Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sugar and Natal: the Pioneers - Harrison

Guest post by Jennifer I Giles.

In 1858 Henry Pratt HARRISON (B: 1823 in England) married Emma Mariah FISHER (B 1832 in England) who was the daughter of James and Elizabeth FISHER. 
As a young man, Henry worked as an assessor in the shipping business in London. Emma and Henry lived in London before they and their son Edwin, aged 2 years, and daughter Ursula, aged 16 months, emigrated to South Africa on 3rd July 1863 on the ship Monsoon (a Barque sailing ship of 296 tons).  The sea voyage took 11 weeks with much time spent becalmed in the doldrums. At approximately 5 pm on Sunday 20th September 1863 the Monsoon safely anchored in the outer bay of Port Natal.

Henry Pratt Harrison
In Durban, Henry was originally involved with Customs and Excise and soon bought land at Avoca, about 16 km north of the port.  The land was cleared by using sharpened hoop-iron discarded from bales of goods taken off the ships at Durban docks. The bush was extremely dense and was one mass of wild vines, honeysuckle and all sorts of creepers, making progress very slow.

In approximately late 1863, Henry built the substantial seven bedroom home Rosehill on the ocean side of Avoca; it consisted of a solid brick home with verandahs on all sides and calico ceilings in the bedrooms to help to combat the heat. 

Henry planted coffee and built a coffee mill in the valley at Rosehill.  By 1870 he had 140 acres under coffee and was producing upwards of 15 tons of coffee per year.  This was soon increased to 30 tons of coffee per 100 acres; the coffee fetched £50 per ton early in the season.  He found coffee very profitable and won many awards for its quality.

Unfortunately, the coffee got blight, so Henry turned to growing sugar cane in 1876 and, in order to produce more sugar, he bought the adjacent land.

On 13th September 1898, an Agreement was drawn up between Henry Pratt Harrison (the Lessor) and his sons Henry Fisher Harrison (known as Fisher) and Robert Jameson Harrison (The Lessees) to lease the sugar estate.  The portion of the Estate not included in the lease was “the dwelling house, outbuildings and garden, the cottages in the village of Avoca and the stores on the main road at present occupied by the Indians”.

On 8th December 1898, Henry Pratt Harrison passed away at the age of 75 years at his home Rosehill.

On 17th December 1898, nine days following the death of Henry Pratt Harrison, H Fisher Harrison and his brother Robert J Harrison signed a Memorandum of Agreement, witnessed by their mother, Emma Harrison, and their sister, Ursula Harrison, to carry on business in partnership as sugar planters.  The name of the partnership was to be Harrison Brothers and was to “subsist for six years, or for twelve years in the event of the partnership carrying on the lease of Rosehill Estate for such period”.  The Agreement showed that:

“Robert Jarrold Harrison shall devote his whole time and attention to the firm’s business, and be entitled to draw a salary of £15 a month”, while “Henry Fisher Harrison shall be at liberty to devote the whole of his time to his farming or other business but if he shall give his time to the partnership business during such time, he shall be entitled to a salary from the firm of £15 a month”.

In August 1906, a township named Kensington was planned. The extent of the township was 694 acres.  However, the developers fell on hard times so the land that included Francis Hill, Wattle Field, Distillery Blackhill and Kensington Field, was sold in 1907 to Robert Harrison as he was keen to have this land that joined his sugar estate (1).

On 16th February 1909, Harrison Brothers commenced clearing bush and scrub and, on 2nd March 1909, ploughing began and was followed the next day by the planting of cane.  A large cattle kraal was built on the western face of Bell Hill that continued down to the Quarry stream.  It was necessary to have a great many oxen to pull ploughs and the wagons of cane down to the mill, so large areas were set aside for grazing.  Another large cattle kraal was started on 17th March 1909; all these large areas of grazing disappeared with the advent of tractors and lorries and they were put under cane (1).

A sugar cane mill was built across the road from the Avoca Hotel in 1877 and did very well.  The mill was closed down after the 1916 season and the cane was then sent to Natal Estates for crushing.

Fisher and Robert Harrison ran the estate, as the Harrison Brothers partnership, for their mother until she died in 1917, at which time the property was divided among the family once the estate of their mother, Emma, was finalised.  Ursula Harrison (eldest daughter) bought 10 acres including the old homestead Rosehill and Robert bought the remainder.  Robert had already built another home Sunnyside on the estate adjacent to his sister Ursula’s homestead Rosehill, where he lived with his wife Blanche (neĆ© Bishop) and ran the sugar estate. Fisher Harrison lived with his sister Ursula at her home Rosehill.

In 1920 Fisher and Robert Harrison bought 1100 acres in an insolvent estate (Durban North) which they sold only 2 years later to Durban North Estates at a considerable profit. In 1920, Robert Harrison purchased Fisher Harrison's share in Harrison Brothers partnership.  On 28th October 1920 the property was then registered by Robert Harrison as Avoca Estates.  Avoca Estates included approximately all the areas of Umtata and Torvale as far as the Indian Temple below Torvale.  The total area of Avoca Estates was, at that time, 3300 acres plus (1).

In approximately 1924, Robert decided to retire and he and Blanche bought a home on the Berea (546 Musgrave Road) and called it Avoca House.  The Avoca Estate was rented out to Mr Charlie Price who, with his wife, resided at Sunnyside. Mr Price ran the farm on his own with advice from Robert Harrison, however, Mr Price could not make a go of it so, in 1928, Robert Harrison took back the farm and hired Mr Price as his overseer/manager. 

Robert Harrison died on 30th May 1928, and Mr Price continued to run the farm for the family.  However, Blanche Harrison decided to go back to Avoca Estate, so, in 1938, she had a new home built, also called Avoca House on the hill close to the original Rosehill homestead built by Henry Pratt Harrison.

A short time later, Charlie Price died suddenly and Blanche Harrison and her eldest son, Kenneth Harrison, took over the running of the property in approximately 1946 (2).  Ken gave up his work as a lecturer at the old Natal Technical College in order to run the sugar estate.

In 1957 the Government instructed the Durban Municipality to begin developing a new housing scheme for Africans at KwaMashu (3).  Following this, a fairly large section of the Avoca Estate farm land was expropriated by the Durban Municipality in order to obtain more land on which to build the KwaMashu township (2)

The Avoca Estates land stayed in the family until 1964 when all but a mere 4 hectares surrounding Blanche Harrison's home was sold to Coronation Brick (approximately 1400 acres of land (2)) and, in turn, to Glen Anil (a Real Estate Development Company). Unfortunately, the historic coffee huller, invented by Henry Pratt Harrison 100 years before, which had stone wheels, rather than the less efficient old-fashioned wooden wheels (4), was demolished by earthmovers cutting roads for the new settlement.

At this time the original Rosehill homestead built by Henry Pratt Harrison in 1863 (143 years ago) that is adjacent to what was Blanche Harrison's residence still stands and belongs to the great-great-great granddaughter of Emma and Henry Pratt Harrison. Blanche Harrison's home on the Avoca Estate also still stands today.


1.         Harrison, Kenneth.  Diary records (undated).
2.         Bryce, John. Personal Communication, 2006.
3.         Edwards, Iain. History. Cato Manor Development Project.
4.         Osborn RF. Valiant Harvest: The founding of the South African Sugar Industry, 1848-1926, South African Sugar Association, 1964.

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