Harris, William

William Henry (Bill) Harris (1874-1953), was a kinsman of Surgeon John Harris of Ultimo.

Surgeon John Harris (1754-1838) was a member of the NSW Corps who arrived in the Colony in 1790 on the Second Fleet. Surgeon Harris conducted a successful medical practice in Parramatta (the suburb, Harris Farm being named after him) but also built a significant commercial and property empire. He died without issue and his will gifted significant wealth amongst his family who were mostly in Ireland. In gifting some of his property he included a quirky provision that required some property to pass to kin named John ‘being lawfully begotten and to his heirs male being so named and lawfully begotten to have and to hold forever.’ This provision alone, when lots of money was attached to the gift, kept the Sydney legal fraternity gainfully employed for many years.

A major beneficiary of Surgeon John Harris was his brother, George Harris (1764-1843) and George’s son John Harris (1802-1846). Nephew John lived in Magherafelt, County Londonderry, Ireland where he was a merchant. In 1844 he migrated to the Colony with his wife and children to manage his legacy. His youngest son was William Henry Harris (1845-1893) and he lived in Livingstone House, Ultimo. The only surviving son of William Henry of Livingstone House was the William Henry (Bill) ultimately of Cheltenham. Bill, inherited two farms at Cabramatta – one called Edensor Park and the other Abbotsburgh.

Edensor Park had been the farm of John Brown Bossley and comprised almost 1800 acres. This property was purchased by William Henry (1845-1893) of Livingstone House in 1882.

Bill is presumed to have gone to Sydney Grammar for his education – because this is where his brother went to school. As a young man Bill managed Edensor Park and the other land holdings of his father (who died in 1893 aged in his 40s) that were primarily in Ultimo. Bill married Ada Margaret Rilett (1875-1930) in 1895. She was the daughter of William Rilett a railway employee and his wife Eliza (nee McCauley). Bill and Ada lived at Edensor Park from 1895 to 1906. Bill and his wife then left his large estate, Edensor Park in Cabramatta near Liverpool, to move closer to the city. In January 1907 the sale of Edensor Park took place to Mrs Mary E McLennan of Killimicat near Gundagai and separately they each sold their show horses.

He purchased 5 ½ acres of Cheltenham land between Beecroft Road and The Crescent from Mrs Catherine Rattray (wife of George Rattray, a bank official), with a brick house already being on the land. Harris sent two men to buy the property in notes and gold coin, but it being a Sunday, Mrs Rattray declined to do business. Harris went himself during the following week and Mrs Rattray accepted his payment.

A description of the house and its history is elsewhere on this web site – under Houses.

The stable building, a large timber construction with clerestory roof, housed the groom’s quarters as well as various bays for feed, harnesses and the horses. The date when it was built is unknown. Harris kept trotting horses as a hobby as well as riding horses which he was especially fond of riding daily around Cheltenham and Beecroft. Often he rode to Marabar (sometimes known as Blackwood House after its first owners) and joined the Blackwood girls in a ride around the district. He was remembered by local people for his love of horses, his daily riding and the fact that he was never seen with his coat off.

In 1914 Ada advertised for a married couple to live in the cottage on The Crescent and to help in the home and grounds.

Eric Rothwell recalled in 1973:

“I was privileged to know Mr Harris for many years, having first known him back in 1933, when I joined my father’s Produce business at Epping in that year and Mr Harris bought feed for his horses and fowls etc. He would ride his horse to Epping to place his order and often rode his horse into the doorway to attract our attention. He loved his horses and in days further back had various horse drawn vehicles such as buggies, sulkies etc. Mr Harris once told me he never worked a day in his life for pay … What a wonderful thing this was to do and what untold pleasure this man has given to thousands of people … Mr Harris during the last few years of his life, when he was unable to play bowls, would just sit and watch and he got pleasure just watching and he seemed to love to see people enjoying themselves. I often spoke with him during these times [1].”

Bill also spent much of his time supervising the running of the small farm on his property.

Separate to Edensor, in 1913 Harris purchased seven neighbouring lots (just over two acres) of William Chorley’s subdivision on the corner of The Crescent and The Boulevard, and gave it to the local people for a Recreation Club. His plan of having ‘a bowling green for the Dads, a croquet lawn for the Mums and tennis courts for the children’ was carried out by the Foundation Committee, and the Club proved very popular. In 1923 he gave a portion of the Edensor land for extensions to the Clun facilities and in the 1950s a further portion which had been a cow paddock in front of the house – as the house faced east towards the railway line. Bill was Patron of the Club from 1913 to 1953 and spent many hours with old friends there [2]. His sporting interests were not limited to the Club as in 1918 he became Vice-President to the newly formed Beecroft Homing Pigeon Society (with Mr Pierce Crosby McDonnell of Allerton Murray Farm Road, a poultry farmer as the President) [3].

Ada’s sister had children but could not care for them because of illness and eventually death. Two of the children (Florence May and Eric Matthews) came to live at Edensor. Ada (but not Bill) adopted Florence.

Ada Harris died, aged 54 years, in 1930.  In 1932 Harris married Alice May Carter (1881-1936) a 51 year old divorcee. Her parents were William Gardiner and Catherine (nee Monroe). She had a son from her first marriage, William George Carter born 1902. Her decree absolute had been granted on 29 September 1931.

In 1933 tragedy struck the family as Florence May Matthews (born 1911), the niece and adopted daughter of Harris’ first wife, Ada, went missing with her body eventually being found near Powder Works Road, Narrabeen. Florence had left home on the morning that she went missing to travel by train to her dress design apprenticeship in the City. At the time of her disappearance it was noted that she was unhappy about the re-marriage of her uncle following her adopted mother’s death. No ransom was claimed and a reward was offered by Harris. The cause of her death was never discovered. Truth has pictures of Edensor and of her bedroom at that time [4] Miss Kent, the housekeeper at Edensor gave evidence at the inquest. Likewise her father gave evidence that he had not seen Florence in the three years prior to her death [5].

Alice died in 1936 and Harris married, in 1938, a third time. This time to Mary Eileen (Molly) Cooney (1909-1990). Moly was a shopkeeper and the daughter of Daniel Joseph Cooney and his wife Julia (nee Ryan) of Burwood.

Molly Harris, was a generous owner of Edensor, and frequently opened the house and gardens for charity, especially for the Cheltenham Kindergarten which she helped establish. Large fetes, with a Scottish band playing as it marched up from the station, were very popular with visitors. A display in 1953 by the National Rose Society in a large Sydney department store, David Jones, was comprised of flowers supplied by Mrs Mollie Harris [6].

Molly and Bill had two daughters (Susan and Julie), with only one, Julie, living to adulthood.

After Bill’s death on 27 May 1953 (aged 79 years), part of the property had to be sold to pay death duties but a sympathetic subdivision and covenants on the garden resulted in little alteration to its original character.

Both Harris and Molly were patrons of the Cheltenham Recreation Club. Molly was a keen bowler and gardener.

Molly and Julie continued to live in Edensor. Molly died in 2003. Julie had a son, also called William, and following the death of her father Eric Matthews (the nephew of Harris’ first wife) would sometimes live in the house. When younger, Julie had a horse riding accident and this led to a physical disability that impaired her movement and was the cause of much pain. This disability was likely to have played an important role in her decision to eventually sell Edensor and move to Leichhardt where she subsequently died.

[1]        notes of Eric Rothwell 10 February 1973 included in the Tennis Section News Report of the Cheltenham Recreation Club

[2]        notes of Eric Rothwell 10 February 1973 included in the Tennis Section News Report of the Cheltenham Recreation Club

[3]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 31 August 1918 p8.

[4]        Truth, 29 January 1933, 5 March 1933.

[5]        Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1933 p 13.

[6]        For example: Sydney Morning Herald, 23 October 1953