history of the harper`s mansion the harper years: 1834-1845

Who were James and Mary Harper?
James Harper was born in 1805 to William and Margaret Harper, both convicts1. James was
their only son and was baptised by the Rev. Samuel Marsden in Parramatta on 22
December 1805. He must have received an education as in the 1820s he is recorded as
being an overseer (farm manager) in the Illawarra and later for a Mr Underwood in the
Southern Highlands, a position which required a person to read, write and manage accounts.
Mary Robinson, James wife, was two years older than James and arrived in Sydney in
December 1825. She had been sentenced to death for robbery in Birmingham where she
worked as a ‘silver burnisher’. The sentence was commuted to transportation for 14 years.
It is likely that they met at Denham Court outside Campbelltown where James and possibly
Mary were working. On 14 August 1826 James Harper and Mary were married at St. Peter's
Church of England Campbelltown by the Rev. Thomas Reddall. James and Mary were to
have seven children only three of who survived to adulthood (see list below).
Coming to Berrima
In 1829, James became a constable for the District of Sutton Forest possibly based at Bong
Bong, the original township in the Southern Highlands.
Bong Bong was chosen as the district’s first settlement as the shallow water of the
Wingecarribee River at this point allowed stock and drays with an easy crossing point –
when it wasn’t in flood. By 1830 the government was looking for a better road that would
allow safer and faster access to the new settlements around Goulburn, Yass, the MurrayDarling and the new settlements of what is now Victoria. When Surveyor General Thomas
Mitchell surveyed this new line of road he selected the site of Berrima to be the district’s
centre. At Berrima the Wingecarribee River is narrow and could be spanned by a bridge
enabling traffic to move more freely. James Harper and his father probably saw acquiring
land in this new township as an opportunity to establish themselves in the district.
In October 1831, some six months after Surveyor Hoddle had completed the plan of the
town, James Harper wrote to the Colonial Secretary seeking a free grant of land in Berrima
'for the purpose of erecting a residence for my family '. He said he was a District Constable
at Sutton Forest and had £30 10s in cash. He was then 25 years old.
At the age of 40, William Harper (Harpur), was tried and found guilty of horse stealing. The crime took place in
Buckinghamshire in June 1799 and he was tried at the Old Bailey in London on September 11 the same year and
sentenced to death. His sentence was reduced to life, and he was sent to Australia aboard the convict ship Royal
Admiral which arrived in Sydney on November 20 1800. He received a conditional pardon in 1825.
Margaret Morgan arrived two years later from Dublin on the Hercules. We have no details of her crime but she
received a 7 year sentence and was granted a conditional pardon in 1809. With special permission from the
governor William and Margaret were married in St. John's Church of England Parramatta on 7 November 1803,
by the Rev. Samuel Marsden.
We know little else of their lives though William is recorded in 1822 as being a servant of a John Dickson of
Sydney and the following year was permitted to proceed with cattle through the Cowpastures and Argyle to the
country southward and westward of the Cookbundoon Range.
Margaret Harper died 7th June 1839 in Sussex Street, Sydney aged 72 years. William Harper died in 1842, aged
83, and was buried in an unmarked grave in All Saints Church, Sutton Forest.
James’ application was refused in accordance with new regulations limiting the free granting
of lands and it was not until January 1834 that James purchased 100 acres of Crown Land
for £28 15s.The sale was finalised on 27 May 1834. He is thought to have built his house
soon after this.
In the same period, James bought land in Berrima on which he built The Surveyor General
Inn, named after Thomas Mitchell. James was to be the first licensee in 1835 at which time
he resigned as District Constable. With the growth of Berrima in the 30s he should have
earned a good living. This inn still operates in the centre of Berrima village and remained in
the Harper family until 1924.
Building Harper’s Mansion
James built his house on high ground overlooking the village and though not large by today’s
standards it was far grander than other residences in the village which were mainly slab
cottages (refer to the photo of the village in the 1860s). Stories tell of the locals saying ‘there
goes Harper home to his mansion – hence its name, Harper’s Mansion. (Nice story - but the
advertisement for its sale in 1850 and earlier press references refer to it as ‘Harper’s Hill’.)
There is no doubt that James had high aspirations. His house was stylish, modelled on those
favoured by the middle-classes in Sydney. The simple rectangular house has double brick
walls on a foundation of sandstone blocks. Worked sandstone is used for the window lintels
and sills, for the door lintel, for quoins at the corners of the house and for a decorative line
above the verandah. The sandstone probably came from a quarry alongside the river and
might have been worked by convicts and the bricks are likely to have been made locally. The
front door is in the centre and the 12-pane sash cedar windows are placed symmetrically on
either side. It has a covered verandah with flagstones. Inside it was fitted out with hardwood
floors, cedar doors, windows, fireplaces and skirtings.
Meanwhile Berrima became a thriving if somewhat unsavoury village catering for travellers
of all kinds who used the Hume Highway. By 1840 there were five inns in operation with
more to come. The gaol and courthouse had also been built and, like most villages, there
was a pound for stray cattle.2 The resident population remained small: the census of 1841
showing that the town had only 250 residents living in 37 houses, many roughly built from
wood or stone. In the census James Harper is described as of Argyle Street Berrima, owning
a stone and brick house, in which were living three males and four females. At this time he
and Mary had two children, Sarah and Mary. One of the males was over 65 and may have
been James’ father (mother Margaret had died in 1839).
In June 1844, James Harper was nominated to the District Council of Berrima by two of his
fellow publicans and from this we can infer he was a man of substance and standing in the
The 1840s saw a general financial downturn and many fortunes, based on high levels of
borrowing, were lost. James also seems to have suffered financially. He sold 2 acres of his
land in 1841 and in July 1844 mortgaged the rest of his 100 acres for £200, which he
borrowed from William Hutchison, another Berrima resident. Had he lived James would
Mary’s brother Benjamin had arrived in the Colony in 1829, transported for 14 years for stealing a
coat. He became the Pound Keeper in Berrima but died by drowning in 1838.The handsome
headstone Mary had erected for him in the cemetery at All Saints, Sutton Forest, also points to the
Harper’s being financially sound.
possibly have been able to repay the loan but when he died in 1845, aged 39, Mary was
unable to meet the debt and the house went to the mortgagee,
James is buried in All Saints churchyard at Sutton Forest.
The family lived locally after the sale and retained ownership of the Surveyor General Inn.
Two years later, in 1847, Mary married James McDermott. She died in 1851, aged 48.
The Children
4 Sept
James Edmund died 4 May, 1835 – aged 4 years. The inscription on his
gravestone in the cemetery at All Saints, Sutton Forest
Sacred to the Memory of - JAMES EDMUND - Son of
JAMES and MARY HARPER - Who departed this life on
the 4th day of May 1835 - Accidentally burnt - by Fire
Aged - 3 Years and 8 Month.
5 Nov.
died 4th November, 1906. Sarah married John Atkinson on
5th November, 1849, and together they had ten children.
31 May
William James
died 27th September, 1840 – aged 4 years and 4 months
(Date ?)
died 14 December, 1846.- aged 6 years
27 Sept
Son, stillborn.
11 Dec
died 2 August, 1877. Became the licensee of The Surveyor
General and married Jane Moore in 1866. They had five
(Date ?)
Charlotte Jane
Charlotte married James Smith in 1862 and they had two
children. NB Charlotte was born after James’ death on 27