The oldest document: a court summons 1831 or 1832

By Michele Leggott, with research support from Catherine Field-Dodgson

Mrs E Harris, collection of Puke Ariki, PHO2018_0073

Families keep the strangest things. For years now we have been looking at what we take to be the oldest document in Sarah Harris’s family history, a tattered and yellowing piece of paper pasted into the notebook that is full of intriguing items from the English and New Zealand parts of the Harris story. Copies of early letters from Taranaki in the 1840s rub shoulders with lists of English relatives and their achievements. Later generations have added to and updated Sarah’s original 1871 entries. The notebook is a palimpsest of names and dates, news clippings and handwritten memos. A peerage here, a dynasty of civil engineers there, a portrait painter, a Biblical scholar and an eminent poet. A brother living through three revolutions in France and a sister who taught for many years in a boarding school for young ladies in Liskeard, Cornwall. Sarah Harris wanted her daughters to know about their connections to a country none of them ever saw beyond early childhood.

Under the heading ‘A brief account of my life for my dear children,’ Sarah describes romance with Edwin Harris and the wedding that took place in Plymouth, Devon, in 1833. Edwin was musical, well-educated and a good match in the eyes of those around the young couple. Sarah recalls their first meeting at a family soirée: ‘Edwin played the Guitar & sang well & my voice was considered good at that time.’ She continues:

Two days after Miss Harris & her brother called on us in Flora Place where we lived & a great intimacy sprang up between the two families. Neither my sisters or I thought anything of him (the brother) as a lover. He was passionately fond of music & brought us the new songs & duets & he would ask me to try them with him which I did, being always well pleased to get new songs. His disposition was so reserved that I never thought for a moment that he could make love to any one, & as for myself the idea of liking him for a husband never entered my head. Things went on for a few months in this way when I had an invitation to visit Ireland. My departure was to take place the next week. On his being told of it, he made me an offer directly & said he hoped I would say yes. I declined his proposal of marriage & said nothing should prevent my going. Next day his Aunt came to see me, saying how sorry his family were at my refusal of their son & hoped I would retract etc etc & would I see him in the evening. Yes I would see him but should not retract. In the meantime my Father spoke to me & said I was giving up a good match that his profession was a good one etc etc.
The evening came & he renewed his offer (where I thought I was most strong I became weak) & I accepted him, but would go to Ireland. I left next day.
I travelled from Devonshire through Wales, passed over the Menai Bridge, crossed to Kings Town, stayed one day & night in Dublin & travelled by land to Cork, spent a week at the Lakes of Killarney & returned home to be married after twelve months absence.
I was met on the landing place in Plymouth by my dear father & Mr Harris, & a carriage conveyed us to my Father’s house where no end of kisses awaited me from my dear sisters. On the fourth day after my arrival I was married: November 24th 1833. (The Family Songbook 1)

Edwin Harris was at that time working for his engineering brother-in-law James Meadows Rendel as a draughtsman and surveyor. His family owned a well-established house-decorating and glazing business on the Parade in central Plymouth. But all was not well at Harris and Sons in the early 1830s to judge by what we could decipher of the handwritten document pasted into Sarah’s notebook:

‘The oldest document’: page 27 in Sarah Harris’s notebook

At some stage of its history the document has come apart and been taped together on the reverse. The join is rough and words on the left don’t line up with words on the right. Other words are hidden by an ink blot. With the help of a Wikipedia page about the history of Crown law in early nineteenth-century England, here is what we could make out:

William the Fourth by [the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,] King, Defender of the Faith To
Edwin Harris –
Greeting we command you […]fen and every of you be and appear in your proper persons before […]in [one word] the castle of Exeter in the said county on Thursday […] of the same day and so from day to day until this cause is […]on now in our court before us – depending between James […]ys on the case on the part of the plaintiff. And at the aforesaid to be tried and this you nor any of you shall in no wi[…]lefs Charles Lord Tenterden at Westminster the thirty first.

Charles Abbott, First Baron Tenterden (1762-1832) was Lord Chief Justice, in office between 4 November 1818 and 4 November 1832. He was preceded by The Lord Ellenborough and succeeded by Sir Thomas Denman.

Despite its gaps, the drift of the document is clear enough. Edwin Harris is being summonsed to appear at Exeter Castle at the trial of someone called James on the 31st of a month preceding 4 November 1832.

Is the defendant James Meadows Rendel, Edwin’s employer? Or James Pasco Harris, his father? Or James Cobham Harris, his older brother, a portrait painter working for the family business? A search of the British Newspaper Archive turned up what we thought was a credible answer:

Eligible FREEHOLD PREMISES, the Parade Plymouth, STOCK in TRADE thereon & FREE HOLD HOUSE in Castle Street.
TO be SOLD by Public Auction, by R. L. STEPHENS, on Monday, the 21st Day of November Instant, at Eleven o’Clock in the Forenoon, on the Premises, the Fee-Simple and Inheritance of all that Capital MESSUAGE, consisting of a Chemist’s shop, Glazier’s Shops and Back Premises thereto adjoining, situate and being No. 23, on the South side of the Parade, the borough of Plymouth, late the of the said JAMES HARRIS.
The above Property has for upwards of 56 years last past been established as a house of business in the Painting, Glazing, and Colour Trade, and from its eligible situation and capability for that or any similar purpose, it is well worth attention.
Also Lot 2. — The Fee-simple and Inheritance of all that convenient MESSUAGE, consisting of Three Stories, with the Courtlage and Appurtenances thereto belonging, situate of the North side of Castle-Street, in Plymouth aforesaid and now for many years past in the occupation of MR BIRCH, as Tenant thereof.
Immediately after the Sale of the above, an auction will be held for the Sale of the neat and convenient FIXTURES in the said Chemist’s Shop, and on the Premises at the Parade, comprising Nests of Drawers, Shop Counters, Shelves, Desks. Beams, Scales and Weights, Pump, Benches, Iron Furnace, and all other the fixtures in and attached to the said Premises.
On the same and on the following day, will also be Sold the STOCK in TRADE and UTENSILS, comprising variety of Drugs, Perfumery, Oils, Colours, Shew Bottles, Oil Cisterns, Cans, Glass, Old Sash Frames, Hand Glasses, Casting Moulds, Window Lead, Solder, Lead Vices (one of which cost 15 Guineas), and a variety of such other Articles as usually constitute the Stock of a Painter, Colour Man, and Glazier.
For a view apply at the Premises, and for further Particulars to the Auctioneer, or to Meesrs G. and J, PRIDHAM, Solicitors, Union street, Plymouth to whom all persons indebted to the Estate of the said Bankrupt, are required to pay the Amount of their Debts.
Dated 9th November, 1831. (Western Times 12 Nov 1831: 3)

James Pasco Harris’s business and dwelling house were up for sale and worse was to come. A few days later his property interests in Plymouth joined the forced sale of assets. They were extensive, and extensively described:

Genteel, Spacious, well-built, and compact Residences in Plymouth
To be SOLD by Public Auction, on Wednesday, the 30th day of November instant, at Twelve o’clock, at No. 40, Park-Street, Plymouth, the Fee-Simple and Inheritance of and the LANDS FOLLOWING, viz .—
Lot 1. — All that modem and substantial DWELLING HOUSE, WALLED GARDEN, TENEMENT and COURTLAGE, (which last can at a trifling expense be converted into a Coach-House and Stables) being No. 40, Park-Street, aforesaid; comprising upwards of 8480 feet of Land.— Immediate possession will be given. The Land slopes from North South, and the House comprises an elegant Porch and spacious Lobby, Breakfast Parlour, Dining-Room, and Drawing-Room (26 feet by 16 and 11 feet 6 high) on the Basement Floor; two Kitchens, Scullery. Pantry, and Wine Cellars, and four excellent Bed-rooms, China, and Water Closets, on the Second Floor ; and three Garrets. The Garden is well stocked with excellent bearing Trees. Exquisite Views of the Harbour, Sound, and Mount Edgcumbe are enjoyed from every Room, and the Garden.
Lot 2.— A PIECE Of LAND, used as a second Courtlage and Green-house to the last Lot, on the Eastern Side thereof, and lying on the Southern Side of Garden in the possession of Mr. Samuel Treby ; in length 46 feet by 27 ; and on which a Cottage can be erected, having access from an adjoining Lane. Desirable and well built family House.
Lot 3.— All that DWELLING.HOUSE, No. 42 PARK-STREET, comprising a Breakfast Parlour, Dining-room, Drawing-room, Kitchen, Pantry, Scullery, and Wash-house, &c. on the Basement floor ; with four very excellent Bed-rooms, China aud Water Closets, and four Servants Apartments’ above. The principal front is open to the South, with a Terrace walk and Garden, comprising one third part of an acre of Land, with extensive sea and land views. The Premises are entered from the Street by handsome side entrance, with Gates through a court where a Coach-house, &c., might be erected. The Garden is well Stocked with the finest fruit Trees and contains a large Hot-House, with the choicest Vines in full bearing, and small Stable.
Lot 4.—All that DWELLING-HOUSE, being No. 43, PARK-STREET, with the Courtlage and Offices attached thereto ; comprising a Kitchen, Parlour three Bed-rooms, and Outhouses in the Possession Miss Battell.
Lot 5.—A similar DWELLING-HOUSE. No. 41, in the same Street; in the possession of Miss Chryme.
Lot 6.—All that DWELLING-HOUSE, being No 13, on the North Side of PARK-STREET aforesaid; with a convenient Garden, Courtlage, and Offices, to the same belonging. The House comprises Kitchen, Parlour, Drawing-Room, and three Bed-Rooms and is in possession of Miss Wharton.
Lot 7.—A similar DWELLING-HOUSE, No. 12 in the same Street; in possession of Mrs. Dawe.
Lot 8.—A well-built DWELLING-HOUSE and GARDEN, No. 35, in PARK-STREET ; 21 feet by 139. This House, which is in the possession of Miss Harris, comprises two Kitchens, two Parlours with folding Doors, and five Bed-rooms ; and is open to the above View.
Lot 9. — DWELLING-HOUSE, COURTLAGE, and GARDEN, No. 6, on the western side of GARDEN STREET; in the occupation of Mr. Davis, comprising a Kitchen, Parlour, and two Bed-rooms.
Lot 10.— An excellent (Chattel Real) DWELLING HOUSE, No. 35 COBOURG-STREET, and two GARDENS; about 110 by feet; comprising two Kitchens, two Parlours with folding Doors, and four Bed-rooms, with very convenient Outhouses ; the occupation of Miss Yeo ; having extensive Views of the Sound, Mount Edgcumbe, &c.
Lot 11.— A pleasant and well-built DWELLING HOUSE, COTTAGE, and GARDEN, No. 15, CHARLES-PLACE, 19 feet by 117, comprising on the Basement two Parlours, a Kitchen, Scullery, and Out Offices ; the second Floor: a Drawing-Room and two Bed-Rooms, with two good Garrets over; in the possession of Captain Fawckner; and commanding a most extensive View of Back-Country, Plympton, Saltram, the Sound, &c.
Lot 12. — An equally good RESIDENCE, No. 16, CHARLES-PLACE, replete with Conveniences; the possession of Mr. Graham, containing 2300 feet of Land and about 22 feet Frontage.
All the Property is well supplied with Water.
To view, apply at the respective Premises; and for further particulars, at the Offices of Messrs G. and J. PRIDHAM; or Mr. SQUIRE, Solicitor, Plymouth. Dated Plymouth, 18th November, 1831. (Western Times 26 Nov 1831: 1)

As the disposal of James Harris’s assets continued, a likely date for the trial at Exeter Castle appeared in one of the newspaper advertisements:

The Commissioners in a Commission of Bankrupt, hearing date the 10th day October, 1831, awarded and issued forth against JAMES HARRIS, of Plymouth, in the County Devon, Painter and Glazier, and Oil and Colour Merchant, Dealer and Chapman, intend to meet on the 26th day of May instant, at Eleven in the forenoon, at the Royal Hotel, Plymouth aforesaid, in order to make dividend of the estate and effects of the said bankrupt; when and where the Creditors who have not already proved their debts are to come prepared to prove the same, or they will be excluded the benefit of the said dividend. And all claims not then proved will be disallowed. G. & J. Pridham, Solicitors. (Royal Devonport Telegraph, and Plymouth Chronicle 19 May 1832: 2):

It was time to check in again with Emeritus Professor Roger Middleton, author of The Power of Two: Peterhead to Plymouth, an exploration of two families over three centuries. Professor Middleton published his magisterial history of the Harris and Middleton families in 2023, generously supplying Puke Ariki Museum with a copy that can be consulted in relation to the papers and artworks of the New Zealand Harris family held by the museum. A digital copy of the book is available on request to the librarians and the catalogue record (TRCT929.2) carries the following note:

with the compliments of the author who would very much like to know more of the descendants of Edwin Harris (1806-95) and Sarah Harris (née Hill) (1806-79) who, with their young family, left [Old] Plymouth on 12 November 1840, reaching New Plymouth on 31 March 1841.

Professor Roger Middleton’s book The Power of Two in the library at Puke Ariki

Professor Middleton confirmed that the James in question was James Pasco Harris, Edwin’s father, who had been bankrupted in 1831. There had been some recent confusion about whether the proceedings concerned James Pasco Harris (JPH) or his son James Cobham Harris (JCH), but Professor Middleton was certain the bankrupt was Edwin’s father. The newspaper articles and the tattered summons in Sarah Harris’s notebook confirmed the identification. We found the relevant passage in The Power of Two, p86, where Professor Middleton explains how third, fourth and fifth generation Harrises ran their businesses:

Harris & Sons: origins & bifurcation (A-B), 1820s–60s
As was made clear in chapter 4 on the early Harris family our ignorance is as follows. First, we know almost nothing about the original business started by JHSnr (G3) [James Harris Snr] and then passed to his two sons, JPH [James Pasco Harris] and JHd1821 [John Harris] (G4). Second, we do not know why, for G5, the original business was divided with JCH [James Cobham Harris] pursuing stationery, printing and artist’s supplies (branch A) and, from a date unknown but probably 1850, the Plymouth School of Art (ch. 5.3), while HMH [Henry Marmaduke Harris] continued with the glazing and house painting side (branch B). At the 1841 census, the last which included JPH, he is recorded as living at 1 Union Street, Plymouth and as a painter. HMH, aged 22, is part of that household and also a painter, whilst his brother, JCH, twenty one years his senior, is at 37 Park Street, Plymouth and self-described as an artist. From recent research by Jacob Simon, we know it was JPH who was declared bankrupt in 1831 (not JCH as argued by Robinson 2018), and that the partnership of James Harris & Sons was dissolved in 1846, with HMH then continuing the business.

James Pasco Harris came through the bankruptcy of 1831-32 and his second son Edwin married Miss Sarah Hill of Flora Place, Plymouth with the blessing of both families. When Edwin’s own financial affairs collapsed in 1839 due to an embroilment with a feckless brother-in-law on his wife’s side, perhaps James Pasco Harris had some sympathy for his son’s plight.

INSOLVENTS to be heard at the COURT HOUSE, at WELLS, in the County of Somerset, on the 27th day of November, 1839, at the hour of ten in the morning precisely:
EDWIN HARRIS, late of Dulverton, in the county of Somerset, Land Surveyor, and previously residing in Adelaide Street, Plymouth, in the county of Devon, and acting Assistant to Mr. Rendell, of Plymouth aforesaid, Civil Engineer. (Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 6 Nov 1839: 1)

This is what prompted Edwin Harris to take a free passage to New Zealand in November 1840 with his pregnant wife Sarah and their three children, Corbyn 5, Emily 3 and Katie 18 months. In the event Edwin and his family exchanged the Hungry Forties of Britain for the perhaps hungrier Forties of the new British colony, not forgetting the distance it would impose on all familial connections.

Neither Edwin’s bankruptcy nor that of his father features in Sarah Harris’s family history, except in the partly-illegible court summons from 1831 or 1832. Why did Sarah preserve this reminder of perilous times in her husband’s family? Our questions on this point have no answer. Except perhaps that Sarah’s year-long absence in Ireland from late 1832 until late 1833 was at some level an insurance against further financial complications in the family of her intended.

James Cobham Harris, ‘Harris family, c.1825 of James Pasco Harris (James Jnr) and Mary Roberts Harris (née Good)’, oil on canvas, 650 mm x 800 mm. Collection of Roger Middleton. Edwin Harris is pictured playing chess with his father.


2 thoughts on “The oldest document: a court summons 1831 or 1832

    1. Mōrena! No, this is her father’s immediate family, so all the children pictured are his siblings. Edwin was one of at least 11 children!

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