MS journal interleaved with 9 watercolour and ink sketches)

I never expected to get anything by it & was very much astonished to find a post office order for so much. It came just in the nick of time to help to pay some of the bills, at least part of it.

I am sure I ought to feel flattered at my pictures selling at all, I shall begin to believe in myself soon – I have not made a sketch or painted a thing since you left. (Frances Emma Harris to Emily Cumming Harris in New Plymouth. Nelson, 16 Feb 1890, quoted in Emily’s diary)

Frances Emma Harris (1842-1892) was the fourth daughter of Edwin and Sarah Harris, and the first born in New Zealand. She was born 14 Feb and baptised October 1842 in New Plymouth by Bishop George Selwyn. Frances was probably given art training by her father and examples of her work are held by Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth and by Harris descendant Peter Tregeagle, Sydney. Her illustrated journal ‘Ascent of Mount Egmont, March 11th 1879’ belongs to Godfrey JW and Judith Briant. Frances died in New Plymouth 17 Sept 1892 while staying with married sister Mary Weyergang. She was buried 19 Sept at St Mary’s Anglican Church with her brother Corbyn. Her death certificate notes cause of death as Influenza 3 months, Phthisis 6 months.

Photo 1

Clarke, William Henshaw 1831-1910: Portrait of Frances Harris. Alexander Turnbull Library. PA2-0491.

Head and shoulders portrait. Frances’s hair is pulled back, the length just above her jawline. Starburst earrings dangle from her ears. Her gaze is to the right of the camera. She wears a ruffled white collar around the neck, above a loose bow of fabric, and a white lace shawl over her pale dress which has two large buttons visible on the front.


This photo was taken by William Henshaw Clarke (1831-1910), probably at his studio in Wellington.

Alexander Turnbull Library writes:

Wellington photographer. Born London 1831, son of Edward Clarke, Solicitor, and Elizabeth Douglas Clarke. Operated studio at 91 Bourke Street East, Melbourne, ca 1862. Arrived in New Zealand ca 1874. Operated studio in Wellington 1877-1884 (in partnership with Mrs Hamilton 1878-1880). Listed as a photographer in Wanganui 1890-1909. Died 23 June 1910. (Sources: death certificate; electoral rolls; NZ Mail; “Wellington through a Victorian lens”, William Main, 1972; “The mechanical eye in Australia”, by Davies & Stanbury, 1985)


The Turnbull description reads ‘Formal head and shoulders portrait of Frances Harris, possibly taken in the studio of the photographer William Henshaw Clarke between 1878-1884’. If the dates are correct than Frances is 36- 42 years old in this photograph and would likely have been teaching at the Harris sisters School.

Photo 2

Frances in Family Album, pages 3 (left) and 11 (right)


At first glance, it seems as though the family album has two prints of the WH Clarke photo, one on page 3 and the other on page 11. But on closer comparison we can see the prints in the family album are both of a different shot from the same photoshoot, with Frances tilting her head slightly more to the side than in the Turnbull print.

Family Album photos and WH Clarke photo side by side

Photo 3

Harris, Mrs. Nelson Provincial Museum. 1689

A sitting portrait of Frances, her hair in large braids and done up high on her head, topped with a black filigree hair comb similar to the one Emily wears in her William Bryan portrait. Frances wears a dark dress with a sheen to it with white ruffles at the triangle neckline, affixed with a dark strip of velvet or ribbon, and at the cuffs. At the shoulders, under ‘petals’ of the dark shiny fabric, there is a short fringe of thin black material or thread almost like fur. Frances wears a black choker affixed with a brooch and dark dangling earrings. There are three bows down the skirts of her dress. Her eyes are slightly downcast. She rests her arms at her waist near her lap, one hand over the other.


This photo was taken by William Davis (1837- 1875), probably while he operated his Nelson studio. William Davis also made a portrait of Ellen Harris that will be featured in Ellen’s ‘Sisters at a Glance’ post

Alexander Turnbull Library writes:

Photographer, London, Nelson and Auckland fl 1850s-1870s. Born London, England, 21 Sep 1837, son of William Henry Whitmore Davis (1812-1901) and Elizabeth Davis (née Mose). Worked with his father in a studio at 3 Bentinck Place, Portland Town, London, ca 1857-1858. Emigrated to New Zealand in 1858 and set up a studio in Mulgrave street, Wellington. Operated studios in Nelson 1860-ca 1872, then moved to Auckland, where he also practised as a photographer. He may also have practised as a photographer in New Plymouth.

Married Jane Sclanders Burns, eldest daughter of John Burns, on 5 Aug 1861 (Colonist, 9 Aug 1861, p 2). Died by drowning 30 August 1875, after jumping from the ship Hawea in Manukau Harbour. [Sources: Christine O’Brien, personal communication; Directory of London photographers 1841-1908.]


This photo is recorded at Nelson Provincial Museum as being of ‘Mrs Harris’ while the Family Album identifies it as Frances Harris. This photo also has two copies in the Family Album but this time it does appear that they are of the same shot, see below.

Frances Harris in the Family Album, pages 11 (left) and 13 (right)

Further Reading on Frances Harris

Emily Cumming Harris, Notes on Frances Emma Harris. Nelson, 12 June 1898 (1)

Emily Cumming Harris, Notes on Frances Emma Harris. Nelson, 12 June 1898 (2)

Upcoming: ‘A Wonderful Panorama’. This section will present Frances Harris’s illustrated journal of her ascent of Mt Taranaki in March 1879.

Sydney Report. Michele and Betty visit Harris descendant Peter Tregeagle and view a tiny oil by Frances Harris of two girls above a coastal scene.

Emily Harris’s letters to Frances:

Writing Lines 5- Letter to my sister Frances in Nelson, 3 January 1861
Writing Lines 10- Letter to sister Frances Harris in Nelson, 24 December 1861
Writing Lines 11- Letter to sister Frances Harris in Nelson, 29 March 1863

Sisters at a Glance: Navigation
#0 Introduction
#1 Emily Cumming Harris
#2 Catherine Harris
#3 Unnamed Daughter
#4 Frances Emma Harris: Here
#5 Mary Rendel Harris
#6 Augusta Harris
#7 Ellen Harris

Lead writers: Michele Leggott and Brianna Vincent
Research Support: Dasha Zapisetskaya, Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis

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