Harper, James and Mary

Full name:

Harper, James and Mary

Dates recorded for being in Berrima:

1834-1845 (wife until 1851)

Occupation if known and land ownership:

Publican and Landowner


Born in Colony (wife a Convict)

A full history of James and Mary Harper and of their home, Harper’s Mansion, is given in Ann Beaumont’s book ‘A Light in the Window’, published by the National Trust in 2013 (all references can be obtained from this publication).

James and Mary Harper were among the township’s first residents and had come to Berrima from Bong Bong, the district’s first administrative settlement, where James had been a constable since 1829.

James was born to convict parents in Parramatta in 1805 and spent his early years working for prominent settlers, work that included moving cattle into the Illawarra and south over the Cookbundoon Ranges to newly settled land south of Goulburn. He would have been very well aware of what the new township could offer him and his family.

James applied for a 100-acre land grant in Berrima in 1830, before the township had been surveyed. His application was supported by Bong Bong’s Police Magistrate who referred to James as being ‘of good character’. His application was refused possibly as legislation relative to land allocation was about to change: it was to be sold at auction rather than gifted at the discretion of the governor. Not to be deterred in 1831 James applied to purchase the same 100 acres of land this time with the support of three Bong Bong magistrates who testified he had forty horned cattle, two horses and a supply of agricultural implements. Eventually, in 1834, the purchase was approved. The cost was £28/13/0, a sum less than James’ annual salary as a constable of around £40.

At this time, he also purchased two half-acre lots in the centre of the township where he built the Surveyor General Inn. When the inn opened for business in 1835, James resigned as constable and the family moved to Berrima.

The family at this time comprised James, his wife Mary, and daughter Sarah. Mary was a convict. She had married James in 1826, just one year after arriving in the colony, found guilty of theft while working in one of Birmingham’s metal workshops and sentenced to fourteen years.

James Edward, their first son died of burns when just three years old and is buried in the churchyard at Sutton Forest.

Even before the inn was opened for business in 1834 there was a store operating on the site, rented out to Nahum Simon, who had arrived as a free settler in 1833. It is possible that James never saw himself as an inn-keeper recognising only the ownership of an inn, and the adjacent store, as a source of income. The two had a capacity to realise a considerable rental income, the inn licence alone worth around £200 per year. Initially he did operate the inn and soon paid back the £150 he had borrowed from their neighbour and inn-keeper at Bong Bong, Richard Loseby. But from 1839 onwards he rented the premises out, first to a consortium of coach operators (Ireland, Titterton and Morris) with Ann Richards as licensee. Ralph Hush took over in 1841 and William Taylor in 1842 and 1843. James operated it as licensee again in 1844 until his death a year later.

A few years after their inn was opened he built a splendid Georgian style house on his 100 acres, a property now known as Harper’s Mansion and owned by the National Trust.

A description of Harper’s Mansion is given in an advertisement for the lease of the property in 1840 reads:


To Let, for a term of years, a substantial new two story brick built House, with Stone Quoins, containing eleven rooms, with a detached kitchen and store complete, brick-built and other necessary out-buildings, with one acre and a half of good garden ground enclosed, and a well of never falling good water; it is unnecessary for the Proprietor to say more than that no expense has been spared to make this a first rate house, and its situation on inspection will speak for itself It is the opinion of several respectable persons that this would be a most desirable spot for a first-rate boarding school, so much wanted in this part of the country. Applications to be made to the Proprietor, if by letter post-paid.

JAMES HARPER     Berrima, May 28, 1840.

While it is certainly not a ‘mansion’ by today’s standards it is, as the advertisement says, a ‘first rate’ house, well-built and by far the best in Berrima at that period. Whether James and Mary intended to live in it or, as the advertisement suggests, intended it to be rented out as a source of income is not known. But we do know the family were living there in 1841 and Mary stayed there, after James’ death, until 1846.

The land around the house provided more income. In 1839, as the colony was moving into a period of drought and the operators of the coaching company, John Ireland, Isaac Titterton and Charles Morris required well-watered pasture for their horses. James leased them 40 acres of his land, including permission for them to build a blacksmith’s shop. This rental was for 3 years and worth £200 a year.

The picture is one of a young couple making the most of the economic boom times of the 1830s to invest and secure an income.

They were less fortunate in their family life. Their first child, Edward James, had died aged only three, a second son died in 1836 aged four and a daughter was to die in 1846 aged only eight. Mary also gave birth to a stillborn child in 1840. Their eldest daughter, Sarah, was born in 1834 and married on her 16th birthday, having nine of her own children and living in Goulburn to the age of 77. Their son John, born in 1842, eventually taking over the management of the Surveyor General Inn and daughter Charlotte, born in 1845, married a John Smith and moved to Wagga Wagga.

Another family tragedy was the death of Benjamin Robinson, Mary’s brother. He had arrived as a convict, three years after Mary in 1829, and by 1836 was in Berrima as a constable and then as poundkeeper, the pound situated adjacent to the Harper’s 100 acres. When Benjamin married in 1837 James Harper provided him with a cottage to live in. But on New Year’s Eve 1838 Benjamin drowned. He is remembered by a well-crafted headstone in All Saints Cemetery Sutton Forest erected by Mary to mark the ‘affection and respect’ she had for him.

The family’s standing in the community was good. James was elected to the local council by his peers in 1844 and was involved in organising the Berrima races. And, perhaps an indication of needing to keep up that standing, is that on the 1841 Census Mary is recorded as free when she was technically still a convict – though it could simply be a clerical error.

Things seem to have changed for the Harper’s in the 1840s as it did for many in New South Wales, as a long period of draught lead into a depression. Despite the several rents they were receiving James and Mary mortgaged Harper’s Mansion in July 1844 for £200, both their names on the mortgage document. What this money was to be used for is unknown. Though James had hoped to purchase land adjacent to Harper’s Mansion in the previous year it had not gone ahead. Were they trying to improve their lifestyle, capitalise on the market downturn or pay off debts?

Whichever, it was all to end when James died suddenly at the age of 39 in January 1845. The coroner’s report states he died of natural causes but was intemperate at the time. Strangely, considering their standing in the community, there is no mention of his death in the press. James is buried in All Saints cemetery at Sutton Forest.

Their last child, Charlotte, was born after James’ death and Mary remained in Harper’s Mansion for the next year until the mortgage was due to be redeemed. She then moved her family to the Surveyor General Inn and in 1847 married James McDermott, an ex-convict who had arrived in the colony soon after Mary in 1827. Unfortunately they only had a short time together, McDermott dying in 1850 aged 50 and Mary in 1851, aged 48.

The Surveyor General Inn remained in the Harper family until sold in the 1920s and several members of the family still reside in the district, but James’ death coincided with the end of Berrima’s glory days.

NB James’ father, William was probably living with the family at the time of the 1841 Census and has been mentioned in as separate entry on this website.