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Bonzer Words!: Anne (Dowd) Harrison

"On the banks of Melbourne’s Maribyrnong River is a little rotunda. It sits comfortably under the branches of overhanging trees and looks out over the river once known as the Salt Water River. Set into the floor of the rotunda is a plaque that reads “Dedicated to Pioneer Irish Women who operated punts, hotels and farms from the 1840’s along the Salt Water River”. Around the dedication are the names of six women, one of them is Anne (Dowd) Harrison,'' writes Paula Wilson.

Anne was born in Queens County, Ireland in 1818. When she was about twenty-seven she married Thomas Dowd. Their first son John was born the year of the Irish potato famine, 1847. Potatoes were the staple diet of the Irish, and almost the entire potato crop was destroyed. As a result two million people either died of starvation or emigrated, many to Australia.

Anne and her family followed her brother and sister who had left for Australia a decade earlier. Anne was pregnant when she boarded the Una for the four-month voyage, and her daughter, Margaret Una, was born somewhere at sea.

The Una docked in Sydney but Anne, Thomas, and their two children continued on to Melbourne. By 1851 they were living by the Salt Water River and had taken over the running of Lynch’s punt and the Punt Inn from Anne’s sister. Lynch’s punt was one of the major crossing points connecting Melbourne to the Western plains. It was a very lucrative business and, along with the income from the inn, Anne and Thomas started to accumulate some savings. They invested this money in Crown Land in the Footscray area.

But financial security does not always bring happiness. For Anne it brought heartache as she watched her husband and two-year-old son, Michael, die within six months of each other. Anne is thought to have had five children with Thomas. One died in Ireland, and a second daughter was born after Thomas’ death.

Anne was an astute businesswoman who continued to lease and purchase land in and around Footscray. She built a two-story, bluestone house in Footscray, which was sold upon completion and converted into the Junction Hotel.

By the time she married Cuthbert Harrison in 1854 she had acquired considerable holdings in the area and was a reasonably wealthy woman. But on the day she married, under the law of that time, all she owned transferred to her new husband.

Cuthbert was ten years younger than Anne, and an Englishman. An unlikely mix, but loneliness and Cuthbert being a Catholic would probably have softened any prejudices she had. Together they had six children, three of whom died as babies.

Anne and Cuthbert remained in the hotel business, but unknown to Anne, Cuthbert was selling off the land she had acquired. Legally he could dispose of it any way he wished. He did not need Anne’s signature, and even if she had known what he was doing, she would have had no say. It was not until he died of consumption in 1883 that Anne discovered all the land she had purchased had been sold. The security she had worked so hard for was gone. When she had married Cuthbert she was quite a wealthy woman, upon his death she had virtually nothing.

In 1887 Anne’s daughter, Margaret, died and Anne’s world fell apart. The next five years she spent in and out of jail. The first time was for unruly behavior and having no lawful means of support, she spent six months in a Melbourne jail. Not long after walking free she was arrested for a second time and found herself incarcerated for two months.

At the age of seventy-four she was jailed once again, for disorderly conduct and having no means of support. This third sentence was for one year, and after a stint in Melbourne Anne was transferred to Geelong jail where she died on 29 July 1892; the cause of death was recorded as “dysentery and debility”.

Anne (Dowd) Harrison was buried in an unmarked, communal prisoners’ grave at Eastern Cemetery Geelong. There is no gravestone marking her last resting-place, but her life is commemorated on that plaque in the little rotunda not far from where she spent most of her life operating punts and pubs.

© Paula Wilson

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Paula writes for Bonzer magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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