Letter 20

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

Looking over a multitude of letters that I do not like to burn I thought I might write out some of those written by, written to or concerning my late sisters.

I begin with my sister Frances. She was one of the first children born in New Plymouth, I mean of English parents. I think she was christened by Bishop Selwyn. I can just remember being sent to stay at a friend’s house but not liking it I walked home again but I never forgot that I was looked upon as a very naughty little girl. Someone however told me that I had a new little sister. The next I remember we were living at the Henui, baby was two years old and had not been weaned & the difficulty was how to manage, she used to scream so.

When she was a few years old we were all playing near a stream in the garden and close to a well a few feet deep. We were playing houses, little France’s seat was pushed back & back until suddenly she fell head first into the well. Our loud cries brought my mother and she stooped down & catching hold of her feet pulled her out dripping wet and nearly drowned. She was a fine healthy child & it did her no harm. Some time after we were playing near the gate, some ladies stopped to speak to us. Afterwards they told some friends that little Frances Harris was the most beautiful child they had ever seen. No doubt it was true but I cannot remember her then. She had plenty of dark hair, grey eyes & very regular features. Later on Mr Donald McLean (afterwards Sir Donald) came to live near us. He & my father were great friends at that time. He was very tall & big. He greatly admired the little girl & used to hoist her up on his broad shoulder, carry her off to his house & regale her with bread & butter and sugar. Sometimes he would send his man for her. She seemed to like going. But another time when some friends (the Nairns) wanted to keep the two little girls Kate & Frances they could do nothing with her and had to bring her home. Kate was all smiles & quite happy with them.

One day I went for a walk with my brother & Frances. We went as far as the Wawakio [Waiwhakaiho] river to see the beautiful suspension bridge that had broken down in the middle. Father made a sketch of the bridge, before it broke down, a lovely river then with trees and shrubs on both sides. When the bridge broke down a canoe or boat was kept for people to row themselves over. Corbyn rowed himself half across the river & finding it very delightful offered to take us & we were only too willing to go. He managed to row to about the middle of the river then could not get farther, do what he would. The current was too strong & the canoe began drifting down the river. Then two men came on the opposite side & wanted to cross & kept calling out directions but nothing could be done. We kept drifting until we got nearly under the bridge then one of the men, a young Maori, climbed along the broken chain & just as we were under dropped into the canoe. He quickly rowed us across & we went home very much frightened at our narrow escape. How many times since then I have tried to cross, in dreams, that broken bridge or drifted down that river or got lost in the marshy banks it would be hard to say.


MS notes on Frances Emma Harris. Written at 34 Nile St, Nelson, NZ, 12 June 1898. Found in Frances Harris, ‘Ascent of Mount Egmont. March 11th 1879.’ MS journal interleaved with 9 watercolour and ink sketches. Briant Papers.


Looking over a multitude of letters that I do not like to burn
By 1898, Augusta, Frances and Ellen Harris were dead. The notes Emily made about Frances consist of five loose pages found in the album Frances made of her 1879 ascent of Mt Taranaki (Briant Papers).

I can just remember being sent to stay at a friend’s house
Emily recalls the birth of Frances in Feb 1842 when she was almost five years old and the Harrises were living in Devonport.

Later on Mr Donald McLean (afterwards Sir Donald) came to live near us
Donald McLean (1820-1877), was a Scottish Highlander who emigrated to New South Wales in 1838 and arrived in Auckland in 1840. In Mar 1844, through the influence of Andrew Sinclair, colonial secretary and a Scot, he was appointed to the Protectorate of Aborigines. Posted as sub-protector in Taranaki, McLean had to mediate in a diverse range of conflicts between Māori and settler, notably those caused by the damaging of Māori cultivations by settlers’ stock. When Governor George Grey abolished the protectorate in 1846, to bring about a more direct ‘amalgamation’ of Māori into British institutions, he recognised McLean’s skill and retained him as a police inspector in Taranaki. McLean and his troop of Māori police administered firm and by and large fair justice, working with tribal leaders (Te Ara).

Kate was all smiles & quite happy with them
See #19.

Father made a sketch of the bridge before it broke down
Edwin Harris’s watercolour of the Waiwhakaiho Bridge is at Puke Ariki (A66.768). The bridge was constructed in 1842-43 using chain cables from the wreck of the Fifeshire at Nelson and washed away in a flood four years later. Newland 19 June 1847: ‘Saturday. The Waiwakio Suspension Bridge gave way this afternoon (South side). Great inconvenience is experienced in consequence.’

Corbyn rowed himself half across the river
In 1847, Corbyn was twelve, Emily ten and Frances five.