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William Harry Harris (1833-1873)

Sometimes during historical research facts are uncovered that are not part of the main investigation but seem to be interesting, intriguing even. They might just be ‘rabbit holes’ distracting us from our line of enquiry. I was investigating the water supply in the older parts of Northampton, predominantly ‘The Boroughs’ during the 19th century. The pages of the Northampton Mercury revealed that this path had been followed by a far-sighted analytical chemist in the town in the 1860s, William Harry Harris.

Details of his analysis of Northampton’s water supply particularly from wells and public pumps is described separately. Northampton’s water quality in 1860


William Harry Harris was born in Northampton in 1833 the eldest son of William and Catherine Harris of 33 Gold Street. His father ran a drug store (pharmacy). William and Catherine were probably married sometime in the early 1830s although a parish registers entry has not been found that records the occasion. They attended College Street Baptist Church. Being Baptist their children were not christened in their early years but the church faithfully recorded the arrival of children, often in greater detail than national registration of births was to require from 1837.

William Harry Harris and his family

The birth entry records that William Harry Harris was born at the Gold Street premises, shop and home. The midwife is also recorded as Ann Wooding. It is also interesting to note that the next entry is for William Harry’s sister Kate Elizabeth two years later. It is possible that these two events were recorded together sometime after the actual births.

The 1841 census shows the family residing ‘over the shop’ in Gold Street. Living with them was a 15-year-old apprentice Henry Pochin and a servant Ann Holt. Sadly William Harris (senior) died in August 1845 aged just 38. The 1851 census shows that his wife Catherine continued the business on her own with a 25-year-old assistant Thomas Grey. Her eldest son William Harry Harris was not at home, as he was pursuing his career elsewhere.

We find William Harry Harris working as an assistant, most likely apprenticed, to another Druggist and Chemist, Henry Watson in Cambridge. It was a similar arrangement to home as William was living with Henry Watson’s family, another assistant Walter Wood and three servants. We can conclude this was a significant local business.

In the spring of 1854, William Harry Harris married Jane Levitt Brown, from another family closely associated with the College Lane chapel. Jane was a few years older than William and was born in Bugbrooke. The Brown family had been instrumental in founding a Baptist chapel in the village. Jane’s brother was John Turland Brown the long-serving minister of College Lane Chapel from 1843 until 1893.

The families of William Harry Harris and Jane Levitt Brown
The families of William Harry Harris and Jane Levitt Brown

At 33 Gold Street

William started advertising his business at 33 Gold Street in October 1858 in the Northampton Mercury.1 In the 1861 census he is recorded at the address with his wife Jane and son John Harry Harris.

The family association with College Street Baptist continued since in 1862 William Harry Harris served on the Building Fund Committee for the new College Street chapel.

Advertisment for W H Harris & Woodward, family and dispensing chemists
W H Harris & Woodward, 33 Gold Street [Northampton Mercury – Saturday 24 October 1863, Courtesy of the British Library Board]

In 1863 William was now in partnership with his assistant George Woodward. This seems not to have been a happy time as the partnership ended abruptly in February 1864 with the suicide of George Woodward by poisoning. The inquest provides some detail of the relationship with William Harris. Woodward had been a partner in the business for about nine months and for some years prior had been William Harris’s assistant. Woodward was described as “much respected, and by his generally cheerful disposition and kindness, had one a number of friends.” The report described his death as melancholic (depression) on account of the pending dissolution of his partnership with Harris. The poison he administered to himself was Aconite which is used in homeopathic medicine, it is however known to be fatal in even very small doses. The jury’s verdict was “that the deceased destroyed himself by taking aconite, whilst in a state of temporary insanity. The jury added that they wished it to be distinctly understood that they entirely acquitted Mr Harris of any blame whatever, either as to the position of the poisons or any other matter connected with this melancholy affair”.2

During his time in Northampton and shortly after he was a frequent correspondent in the local press. Reports also exist describing his role as an expert witness and analytical chemist for both the coroner and in criminal cases. He also responded to concerns of public health notably about the water supply and sewage processing in respect of its nuisance and hazards.

Details of his analysis of Northampton’s water supply particularly from wells and public pumps is described separately. Northampton’s water quality in 1860

November 1862 Report of the Northampton Improvement Commissioners on Gas quality and complaints of excessive smoke.

November 1862 Quality of Blewitt and Shaw’s linseed oil cakes.

May 1865 Scrutiny of proposals for the treatment of sewage.3

March and April 1868 In the 19th century there was considerable public interest in spiritualism, seances and ‘table-turning’, in part linked to early experiments with electricity. William Harris roundly dismissed these claims on several occasions: “Tables may make what are interpreted to be communications, most of them silly, and some false, but they are unable to inform us of any fact that can be accepted as absolute proof of the spiritual hypothesis. No doubt there are many honest believers in spiritual table-moving, for the human mind is fond of the wonderful, and is, more or less, very susceptible to the temptation that urges it to accept as true those solutions of phenomena that best agree with its desires.4

June 1868 Examination of evidence and analysis in respect of a post-mortem on James McVeen a foundryman at the Lion Foundry in Cow Lane on account of his death from poisoning. The jury’s verdict was “That the deceased met his death by taking poison, but how administered there is no evidence to show.”5

The 33 Gold Street premises became Jeffery’s Furnishing store in 1874 and appears here in an early photograph. The building was first enlarged and adapted but was later demolished and replaced by the extensive furniture showroom.6

33 Gold Stree circa 1874
33 Gold Street, Northampton

Move to Long Buckby

In November 1867 William Harry Harris moved his laboratory and analytical chemist business from Gold Street to Long Buckby Wharf. Exactly what prompted this move and why this particular location is not clear. The Gold Street business was sold to Thomas Dadford who continued to operate the pharmacy business.

For William, he settled into life in Long Buckby. We find him in 1869 taking a leading part in a social Soirée in the village. The event was organised by the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society connected with Long Buckby Baptist Church. It was a large gathering running for three evenings and occupying the National school room and a large room belonging to the adjacent Co-operative store. William Harris’ role was to provide scientific talks and experiments, including astronomy demonstrations using an optical telescope.

Whilst at Long Buckby Wharf William went into partnership with Francis and William Montgomery to start a brewery in the village by the name of Montgomery Harris and Co. No doubt William Harris’s chemical expertise and specific knowledge of water supplies was of benefit to the business. However, William’s relationship with the business was not to last. In December 1870 William issued a circular to the business’ creditors to pay their outstanding debts to William. This prompted notices to be published by Francis and William Montgomery advising creditors that this was not done with their approval and that debts should be paid to them. The business relationship between the partners had broken down. Some agreement appears to have been made between the partners as in December a further notice was issued rescinding William Harris’s original instruction. The partnership was not to last as the London Gazette reports in October 1871 that it was dissolved in respect of W H Harris. The brewery at Long Buckby Wharf however continued and changed owners several times.7

Although the partnership was not dissolved until October 1871 William Harris does not appear in the 1871 census, conducted on 2nd April at either Long Buckby or Northampton and probably already left the country.

In Bombay (Mumbai)

William reappears in Bombay. His advertisement in the Times of India is not surprisingly similar to his advertisements in the Northampton Mercury. This was a prestigious address in Bombay lying in the financial district near St Thomas Cathedral, and although renamed M Sheety Marg it remains an important business area.

W H Harris, Tamarind Lane, Bombay / Mumbai
W H Harris, Tamarind Lane, Bombay, 1873 [Times of India – Wednesday 26 February 1873, Courtesy of the British Library Board]

William had travelled to India without his family. In the 1871 census his wife Jane and son John were living with her mother-in-law, Catherine Harris in Guilsborough, Northamptonshire.

Whether it was the intention that William’s family would join him later sadly his time in Bombay was short and ended in tragedy. William was found dead in his bed on Saturday 8th November 18738. He was living in Medows Street (now Nagindas Master Street), Bombay where his laboratory was also located. His home was only a few minutes walk from the Tamarind Lane premises advertised earlier in the year.

The events leading to his death were heard at the inquest. Mr William Craig Law, a friend of William Harris gave evidence:

The day before yesterday, about 8 p.m., deceased and I went to Upper Colaba, and while returning he said he wished to bathe in the sea, and deceased and I and another friend named Howard, a Sergeant in the Artillery, went into the water on the harbour side and bathed. In jumping into the water the deceased grazed his forehead and when I came out of the water, I observed an abrasion on his right temple, it was not bleeding. Deceased told me that the water was shallower than he expected, and he struck his head against the bottom. He was not stunned at the time nor afterwards, nor did he complain of the injury. When deceased went into the water he was sober. I came home with the deceased about 10 or 11 p.m. and left him at the door of his laboratory. Yesterday forenoon, about 11 or 12 o’clock, I called to see the deceased and found him in bed. I was surprised to see that he was so much grazed about the head. He asked me to send his servant for ice, and the ice was brought, and I applied it to his head. I removed his cot at his own request to a cooler part of the room and supported him to his bed. He seemed to be weak and required to be supported in walking. He seemed to be in very good spirits and said he had no pain. The ice, he said, was applied to heal the torn skin. I left the deceased soon afterwards, but he requested me to call back and see him in the evening. Deceased had sent for a bottle of brandy during my visit, and his servant brought it. We each took a very small quantity of the brandy with some soda. I returned to the rooms of the deceased between 5 and 6 p.m. and found him still in bed but in very good spirits. In half an hour I left him. I returned again this morning between 8 and 9 o’clock and met the servant of the deceased at the door. The servant is now present, and his name is Moria Wagla. He told me that he could not wake his master. I went into the room immediately with Moria Wagla and raised the curtains, and in looking at the deceased he appeared to me to be dead. I gave notice of the death to the police. For the last two months deceased was in a depressed state of mind and very desponding. He told me he was doing very little work. Deceased was frequently in the habit of taking his meals in hotels.9

Jane Levitt Harris

William’s wife Jane continued living in and around Northampton and did not remarry. Sometime between 1871 and 1881 she moved in as a lodger with her brother John Turland Brown at his manse home in Semilong. The initial move may have come about due to the failing health and death of her mother-in-law Catherine in May 1881. Her brother died in 1899 and no doubt this necessitated another move, this time to Gayton, Northamptonshire in 1901. Ten years later she was living with her son John Harry Harris and his wife and daughter in Braunston, Northamptonshire and appears to have remained there until she died in 1922 at the age of 94.

  1. Northampton Mercury, 30 October 1858
  2. Northampton Mercury, 27th February 1864
  3. Northampton Mercury, 27th May 1865
  4. Northampton Mercury, 7th, 21st & 28th March, 11th, 18th & 25th April 1868
  5. Northampton Mercury, 6th June 1868
  6. Thanks to Mary Pilkington for identifying the 33 Gold Street premises and its subsequent ownership.
  7. I am indebted to Julie Groom and her excellent one-place study and website for Long Buckby in steering me in the right direction with respect of the brewery and William Harris’s brief time associated with it.
  8. Northampton Mercury, Saturday 13 December 1873
  9. Times of India – Monday 10 November 1873

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