Gifts, project open door wider to city history

A few taps on any smartphone can tell you that Eldon House, London’s oldest residence, was once home of the Harris Family, but it takes a collection like the Harris Family Fonds to gain a deeper understand of what that legacy means.

Today, thanks to the support of donors, Western will not only continue to safeguard this key source for understanding the history of the City of London, but further expand its access to future students, researchers, writers and artists.

One of the most actively consulted collections of archival documents held by Western Libraries, the Harris Family Fonds contains personal and business papers and other materials documenting 165 years of the Harris Family whose members are considered by many to be the ‘first family of the City of London.’

“We are fortunate to have these materials, as many communities do not have documentation about their early histories. Not only does it tell the story of the Harris Family, it provides a great deal of information about what was going on in business and politics, both in London and beyond the region,” said Robin Keirstead, University Archivist.

Fonds – an awkwardly singular noun – is an archival term referring to the aggregation of documents that originate from the same source. Fonds differs from collection in that a collection is assembled, whereas a fonds is a more organic gathering, usually developed over the life of a person, family, or business.

Donated by members of the Harris Family in stages, the fonds consists of 105 boxes of archival documents, including approximately 10,000 pages of correspondence and more than a thousand photographs. To date, the contents have been listed, but only the photo albums and a selection of the most frequently requested documents have been digitized.

There is much more work that needs to be done, Keirstead explained. Given the size, complexity and associated conservation issues, carefully processing and precisely describing the materials is a painstaking project.

Thanks to recent gifts from Harris Family members, friends and others interested in the fonds, Western has pooled funds to equal $20,000 to support a graduate student, in either Library and Information Science or Public History, to continue work on the Harris Family Fonds.

The work will also ensure the continuation of the Harris Family legacy. It is a project Anthony and Betsy Little felt compelled to rally behind.

“As members of the Harris family tree, we are obviously invested in promoting the Harris Family legacy. We are astonished at the completeness of the collection. Obviously, all contributing Harris family members seem to have been obsessive journalists, record keepers and letter writers. It is hard to imagine that a similar collection could be found elsewhere,” said Anthony Little.

Still practicing law like his great-grandfather, George Becher Harris, Anthony Little believes the story of the Harris Family is the story of the evolution of London from 1,000 settlers in 1835 to the city of nearly 400,000 it is today. “Seeing original source materials that are handwritten and have folds, creases and scribbles help you understand that they are more than just ‘things.’ People made them and they have a range of meanings that are also part of historical record.”

Ranging from poignant and personal to the practical and professional, many treasures can be discovered in this rich collection. Domestic interior photographs, musical score, sketches of moving day and family life, snips of children’s hair and records of parlour games including using spirit boards, all play a key role in revealing intimate aspects of the Harris Family.

Keirstead continued, “As Eldon House was very much the centre of London’s cultural and social life, especially for much of the 19th century, the letters and diaries of generations of Harris Family members reveal the details of not only their own lives and experiences, but also ‘what did the Harris Family think’ about everything from social mores and world events, to local city planning. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection. It’s both inward and outward focused.”

As Treasurer of the London District from 1821-50, John Harris was responsible for all the district’s financial matters. His records, receipts and official correspondence provide a detailed account of the early growth of the region and how several branches of government worked for, or against, the interests of the population.

Researchers and writers have produced books, plays, journal articles and more using the contents of the fonds, including The Eldon House Diaries: Five Women’s Views of the 19th Century, by Robin Sutton Harris and Terry G. Harris, and Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia by Elizabeth Clinch and Nicholas Clinch.