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Story: Harris, Jane Elizabeth

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Harris, Jane Elizabeth


Writer, lecturer, spiritualist

This biography, written by Nancy Swarbrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Jane Elizabeth Francis was born in St John's Wood, London, England, probably in 1852 or 1853, the daughter of Harriett Francis and Adelbert Sevyney Frantz, a silk merchant. On 11 January 1866 Harriett Francis married Henry Stilwell and emigrated to New Zealand with him and her daughter. They arrived at Auckland on the Ida Zeigler in late October 1866.

The family settled at Parawai, Thames, where Henry Stilwell, a seedsman and florist, established a nursery in 1868. On 21 January 1873 at Thames, Jane Francis married Thomas Harris, a market gardener. The first of their seven children was born a year later. Jane shared with her husband a thirst for knowledge, and Thomas appears to have encouraged his wife's efforts to educate herself. Her intellectual development was accompanied by a desire for self-expression and public recognition.

In the decade following her marriage Jane Harris published newspaper stories using the pen name 'Jenny Wren'. In December 1882, describing herself as 'an humble authoress, as yet obscure and unknown', she wrote to Sir George Grey asking his advice on how to publish a more ambitious story, in which she aimed to treat the questions of land nationalisation, labour, and 'the abolition of the hurtful systems of Profit, Usury, and Taxation'. Grey's response was encouraging – partly, no doubt, because her views on land policy were in accord with his own – and an intermittent correspondence began.

About this time, Jane Harris adopted her husband's belief in Christian spiritualism. Thomas Harris had joined a circle led by the local Presbyterian minister, the Reverend S. J. Neill. Jane initially found spirit manifestations disturbing, but two events helped to change her mind. One was the death of her infant son, Thomas, in October 1876; the other was a chance reading of an article in the Harbinger of Light, an Australian spiritualist journal. She was eventually won over by the prospect of a purposeful life after death. She became a medium for spirit messages, and began to contribute 'inspirational writing' to the Harbinger.

The philosophy of Christian spiritualism, which espoused social reform, was quite consistent with Jane Harris's political views. In her writing for the popular press she emphasised the latter, but some spiritualist ideas and phrases were in evidence. The story for which she had sought Grey's endorsement was serialised in the Thames Advertiser in early 1883; a rather contrived romantic tale, it contained long passages of political commentary and occasional references to 'angel messengers'. A more equal blend of political discussion and spiritualist doctrine was evident in her paper 'Woman's work and destiny', which she read before the Thames Mutual Improvement Association on 7 April 1884 and later published as a pamphlet. It asserted that woman's work centred on the family: here she could powerfully influence her husband and children. This conventional notion was accompanied by decidedly radical ideas: woman's destiny was to be 'the equal and co-worker with Man in the field of Progress and Reform; and the chief Architect, under God, of the beautiful Kingdom of Peace and Love.' Liberally embellished with literary and religious allusions, the paper was favourably received in Thames.

Following this success Jane Harris continued to write and lecture, but with mixed results. In 1886 she complained to Grey that she could not get newspaper work. The proceeds from her writing helped to support the family, but personal fulfilment was probably her main motivation: she claimed 'to aspire for useful work in the great field of labor.'

The need for remunerative work became urgent when, on 6 August 1887, Thomas Harris died leaving her with six young children. She attempted to run the market garden while writing at night, but declared it to be 'uphill work.' Again she appealed to Grey for practical assistance. The financial struggle was attended by further sorrow when on 29 June 1888 her youngest child, a son aged 12 months, died suddenly.

About this time the editor of the Harbinger of Light, W. H. Terry, offered Jane Harris a speaking engagement in Melbourne. At first she demurred, but her financial plight became known and funds were raised through journals to which she had contributed. With her five children she travelled first to Sydney, probably in late 1889 or early 1890. She became well-known for her 'trance lectures', avowedly given under the influence of a spirit guide, but still found it difficult to have her writing published. Editors of established journals clearly did not wish to be associated with such a controversial movement.

Jane Harris did, nevertheless, publish a volume of poems, Leaves of love, in 1890. Many of the poems dwelt on the question of death and the afterlife and some were clearly autobiographical, while others urged reform. The book was dedicated to the infant daughter of Lady Carrington, wife of the governor of New South Wales; Lady Carrington briefly took a personal interest in Jane Harris after reading her work and attempted, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her from proclaiming her spiritualist beliefs.

By June 1890 Jane Harris had moved to Melbourne. She was active in spiritualist groups, and met visiting English and American mediums. She also suffered another bereavement when her 16-year-old son, William, joined 'the risen ones' after being injured in a factory accident.

Jane Harris was back in New Zealand by early February 1896 and, billed as 'the Australian Inspirational Speaker, Mrs Harris (Jenny Wren)', delivered a short series of well-attended lectures at the Auckland Opera House. A newspaper report of her first lecture, 'After death – what then?', commented on her 'picturesque language' and concluded: 'Mrs Harris has an earnest manner, a clear ringing voice, and appears before her audience with all the fervour of an enthusiast'.

An outcome of the lecture series was the establishment in Auckland of the Society for Spiritual Progress. In the following years Jane Harris, obeying the instructions of her spirit guides, helped establish and nurture groups in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, New Plymouth, Nelson, Gisborne and Wanganui. She published a booklet of her Wellington lectures in 1897. Her Christian spiritualist beliefs were here given their fullest expression: she affirmed the centrality of Jesus Christ as 'the divinely inspired medium', and explained contact between the living and the dead as a means to spiritual understanding and progress. She again spoke out in support of political reform and the role of women as guardians of morality.

On 19 June 1900 at Christchurch Jane Harris married Charles Nathaniel Roberts; both were described as teachers. By 1905 they had moved to Auckland where Mrs Harris-Roberts, as she was now known, remained active as a spiritualist teacher long after the death of Charles Roberts in 1920. Like other women who held positions of authority in the movement in those years, she appears to have used the title 'Reverend'.

A photograph of Jane Harris taken in old age shows a neat, bespectacled woman with a serene expression. She was by then known to fellow believers as 'The Mater'. She died at Paeroa on 18 September 1942, in her 90th year.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick. 'Harris, Jane Elizabeth', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2h16/harris-jane-elizabeth (accessed 13 July 2024)