On 9 June 1851, Robert and Mary Harris, aged 41 and 39 respectively, arrived in Lyttelton aboard the Steadfast after a record-breaking journey from Gravesend of just 101 days. With them were their nine children ranging in age from infancy to 19 years.
Robert was listed in the passenger list as a Labourer, and was clearly willing to turn his hand to anything to provide for his family, as evidenced by this advertisement in the Lyttelton Times on 8 November, 1851:
“On Sale – 10,000 well burnt bricks. Apply to Robert Harris, left hand side of the cemetery ground Lyttelton.”
Robert moved his family to Ōhinetahi / Governors Bay where their first home was a hole cut out of the hill with bullock skins to shelter the opening. He laid the cobblestones in the porch of St Cuthbert’s church and also worked on the construction of the Lyttelton rail tunnel in the 1860’s. Many settlers were granted land as compensation for fulfilling contracts for roading, fencing etc; Robert got 34 acres at the base of Omawete / Coopers Knob, the highest peak behind Ōhinetahi / Governors Bay. He and Mary had another five children there.
Elizabeth was born on 11 September 1857. As a young child, because her father worked on the tunnel construction (which was officially opened in December 1867), she was privileged to accompany him through it prior to its completion. She sat on the front of a trolley holding a candle in a bottle to light the way and thus laid claim to being the first female to travel its length. Later in her life, when the tunnel was electrified in the 1920’s, Eliza was a proud guest of the government for the celebrations.
The Harris children had a pet bullock they raised from a calf which they taught tricks, such as to sit on a tree stump (looking perfectly ridiculous!); when grown the animal refused to pass said stump without perching on it. One playtime nearly ended in disaster for Eliza as whilst playing with the tail of the bullock it turned and gored her in the stomach. Robert stitched her wound with a needle and thread; his amateur doctoring proved satisfactory as Eliza later bore nine children.
Tragically, in 1874 Robert was thrown from his horse on Dyers Pass Road and although attended by a doctor, died five days later. At the time of his death most of the children were married, owned property and had established themselves in lives that would have been impossible had Robert and Mary not made their courageous journey to Canterbury. Mary spent her later years living with family in Little River until her death aged 90.
Thanks to Tracy Radford who is a descendant of ELizabeth Harris, for sharing some of her family history.
See also 'The Wake of the Steadfast; the pioneer family of Robert and Mary Harris' by Jenni Pashby, 1981.