Thomas Sydney Harrison,  1884-1917

a record of my great uncle's life


Thomas (left), born 14 July 1884 in Walton on Thames Surrey, was one of four sons and a daughter of John and Louisa Jane Harrison. Louisa Jane was born in Kensall Green, London, and was the daughter of a gardener, George Chaney. John Harrison, who died in the year of Tom's birth, was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He came from a long line of Yorkshire farmers, the first of whom of which we have a record was a Thomas Harrison who died in Wheldrake in 1614,  described in records as a yeoman.  John Harrison set up business in London and later moved to Walton on Thames Surrey, where he built several houses. He was, in turn, craftsman, property developer, builder and wine & spirits retailer.

 Early life

Following time at a private school, Tom started his secondary education (along with his brother Henry Sherwood) at Tiffin School, Kingston on Thames at the age of 13, where he moved through classes IIIa, IVa and VIb, leaving the school at the age of 15. (It was not uncommon at that time for boys to leave school at that age). The 1901 census tells us that, at the age of 16, Tom was apprenticed to an organ builder. (From another source we know that lasted three years.) Other than that we know little about Tom's early life, although he was described in the Australian Roll of Honour (see below) as a builder, and in the same document his address is given as Sherwood Lodge, Sidney Road, Walton on Thames. Sherwood Lodge (now destroyed) was a substantial Edwardian house, and photographs of the interior reveal a family with all the resources needed for a well-furnished comfortable home. There are several photographs of him taken when he was in his late 20s where he sports a flashy moustache. We know that he was a keen cyclist, for we have three medallions awarded by his Walton on Thames cycling club in 1911-1912. There are manyl photographs of Tom with family and friends, and there also exists a large collection of postcards and photographs he sent home from various parts of the world over a long time-span, although no letters survive. Because John Harrison had been a builder and had run a carpentry & joinery business, it is likely he acquired his carpentry skills from his father.

 To southern Africa 

Thomas went to southern Africa in 1905, aged 21, where he farmed in Rhodesia and travelled to South Africa. He joined the Western Rifles, a battalion of the Kings African Rifles, remaining in the force for twelve months. We have a personal Christmas card, he had specially made, sent from the Dew Drop Inn, Potchefstroom, Transvaal in 1907 in which he quotes Goethe: Accept the pledge we tender here and With Hearty Greetings for a right Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year from Tom Harrison. This was his known address until 1909 when he returned to England. In 1910 he wrote ".....going harvesting to get my hand in" and said he was awaiting news of "what boat I am to sail on". Much of the family background is connected with agricultural machinery, and these words may be allied to that. In that year he was arranging a voyage to Australia. "I have sent to Australia for ticket", he wrote in July 1910. It looks as though Tom briefly returned to Walton on Thames during 1909 and later in 1910.

 To Australia: army volunteer

It is likely that Tom arrived in Australia in 1910 aged 26. Hr based himself in Geelong, where he said he attended the town's Methodist church "regularly". He was also an enthusiastic photographer - he won a wood/silver shield during 1913 and 1914 from Gordon College Photographic Association - described as a prominent member - in Geelong when he was aged 29, and used his camera extensively both at home and abroad. One of Thomas's friends in Geelong was a Horace Leslie S Potter, who owned a photography store in the town. There is a photo of the interior of Potter's shop at 89 Ryrie Street sent to Tom by Potter. Tom's girlfriend was named Rene and the photograph below shows him with Rene in Barron Heads, near Geelong, where he was a member of the golf club. He has captioned the photo "Christmas 1914". The Great War had broken out, and Tom volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force: he joined on 18 January 1915. He would have seen little of Rene after the photo was taken. In his Attestation Paper he declares his occupation as a carpenter, his army service in Africa and the fact that he had completed a 3-year apprenticeship.

Tom trained at Broadmeadows Camp near Melbourne. We have his campaign medal (below), the 1914-15 Star, engraved 862 (the medal number?) Pte TS Harrison 21 Battalion AIF. An undated silk bookmark has him designated as 4414 Sapper TS Harrison, 6th Field Company, Australian Engineers, of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)..

 To Egypt and the Dardanelles 

Tom sailed to Egypt 10th May 1915 on a ship called Ulysses, joining a force of thousands of other Australian volunteers. He wrote home from there as Private TS Harrison, No 1 Section, 8th Field Company Engineers AIF, and later from D Company, 21st Battalion, 6th Infantry Brigade AIF. In a postcard from the latter address he says " looks as though we will be well looked after while training for the Dardanelles". He visited the pyramids and the Sphinx. He said hieroglyphics were "a dry sort of study", he preferred walking in the old bazaars, and enjoyed his visit to the Sultan's Mosque, but he was lonely. Indeed, loneliness is a recurring theme in the postcards. By September 1915 he was in Gallipoli. We have photos that he identified as from Lemnos, where he rested,  and from Ismalia where he said the place was pretty, "we are 12 miles from the front line where our boys are". 

France - the fight to break through the Hindenburg Line 

Following the evacuation from Gallipoli, Tom arrived back in Egypt in January 1916, and in June he embarked for France, disembarking at Marseilles. We have a number of undated postcards that Tom sent home from France. On 19 July 1916 Tom was wounded.  In a card from a hospital he said "I was waiting in the support trenches (at the Somme) just before we went over the parapets after the batty Huns and I got this little wound". While recovering he had to go on guard duty and said this bored him, and he was "looking forward to returning to the Company". In one post card from France he complains that he had not been paid and had 10 owing, and another card carries a picture taken in Morluges of "my first billet" During September he was in Etaples and in February 1917 Tom was transferred to the 6th Field Company in Belgium.

 Tom wrote home "I hope the family will not find too great a change in me when I return on leave". He said he liked to receive (the magazine) John Bull. Tom was granted leave for Christmas 1916 - the middle photo was taken then.

The picture left above shows Tom at home on leave for the first time in seven years. Back in France he was promoted to Lance Corporal on 23rd February. He was killed in action on 6th May 1917 at the early age of 33 during a severe battle at Bullecourt, the last big offensive, while the Australian Army was trying to break the well-defended Hindenburg  Line. The letter below, written in pencil on thin paper, was sent to Tom's brother William from a Sapper Hobbs  describing the circumstances of his death. Tom's body was brought back to Britain and he was buried in the Old Cemetery of the parish church of Walton on Thames alongside his father, who had died six months before Tom was born. His mother, who died 15 years after Tom's death, was interred alongside Tom.

 Dear Sir As poor old Tom was a cobber of mine I have taken the liberty of making myself the recipient of your letter and also the parcel which was passed around to the boys of the section. No doubt you have been informed of Tom's sad end. I was one of the party that was out that night. We were on our way back to camp at the time when a high explosive shell caught Tom and killed him instantaneously. After a few hours sleep I made a cross and we buried Tom that same night. Tom was only saying to me that if we were lucky enough to get through the stunt we would celebrate our second anniversary away from Australia. But fate willed it otherwise. There were times when me and Tom would pass our old battalions and we would both remark together that we could not see any of the old hands and I can still (hear) Tom's words ringing in my hears (sic) we were having a long run for our money Bert. Up to within a few minutes of his death I was with him. He went one way with four other chaps and I said to him that I would go to the right with one of the other chaps. The two photos I am sending by this letter. Well I must close with best wishes. Yours sincerely, Sapper B Hobbs 

Research has established that B Hobbs was a Bert Hobbs, also a carpenter, who came from Fulham, London. Hobbs was also on the Ulysses: he returned to Australia after the war.

From the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour: Thomas Sydney Harrison. Trained at Broadmeadows (Melbourne) Australia, crossed to Egypt from there to Gallipoli, where he remained till its evacuation after resting at the Isle of Lemnos, was transferred to the Western Front after going through three severe engagements, including the Somme where he was wounded. He had a short leave at Xmas 1916 and came home for the first time in seven years having lived in Australia. He was killed at the first big offensive at Bullecourt. He was a prominent member of the Gordon College Photographic Association and the Burren (Heights) Golf Club. Prior to emigration to Australia several years were spent farming in Rhodesia, South Africa. 

From an Australian Government minister's speech on Anzac day: Bullecourt was the scene of a great battle. In 1917 it was in the middle of the Hindenburg Line - a mass of barbed wire joining concrete blockhouses and trenches. In some places the wire was 100 metres thick, and no army had been able to break through it. On the night of 11 April 1917 the Australians attacked the Germans at Bullecourt but they had no artillery support, and the tanks that were supposed to break through the wire broke down or bogged in the muddy ground. Despite this, the Australians did the unthinkable and fought their way into the German trenches, being the first soldiers to break through the Hindenburg Line. Only a handful of men were left alive in the trenches. The Germans realised this and counter-attacked on three sides. Overwhelmed, the Australians were forced to withdraw. Three weeks later (and it is during this period that Tom was killed) the Australians returned and again captured the German trenches. For two weeks they endured vicious counter-attacks until the German finally gave in. When the smoke cleared from the battlefield, some 10,000 Australians had been killed or wounded trying to save Bullecourt.

 We have Tom's camera, scratched TSH, a Butcher Watch-Pocket Carbine with a Zeiss Tessa lens. We even know that he had his photographs processed at Dicksons Photographic Chemists, Ryrie Street, Geelong. Also we have his cap badge which has the words Australian Commonwealth Military Forces.

 Most of the photos of Tom have been contemporaneously identified. We do not know the photos to which Sapper Hobbs is referring. We have Tom's aluminium identity disk '4414 TS Harrison. CE 5, Field Engrs.' His family commissioned a five-inch diameter heavy cast memorial plaque: 'He died for freedom and honour. Thomas Sydney Harrison'. Also there is a memorial tablet commemorating all those in the Walton on Thames parish who died in the war, which is  mounted on the south wall of the church. His 1914-15 Star is shown below. He also received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

Thomas Harrison, the man 

What sort of man was Thomas Sydney Harrison? There are a few clues. He came from a line of Harrisons who from the fifteenth century were successful farmers and much later were builders, and Tom was similarly occupied.  Probably he was a practical bloke, good with his hands. The fact that his formal education came to a halt at the age of 15 might explain why he stayed in the ranks. However, his postcards indicate that this middle-class lad was nevertheless reasonably well educated: the style of his handwriting is admirable.  He was certainly religious - the Methodist church appealed to him. Socially he might have been a  bit withdrawn - his complaints of loneliness indicate that he would not have mixed very much. His portrait  perhaps hints at someone who might not be easy to know. Apparently he was very close to his girlfriend Rene, but there are no clues to a possible marriage. He enjoyed riding his bicycle competitively - no doubt he was very fit. Like his brother, Henry, he was a keen photographer - an interest that has been handed down the generations producing one professional. We have hundreds of his prints and negatives. While in the Middle East Tom used his leave to tour  towns and cities, taking a lively interest in what he saw. He was obviously much loved by his family who carefully preserved his postcards, photographs artifacts and many photographs of him.


Prepared by Michael Harrison of 3 Stert Street, Abingdon, UK. Sources include postcards, Roll of Honour records, photographs, on-line sources especially the National Archives of Australia and the AIF Project, Tiffin School archives and artifacts left to me by "Harry" Harrison, Tom's brother. Last updated 2009

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