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Founder of a Tasmanian newspaper dynasty, Robert Harris (1829-1904), was in an orphanage as a child.

Robert Harris was born to Elizabeth Harris who was convicted of theft in the Old Bailey in October 1830 and transported to Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land). Elizabeth left a child behind in London, bringing only Robert with her on the convict ship, SS America. They arrived in Tasmania in May 1831, four months after they left England.

Two-year-old Robert was admitted to the Orphan School in September 1832. The Orphan School was set up in New Town in 1828 to provide an education for the children of convict women as well as “the children of the unemployed, destitute, or those that the authorities perceived to be leading immoral lives” (Pearce) including some Aboriginal children.

Elizabeth married in 1837, but Robert was not released to her until he was almost twelve years old. He then travelled to Launceston, 197 km north of New Town, to join his mother and her husband, John Day. John Day worked for printer and publisher, Henry Dowling (1810-1885) and, helped by Day, Robert was apprenticed to Dowling when he was sixteen.

Henry Dowling migrated from England in 1830 and quickly went to Launceston where he was employed at The Hobart Town Courier (which became The Courier in 1840). By 1834, Dowling had opened a stationery warehouse and a bank, and was printing and publishing books, newspapers and periodicals. He went on to become Mayor of Launceston (1857-1861), a Member of Parliament (1861-1862) and secretary for the Launceston & Western Railway Company, a private company which operated a railway between Hobart and Launceston from 1872 until its purchase by the Tasmanian Government in 1890.

At the age of thirty-four, Robert Harris set up his own printing and publishing business. He started a newspaper, the Auction-Mart Advertiser in January 1863 and renamed it the Launceston Times eighteen months later. He then took over the Cornwall Chronicle (published by William Lushington Goodwin from 1835) which he subsequently incorporated into the Launceston Times.

Robert Harris relocated to Victoria and in September 1875 he established the Colac Times in the small town of Colac, approximately 150 km south-west of Melbourne.

Three years later, Harris moved to Wellington, New Zealand where he worked as a printer for the New Zealand News, followed by employment with the Melbourne Argus after his return to Victoria in 1881.

Prompted by a mining boom, Robert Harris encouraged his sons to set up a newspaper, the Wellington Times—which came out twice a week—in 1883 in the port city of Burnie, approximately 325 km northwest of Hobart. The Wellington Times became the Emu Bay Times in 1897 and was run by Charles Harris (1864-1913) who had experience as a journalist and newspaper manager in mainland cities.

In 1894 the family business, Harris and Company, was incorporated with Charles at the helm, but with Robert and another son also involved. The Harris Company launched the North Western Advocate in 1899 in Devonport, 47 km west of Burnie. The North Western Advocate merged with the Emu Bay Times at the end of the year. Robert Harris continued to be involved with the North Western Advocate until his death in 1904.

The North Western Advocate became The Advocate in 1918 with three of Charles’ sons running it until 1963 and grandsons after that.

Harris and Company jointly acquired the Launceston Examiner in 1990 but was taken over by Rural Press at the end of 2003. Rural Press was incorporated into Fairfax Media during 2007.

A descendant of Robert Harris, Julie Vaszocz, has written on the Friends of the Orphan School Website:

How amazing that Orphan No. 2400 at the Queen’s Orphan School founded one of the most nationally awarded regional daily newspapers in Australia, which remained in the Harris family for 113 years.


Eaves, Rick. “Convict Robert Harris’s remarkable life story, from orphaned illiterate to newspaper owner.” ABC News, 10 September 2020.

 Ferrall, R. “Harris, Leonard Burnie (Len) (1890-1964).” Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Kirkpatrick, Rod. “Harris Family.” Austlit, 2014.

Mead, Isabella. “Dowling, Henry (1810-1885).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1966.

Pearce, Kim. “The Orphan Schools.” Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Blog, Libraries Tasmania, (2019).

Powell, Meg. “The Advocate: How an uneducated convict’s son started 130 years of news on the Coast.” The Advocate, 30 September 2020.

Snowden, Dianne. Voices From the Orphan Schools: the Children’s Stories. Self-published.

Vaszocz, Julie. “2400 Robert Harris.” Friends of the Orphan Schools.

Image available here.