Letter 1

Sarah Harris, A brief account of my life for my dear children. Nelson, 1871

I have little of the merry days of childhood to record which were as happy as health, & the care of fond parents could make them.

At the age of twelve the first great sorrow came to us in the bereavement of my dear Mother & two older sisters, my Grandfather & two Grandmothers within five years. I can well remember the delight we felt when the first white frock with a broad sash of black ribbon tied behind was put on after being so many years in mourning.

We were now four sisters & one brother who was the eldest. He was sent to St Quentin in France to manage an establishment belonging to Mr Heathcote, the M.P. for Tiverton, Devon. My brother never after returned to England as a resident. My sister Emma, being the eldest and liberally educated, had received early religious impressions and never to the day of her death failed in her duty to her sisters in drawing them to the throne of Grace. And may we bow our knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying that He would grant us, according to the riches of His Glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit; that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith; that we, being rooted & grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, & length, and height, & to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.

We three younger ones were deprived of the care of our beloved sister by her going to Hinckley, Leic, Mon. as a teacher in the Miss Linwood’s Seminary. So we younger ones in course of time grew up young women with a moderate share of good looks & good health.

At 16 I visited Jersey where I spent five months on a visit to some old friends of my Father’s, a widow of an officer in the navy. I there acquired a taste for gaiety, parties, balls etc. At that time Jersey was very full of Spanish refugees. I remember very well being asked by a Don somebody to waltz with him, I excused myself by saying I did not waltz, so I accepted a  gentleman who asked me for a Country dance. The dance was the Spanish country dance, (at that period it was not thought proper for young ladies to waltz). After which the Spanish Don came to me & said, you say you not waltz, I am very sorry and retire, and when I look at the dancing I see you waltzing with English Gentleman. I felt confused as there is a little waltzing in the Spanish country dance.

I remained five months in Jersey. It was then a charming place for a visit, great sociability and much visiting. There was a gentleman of moderate fortune & young who was a friend of the family where I was staying who made frequent calls at the house. I had no idea of any particular affections from him towards myself as there was a niece of my friends who lived with us young & handsome. Just before I left he made me an offer of marriage which surprised me & I refused. My young lady friend brought me a ring from him hoping I would accept which I returned. When I arrived on board the vessel to go to England I found him there. He renewed his overtures which failed, and he left the ship. I was told afterwards that he cut a lock of hair from behind my head & the ring was found among my things when I returned home.

Now it seems very absurd telling you all this. Many years passed over my head after my return & I had a few admirers, but we will say nothing about them as nothing came of it. And so at last my Aunt Corbyn gave an evening party and invited Mrs. Rendel; Miss Harris, and their brother Mr Edwin Harris, Miss Corbyn, My Uncle and sister, and a Miss Nightingale a singer, and harpists. There was plenty of music as Edwin played the Guitar & sang well & my voice was considered good at that time. This was our first introduction to the Harris’s. My sisters Ann & Elizabeth were there also. 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.

Now I suppose you will want to know what I was dressed in. I think I feel a little pleasure in telling you because it was so beautiful, a present from my friends in Ireland. My dress was white Irish poplin (the order for it was sent to the manufacturer to make it quite plain & good). So the dress was a plain Irish Poplin made in the fashion of the day, a cape of white Gros de Naples with long ends nearly to my feet trimmed all round with white swan’s down, a white hat & trimmed with a small white feather & orange blossom.

My brides maids were Miss Augusta Harris (afterwards Mrs Dobson, wife of George Dobson, C.E.) & my sister Ann, now Mrs F. Paddon. Mr. George Dobson was best man.

There was a large family dinner party of Harris’s & Hills. I never hear of a family gathering of this kind where the bride is made the centre of attention to all present, but I feel great sympathy for her that is if she felt as I did ready to creep into a nutshell.

My new home in Park Street, Plymouth, was a small house containing I think seven rooms, back kitchen & garden. It was neatly furnished & I felt as mistress of it one of the happiest of women.

Feb 9th 1835, my dear son Hugh Corbyn was born. What words can express the joy I felt & the love I gave him. He was a remarkable fine boy. Walking with his nurse on one of the Terraces a Dr S came out of his house & took him in his arms, to the great fright of the nurse, & said he wanted to carry him away. He took him to his wife to show him. He returned with him to the nurse and asked whose child he was. In March 1837 my little daughter Emily Cumming was born. She was a very pretty child with large blue eyes, could read easy words at two years old. She was born in England, Plymouth, Devon. Catherine was born in Somersetshire, Dulverton, where we were two years during the surveys made by your father for the Reform Bills. Your father had been all through the County of Cornwall with the Commissioner Dawson for the same purposes. We were prospering and likely to do so but for a very unexpected trouble in a will, concern which to oblige a brother in law of mine whose dishonourable conduct quite ruined us at this time.

New Zealand was much talked of and Governor Hobson who was a friend of the Rendels wrote them from N.Z. saying if Mrs Rendel’s brother would come out to N.Z. he would find plenty of work in the survey and for him. I did not feel willing to go but Edwin was bent on going and all his friends thought it a fine opening for him. So there was great preparation made as to outfit useful instruments for surveys and many useful handsome presents from friends who we might well never see again. So at length all was ready and we left England for New Zealand November the 19th 1840, with three children Corbyn, Emily & Catherine.


Harris Family History. Compiled by various hands 1871-1934. Godfrey and Judith Briant Papers. Notebook, pp. [79]-[89].


Sarah Harris wrote her family history into a small notebook, recalling the events of her life in England and NZ, and copying a number of letters sent to English relatives in the 1840s and early 1850s. She also made lists of family members in England and NZ which her daughters and a grand-daughter updated to 1934. The notebook belongs to her great-great-grandson Godfrey Briant and is part of the Godfrey and Judith Briant papers.

At the age of twelve the first great sorrow came to us
Sarah Hill was 12 in 1819 when her mother and maternal grandfather died. Another passage in the notebook gives details: ‘His daughter Elizabeth my beloved mother died three days after her father. I can remember well the great sorrow & mourning in the house for those beloved ones, both laying dead under the same roof.’ (2) Sarah’s older sisters Eliza and Caroline died in 1820 and 1825.

We were now four sisters & one brother who was the eldest
William Hill (1799-c1870s); Emma Jane Hill (1802-1866); Sarah Harris, nee Hill (1806-1879); Ann Mountjoy Paddon, nee Hill (1808-1887); Elizabeth Dyer Cole, nee Hill (1810-1887).

He was sent to St Quentin in France to manage an establishment belonging to Mr Heathcote
See Heathcoat of Tiverton, Lace Manufacturers: ‘John Heathcoat served as a member of parliament for Tiverton from 1832 to 1859. He took a less active role in the firm according to a memorandum of 1855 signed by Heathcoat and his other partners Ambrose Brewin his son-in-law, John Heathcoat Amory his grandson, and Thomas Hallam his brother-in-law. Hallam attended to foreign business which included for a time a factory at St Quentin in France.’

And may we bow our knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
Sarah quotes and slightly rewords Ephesians 3:14-19, also called ‘Paul’s Prayer for the Ephesians’.

Hinckley, Leic, Mon. as a teacher in the Miss Linwood’s Seminary
Neither the seminary nor its proprietor appears among schools in Hinckley, Leicestershire, listed in Pigot’s Directory 1822-35. Miss Mary Linwood (1755-1845), a celebrated needlework artist, ran a girls’ boarding school in Leicester for 50 years at Belgrave Gate,  taking over the enterprise from her mother Mrs Hannah Linwood. See James Thompson, Leicester in the Eighteenth Century, Leicester, 1871, p. 120, an ad for the Linwood school when it was first established in 1763:

“At LADY DAY NEXT proposes to OPEN /
A BOARDING SCHOOL for Young Ladies in Belgrave-gate Leicester where they will be instructed in needle work and every other useful and genteel accomplishment They who please to favour her undertaking may depend on the utmost Care being taken of their Morals as well as every other part of their Education by their humble Servant HANNAH LINWOOD
“As many of her Friends may chuse to place out their children before that time she has taken a House for the present near the Horse Fair Leicester lately occupied by Mr Parsons the property of Mrs Birstall and where she proposes to teach till the other House can be made ready and will begin there on Monday the 23rd of January next .”
It may be necessary to say that the lady here mentioned was the mother of Miss Linwood whose needlework produced for her so widely extended a reputation for its artistic design and delicacy of execution.

Aunt Corbyn, Mrs. Rendel; Miss Harris, and their brother Mr Edwin Harris
Sarah Corbyn was William Hill’s only sister. She married Hugh Corbyn, a purser in the Royal Navy who died in service in 1839 on board the H.M.S Volage, most likely during the Aden Expedition in Yemen. Her guests are Catherine Jane Rendel (1799-1884), Emma Harris (1802-1889) and Edwin Harris (1806-1895).

Two days after Miss Harris & her brother called on us in Flora Place
The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office holds a letter of 5 July 1832 from William Hill of Flora Place to the Mayor, asking for a week to pay the Plymouth, Commissioners for Paving, Lighting and Watching (1608/2123).

On the fourth day after my arrival I was married: November 24th 1833
Edwin Harris and Sarah Hill were married in the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth, 4 Nov 1833. Witnesses to the marriage were Mr Hill (Sarah’s father) and future brother-in-law George C Dobson.

Feb 9th 1835, my dear son Hugh Corbyn was born
Hugh Corbyn Harris (1835-1860) was named for the husband of his mother’s aunt. He was baptised 21 Apr 1835 in the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth. Family address Park St, father’s occupation engineer (Plymouth and West Devon Record Office).

a Dr S came out of his house
Perhaps William Francis Soltau (1812-1864), a medical doctor living in the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth, in the 1830s.

In March 1837 my little daughter Emily Cumming was born
Emily Cumming Harris (1837-1925) may have been named for her paternal aunt Emily Theodosia Harris (1813-1840). The origin of her middle name is unknown. She was born 28 Mar 1837.

Catherine was born in Somersetshire, Dulverton
Catherine Harris (1839-1913) was named for her paternal aunt Catherine Jane Rendel. She was born 24 June 1839 and baptised with her sister Emily in the Parish of St Andrew, Plymouth, 18 Mar 1840. Family address Union St. Catherine Harris married Alfred William Moore in Nelson, NZ in 1863 and lived in New Plymouth. The Moores had 4 sons and 4 daughters.

Your father had been all through the County of Cornwall with the Commissioner Dawson
Lieutenant Robert Kearsley Dawson (1798-1861) of the Royal Engineers was a distinguished surveyor and draughtsman who helped draw up plans for the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832. In 1836, he was appointed an Assistant Commissioner in England under the Tithe Act of that year. Dawson drew up a code of instructions for the production of separate Parish Maps on a uniform scale and system, devising at the same time a means of connecting and combining them.

We were prospering and likely to do so but for a very unexpected trouble in a will
Sarah Harris refers to accountant Francis William Paddon, who married her sister Ann in the mid-1830s. The Paddons had 1 son and 1 daughter. The unidentified financial embarrassment is most likely the source of Sarah’s fear of ‘unpleasant feelings’ between herself and Ann in a letter to their sister Emma in Jan 1843 (#11).

New Zealand was much talked of and Governor Hobson who was a friend of the Rendels wrote them from N.Z
Lieutenant Governor William Hobson, RN, first governor of British settlements in progress, arrived 29 Jan 1840 in the Bay of Islands. The New Zealand Colonisation Company, an investment enterprise, was formed in Jan 1839 in London. Its offshoot, the Plymouth Company of New Zealand, was formed in Jan 1840 to promote the emigration of West Country Englishmen and their families (Wells 59). The New Zealand Company made dubious land purchases in the Wellington, Nelson and Taranaki districts and began onselling land to investors and would-be emigrants. When Edwin Harris decided to take his family to New Zealand as part of the Plymouth Company scheme, he travelled as a free emigrant in steerage and accepted the promise of a free town section wherever the company located its New Plymouth settlement.