17/242 – GEORGE GREGORY HARRIS
As I was looking through the AWM Cenotaph on-line records for soldiers I was researching with the HARRIS surname, I came across a message posted on several of the Harris soldiers pages, like ARTHUR HARRIS’s which read:
Arthur Harris was born in Rangiahua, Northland 1894 and died in Auckland 1962. He was the son of Moa and Ngawai Harris of Northland — If you have any information on this family PLEASE make contact with me… Many thanks
Public – Leonard Harris – Researcher – 29 June 2016
So I contacted Leonard …. as it transpired Leonard was not a direct descendant of Arthur Harris or any other particular Harris soldier but was a genealogist who was researching all HARRIS families in NZ. He had attached this message to those Harris soldiers for which he had little information, however the information that he had compiled on Harris’s to date proved to be most useful in providing links to the families I was researching.
As a result I was able to reunite a British War Medal named to 17/242 Trooper George Gregory HARRIS with Annette W. of Otorohanga. The medal had been offered to MRNZ by a private collector and Leonard’s information had facilitated a direct contact with Tpr Harris’s granddaughter. Coincidentally Annette was writing a family history which she has provisionally entitled “Harris in New Zealand” and to date had just completed the arrival in New Zealand of the George’s ancestors in 1841.
Granddaughter Annette relates: “George was my grandfather, invalided home from service in Egypt from memory. My mother was 14th of 15 children, and George was left with us by her older sister in about 1974, with few if any, possessions. He went from our home to Hillview Home in Te Kuiti, where he died in January 1979”.
The HARRIS name is synonymous with both New Plymouth and Taranaki. In January 1841, the sailing ship Brougham arrived from England with 24 year old Samuel Gregory Harris aboard. Samuel was employed as a chainman in a survey party to assist with mapping out a site chosen to establish the new settlement of New Plymouth. On 12 Feb 1841 the survey part with 60 others landed which effectively began the colonization of Taranaki. The first of the NZ Company ships heading to NZ with new settlers, the William Bryan, arrived at the end of March and among its 60 new colonists was 19 year old Mary BROWN, soon to become Mrs Samuel HARRIS, George Harris’s grandfather. Over the next 20 years the Harris’s had a family of 12 children, the 1oth being Alfred George Harris (Georges’s father) who was born at Wanganui in 1861.
Alfred George Harris was a blacksmith by trade and had married Jane (known as Jenny) Nicol PENDER in 1885. Alfred and Jenny had moved around the North Island from job to job and eventually went to Brunnerton on the South Island’s West Coast, 13 km east of Greymouth, after Alfred had secured a long term position at the Brunner Coal Mine. As he was a capable blacksmith Alfred had been placed in charge of the pit ponies. Thursday, March 26th 1896 started like any other however Alfred had been quite ill and as a result decide to stay at home for the day – and a fortuitous decision that would be. At 9.30am New Zealand’s worst coal mining disaster occurred as the Brunner Mine exploded when coal gas ignited resulting in the deaths of 67 of the Harris’s friends and workmates.
The Harris family by this time had swelled by six children – Mabel, Alfred John Samuel, Mary, Frank Edgecumbe, George Gregory and Leonard, who were all born at Taylorville, a mine workers accommodation settlement adjacent to Brunnerton. The Harris’s stayed on in Taylorville after the disaster with Alfred continuing to blacksmith at Brunnerton and later in Greymouth. The riverside terrace town of Taylorville was renowned for its location above the river being freezing in winter and not much better in summer due to the short exposure to daily sun caused by the Paparoa Ranges behind the town. This together with the ever present coal dust and smog that hung over the town from domestic fires and belching stacks from coal mines on the opposite bank of the Grey River, provided a receipe for respiratory problems and ill-health. Jenny’s health in the 10 or so years they had lived there deteriorated to the point that in 1908 Alfred decided to move his family to the sunny Bay of Plenty and clean air to improve her health. Alfred Harris acquired some land at Upper Papamoa and started a new life as a farmer along with his young sons.
Once the specter of WW1 rose, all of Alfred and Jenny’s boys, with the exception of Leonard, would be required to serve. First to be called up was second eldest son, 20 year old 13/58 Trooper Frank Edgecumbe HARRIS, who by this time had left Taylorville and was now a junior Fireman at the Pitt Street City Station in Auckland. Frank had enlisted with the Auckland Mounted Rifles (Main Body) and departed for Egypt in October 1914. Frank was transferred to the NZ Veterinary Corps in April 1915 and remained in Egypt during the Gallipoli campaign. In Oct 1915 he was admitted to Lady Godley’s convalescent Home in Zeitoun for “dysentery and general debility”. He failed to improve and so was classified “medically unfit; general debility – to be repatriated to NZ”. Tpr. Frank Harris left Egypt for NZ in Jan 1916 and was discharged on 26 April 1916 after 1 year and 105 days foreign service, and was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal for his service.
George Gregory Harris, the third and youngest son of Alfred and Jenny’s boys was the second son to attest for full-time war service. Working as a farmhand at “Bardervie” in Cambridge, George was also a serving territorial soldier with ‘B’ Squadron of the 4th Waikato Mounted Rifles. His farming experience (and no doubt horse skills) made him eminently suited to enlistment into the NZ Veterinary Corps (where he would have undoubtedly have met up with his brother Frank also with the NZVC in Egypt – he may even have replaced him?).
Ten days before Christmas 1914, 20 year old 17/242 Trooper George Gregory HARRIS embarked for Egypt with 2nd Reinforcements of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. Arriving in Egypt he commenced training in preparation for what would be the Gallipoli Landings the following April. However after just 272 days of overseas service, Tpr. George Harris was compassionately invalided home to NZ on the SS Tahiti. He was subsequently discharged on 25 Sep 1915 as being “medically unfit for active service – general debility; but … fit for employment in civil life.” George Harris was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal for his wartime service.
Three months after George’s return, the War bought tragedy to the Harris family. Like so many other New Zealand and Commonwealth families the Harris family lost their eldest son and a brother. Alfred and Jenny’s first born son, 15368 Rifleman Alfred (‘Alf’) John Samuel HARRIS was the last of their sons to be called up for WW1 service. He had embarked for England in July 1916 and by October was in the trenches of the Western Front with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade. Eight months later, Rflm. Alfred John Samuel Harris was ‘Killed In Action’ on 7th June 1917 during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. Alf was 27 years old.
Alfred and Jenny and the rest of the Harris family were understandably devastated. After the war Alfred decided to retire from farming and divided his Upper Paparoa farm between sons George and Leonard, and then moved into Tauranga.
Shortly after George returned home he married Kathleen Gwenevere CROCKER of Auckland and together they raised a large family of 15 children. In their latter years George and Kathleen separated. George was taken in by one of his daughters for a number of years, and then went to a second daughter, Annette’s parents, until 1976 at which time residential care became necessary for George.
George Gregory Harris died at “Hillview Home” Te Kuiti in January 1979 aged 84 and was buried in the Pyes Pa Cemetery (RSA Section) in Tauranga – there is no plaque on his grave.
George and Kathleen Harris’s first born son was also named “George Gregory HARRIS” after his father – 20975 Gunner G.G. Harris served during WW2 with the 7th Anti Tank Regiment, 2NZEF.
Annette had now received George’s British War Medal however the whereabouts his 1914-15 Star and Victory Medal are unknown. If you can help to locate these, please contact MRNZ.
The reunited medal tally is now 101.