Richard HARRIS
Father Henry HARRIS b. m. d.
Mother Sarah HUGHES1 b. m. d.
Brother Matthew Hughes HARRIS b.c. 1805 m. 18452 Catherine Mary MOORE3 d. 18694
Employee Richard HARRIS b.c. 18065 m. d. 18876
Sister Sarah HARRIS b.c. 1808 m. William Disney FAYLE7 d. 18508
Brother Henry HARRIS b.c. 1810 m. Mary Ann HURLEY9 d. 188710
Wife unknown b. m. d.

In his obituaries Dr. Richard HARRIS, was described as a well-known and highly-respected resident of Newcastle. He had been born in County Wexford, Ireland, in about 1806 and was the son of Captain Henry HARRIS, of the 14th Light Dragoons and his wife Sarah HUGHES.11 HARRIS was one of seven brothers who all became British officers. At sixteen HARRIS was apprenticed to a local surgeon and attended the Wexford Infirmary for five years. He worked in the Meath Hospital from 1828-9 and then worked in Mercer’s Hospital from 1829-30. HARRIS attended lectures in the theory and practice of surgery, anatomy and physiology between 1829 and 1830 at the School of Surgery, Royal College of Surgery, Ireland. In 1830 he obtained a Diploma in Obstetrics in Dublin. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in London the same year.

HARRIS arrived in Sydney in 1839 aboard the Abbotsford,12 from Liverpool, England,13 arriving on 8 May.14 On arrival HARRIS applied to the Medical Board for registration as a medical practitioner in NSW.15 By October 1839 he had established a practice in Parramatta.16 He practised in Parramatta before moving west to become a squatter, owning three properties, 'two situated on the Sandy Creek in the Bligh District, and the other on Pien Buen Creek, in the District of Mudgee'.17 His brother, Henry, settled there in 1839 and was still living near O'Connell near Bathurst at the time of his death.18 By 1850 HARRIS had left the properties with a manager ad returned to Parramatta where he resumed his medical practice on the corner of Smith and Macquarie Streets, Parramatta.19 He also took up a position at a J.P.20 He returned often to Bathurst and often appeared in court as J.P. but on at least one occasion in 1858 was the subject of complaint21 and an enquiry into his conduct was undertaken.22 He suffered financially and property required selling.23

In 1861 HARRIS arrived in Newcastle to take up the position of the Government Inspector of Coal Mines and Examiner of Coal Fields. By 1863, after finding that medicine was more lucrative, he took up medicine again, advertising in The Newcastle Chronicle on 13 June 1863 that his rooms were at the rear of the Bank of Australiasia, in Market Square, Newcastle. By 3 December 1863 his financial concerns became serious when newspapers reported that:

On the petition of Sarah Keyes, of Parnamatta, widow, praying that the estate of Richard Harris of Newcastle, doctor of medicine, might be sequestrated for the benefit of his creditors, a rule nisi was granted.24

HARRIS was to show cause why his estate should not be sequestrated by 10 December and didn't appear. The compulsory sale of his assets was withdrawn later that year.25

HARRIS continued to work in his government appointed job and moved to the corner of Hunter Street and Market Lane. By 1870 he had established his practice in the house erected by himself in Watt Street. On 11 November 1867, HARRIS was appointed the visiting surgeon to the Industrial School for Girls, Newcastle.26 During the first year of his appointment to the industrial school, HARRIS proved very supportive of the Matron-Superintendent, Agnes KING. After the dismissal of KING in November 1868, a new superintendent, Joseph Hines CLARKE, was appointed and HARRIS continued to maintain the procedures he had established with KING. This included the physical assessment of newly arrived girls and this examination included a physical assessment of their virginity. Within days of CLARKE's arrival at the school there was disagreement when CLARKE found that those pracises and procedures were found to be questionable. Enmity between the two men became an issue for the remainder of CLARKE's time as Superintendent and HARRIS's standing in the community and his condemnation of CLARKE could be considered a factor in CLARKE's inability to easily find work after he was replaced by LUCAS.

Three main objections were made by CLARKE concerning HARRIS. By October 1869 CLARKE was requesting that an inquiry be made into HARRIS as the Medical Attendant. In his letter to the Colonial Secretary on 20 October 1869,27 CLARKE stated:

When I first came to this Institution I observed too much [unclear] on the part of the officer28 to expose [the inmates] antecedence and to bring them forward as very bad characters which I felt to be my duty to put a stop to – up to that time and no prescription book, no entry was made of any medicine that might be sent to the institution, the only medical journal that was kept was one in which there are eighty five (85) names entered and the principal object of this book would appear to be to record the Signs of Virginity of each girl – so that it would seem from this Journal that all those girls, who were sent here for protection, varying in age from five (5) to sixteen (16) years of age even in the first instance subjected to the gross indignity of undergoing this examination, in the presence of the then Matron Superintendant, and if everything was not to the satisfaction of the Medical Superintendant their characters were blown about and the poor girl disgraced in the place.
A few days after my arrival the Institution was visited by the Honble the Colonial Treasurer, when I placed the medical Journal in question before that minister, and with the sanction of Mr. Samuel, I gave instructions that this kind of examination should be discontinued. Doctor Harris clearly understood this and it was, as far as I know, discontinued until the last six girls that came to the Institution were brought before the Doctor, about the 12th of this month, when, it is reported to me, they were subjected to this degradation, in the presence of Mrs. Polack (assistant) and in direct violation of my instructions. Those six girls, who are fourteen (14) and fifteen (15) years of age, complained very much to Mrs Clarke about the way they were treated, and the circumstance having been reported to me, I have further to request that this too may be made the subject of inquiry.

HARRIS refused to maintain the medicine book requested by CLARKE and as a consequence CLARKE then refused to sign vouchers for any medicine prescribed until he was directed to do so by the Colonial Secretary. CLARKE maintained that the costs for medicine didn't add up and some girls for whom medicine had been prescribed, had never received that prescription.29 HARRIS was further criticised by CLARKE for his inability to treat a skin condition which spread through the school which was quickly brought under control when HARRIS went on leave. At the inquest into the death of Margaret Hughes ELLIS, CLARKE enumerated the number of unsuccessful requests he and his wife had made to HARRIS to attend the sick girl. It is questionable whether her life could have been saved and the evidence of both HARRIS and CLARKE and Mrs CLARKE did not agree.30

HARRIS was a frequent letter writer often seemingly providing justification for his actions by criticizing others. In the Newcastle Chronicle in June 1868 he publicly questioned both the management of the Newcastle Hospital after unsuccessfully applying for a position in the hospital31 and the diligence of the retired medical officer of the hospital, Dr BOWKER.32 He did however strongly support Agnes KING during the turmoil created by her dismissal of the storekeeper Thomas McCORMACK. HARRIS strongly critized McCORMACK. A war of words ensued between the two Newcastle newspapers of the time regarding appropriate punishments for misbehaving girls.33 In September 1871 he made critical statements in a newspaper letter to the shareholders of The Newcastle Gas and Coal Company34 resulting in further communications between affected partied in the newspapers. In February 1874, in a letter commencing 'With a sense of loathing and disgust, which no language can adequately describe, I find myself involved, with an unscrupulous assailant …' The assistance was Dr R.C. KNAGGS.35 No reports of letters in either the Newcastle Chronicle or the Newcastle Pilot have yet been found for the period between December 1869 and March 1871 when Joseph CLARKE was superintendent.

After the Industrial Industrial School closed in 1871, HARRIS maintained his practice and was appointed visiting surgeon to the Hospital for the Insane, and surgeon to the Permanent Artillery Force. In 1873 he was appointed Health Officer and Government medical officer for Newcastle and held that position until his death. He was also the founder of the Bethel Mission at Bullock Island,36 and he built the Mission Reading-room and Chapel for Seamen on the Island. He was also the first president of the Y. M. C. Association and of the Newcastle branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He contributed largely to the local charities and played a prominent part in Newcastle philanthropic and social movements.

Richard HARRIS was married but had no family of his own but no wife has yet been identified. He became very involved in the education of his nieces and nephews. His nephew, Dr John HARRIS also became a prominent Newcastle doctor and in turn John had six children who also became doctors - his five sons Matthew, Jack, Harry, Hubert, and Terence Harris, and Newcastle's first female medical graduate, Dr May HARRIS.37

Dr Richard HARRIS died on 3 November 1887, in his house in Watt Street, Newcastle. His obituary reported that he was eighty-one but his headstone recorded that he was seventy-nine. He had been a widower for some years. HARRIS was buried in the Presbyterian section of Sandgate Cemetery on 5 November 1887.38 The funeral was large and was reported in The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate on 7 November.

The obsequies of the late Dr. Richard Harris were performed at Sandgate Cemetery on Saturday afternoon, to which day it was thought advisable to postpone the ceremony in order to enable friends and relations residing at a distance to attend. The cortege left the residence of the deceased gentleman about 3 o'clock, when a large number of representative citizens assembled to pay final honour to one whose name will remain on the historical records of the city for a very long time. The coffin was a plain oak one with silver mountings, and bore a plate upon which was inscribed, "Richard Harris, M.D., died November 3rd, 1887, aged 81 years." Following the hearse came several mourning coaches, containing the following relatives of the deceased:—Dr. John Harris, Messrs. Henry Harris, George Harris, Henry Fayle, Robert Fayle, Henry Humphreys, Henry Byrnes (son of the Hon. W. Byrnes, of Parramatta), and J. Harper. The pall-bearers were: Captain Newton, Mr. Alex. Shedden, J.P., and Mr. W. Scott (late secretary of the local branch of the Y.M.C. Association, of which the late Dr. Harris was promoter). In accordance with the oft-times expressed wish of the deceased gentleman, the funeral was conducted with great quietness, and the mournful procession wended its way down Watt, Hunter, and Blane streets to the funeral station at Honeysuckle Point, whence it proceeded to Sandgate. All along the route signs of respect were shown by the shutting of the shops, and the erection of shutters, while from the various flagstaffs, as well on the vessels in port, flags were flying half-mast. Arrived at the cemetery, the burial service of the Presbyterian Church, to which denomination Dr. Harris belonged, was conducted by the Revs. T. A. Gordon and W. Bain, the former of whom delivered a most impressive address, and the funeral party sorrowfully returned to town.39

His niece,40 Sarah FAYLE, an executor of his will,41 who died at the age of 90, shares his grave.


Richard's headstone at Sandgate Cemetery, Newcastle
Photograph Jane ISON, 2014

Updated March 2018

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