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Highs and lows of pioneering family - Sarah and Walter Harris



Highs and lows of pioneering family

PROSPEROUS: The Harris family of Masterton, minus sons Reuben and Tom, who drowned in1896.


THE Masterton Cemetery marks the last resting place of a couple who epitomise the Wairarapa story of early settlement: struggles against a harsh environment, slow and steady achievement leading to financial stability and community service - but the family plot also records the heart-breaking reality of life in rural Wairarapa.

Walter and Sarah Harris were both members of Wellington and Hutt Valley farming pioneer families. Walter was born in Broomfield, England, the son of Abraham Harris and his wife Sophia Harris - his parents were apparently cousins. The family migrated to New Zealand on the 'Bolton', among the first few ships to come to Wellington, arriving in April 1840, with five children. They were to have another seven children in New Zealand, and found a large and prosperous family.

They established a sawmill in the Taita area of the Hutt Valley, where Abraham was responsible for pitsawing the totara used to build Christ Church in 1853. Both he and Sophia are buried there.

Their fifth child Walter, born in Broomfield in 1837, married Sarah Jane Wyeth in 1866. She was the daughter of Jamaican-born Robert Wyeth and Jane Runnalls, whose wedding in June 1840 was one of the first to be celebrated in Wellington.

The couple were involved in various commercial ventures in Wellington before moving out to the Hutt Valley in 1854. In 1873 Robert and Jane moved again, this time to Masterton where Robert once again opened a store. Jane died in Masterton in 1886 and was buried in the Masterton Cemetery. Robert was buried with her when he died in 1903.

Walter and Sarah Harris followed her parents up to Masterton in 1876, briefly living in town before shifting further north to the Mount Bruce district, where they owned 'Ramslie'. Sarah's sister Elizabeth was already farming in the district with her husband Samuel Chamberlain. When he died in 1884 she married Alexander McLeod, farmer and sawmiller.

Tragedy Strikes

Walter and Sarah carved a prosperous farm out of their bush and scrub-covered land, improving the pastures and steadily increasing his flock. Access to Masterton was difficult - the main road north went up through Mauriceville and there were swamps to cross to get down to the rail head at Masterton. Much of the mutton and wool from the farm was sent south via pack horses at first.

Not content with that state of affairs, Walter entered into the political sphere, serving on the Road Board and as a county councillor. When they retired from the farm, the Harrises shifted into a house on Opaki Rd, and Walter helped the push for a separate school in Lansdowne.

Before that shift though, tragedy was to hit the family in a way that almost reads as though it were straight from a Victorian melodrama.

Walter and Sarah raised 15 children - eight boys and seven girls. They all lived part of their lives on the family farm which was bounded by the Ruamahanga River, and all were used to playing and swimming in the river.

On the morning of New Year's Day 1896, three of the younger boys - Walter Lawrence, usually called Lawrence, aged 9, Reuben, 7 and Tom, 5, went out on to the farm with some dogs to go rabbiting, as they often did.

Tom came home at lunch time but the other two stayed out on the farm. About 3pm the dogs started to arrive home, one after the other, until about 4pm when a retriever, the boys' favourite dog, came home all wet, as though he had been swimming.

Died Together

Sarah was anxious but Walter was more sanguine - he was used to the children staying out late on the farm - so he waited until after milking before going to look for them. Not having success, he was joined by his neighbour H. Christiansen and they searched along the river banks, finding a set of clothes and a set of boots on the banks at about 10pm.

Journeying downstream they found what they had been dreading - the bodies of the two boys, submerged under the waters of the Ruamahanga, locked in each other's arms. The younger Reuben had no clothes on - his brother Lawrence was fully clad, apart from his shoes and socks. Their bodies were unmarked except they both had small wounds on the sides of their noses. There were scratch marks on the banks, which it was later surmised had been made by their faithful dog getting a purchase on the banks as he bit at their noses, trying to rescue them.

An inquest was held in the days afterwards, where evidence was given about the supposed cause of the tragedy.

The family were sure that Reuben had stripped down for a swim and had got into trouble in the river, which dropped off suddenly in the spot they were found. Once Reuben got into trouble Lawrence must have taken off his boots and tried to rescue him, then when he in turn was caught in the water, their dog had tried to save them both.

It was to no avail - the jury recorded their deaths as being by accidental drowning.

Walter Harris died in 1915, Sarah in 1930. They are buried in the Harris family plot in Masterton Cemetery, alongside the two boys who fell victim to what was often called "the New Zealand disease" - drowning.

Owner/SourceWairarapa Times Age - Gareth winter
Date12 Jan 2015
Linked toFamily: Harris/Wyeth (F21)

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