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HARRIS, ALEXANDER, writer; b. 7 Feb. 1805, London, Eng., eldest of 11 children of the Reverend William Harris and Mary Redford; d. Copetown, Ont., 1 Feb. 1874.

Alexander Harris was educated privately at Windsor and Wallingford. He moved to London in 1823 to work as a proof-reader, later enlisted in the Horse Guards, deserted, and in 1825 set sail for Australia. Here, chiefly in the Goulburn-Taralga-Crookwell district of New South Wales, he spent the next 16 years as an itinerant sawyer, carpenter, and clerk. He returned to England late in 1840 and married Elizabeth Atkinson, who died five weeks after the marriage; he subsequently married, in 1842, Ursula Sarah Carr, by whom he had three sons. Harris separated from his wife in 1847, and emigrated in 1851 to the United States where he settled eventually at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin; it was in this area that he was to spend most of the years between 1854 and 1872 as a teacher and free-lance writer. He was joined at Sturgeon Bay by his family in 1858, but with the outbreak of civil war in 1861 his wife and children moved to Berlin (Kitchener), Canada West, and here Harris spent varying periods of time between 1861 and 1863. By the latter date the attempted reunion had failed. Ursula and the children left for Nova Scotia and Harris returned to the United States, where he became an American citizen in 1870. By July 1872, however, he was writing to his wife from Copetown, a small settlement not far from Hamilton, on the Great Western Railway. Two years later he died and was buried at Copetown.

Harris’ best-known work is Settlers and convicts, or recollections of sixteen years’ labour in the Australian backwoods. It was first published in 1847, anonymously, but A guide to Port Stephens in New South Wales, published in 1849, identified the author of the earlier work as “Alexander Harris.” His writings, which also include Testimony to the truth (1848), a three-volume novel entitled The emigrant family (1849), and a number of pamphlets, draw heavily on his Australian experiences and are almost obsessively autobiographical. It is clear, however, that Harris made no sharp distinction between fact and fiction, creating his own image of himself and his environment according to his mood at various stages of his career. A mission worker in London in the 1840s and a devout nonconformist to the end of his life, his work is pervaded by an evangelical concern for soul salvation: he is pursued by the hound of heaven. Subsidiary themes are the ideal nature of woman, the evils of drink, and the iniquity of flogging. He belongs to the ranks of the itinerants of empire of the 19th century along with Sir George Arthur*, William Dunlop*, and Samuel Butler. A descriptive artist of the first order, his Settlers and convicts has become an Australian classic.

In 1953 an Australian edition of Settlers and convicts was published with a foreword by Australian historian C. M. H. Clark, who raised doubts as to whether Harris had actually existed, a wide search of primary documents, chiefly Australian, having yielded no evidence. The entry on Harris in the 1958 edition of The Australian encyclopædia, which took note of the controversy, was read by a grandson of Harris, Grant Carr-Harris of Ottawa; in 1961 Carr-Harris produced The secrets of Alexander Harris, a book based on a series of articles contributed by his grandfather, under the title “Religio Christi,” to the Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia) in 1858, and containing, in an introduction, extensive biographical information about him. In a third Australian edition of Settlers and convicts (1964), Professor Clark took note of the new evidence.

Robert L. McDougall

Alexander Harris, The emigrant family (3v., London, 1849); new ed. with intro. W. S. Ramson (Canberra, 1967); A guide to Port Stephens in New South Wales (London, 1849); new ed. with intro. Grant Carr-Harris (Sydney, Aust., 1961); [ ] The secrets of Alexander Harris, a frank autobiography . . . , ed. Grant Carr-Harris ([Sydney, Aust.], 1961); Settlers and convicts, or recollections of sixteen years’ labour in the Australian backwoods (London, 1847; Carlton, Aust., 1953, 1954; Parkville, Aust., 1964); Testimony to the truth (London, 1848). Works by Harris, who wrote also under the epithets “An emigrant mechanic” and “A working hand,” are listed in the British Museum catalogue; it gave Harris’ name as a pseudonym in 1963, but the entry was corrected in 1968. ADBThe Australian encyclopædia (10v., Sydney, Aust., [1958]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert L. McDougall, “HARRIS, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harris_alexander_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harris_alexander_10E.html
Author of Article: Robert L. McDougall
Title of Article: HARRIS, ALEXANDER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: October 23, 2014