The Harris Family – Thomas and Bridget Harris

By Darren  Foster, Joan Ranson & Gwen Wells
Updated: 26 July 2022

Twenty year old labourer Thomas Harris, facing three charges of horse stealing, could not have expected the  profound impact the offences would have on his life.  At his trial at Wells, Somerset, on October 14, 1856, Thomas   may have expected a heavy sentence, but he would not have envisaged his future as a prosperous farmer on the other side  of the world.


Born in  Northampton, England, around 1836, Thomas fell foul of the law when he stole three mares from Bedminster Common, on the outskirts of  Bristol, in  separate incidents in  September 1856. The first occasion was on  11 September when he made off  with a mare belonging to labourer  John Baber valued at £5. He stole a second mare,  worth £10, which belonged to Samuel  Smith.  On September 25,  Thomas stole a third mare, this time the property of  James   Alexander and  worth £7.  Within a fortnight Thomas was behind bars.

In the gaol description book,  Thomas  was listed as “five feet, four-and-a-half inches tall, of sallow complexion, with hazel eyes, brown hair, unmarried, had a cut on the little finger of left hand, an anchor on the right arm,  was slightly pock pitted,  a labourer, born at Northampton”.  His place of last abode was listed as “traveller”.

At the trial at Wells, on 14 October 1856, Thomas denied  the offences, but  later pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to six months hard labour in Taunton gaol for the first offence, followed by two consecutive periods of four  years penal servitude for  the other  two offences.

Thomas was described as being of “good character” while in Portland Prison awaiting transportation to Western Australia, the last  Australian penal colony.

He left Plymouth on  5 March 1858,  on the 753 ton ship  Lord Raglan and arrived in the Swan River Colony on 1 June 1858. The colony had  been founded by Captain James Stirling only 29 years earlier, and urgently needed the influx of convict labour to ensure its growth and prosperity. Some nine and a half thousand convicts were transported to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868.

Shortly after his arrival, Thomas was sent to the Wellington district to work as a  labourer, and  two and  a half  years later, in November1860,  he was granted a ‘ticket-of-leave’.


Thomas was employed  variously at BelvidereParkfield, Rosamel  and Spring  Hill  farms near Australind.  In late 1859,  Robert Rose of Rosamel referred in his  diary to “Tommy working  at potatoes”. In 1872, Benjamin Piggott, of Spring Hill wrote of “Fox, Harris, Yates and Paddy  Ryan digging  potatoes” on  his property.  For this  work, Thomas received up to £2 a month.

In 1871, Thomas took the first step toward owning his own farm and bought 300  acres in Ommanney Road from David Cundell,  a former convict who, like Thomas,  arrived on the Lord Raglan in 1858.   The acquisition of  this  land cost Thomas £30 and was financed by a loan from Bunbury grocer John Hands.  Ten years later, on 15 October 1881, mounting interest arrears seem to have prompted the sale of the land to Robert Rose for £60.


On 17 August 1863, Thomas Harris, by then an  industrious Western Australian, was granted a conditional pardon.  Two months later, on 29 October, he married Bridget  Keenan a young Irish Catholic domestic servant. Bridget  was  born to Patrick Keenan and his wife  in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1841, and arrived in the colony on the Mary Harrison in June 1862. It appears  Bridget may have been working at Parkfield, owned by Mrs Elizabeth Rose, when she met her future husband. The couple were married at Rosamel, another Rose family  property, by Belgian priest Father Adolphus Lecaille.  At this time Thomas gave his address as Parkfield.

On November 24, 1864, Bridget gave birth to a son at Parkfield. He was christened Thomas  William. A second son, John, was  born in 1865, followed by a daughter Margaret Ann in 1868.

There was  evidence of Thomas’ growing prosperity in 1868 when he employed  Edward McGuiness, a ticket-of-leave man, as a general servant. He was strongly opposed to the discrimination displayed by employers against former convicts and signed a petition, along with many other citizens, condemning this practice.  In 1870, Thomas    employed another ticket-of-leave man, John Gill, as a labourer. In October 1871, Thomas also took on Thomas Green as a labourer.

On the home front, a second daughter, Maria, was born in 1870. A  son, George, was  born in 1872, followed by Charles Henry in 1874.  The older three children, Thomas William (Bill),  John and Margaret, all attended school at Parkfield, to which they rode on horseback with the Rose children. Bill  Harris was proud of the fact that his grades at school were better than those of Edwin Rose, who later became a Member of Parliament.

Thomas and  Bridget had another daughter Mary  E  (May) in 1877, and a  son  James in 1879.  The couple’s youngest child, Joseph Thomas, was born in 1883.


Thomas and Bridget Harris eventually settled in the fertile Dardanup area, south west of  Australind, some time in the 1870s.  The major landholder in Dardanup at the time was Thomas Little, who was attempting to establish a Catholic settlement.  Little built a stately two-storey home in the town in 1854 and in  the  same year, Bishop Salvado laid the foundation stone for Dardanup’s first church. Little was plagued by financial trouble and sold much of his estate to Henry Whittall Venn before he died in 1877.  It has been suggested that Thomas and Bridget Harris wer invited to Dardanup by  Little, but in any case they soon became tenants of Henry Venn on Dardanup Location  76.

The 1890’s brought mixed blessings for the Harris family.  Maria died of tuberculosis in 1892 at the age of 22. At the time she was working in Adelaide Terrace, Perth, for Ernest Chawner Shenton, the  brother of  Mrs Henry Venn.   In February 1896, nineteen year old Mary Harris, who worked for the Tyrrell family, also died. According to family legend, Bridget never recovered from the shock of losing her two daughters and, with rosary bead in hand, would   often wander the house at night crying for them. But Thomas and Bridget also  enjoyed the happy occasions of the weddings of two of their children during this period.

Thomas William Harris, known as Bill, married Mary Anne Slattery in November 1893. Mary  Anne was the daughter of a former convict and Upper Ferguson farmer Patrick Slattery, and his wife Rose. In 1898,  George Harris married another  Slattery daughter, Catherine, but died in November 1899 after being crushed by a water tank which he was helping erect at the Venn residence. He left a widow and an infant son.

In 1901 Thomas was 64  years old and his health was failing. He dictated a will to family friend George Fee on  16 October  of  that year.

This is the last will and testament of Thomas Harris of Dardanup in  the State  of Western  Australia: I hereby give, devise and  bequeath my right and interest in the lease at present held by me of land known as Wellington location 76  to my son  Charles Harris, my wife Bridget Harris and my daughter Margaret Ann Harris with everything thereon at present owned by me including all horses, cattle, and other stock for their own use and benefit. Provided nevertheless that my son John Harris may take if he choose ten head of cattle, out of abovementioned stock for his own use and to keep absolutely. And further provided that my grandson George Harris, child of my late son George Harris, shall receive out of the above stock one heifer which on the date of this will shall be about one year old. And I hereby give, devise and bequeath to my son Charles Harris, his heirs, executors and administrators absolutely and forever for his and their  own use and benefit all my right and interest in that parcel of land known as conditional purchase number 240 in the Wellington district. Provided nevertheless that until the death of my wife Bridget Harris all my property, with the exception of conditional purchase land number 240, shall be equally divided between all my children then living.  And I hereby  appoint Thomas William Harris and John Harris my sons executors  of this my  will.

Two months  later, on 19 December 1901, Thomas added a codicil to his will:

I give, devise and bequeath to my  daughter Margaret Ann Harris an  equal  share with my son Charles Harris in  that parcel of  land  known as conditional purchase number 240 situated in the Wellington district.  Provided nevertheless that my  son Thomas William Harris shall have full  use of all that portion of the potato swamp at present occupied by Dominic and another  Italian during his lifetime to commence from the date on which the said Italians shall cease to occupy the said portion of swamp.

Less than a week later, on Christmas Eve, 1901, Thomas Harris died of stomach cancer. He was buried in the Dardanup Roman Catholic cemetery with his children. The burial was the source of indignation to the local Anglican priest who wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Southern  Times:

Dear Sir, I heard on Christmas Day of the decease and burial  of the late Mr Thomas Harris of Dardanup. He was for many years a member of the Church of  England, but interment took place at the Roman Catholic cemetery at Dardanup. It is in reference to this that I beg space for a few lines (of  explanation) in your paper. As  a matter of fact the old man died, as he lived, firmly convinced of the ‘way  of salvation’ as taught by the Church of  England … ie resting as a penitent sinner only on Christ and his merits for  pardon and eternal life.  I have his declaration to this effect, signed by his own hand, shortly before his death. It is true, I know, that he yielded to the ‘entreaties’ of his family to be admitted to the Roman Catholic Church, a few weeks previously to his death, but this was (he  assured  me) solely for the purpose of being buried in the RC cemetery by the side of his children, who had been Roman Catholics. Your kindly publishing the above brief explanation will oblige, yours etc, H. Darling, St Paul’s  Rectory, Bunbury, December 27, 1901.


By the time Thomas Harris died, there were already five Harris grandchildren from the marriages of Bill Harris and   George Harris. In 1903, Margaret Ann Harris married George Fee, the son of former police constable Forbes Fee and his wife Margaret, nee Garvey.  Charles Henry Harris was  married in 1911 to seventeen year old Lillian Clara Maud Warburton, the daughter of Samuel and Alice Warburton.  James Harris married  Rose Milligan in 1909 and  in 1912, John Harris married  Catherine, Rose’s sister and  the widow of Michael  Maguire.

In June 1911, Bridget Harris suffered a severe stroke. Her granddaughter, Kathleen  Harris, was living with her at the time and returned home from school one day to find her  grandmother had collapsed in the garden. Following this incident, Bridget was under care for almost three years until her death in April 1914, aged 73.

Thomas and Bridget Harris have hundreds of descendants throughout  Western Australia, many of whom still live in Dardanup and surrounds.


  • From a document of unknown date provided by Danny Harris, 2022.