There are people in life who display friendship at its purest, and Esther Bennett was a shining example.
Esther lived with her widowed mother Winifred and brother Frederick in Pelican Street, Surrey Hills, one of Sydney’s poorest areas. The trio were strict Catholics, and devoted to each other.
Frederick was in his twenties when he got into trouble and ended up in Parramatta Gaol. After he was released he found employment on the wharves. At the end of the shift on Christmas Eve he told his mates about George Harris, who was serving a long sentence and had no family or friends to support him. With true kindness, Fred suggested that if they had a ‘whip around’ he could arrange for a Christmas dinner to be bought, and have his sister Esther deliver it to the gaol.
Prisoner Harris was slightly built, but intimidating in appearance; scarred and covered in tattoos. He was from a dreadfully deprived background, having been abandoned by his parents when he was three. The child was handed to foster carers he only ever referred to as ‘some people’. It suggests his time with them was very unhappy. By the time he was twelve he was in a reform school. He left at sixteen and was constantly in trouble with the police.
The crime that had put George Harris in gaol for life was the attempted murder of a high ranking prison official, but there was no judgment from Esther, or her mother and brother. They just wanted to make life for Prisoner 57 a little better. It’s often those who have little themselves who are particularly caring and generous.
There were three annual occasions when long term inmates at Parramatta were allowed special meals from outside; Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, and the King’s birthday. Over the next few years Esther never failed to deliver a meal to George. A strong bond with the whole Bennett family was established.
In June 1914 the NSW Attorney General and Minister for Justice, David John Hall made a lengthy visit to the Gaol. He interviewed various prisoners, including Harris, then aged 32. At the end of the interview he believed the man’s stabbing of the prison’s deputy governor, James Quaine had mitigating circumstances.
Further investigation revealed that Harris had been wrongly convicted over a violent robbery. This was the background to the moment during roll call when the prisoner attacked Mr Quaine, driven to temporary insanity by despair and frustration at the injustice.
Harris was not due to be released until 1927. However, Attorney General Hall intervened, and in 1916, after serving 10 years, Prisoner 57 was released. Asked what he intended to do, he told Mr Hall that he would enlist. Hall would later say;
I did not ask him to do so, nor had I hinted at it in any way. He had been the victim of such misfortune, and from childhood had received such shocking treatment, that it did not seem fair to me to ask a man to fight for the land that had treated him so badly, but of his own free will he chose to do it.
He went to Brisbane the day after his release, and trained as an infantryman. Then, men were wanted for more dangerous work in the machine gun section. Again, he volunteered. “I want to join the Suicide Club, as they call it. he said, “because, you see I have no relatives to mourn me if I am knocked out.” (Woodend Star, September 12 1918)
While he was training in Brisbane, Private Harris applied for final leave before leaving for active service. Significantly, he gave the Bennett residence as his home address.
His response to ‘Reason for asking for leave’ was prophetic, as it would be the last time he would see his friends.
On May 11 he sailed on the troopship Ascanius as part of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion.
During the months of the German ‘spring offensive’ on The Somme, the Battalion was involved in heavy fighting.
By the summer of 1918 the situation had improved, and there was increasing hope that the war would soon be over. They were making a final big push against enemy lines when on August 8, Private Harris’ luck ran out. He was shot dead while carrying ammunition to his company’s guns.
Before leaving Australia George had made his will, leaving his estate to Esther. He also named her as next of kin on his enlistment papers;
Several years after his death, his medals became available. Despite the will, Base Records tried to locate blood relations. Esther said she had never heard her friend mention any, but a woman came forward claiming to have been George’s adopted mother. Her name was Dinah Eugene Barnett.
The officer in charge wrote back, refusing to accept her as next-of-kin;
But somehow the woman convinced the army that she had a connection, though ‘adopted mother’ had changed to ‘foster mother’. What a travesty. She even tried to have the Star of David engraved on his grave rather than a cross, as she was Jewish herself.
Mrs Barnett, later Mrs Solomon, duly received George’s medals and his war gratuity.
There was never a complaint or a counter-claim from Esther. She had received what meant the most to her, the items found with the soldier when he died. Her only query concerned the most personal thing of all, her friend’s identity disc. When she first met George Harris he was Prisoner 57, but he died bravely as Private 634. What a keepsake the disc would have been, but unfortunately it never turned up.
So who was Dinah Solomon? Well, I have been unable to find much information. She lived a transient lifestyle as a dealer in second hand goods. She Married David Solomon in 1922. Her last known address was 8 Botany Road Alexandria, one of Sydney’s slum districts. When she died in 1934 no-one cared enough to pay for a death or funeral notice. It points to a lonely end. The only mention of her passing was when her belongings were auctioned off by the Public Trustee. Presumably someone bought George Harris’s medals. If I could be transported back in time I’d tell Esther Bennett to go along and bid on them!
The only link I could find with George was that Dinah’s first marriage had been to a man called Harris. Had she simply spotted an opportunity for gain during the army’s search for relatives? Or was she the person entrusted with a little boy’s care all these years ago?
Winifred Bennett died in 1939.
I have been unable to trace Frederick after 1939, but Esther Bennett died in 1941.
FOR AN ARTICLE ON CHRISTMAS IN PARRAMATTA GAOL WRITTEN IN 1907, CLICK HERE.