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Francis David Harrison, take 2: Criminal lawbreaker or innocent sufferer of mid-life crisis?

Mélanie Méthot

If you are one of our regular readers, you will remember that while discussing the gems historians find in bigamy case files, Rebekah introduced you to Private Francis David Harrison (The-abcs-of-bigamy-case-files). The much-married man eventually pled guilty to a charge of bigamy. Judge Hodge would sentence him to only one month of hard labour, which is a decidedly short term compared to other Victorian male bigamists.. What made the learned judge lean toward leniency?

Let’s try to determine what factors played a role in Harrison receiving such a light sentence.


The story begins in June of 1893 after the publication of proper banns, when the twenty-two-year-old David Harrison married his first wife, twenty-three-year-old Clara Cooper. Before emigrating to South Australia from England, Clara gave birth to 4 children. Frank (the name he would use in Australia), a very pregnant Clara, and two of their three surviving children arrived in Adelaide in August 1899. Clara gave birth to Hilda shortly after, and subsequently, to five more children! In 1913, her husband, an enameler who had occupied a good position at Simpsons and Sons (a reputable local firm) for the previous 12 years, abandoned his now very large family and went to work in Geelong. These facts were revealed in the spouses’ respective court submissions. At this time the oldest children were 17 and 15, and the family included another five surviving children of school age. Some two years later, on the first of July 1915, Clara filed a warrant charging Frank for having deserted her and the children.

More than likely, Frank had ceased providing for his wife and children by August 1914 when he joined the Australian armed forces and boldly put as his next of kin a certain “Mrs Ida Harrison”. At that point, he wasn’t “married” to the mysterious Ida. Research and historical documentation reveal that a form of marriage later took place, occurring one October afternoon only a few hours before he left for war. After 12 months of fighting, wounded and weakened by pneumonia, he returned to his new young “wife”.

The warrant for his arrest hanging over his head and awaiting his return, Frank made the journey to Adelaide. Clara testified that he was eager to settle out of court the maintenance order. The Judge ordered him to pay his wife 20 shillings every Tuesday. The archival bigamy file contains the transcripts of eight short notes from Frank to the officer of the State Children’s Department. Frank diligently made payments for about four months.

In what seems to be his last note, Frank asked the officer not to send a receipt because he was planning to move and he did not yet know his new address. At first glance, knowing that Frank had deceived the young Ida pretending to be a bachelor, our informed minds might find that rather suspicious. Was he trying to conceal from her that he was already married? Was Ida an innocent victim? Those who harbour ill feeling towards Frank may be tempted to interpret as such his request. It is only when one takes the eight notes as a whole that a different pattern emerges. Frank wrote in one of his earlier notes: “Trusting you received the last amount”, underlining “of which I got no acknowledgement. In the payment that followed, he apologised for being a day late, giving as an excuse “military pay [is] not always up to date”. The deal he had negotiated for the maintenance order stated that if he did not pay, he would serve 14 days in prison. Frank could have feared not only the possibility of prison time, but even more likely the more serious bigamy charge.

After his announced move, it appears that Clara did not receive any further maintenance payments. She may have informed authorities that her husband had committed bigamy with a woman in Victoria. It is also possible that the detective in charge of finding Frank did a bit of digging and found that the soldier had put on his enlistment papers Mrs Ida Harrison as his next of kin, also providing easy access to her address. In June 1916, Detective Rohan of the Melbourne police charged Frank with feloniously and unlawfully marrying Ida Bertha Buchanan.


The documents in the file reveal competing narratives. On the one hand, Clara deposed that her husband had left on good terms: “He kissing me and the children and wishing us all good bye.” Even when he came down for the maintenance order in October 1915, she testified that he spent the night at her home, but specified that he slept on the couch. She also swore that when he parted after the court order, he assured her: “I have still a place in my heart for you; I got in a bit of trouble with a young girl and I had to go through a form of marriage with her to save her name.” If it is true that he said that, what form the “trouble” took is unclear as there is no civil record of a child with Frank as the father and Ida as the mother. Clara added that Frank had urged her to lie if someone asked about her legal status. She supposedly replied: “I would not say that I was not his wife whatever the circumstances.” Her testimony provides a valid explanation as to why a Melbourne Detective charged Frank with bigamy.

I need to include one more detail from her testimony as it partly explains the lenient sentence her husband received. Cross-examined, Clara declared that: “four of the seven children [living] with me are able to support themselves and help me as well.” Frank was not leaving her entirely destitute.

On the other hand, in light of the fact that she was left alone with a large young brood, it took considerable gall for Frank to paint his wife as such a questionable character, who had a vile temper, drank to excess, and had friends with loose morals: “She is lazy, filthy dirty & take intoxicants & consorts with people of the same class,” insinuating that he was not only of a different class, but of superior morals.

He explained that already back in England, it was a terrible relationship and that his friends had encouraged him to leave for America without her. But the supposedly noble Frank did not think it was proper to leave her behind, instead making her promise to be better, and to start anew in Australia. According to him, things got worse. “She would let the children romp about the house and break up furniture, destroy valuable chemicals and books.” Frank complained that when he tried “to correct them, she would use it as a lever to cause the children to dislike me.” The rest of his 9-page letter further delves into how he always provided for his family according to his means. We also learn that his attempt at starting his own business failed just as the war broke out. He decided to enlist. The last part of his letter stresses the sacrifices he made for the country and how he sincerely loved young Ida.


Indeed, competing narratives! Others also testified as to Frank’s goodness; including, for one, the young woman whom he deceived. Ida stated that his conduct towards her was always gentlemanly. He was a hard-working man. When asked what Frank had said when he left for Adelaide under a warrant, she replied that he told her he had to pay a pound a week for the maintenance of two children, leaving out the part about being legally married to Clara, so Ida “forgave him” the fact that he had "two" children.

The press made a point of reporting Ida’s testimony. The Geelong Advertiser quoted her: “On his return we lived together as husband and wife. There is not a better man in the world.” Other accounts stressed how Frank married young Ida to take care of her, insinuating that he did not even consummate the marriage before he left (having married a mere two hours before leaving for the front). They mentioned his kindness, his sacrifice (wounded) and simply concluded with: “He had not had the moral courage to do the ‘right thing’”, though they did not specify what exactly was the right thing to do.

The Truth, which had been less supportive than other papers towards the soldier, identified Ida as the victim: “Wronged Woman Pleads for Him.” The article reveals how the reporter perceived women: “The spectacle of a woman forgetful of her own wrong and concerned only in securing the lenient treatment of the wrong-doer against whom she might reasonably be expected to entertain embittered feelings is not unfamiliar in the courts.” The reporter quoted young Ida putting in brackets her manners "(Hysterically) 'He was always kind to me, very, very kind.' ... (Beseechingly) Oh, be merciful to him. He has not harmed me so much as he has hurt himself.”


Judge Hodge identified only one victim, the illegitimate wife, and apparently from her own account, she was not even a victim. The legitimate wife had nothing to gain from her husband being in prison since it meant he would be even less in a position to provide for her and the children.

As a wounded soldier, one who had sacrificed so much, it was also hard to punish with a harsh sentence. The reporters, although they mentioned the naivety of the victim, did not feel Frank would take advantage of other young women. Also important, before he fell for the young lady, Frank did provide for his wife and children. Apparently, the middle-aged man knew and understood that he was responsible for his wife and children. For these reasons, Frank received a mere one-month prison sentence, which he likely did not serve, there being no records of him in prison registries.

Might it, however, also be that the judge and newspaper reporters, being male, overly empathised with the scoundrel Frank and did not appreciate the difficulty of being a woman abandoned with a large family?


If the documents included in case files allow an historian to penetrate the world of bigamists and their victims, the absence of certain listed exhibits prompts one to imagine possible scenarios. For example, why did authorities return Frank’s picture to Clara? Perhaps she reclaimed the portrait of her husband for their offspring to have a memento of their father? Or did she want it back for herself? Was she forgiving of his “midlife crisis”? Frank was after all the father of her children. She had accompanied him across oceans, giving birth to another 6 children while in Adelaide.

Clara was apparently well loved to the end of her days. When she passed away in 1935, “her sons and daughters” thanked “all kind friends and relatives for their kindness and floral tributes, cards and expression of sympathy in their bereavement.”


PROV, 30-P0-1770, “Francis David Harrison”, 1916.

Bigamy”, Geelong Advertiser, June 23, 1916.

“Alleged Bigamy: Father Of Ten in a Pickle”, Truth, June 24, 1916.

"Family Notices", The Advertiser, July 13, 1935.

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