From 1905 until 1916, George Harris was identified as Prisoner 57 in Parramatta gaol. He would die in France in 1918 as Private 634. Between the two numbers is an extraordinary story, some of which has been told elsewhere on this site.
By the time George was twenty one he had committed too many crimes to count. He had been gaoled on at least five occasions, usually for theft.
When he was released after serving one three year stint George finally decided to make an honest living. He became a hawker of fruit around Sydney, but it is not easy to escape the only life you have ever known. After a year or two of hard work he was charged yet again. This time he swore he was innocent, but to no avail. He was found guilty, with a sentence of ten years.
One of the most notorious Sydney criminals, George Harris, was sentenced by Judge Docker at the Quarter Sessions today, for robbery with violence. Prisoner said he had no parents. Had been brought up in the streets of Sydney, and the only education he had received was in the gaols of the State. There was a scene in court immediately after the pronouncement of sentence. Some of the witnesses who had given evidence in the prisoner’s defence were there and one – the girl with whom the accused lived, said, “How much George?” “Ten years” was the response, and turning to the police, Harris said, “You are a ……….! pack of liars.” As he descended the stairs he turned to the judge and used some very bad language to him. The judge however, ignored the remarks, and the prisoner was removed. (The Maitland Daily Mercury April 20 1905)
The problem for George was that the only people he knew were ‘unsavoury’ characters. He’d had a strong alibi, but the witnesses called in his defence were judged to be unreliable. He had been playing cards on the night of the attack with a self confessed thief and two women who ran a brothel. Unfortunately that is how disadvantage is perpetuated and why ex-offenders find it so difficult to reform.
The prospect of ten years behind bars was just too much for George to bear. He had accepted all his previous sentences, serving them without complaint. However, this was different. He brooded on the injustice until he quite literally went mad. At Parramatta gaol the following year he stabbed the Deputy Governor, James Quaine, with a bootmaker’s knife, almost killing him. Days later, Prisoner 57 attempted suicide.
He seems to have evaded the vigilance of his keepers during Wednesday night, and, stripping himself of his clothing, made a rope by which he tried to hang himself. He was found suspended in his cell, and. although he suffered considerably from the effects of the strangulation the discovery was made in time to prevent fatal consequences. (Evening News, December 7 1906)
The attempted murder charge resulted in a death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment.
Prisoner 57 was transferred to Parramatta Asylum’s criminal section. His behavior at the institution was exemplary and in 1909 he was assessed as being completely sane. Arrangements were made for his return to gaol, but for George the prospect was so bleak that as the date of the transfer loomed, he escaped.
The taste of freedom was brief. Someone ‘dobbed him in’ and he was arrested in inner-city Redfern the following day. He gave himself up without trouble, only making a wry comment about being described as a ‘dangerous criminal’. A perceptive court reporter described him at the time as follows;
Harris struck us as very much the ordinary type of citizen, a fair, blue-eyed man of about average build, with a hard, but far from unpleasant face. No wonder it was hard, Ten years with the immediate prospect of being hung was enough to make a man’s face look hard. Yet we could not help thinking that the human material might, under different circumstances have turned out, ‘not so bad after all.’ (Argus, Oct. 30 1909)
Back in prison George Harris settled down. He was more or less resigned to his fate, though he could not forget the injustice that provoked his act of madness. Oddly enough, after serving elsewhere, the man George attacked returned as Governor in 1914. There was no animosity between them. James Quaine understood it had not been ‘personal’.
Around this time things began to change for the better. Fred Bennett, a young man who had served time with George, extended a hand of kindness, as did Fred’s sister Esther and his mother Winifred. They visited him, and were completely unjudgmental.
The Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Mr D.R. Hall, visited Parramatta Gaol and took the time to listen to the lifer’s tragic history.
George’s case was investigated, and it was decided that the defense witnesses at the trial were credible. Mr Hall intervened and instead of having to wait until 1927, George Harris was released in 1916. He immediately enlisted, saying that fighting for his country was the only decent thing for him to do. He deliberately joined a machine gun regiment dubbed ‘The Suicide Club’. It was not that he wanted to die, but he thought it was better for him to do so rather than a man with a family.
Private Harris thrived in the army. He was among good mates and for the first time in his life he was doing something worthwhile. How proud he must have been of his service number…634. There were letters to look forward to from his now close friends, the Bennetts. He wrote back to them in August 1918, telling them that the war was almost won. That turned out to be correct, but sadly he was killed on August 8.
Attorney General Hall later received a letter from a Captain who had fought alongside George. It was prompted by an article Mr Hall had written about the prisoner he had met at Parramatta gaol.
He took a prominent part in the company’s work in the line during the days in March and April, when things looked very black indeed, and up to August 8, when he was killed, he was in the front line with his section officers on every occasion that the company was in the line.
He was killed while carrying ammunition to the guns, and is buried in a little cemetery at Cerisy-Gailly, on the banks of the Somme. I was present when he was buried, and a decent cross marks the spot where he lies.
Harris was one of the most straight forward men I have ever met, and one of the best soldiers I have seen in the A.I.F., during four year’s service.
I think it is fitting that those who befriended this man in his hour of need should know how much good there was in him and that he died like the hero he undoubtedly was – Yours truly, H.A. SHERIDAN, Capt.
Another letter was received by Mr Hall from a Lieut. Ritchard, who also praised George’s bravery, and his character;
His ready wit and absolute good nature gained for him a very high place in our esteem, and made him one of the most popular men in the Company. None of us knew his life story, but he used to tell us that he’d had a ‘pretty rough spin’, and his one consolation was that he was physically fit and could fight for his country.
Not bad memorials, and what a tribute to the power of kindness.
Prisoner 57 to Private 634….what a journey.
FOOTNOTE – TRUTH IS STRANGER…..😎
When Private Harris was on his way to Melbourne to board a troopship in May 1917, police in New South Wales were searching for a man who was on the run after stealing from George’s old ‘home’, Parramatta Gaol. The man was none other than his stabbing victim; the institution’s Governor, James Quaine!