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Great Neighbours

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on March 22, 2012

The year was 1883 and a young man named Eli Harris traveled across the world to earn his fortune. He found himself digging for gold at Shepherd’s Flat near Heathcote in Victoria. He met a beautiful girl by the name of Bessie Clarke and together they purchased a property near the gold mines of Berwick. He gave up digging for gold and started digging for vegetables. He worked long hours in his market garden, growing the veggies and then delivering them by lantern light.

Bessie worked beside him until she gave birth to each of their children. She kept house and helped with the selling of the vegetables. Eli was a bit of a collector. He brought home all sorts of treasures from the market and from his produce rounds and Bessie tidily put them away in the house and sheds.

Constable Roberts of the Berwick Police station believed himself to be a bit of a detective. He had previously been involved in solving a number of high profile cases and he was anxious to  keep up his reputation and to eventually move up the chain of command in the Victoria Police. The Berwick Police station had two junior constables but he had his eye on moving to Eltham where he would receive a promotion and be the officer in charge.

It was 1896. Eli and Bessie were well loved in the area. Eli wrote letters to the Berwick Council complaining about the state of the roads and drains. Bessie kept a beautiful house but was losing the battle against the mountain of goods that Eli brought home. Constable Roberts was at a local clearing sale and noticed that Eli was wearing a natty pair of patent leather shoes. He went back to the station and thought about the shoes. He gathered up another constable and together they took a little ride out to Eli and Bessie’s place. What they found was a mountain of stolen loot from robberies all around the district.

There were three full cartloads of property stolen from Eli and Bessie’s neighbours. Found at the Harris farm were silver candlesticks, rolls of wire, marble statues, groceries, household linen, a metal watertank, jewellery, sheets of tin, tools, a dress suit etc.  The robberies had happened when the homes were unattended. Eli was well versed in his neighbours’ movements as he traveled the district selling his vegetables. At his trial he stated that he had purchased all of the items at the Dandenong Market so he was tried for receiving stolen goods. Eli was convicted and given a two year sentence.

During Eli’s incarceration Bessie remained on the farm. In December of 1896 their three year old daughter Annie was playing in the kitchen. Her dress caught alight from the kitchen fire and she later died. Bessie had to cope with this on her own.

Eli learned his lesson. Shortly after his release the family moved to Western Australia where they became successful grain growers and prominent in the local scene. Bessie died in 1920 and Eli in 1925.

Written by Annie O'Riley. Annie is the author of and has been researching local history for over 30 years. She is constantly finding new stories and characters to write about.

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