Elizabeth Harris (1806?-?)

by Cheryl Griffin


Little is known of Elizabeth Harris’s early years, except that she was born in Boston, Massachusetts in the early years of the nineteenth century. Her father, a mariner, was master of the traders Triton and Paragon that sailed between Boston and Liverpool, so his wife must have travelled with him on some of his voyages. However, given that Elizabeth was living in Liverpool in the 1820s, it is likely that her background was English, not American.

By 1825, the diminutive Elizabeth (she was only 4 feet 2½ inches or 128.27 cm tall) was working as a dress and stay maker in Liverpool. In July that year she stole a silk handkerchief and was imprisoned for three months. Less than a year later, in April 1826, she stole wearing apparel and served twelve months in Liverpool’s Kirkdale, a large prison built in 1818 on the Panopticon model.

On 28 January 1828, 22-year-old Elizabeth appeared before the courts in Liverpool again, this time charged with stealing a plaid cloak. She was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation to Van Diemen’s Land and departed London on board the Borneo on 11 May 1828 along with 72 other female convicts. She came on board with a reputation for being difficult to manage, her gaol report stating that she was ‘not very orderly’. On the voyage out, however, her main problem was physical, not behavioural. Towards the end of the journey she reported to sick bay with lumbago brought on by being ‘exposed to wet and cold while washing her clothes on deck’ and the same day ‘was pitched over the wash tub by a roll of the ship, which severely hurt her loins.’

Several weeks later, on 8 October 1828, the Borneo arrived in Hobart. The women were moved to a temporary female factory on the Government Domain because the Hobart Town Female Factory had no room for them. Once the new Cascades Factory was completed in January 1829, they became the first convicts to be housed in the new facility.

Soon after arrival, Elizabeth was placed with a Mr Boyd in Hobart, but this placement did not last long. On 14 January 1829, she absconded and was sent to the cells on bread and water for seven days. Several months later she found herself back at the Cascades, this time for neglect of duty, disobedience and using insolent and profane language. Her punishment was severe: she was made to wear an iron collar and was fed on bread an water until she ‘peaceably and quietly returns to her Work’. Life was quieter for a while but in the second half of 1830 she was sent four times to the Cascades for being absent, for being drunk and for being out after hours.

This pattern continued over the next two years and at some time in 1831 she gave birth to a child who is not named in any of the convict or civil records and who does not appear in the records of the Queen’s Orphan Schools. In March 1832 she narrowly escaped being imprisoned for felony, this being the last notation on her convict record.

In October 1832 an application was lodged for permission to marry former convict Angus Ferguson, but no marriage took place. There is no evidence of a later marriage and very little is known of her life after sentence, except that she received her ticket of leave on 31 December 1841. It is possible that she is the Elizabeth Harris, shopkeeper of Clarence Plains, living in a wooden house with her teenage son in 1842. No death has been located.

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