Writing Lines

Writing Lines: Emily Harris Letters and Diary Excerpts 1860-1863

Edited by Michele Leggott, Fredrika Van Elburg, Makyla Curtis and Betty Davis from manuscripts in the Puke Ariki Heritage Collection, New Plymouth. An earlier version edited by Leggott and Van Elburg appeared in Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics 15 (2017): 97-115. Notes 121-143.

Emily Cumming Harris was four years old when she arrived in Taranaki 30 March 1841 on the William Bryan with her parents Edwin and Sarah Harris, her older brother Corbyn and younger sister Catherine. The Harrises lived in New Plymouth for almost twenty years and the family grew to include four more daughters, Frances, Mary, Augusta and Ellen. Edwin Harris worked as a surveyor in the 1840s and early 1850s and was a bush farmer on the Grey Block, assisted by his son. Sarah Harris educated her children and later kept two schools near the family property in Frankley road. Edwin was a trained draughtsman and artist who recorded scenes of early New Plymouth as well as making survey plans for the settlement. He also taught his daughters to paint and draw, and to play the harp. Emily was already an accomplished diarist and poet when war broke out in Taranaki in March 1860. She, Edwin and Corbyn stayed in New Plymouth when Sarah took the younger girls to Nelson in April. Edwin and Corbyn Harris enlisted in the Taranaki Militia, and Corbyn joined the Volunteer Rifles. Emily lived with the family of Charles and Catherine Des Voeux as lady companion to Mrs Des Voeux. After New Plymouth was entrenched in July 1860, families whose homes had been burned by Māori raiding parties lived in crowded quarters within the lines, chafing under military occupation and the government’s apparent lack of willingness to act decisively against the insurgence. Corbyn Harris was killed in ambush at Waitara 28 July 1860, and Emily’s reconstruction of the family’s wartime experience begins several weeks after her brother’s death. She copies scraps of diary and letters in date order and inserts notes and some commentary. No date is given for the copying, and the present location of the original letters and diary is unknown.

The 11 items presented here form a unique account of events in New Plymouth and Hobart from the perspective of an educated young woman obliged to earn a living in the household of her social superiors. As lady companion, nursery governess or housekeeper, Emily Harris was dependent on the goodwill of Charles and Catherine Des Voeux for her livelihood. Charles took an interest in her poetry and Catherine critiqued at least one book with her, but it is clear from the letters and notes that Emily did not enjoy her dependence on the Des Voeux. It is perhaps significant that her association with them coincides with the term of the mortgage Charles Des Voeux held on the Harris property in Frankley Rd, New Plymouth 1859-62.

The manuscripts
The letters and diary excerpts presented here are part of the Emily Harris papers at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth (ARC2002-190). They consist of manuscripts copied in Emily Harris’s hand from originals that have not been located. The manuscripts take the form of two hand-bound booklets (fascicles) and two letters on single folded folios typical of personal letters of the period. Taken together, the manuscripts cover events in Emily Harris’s life between September 1860 and March 1863. Geographically they move from New Plymouth under siege to Hobart, Tasmania, where Emily continued living with the Des Voeux family. That Emily Harris copied more material is evident from the fragmented nature of the surviving fascicles. Fascicle 1 (28 pp) is seven folios folded and centre-bound, but an unknown number of pages are missing between its outermost folio and the other six. Fascicle 2 (6 pp) is three folios cut from an exercise book and bound at the left edge. Emily Harris’s motive for assembling letters and diary excerpts is unrecorded. Her nieces Miss Ruth Moore and Mrs Ella Grace Hobbs donated their aunt’s papers to the then Taranaki Museum in 1961.

A note on the text
Spelling and punctuation have been silently corrected and paragraphing inserted. Square brackets indicate addition of missing words. Where Emily Harris has added a superscript or footnote comment on her main text, we have inserted the material in the place she intended it to occur. Spelling of Māori words and placenames has been retained, with modern spelling added in square brackets.
Contextual notes appear with each letter. We gratefully acknowledge the continuing support of Puke Ariki research staff in helping track down Taranaki references.

Michele Leggott
July 2019


  1. Letters, Scraps of Diary &c beginning about six months after the first Maori War commenced in Taranaki
  2. Letter to mother Sarah Harris in Nelson, 5 December 1860
  3. Letter to Miss Hill in Liskeard, England, 8 December 1860
  4. Notes (I add a few notes from memory.), undated
  5. Letter to my sister Frances in Nelson, 3 January 1861
  6. Letter to mother Sarah Harris in Nelson,14 January 1861
  7. Letter to mother Sarah Harris in Nelson, 4 February 1861
  8. Letter to parents Sarah and Edwin Harris in Nelson, 20 February 1861
  9. Letter fragment (I left. Mr Brewer took charge of my three important baskets), undated
  10. Letter to sister Frances Harris in Nelson, 24 December 1861
  11. Letter to sister Frances Harris in Nelson, 29 March 1863


Appendix – Des Voeux Chronology