HARRIS, SAMUEL, fishing captain and businessman; b. 2 July 1850 in Grand Bank, Nfld, eldest son of Thomas Harris, a fisherman, and Eleanor Ann Foote, née Hickman; m. there first 6 Dec. 1875 Mary (Polly) Forsey (d. 1913), and they had four sons and six daughters (one son and three daughters died in infancy); m. there secondly 20 Sept. 1915 Harriet Marion Harding; they had no children; d. 20 April 1926 in Grand Bank.
In common with many boys of his age and social class in 19th-century Newfoundland, Samuel Harris received only the rudiments of an education before going to sea. At age 10 he boarded the Billow, a coaster engaged in the cod fishery belonging to his half-brother Morgan Foote. By age 22 he was captain of another of Foote’s vessels, the Jennie S. Foote, a command he held for most of the 1870s.
By 1881 Harris had acquired fishing schooners of his own: the Kitchener and the George C. Harris. In the latter vessel he sailed in 1881 to the offshore banks, where foreign fleets had been operating for some time, and thus, it is claimed, ushered in the modern Newfoundland bank fishery. The venture proved to be lucrative, and the fishery soon expanded to include other vessel owners from Grand Bank and communities along Newfoundland’s south coast.
After a ten-year partnership with his brother-in-law George Abraham Buffett in a retail outlet, in 1895 Harris established Samuel Harris Limited, a general merchandise and fish-exporting business. He remained a seagoing captain until 1898, after which he was content to manage his operations from shore. His business flourished: within the first 20 years of the new century branches had been formed in the nearby communities of Garnish and Lamaline and separate operations had been founded or purchased at Marystown, Change Islands, and Hermitage.
Harris acquired additional ships, vastly increasing the amount of cod he could catch, cure, and export. He was also able to eliminate the St John’s merchants, who usually bought the fish caught by outport fishermen. His ships returned from Europe and the West Indies with the holds full of salt for the next season, which further enlarged profit margins and reduced expenses. Many of these ships were tern (three-masted) schooners, built in Grand Bank especially for the deep-sea fishery. Harris owned and operated more than 60 schooners in the years between 1881 and 1926, 14 of which, in a grand show of patriotic fervour, were named for World War I military heroes.
In 1915 Harris turned much of the day-to-day operation of his business over to his eldest son, George. At that time the company was the largest and most prosperous fish business on the south coast, estimated to be worth $2,000,000; by 1919, as a result of the increased demand in European and Caribbean markets for salted cod during World War I, assets were valued at $4,000,000.
The end of the war brought a downturn in European markets. This, coupled with over-expansion during the war years, declining revenue (that Harris claimed was a direct consequence of new regulations governing the fishery introduced in 1920 by William Ford Coaker*, Newfoundland’s minister of marine and fisheries), and the loss of at least eight schooners between 1919 and 1922, led to the company being placed in receivership in 1922 and declared bankrupt in 1923. It was taken over by a consortium of creditors, headed by the Bank of Nova Scotia, which restructured the firm as Samuel Harris Export Company Limited, with Harris as president and his son-in-law Percy Lee Carr as managing director.
A well-respected and influential figure in Grand Bank, Harris served for many years on its Board of Works, established in 1879 to direct improvements to the harbour. He gave liberally to the Methodist church, in both time and money, donating, for example, a large clock for the church’s bell tower. He was committed to education, working hard to ensure that there were always teachers available for the community’s school. Through the efforts of his first wife, Mary, who apparently originated the idea, he provided much of the money needed for the construction of Grand Bank’s first hospital in 1900.
Samuel Harris was a generous community leader and benefactor, an astute businessman, and an advocate of hard work whose ability, industry, and sense of fair play were known throughout the island. He is recognized as the founder of the modern Newfoundland bank fishery, the economic mainstay of many of the island’s fishing communities for the first half of the 20th century.
PANL, Parish records coll., Grand Bank Methodist Church (Grand Bank, Nfld), RBMB (photocopies). A. F. Buffett, “Grand Bank,” Daily News (St John’s), 23 June 1941. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 22 April 1926. Bert Riggs, “Bound down from Grand Bank: Samuel Harris earned his nickname as the Father of the Bank Fishery,” Telegram (St John’s), 20 April 1999: 9. J. A. H. Carr, “Genealogical histories: the Samuel Harris family and the Percy Lee Carr family of Grand Bank, Newfoundland” (typescript, 1996; copy in the author’s possession). Garfield Fizzard, Unto the sea: a history of Grand Bank ([Grand Bank], 1989). Charles Lench, “Grand Bank: an interesting outport,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 12 (1912–13), no.3: 13–15. [R. C. Parsons], “Prominent figures from our recent past: Samuel Harris,” Newfoundland Quarterly, 89 (1994–95), no.1: 34–35.