Letter 12

Sarah Harris to sister Emma Jane Hill. New Plymouth, undated

I am going to tell you my dear Emma of my losing myself in the Forest for two hours. It was in the early days of the settlement before we went into our bush land. One fine day I was invited to meet the Rev Mr & Mrs Bolland to dine at a friends house about two miles from our home. Having been there before three times I felt quite confident I knew the way, so I left early & felt a degree of delight at being free from family cares to enjoy such a walk.

When about halfway I had to cross a clearing that would or should have brought me to my friends house sooner than if I had continued then the cart road. However a stream of water ran through the clearing which I had to cross, [by] a rustic bridge of fern trees. I had just put my foot on it when I discovered a new one made like it a few yards lower down. Thinking the old one might not be safe I went over the new one following the track. I by some means got on one that took me into the bush. My attention was immediately drawn to the beautiful ferns, Ratta [Rātā] trees in flower, the Clematis & others. I did not gather any ferns as I could not well carry them.

At last I thought I had been walking a long time & was feeling very tired. I then for the first time began to tell that I had missed the path. So looking about for an opening I saw a little sunlight shining a short distance before me. So making my way towards the clearing I got into a road on the opposite side. There was a stile made like I had often seen in Devonshire. I did not hesitate to cross the stile when I found myself in a large fern clearing, the spot I stood on was high ground

[crosswritten page begins here]

& the field was a [gradual] […] of [mossy] […] and […] as I [entered] the field I was [surrounded] by three dogs barking at me I […] I was frightened looking down the field I saw a great number of Maoris spring up from the ground where they had been digging potatoes a native woman with a baby at her back was making [towards] me & I [begd] her to call off the dogs which she did She then shouted […] to the natives that I had lost my way then the natives [began] to [approach] & felt it to be great fun. I [thanked] her to [show] me the way to my [friends] No she would not [be] [brought] [on] Finding I could do nothing with her it […] the styles & [markers] [of] my friends to [consider] the way I came & get home as fast as I could

[After] [five] [minutes] [walk] I [saw] an […] on my left [where] there was [here] a large tree [cut] [down] so [making] my [..] […] Of […………………………] [I] [came] [out] into a fern [fold] where to my sorrow the fern was six foot high and I could see nothing but a little [……..] land [a] short distance [off] [so] I [followed] the [surveyor] [……] but the [……] ferns [….] [….] high  [&] managed to gain the [top] of the […]

A little hill and looking round saw a chimney smoking then I felt gladdened and that could be no other than my friends house […] so made my way out of the field as fast as possible. After the same house I had just left, [………..] and at last came to the house it belonged to, I stood I looked and I said to myself that is not my friend’s house but it must be some of our England people as the natives have no chimneys I knocked […] the door […] [nothing further written]

Harris Family History. Compiled by various hands 1871-1934. Briant Papers. Notebook, pp. [180]-[182].


I am going to tell you my dear Emma of my losing myself in the Forest for two hours
The letter, a recollection of events in late 1843 or early 1844, unsigned and written in pencil, has been copied into the last three pages of Sarah Harris’s notebook. The final page is cross-written and the underlying lines are difficult to decipher. See Brianna Vincent, ‘Cross-Eyed Cross Writing.’  A second attempt to decipher the page was made in 2024 by Catherine Field-Dodgson and has revealed more though not all of Sarah’s story.

I was invited to meet the Rev Mr & Mrs Bolland
John Newland notes the arrival in New Plymouth of Rev William Bolland 3 Dec 1843 by the brig Victoria from Auckland. Bolland (1820-1847) and his wife Jane had arrived in New Zealand early in 1843 from England. They spent several months at Bishop Selwyn’s Tamaki settlement before William’s appointment as first Anglican deacon of Taranaki. Selwyn travelled with the Bollands to New Plymouth and his letter of 2 Dec 1843 to Bolland sets out plans for a church school: ‘Mr Merchant has made some attempts to form a Church of England School; but without much success. With your superintendence and assistance he may succeed better. I have told him that I will empower you to give free admissions to a number of children of poor parents equal to that of his pay scholars. If he receives payment from 20 children at 6d. per week, you will be at liberty to select and put in 20 other children at my expense: provided that you have reason to believe that their parents are unable to pay for themselves.’ Sarah Harris does not identify the friend at whose house she has been invited to meet the Bollands. One possibility, based on references in her letters 1841-43, is that the friend is Mrs Elizabeth Merchant and that Sarah was walking from Te Henui to the Merchants’ home in Currie St, central New Plymouth.

When about halfway I had to cross a clearing
Sarah leaves the cart road (present-day Devon St East) to take a shortcut, probably turning north towards the coast and hoping to walk west along Gill St or Molesworth St. She loses herself in the bush and high fern between clearings belonging to settlers and Māori, and encounters Māori families working their land.