Percy Herbert Harrison (1887-1916)

Despite the marriage of his parents in Chalmis Presbyterian Church Percy Herbert Harrison was baptized in the same church as his father, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Macquarie St. Hobart. The event took place at on Oct. 12 1887, and was officially witnessed by Bridget Murray. After leaving school he followed his father Patrick into the transport business; he owned one of the first hire cars for tourists in Tasmania. He was 5 ft 9 in. tall with black wavy hair, a keen sportsman and successful athlete. Around 1906 he competed in the footrace to the top of Mt. Wellington and in 1909 won a sterling silver teapot for winning the mile race at the Kingston Regatta.

PHH car

On 3 August 1907 Percy married a beautiful young woman, Mary Jane O'Neil, at St. David’s Anglican Cathedral . When I was born in 1939 my grandfather Percy had been dead for over 20 years so I knew nothing of his family until very many years later. His widow was to me Granny Williams, and we were very close. She told me little about Percy other than his silver trophies that occupied pride of place in her house and the heavy bronze disc that she received when he died. I adored my grandfather Williams so their story is very much part of mine.
Mary and family
Mary, known as May, was born in Hobart on 20 February 1887 but spent some of her young life with her mother's relatives in Swansea. Her mother, Maria, was the eldest child of Henry and Mary Bevis and her father was John O'Neil. He was born in Hobart about 1854 to John O’Neil Snr. and his wife Catherine. They were both Irish, he was born around 1811 and was probably a former soldier in the 4th Regiment of the British Army. Her story is intriguing.

Percy's Grand-Mother-in-law

An Irish girl arrived in Hobart in May 1833 on the barque
Eliza after a passage of 138 days from Liverpool. In the passenger list she is recorded as being Catherine Hayton a 16 year-old laundress and she disembarked along with Mrs Towell and her three children and Catherine McKenzie and her child. The remaining 52 passengers went on to Sydney. What she did on arrival is as yet unknown but some time after her arrival she formed a relationship with Edward Healey who was also Irish and eleven years older her senior. Their first daughter Margaret was born in January 1838 and probably died in infancy. Their first son, Edward, arrived in August 1840, another daughter, Mary Ann, the next year and George on 25 August 1842. It appears Edward and Catherine were married in 1843 and had three more children – John, in September 1844, Catherine, on 9 June 1845, and Sarah Ann on 8 September 1847. When Edward died in April 1849 Catherine was left with six young children but was not without valuable friends. Specifically one Lt Kay RN of the Rossbank Observatory and ‘certain benevolent persons' who collected £45 to purchase the land and buildings at the junction of Forest Road and Frederick St in West Hobart (later 11 now 51 Forest Road) in order 'to provide for the assistance and support of Catherine Haly and her children Peter, Mary Ann, Edward, George, Catherine and Sarah Ann. Thomas John Knight, barrister, acted as her trustee and earned five shillings for his work; the property was bought from John Adams, tobacconist, and his wife Ann. The ownership of the house was in the name of Catherine and her children. Catherine Haly was my great great grandmother.

The Mysterious Lt Kay RN

Foremost amongst my great great grandmother’s supporters was Lt. Joseph Henry Kay RN, a nephew of Sir John Franklin, the former Governor who had perished in the Arctic in search of the North-West Passage two years earlier. After Edward Haly died Kay and ‘certain benevolent persons' collected £45 to purchase the land and buildings at the junction of Forest Road and Frederick St in West Hobart (later 11 now 51 Forest Road) in order 'to provide for the assistance and support of Catherine Haly and her children Peter, Mary Ann, Edward, George, Catherine and Sarah Ann. Thomas John Knight, barrister, acted as her trustee and earned five shillings for his work; the property was bought from John Adams, tobacconist, and his wife Ann. The ownership of the house was in the name of Catherine and her children.

Kay was the second son of Joseph Kay, a noted architect and Sarah Henrietta Porden, the sister of Sir John Franklin’s first wife and daughter of an even more famous architect. Henry broke with the family tradition and joined the Royal Navy on 18 December 1827 and from his first posting became part of the navy’s commitment to science and exploration. He served as midshipman on board Chanticleer in the 1828-1831 Expedition to Isla de los Estados, and the South Shetland Islands to make pendulum and magnetic observations on Deception Island. Deception Island was charted and the expedition made surveys of Isla de los Estados and southern Tierra del Fuego.

JH Kay

His next posting was far more comfortable on the Rainbow under the command of his uncle Sir John Franklin in the Mediterranean. This was a plum posting for the ship was known as the Celestial Rainbow and Franklin’s Paradise. He passed his exams in 1834 and served on HMS Fly a vessel later also associated with the exploration of Australia. He was commissioned in 1839 as a lieutenant and joined the crew of HMS Terror and returned to the far southern seas on the expedition to Antarctica, lead by Sir James Clark Ross. This undertaking was chiefly concerned with the study of the earth’s magnetic field and stations were set up in Cape Town, on St Helena and in Hobart.

Erebus and the Terror arrived in Hobart on 17 August 1840 and stayed 3 months. Ross, who was a close friend and colleague of the Governor stayed at Government House, as did Captain Crozier and Lt Kay. On the first full day of Ross’ stay he and Franklin set off to find a site for the observatory and by the afternoon the Governor had 200 convicts at work on construction and the two ships had been moved upstream to near the site. Franklin had already surveyed several possible sites so Ross’ task was straightforward. They anchored in what was then Yacht Cove and later Ross Cove. Designs for the building, that had to be constructed without any metal, had been sent to Franklin earlier, together with authority to spend up to £208, and he had the materials ready when the ships arrived. The site, just on the northern side of the present Government House, was chosen because it had a deep layer of sandstone. Convicts excavated down to about 10 meters and formed a foundation from the cut blocks of sandstone; later Government House was also constructed from the stone on site.

In 9 days they had erected a building 48 feet long and 16 feet wide and the instruments were installed on their sandstone pillars on 23 September. The portable magnetometers from the ships were set up nearby to calibrate the initial readings. Franklin organized a group of ‘gentlemen volunteers’ to assist in taking readings. Amongst those chosen to read the magnetometers on the first day were the Governor’s Secretary, his ADC and Rev J P Gell who later married his daughter Eleanor. Another volunteer was Samuel Jeffrey who was Kay’s last assistant and successor.

During the three months the Erebus and Terror stayed in Hobart the officers enjoyed a lively social life and explored the island, however Ross and Kay worked hard to set up the Rossbank Observatory. (Kay had decided to call it Gauss Villa but Lady Franklin persuaded her husband to name it after Ross.) Ross had chosen Kay ‘because he had shown a great deal of diligence and application with the instruments’ during the voyage. When the ships left for the Antarctic Kay remained in Hobart with the position of Director of HM Magnetic Observatory at Hobart Tow; two Mates from the ships – Peter Scott and Joseph Drayton stayed with him.

Kay was reunited with his shipmates when the vessels returned and that stay culminated in a much talked about ball on the ships. By now a building to accommodate the staff had been constructed and soon the centre took on the appearance of a ‘pretty village’ . The portable instruments were again brought ashore and further cross readings were taken. Eleanor Franklin recorded that Kay and his staff took readings of the earth’s magnetic field hourly each day except Sunday and once a month every two and a half minutes for a whole day. This onerous workload prompted him to express his concern for the health of his workers in November 1842 and he sought more people to lessen the strain. He complained that the ceaseless work combined with its sedentary nature was affecting the health of the staff for they had no time ‘for relaxation of any kind nor exercise to preserve their health. In 1844 Lts Alex Smith and Francis Simpkinson replaced Scott and Drayton. Hobart Town was still a very small place with a population of 20,000, mostly convicts. In the Franklin’s time the social and intellectual activities were centred on Government House. Kay was popular there for he sang and played the flute and Lady Jane Franklin was at first concerned that her step-daughter Eleanor might become romantically attached to her cousin. GTB Boyes, in his diary at page 29, recorded that Kay was one of a gifted circle of artists that included Boyes, and the painters John Skinner Prout and Simpkinson de Wesselow. The latter was a nephew of Lady Franklin and a talented painter who produced several scenes around the observatory during his few years in Hobart. Bock painted the Observatory with Ross and Crozier in the foreground and Kay off to the side.

In 1843 Tasmania’s first Bishop, Francis Russell Nixon had arrived and immediately formed a friendship with Kay. In November 1845 Nixon traveled to Swansea to marry Kay to Maria Meredith, the fourth daughter of George Meredith Esq. of Cambria, Great Swan Port. Kay thus became linked to one of Tasmania’s foremost colonial families. Maria’s sister Clara was married to Sir Richard Dry, another major landowner and later Premier, her brother Charles was a minister in several Governments some years later and her sister-in-law was the author and artist Louisa Ann Meredith. Also present at the wedding was Kay’s brother William Porden Kay who had followed the family tradition and become an architect. William had been brought out by the Franklin’s in June 1842 to allow the Governor the option of not relying on the ex-convict architect James Blackburn.

It seems likely that Kay stopped living in Government House when the Franklins were recalled. However the new Governor Eardley-Wilmot was also interested in science and Henry, as the colony’s foremost scientist, retained his vice-regal association. The Governor set up the Royal Society of Tasmania initially to administer to Colonial Gardens that adjoined Kay’s observatory. He was a foundation member of the new Society and wrote ten scientific papers that were published by it. Eardley-Wilmot’s stay was short and William Dennison arrived in late 1846. Kay is not mentioned in Dennison’s account of his time in Tasmania but he still had close connections with Government House through his association with Captain Stanley, Dennison’s right hand man.

By 1847 Kay was tired and bored, and fretting about the effect his stay in Hobart was having on his prospects for promotion. Although Ross had praised his diligence and tireless work Kay felt Ross could have done more to progress his career in the Navy. He wrote

‘I cannot conceal from you that beginning with myself all are tired and weary of the continuous and unvarying routine day and night without cessation. I have now completed seven and a half years of observing work of hourly observations and am become very much a machine wound up to Gottingen mean time.’

For his dedicated he work had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in the year before, but pined for a greater range of intellectual pursuits and asked to be recalled. He was promoted to Commander at this time but remained at Rossbank, although the hourly observations were halted and his cottage was extended. The onerous duties running the Observatory prompted Kay to seek a local position in 1847 and he used Admiral Stopford, Dennison’s brother-inlaw, as a referee. in April 1850 Simpkinson de Wesselow heard that Kay had been offered the post of Harbour-Master and thought of applying to replace him at Rossbank.

By now the Crimean War was constricting funds that the Admiralty could afford to spend on scientific pursuits and by 1851 only Kay and Jeffrey were on its payroll. Finally in 1853 it ordered that the observatory he handed over to the Tasmanian Government. Kay was to now be recalled and Governor Dennison asked him to nominate a successor. Jeffrey got the position but his tenure was very short. Governor Dennison was a practically oriented engineer and any spare funds were spent on buildings and bridges; an observatory was an indulgence. Even Jeffrey’s offer to run it as a volunteer was rejected.

Some of Denison’s projects were executed by Kay’s elder brother. William was Dennison’s colonial architect and later Director of Public Works until failing eyesight forced him to return to England in 1854. William Porden Kay (born 1809) had married Clara Ann Elwell in Hobart in April 1845, seven months before his brother’s wedding. They lived in a house he designed and built at New Town called Barrington Lodge and their first daughter, Clara, was born there in 1849. After he died in 1870 Clara and her daughter returned to Hobart. The greatest monument to his work in Tasmania is undoubtedly Government House built on the site where his brother built the Rossbank Observatory.

On 19 May 1853 Kay wrote to his brother-in-law John Meredith, Maria’s younger brother, from Cambria to say farewell.

‘Tomorrow we proceed to Hobart Town to take a passage in the Emma to Sydney en route to England and I hope to get away from Sydney by the middle of June and to arrive in England in October.’

He asked John to write to him c/o his mother at 38 Westbourne Park Villas, Westbourne London,(now W2). In his thirteen years in Hobart he achieved much. Apart from its contribution to navigation and geophysics the Observatory was also the first meteorological office and provided a time service crucial for navigation. The chain of stations established by the Ross Expedition is said to represent the beginning of meteorology on a worldwide basis in the British Empire and Kay was Australia’s first geophysicist.

Whether on not Kay did return to London or not he was soon back in Australia. An eminent naval officer, Sir Charles Hotham was appointed Governor of Victoria and Kay was his Private Secretary. Kay had earlier connections with Victorian administration through his close friendship with John Meredith. In 1847 Kay had written to the new Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, seeking assistance to find his brother-in-law land in the western districts. C J Latrobe had been briefly the Lt Governor of Tasmania after Eardley-Wilmot was recalled, and Kay had probably met him several times during his stay. In his letter Kay seeks LaTrobe’s pardon for his boldness and expresses his sorrow on hearing ‘that one of your little girls met with such an accident during your passage. But Mr Hart, who I have just seen assures me she is now well.’ When John again sought Kay’s intervention with LaTrobe in September 1849 Henry and the Meredith family thought it would carry more weight if the request came from Bishop Nixon. Nixon immediately wrote to Victoria but it appears that there was no appointment made. Later when John’s father died Kay pledged Maria’s inheritance to John in order that he might retain the family property intact.

After a few years as Private Secretary to Hotham during which they weathered the turmoil generated by the Eureka rebellion. Kay was appointed Secretary to the Executive Council of Victoria in 1855 and held that post until his death from diabetes on 17 July 1875. He was appointed one of the two initial honorary members of the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1855, a life member in 1867 and a Councilor in 1868. In a court case over his will Judge Molesworth said Kay ‘left large property, real and personal to his trustees and executors’. They sought a greater share than the £100 specified in the will; Judge Molesworth awarded them 2% of the estate.

Why did Lt Kay help Catherine and her children?

One possible reason is that Edward Haly was a shipmate. This would also explain why Haly is not listed as either a convict arrival or a free immigrant. Alternatively he may have been involved in building or running the Rossbank Observatory. Of course Kay may have been a friend of Catherine herself, they were both were 11 years younger than Edward. Although this seems unlikely given the difference in social standing, she might also have been an employee of Kay.

Kay’s letters to his brother-in-law illustrate his willingness to intervene where he could to assist his friends. Thus it was entirely consistent with his character for him to initiate an effort to provide for a young widow with six or seven children. I think we can rule out any romantic link between Catherine and Joseph Kay. A week after Kay arrived in Hobart Catherine gave birth to her eldest son Edward. In the eight years between then and Edward Haly’s death she had another five children and Edward was registered as the father. When Edward died Kay and his wife were living in their own house adjacent to the observatory. To the original sandstone cottage he added a stable, loft, coach house, fowl house, pig stye, woolshed laundry and living apartment, that his brother later valued as worth £147. With that kind of household he and his wife would have needed servants – perhaps that is why he added the ‘dwelling apartment’. I suspect that Edward was one of his servants and when he died Kay wanted to look out for Catherine and her children. Perhaps she and her children lived in the apartment and Kay and his wife, who had no children of their own at the time saw them a part of the family. When Edward died Kay needed to employ another servant and was not prepared to just turn out Catherine and the children.