20 November 2009

Fortescue William Harris 1821-1853

Today’s photograph is unusual in that it is a photo taken from a watercolour miniature painting. Most probably taken to commemorate Captain Fortescue William Harris after his disappearance at sea in 1853.

fortesque2 fortescue-back 

  • Subject: Fortescue William Harris
  • Date: Unknown
  • Photographer: Tayler & Sainsbury, 158 Strand, London
  • Found: UK

Royal Geographic Society of London
Vol 1, Sessions 1855-6 and 1856-7, Nos. I to XI.

Harris, Captain Fortescue William, was born in 1821, educated at the Royal Naval School, and afterwards entered the merchant service. After many voyages to China, the East and West Indies, he was appointed to the command of the ' Madagascar' in 1852; went to Calcutta and back, and sailed on the 6th of March, 1853, for Melbourne, Victoria. He left Melbourne homewardbound on the 12th of August the same year, since which time nothing has been heard of the crew or ship, which is supposed to have foundered while coming round Cape Horn.

madagascar_ship                                                          © www.maritime-connector.com

The Madagascar's Final Voyage

The Madagascar was a large British merchant ship built for the trade to India and China in 1837, which went missing on a voyage from Melbourne to London in 1853. The disappearance of the Madagascar was one of the great maritime mysteries of the 19th century and was probably the subject of more speculation than any other 19th century disappearance except for the Mary Celeste.

As a result of the Victorian Gold Rush the Madagascar was sent to Melbourne with emigrants under the command of Captain Fortescue William Harris. She left Plymouth on 11 March 1853 and, after an uneventful passage of 87 days, reached Melbourne on 10 June. Fourteen of her 60 crew jumped ship for the diggings, and it is believed only about three replacements were signed on. She then loaded a cargo that included wool, rice and about two tonnes of gold valued at £240,000, and took on board about 110 passengers for London.

On Wednesday 10 August, just as she was preparing to sail, police went on board and arrested a bushranger John Francis who was later found to have been one of those responsible for robbing the Melbourne Private Escort between the McIvor goldfield (Heathcote, Victoria) and Kyneton on 20 July. On the following day two others were arrested, one on board the ship and the other as he was preparing to board. As a result of these arrests the Madagascar did not leave Melbourne until Friday 12 August 1853 and after leaving Port Phillip Heads she was never seen again.

When the ship became overdue many theories were floated, including spontaneous combustion of the wool cargo, hitting an iceberg and, most controversially, being seized by criminal elements of the passengers and/or crew and scuttled after the gold was stolen and the remaining passengers and crew were murdered.

Apart from the small amount of information in the above articles nothing much seems to be known about Captain Fortescue William Harris, Google for a change is sadly lacking. I had no luck finding a baptism on the IGI but I did have a breakthrough with a marriage:-


27 May 1841 at the St Pancras Parish Church, Middlesex
Fortescue William Harris & Frances Margaret Sharpe Harvey, both full age, bach & spin, seaman. Fathers/Wm Clarke Harris, R.N. and W B B B Harvey, D..y?

Interesting to see the little note written on the side – No fees paid, poor & without money.

10 days later the 1841 census was taken – have you ever tried to find anyone with the name of Harris living in London in 1841? There was not one with the first name of Fortescue (or Fortesque) but 543 of them named William,  and that was just the ones born about 1820! So then I tried Frances, only 28 of them! After scrolling through all the ones living in London I found this entry that I think could be them.

Source Citation: Class: HO107; Piece 701; Book: 11; Civil Parish: St Anne Limehouse; County: Middlesex; Enumeration District: 20; Folio: 11; Page: 16; Line: 13; GSU roll: 438814.


William & Frances are living in the same house as a Master Mariner and at such a young age this could suggest it was when, or soon after, he was being educated at the Royal Naval School. He says he wasn’t born in Middlesex and Frances is from Scotland which is exactly where Frances Margaret Sharpe Harvey was born:-


Frances Margaret born 27 Sep 1818, daughter of William Harvey of Dublin and Margaret Sharpe spinster daughter of Francis Sharpe Comptroller of Leith. The births of four other children were noted on the same day in March 1819.


William Hervey Esqr of Dublin and Margaret Sharp resident in Leith and daughter of Francis Sharp Esqr Compt. of Customs there, after proclamation of banns were married 4 April 1810.

I’ve been unable to find anything further on either Fortescue or Frances after 1841, no sign of them in 1851, no further marriage for Frances or a death that I can say for sure is her.

I found a marriage for a William Clarke Harris, to Mary Legg on 13 Jan 1814 at St Martin in the Fields, Westminster, plus a son born in 1826 in Gillingham, Kent, but nothing for Fortescue or his sister:-


I also found a couple of little snippets about William Clarke Harris (the father) in the Royal Navy but that’s where it all came to a halt:-

"A list of the flag officers and other commissioned officers of His Majesty's fleet; with the dates of their respective commissions"
William Clarke Harris 18 April 1811

The Navy List, by Great Britain Admiralty
Officers on the Out-Pensions of Greenwich Hospital
William Clarke Harris 28 Sep 1816

Google Books
Medway CityArk


If anyone knows anything about or is connected to the Harris family please do contact me, I would love to pass this photo onto a family member. Contact by email is preferable but if you are going to leave a comment please don’t forget to include your email address.

All the information I’ve found on this family may also be seen on the next update at WorldConnect here.

Dawn Scotting

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