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The life of Oxford Prison Governor Daniel Harris
By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

Insulting caricature of Daniel Harris
The only surviving picture of Harris is this insulting caricature made after an argument over the position of a prison dunghill

At the end of the 18th century, Oxford experienced changes which were unprecedented in a city accustomed to centuries of academic seclusion.

A new county prison began construction, heralding a more enlightened attitude to the treatment of prisoners.

The Oxford Canal was completed, providing the city with a reliable supply of coal and manufactured goods.

As a result work began on making the River Thames more easily navigable to London.

One man stands out during this period of change and innovation, playing a key role in all three of these major capital projects - and much more besides.

Daniel Harris (c. 1760-1840) was the governor of the county prison at Oxford Castle from 1786 to 1809.

Even without the wholesale physical reconstruction which took place over this period, that would have been a role of quite sufficient responsibility for many men, but Harris was blessed with a range of talents and interests which enabled him to exert an influence well beyond the confines of the prison walls.

It is not clear where Harris was born, but it was not Oxford, nor apparently was he well educated, having found employment merely as a journeyman carpenter (skilled occupation though that was) when he first came to the city.

In 1785, when the castle prison site was purchased from Christ Church, the Oxfordshire magistrates appointed Harris as Clerk of Works. It was a role in which he excelled, being promoted to Governor of the prison the following year.

The prison population in Oxford was unusually large, a situation caused as a direct result of the American War of Independence.

However, it was an appointment which bordered on farce. The incumbent jailer, the splendidly (if ill-advisedly) named Solomon Wisdom, fell out with Harris over where to position the prison's dunghill, to such an extent that he pressurised a prisoner to draw an insulting caricature of Harris, in order to cause him public embarrassment.

It was Wisdom who was embarrassed, however, when the magistrates sacked him for his offence and promoted Harris in his place.

Farcical though this episode might have been, it did, rather strangely, provide the only known image of this remarkable man, as the scurrilous picture of Harris, entitled 'Daniel Damnable Surveying the Dunghill', still survives in the Oxfordshire County Record Office at Cowley.

Despite the risible start, it proved a sensationally good appointment. This was a time when the prison population in Oxford was unusually large, a situation caused not by any particular peak of lawlessness, but as a direct result of the American War of Independence.
Prisons of the period were essentially places where people were held pending trial, not where the punishment itself was exacted.

For serious crimes, transportation was the most common penalty, and the outbreak of hostilities in America in 1775 put an end to the regular exodus of Oxfordshire men and women.

Oxford Prison
Oxford Prison was in need of reform back in Daniel Harris' day

The obvious solution was to put this large prison population to work locally, and Daniel Harris was the perfect person to do so. His enthusiasm for construction projects of all kinds was probably the salvation of many of these prisoners.

As well as supervising the construction work at the prison, his ability to provide an all-in service of design, creation, and labour made him much in demand from other authorities with construction needs in the Oxford area.

These were principally the Oxford Canal Company, whose original nearby terminus (today's Worcester Street car park) was completed by 1789, and the Commissioners of the Thames Navigation, who authorised considerable improvements on the river up- and downstream of Oxford from 1788 on.

Rather than transport prisoners overseas, these labour-intensive projects provided every reason to keep them in Oxford, where many went on to learn new skills while serving their sentences and earning quick-release.

During the reconstruction of the prison, some chance discoveries opened another avenue for Harris' multiple talents: archaeology.

Harris ensured that the excavations, which revealed elements the Saxon and Norman periods, were done with care and consideration.

But he also utilised another of his talents, as a draughtsman, to provide important visual records of his discoveries, preserved in a 1795 publication called Vestiges of Oxford Castle.

Indeed Harris' artistic talents were already apparent, as he had somehow found the time to provide the illustrations for the prestigious annual University Almanacs between 1789 and 1792.

At the same time as being involved in these many and varied activities, Harris also raised a family. He married in 1789 Susannah Tomkins, the daughter of a well-known Oxford grocer.

An Oxford outsider himself, the marriage linked Harris with a highly respectable family, which had had a presence in St. Michaels Parish since at least the 17th century.

Little is known about Susannah, though she did unwittingly feature in the diary of the Oxford scholar Parson James Woodforde (1740-1803), who happened in 1775 to take the Bath coach in the company of 'a Mrs Tompkins wife of the grocer in the Corn-market, Oxford, and her ... very pretty little girl about 11 years old'.

Daniel and Susannah Harris had four daughters, two of whom married. Mary Harris (1797 - 1889) married John Barnard from Sawbridgeworth (in Hertfordshire) in 1827, and Harris' youngest daughter, Elizabeth (1801 - 1829), married Thomas Dilly, who himself became governor of the county prison in 1823.

So Daniel Harris, it will be appreciated, was not your average prison governor - indeed he was so far from average that the county magistrates found it difficult to retain his services.

In 1809, even though his salary had been doubled to a massive £200 the previous year, he resigned to pursue with commercial success what was evidently his real passion of architectural design, elements of which can still be discerned amongst the buildings of the city.

Daniel Harris - builder, engineer, artist, prison governor, and architect - died at his home in New Road, a stone's throw from the prison to which he had contributed so much, in June 1840.

A man whose great contribution to Oxford has been largely overlooked, he lies with some of his family in a dilapidated grave in Osney cemetery.

Mark Davies is a local historian, writer, publisher, walks' guide and speaker on various aspects of non-University Oxford.

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