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William Harris, complete with his trademark umbrella and straw hat. Image from the Otago University Review, September 1923.

William Harris, complete with his trademark umbrella and straw hat. Image from the Otago University Review, September 1923.

‘Professor’ W.H. Harris had no academic qualifications, but he was once Otago University’s “best-known personage”. The title of professor was bestowed on him by generations of students who encountered this great character in his daily work as the university janitor, or as he strolled up to town in his distinctive straw boater, always carrying an umbrella. His 30 years on the staff provided a peaceful end to a life full of adventure.

Born in Kent in 1852, William Henry Harris went to sea when he was just 9 years old. He joined his father, a marine sergeant, aboard HMS Rattler, serving as powder-boy and captain’s boy. Young Harris roamed all over the world, visiting Europe, South America and Asia, and famously getting lost in the streets of Shanghai during the Taiping rebellion. On his return to base he had a try at the printing trade, but after just a year on land he re-joined the navy. He served on various vessels, including HMS Cumberland and HMS Cossack. Aboard the Cossack, Harris took part in the supression of the slave trade off the coast of Africa, of piracy in the China Seas, and of blackbirding in the Pacific Islands. He was “a type of the old die-hards who composed the old-time Imperial Navy,” reported the Evening Star in 1919.

Harris left the navy in 1872 – still only 20 years old – and proceeded to work in a great variety of jobs in Australia and New Zealand: wool-pressing, harvesting, tin-digging, bush-felling, sailmaking, stone-breaking and gold prospecting, among others. But the sea continued to draw him, and he served aboard various vessels of the mercantile marine around the coasts of Australasia. In 1893 he finally settled down in Dunedin, winning the job of university janitor over 90 applicants. Perhaps it was his wide and varied work experience that made him the most attractive candidate; in any case, he proved ideal for the role, and remained until his death in 1923, aged 70.

Harris revelled in his position as janitor. As an ex-navy man he appreciated order and ensured things were kept according to the rules: he didn’t hesitate to throw the Chancellor out of the library when it was time for closing. Maintaining the coal fires which heated the university was an important part of his duties. Agnes Blackie, who commenced as a student in 1915 and went on to a long career as physics lecturer, recalled that nothing annoyed “Prof ‘Arris” more “than for students to go into a lecture room between classes to sit by the fire. To prevent this he conceived the idea of hanging rows of cast-off coats and hats outside the room doors. This shabby collection certainly gave support to the idea that students were always poor.” She also remembered, though, his kindness to students.

Harris’s feats of memory were legendary. He quickly learned the names of all new students and told them tales of their parents’ activities on campus. He proved “an inexhaustible mine of information” for anybody wanting to track down former students. His naval experiences remained fresh in his memory and he enjoyed recounting tales of his many adventures, sometimes writing these down for newspapers or the Otago University Review. Agnes Blackie wrote that “now and then a quaint letter with one of his reminiscences would appear in the press, but first he would bring it to one of his friends among students and staff for comment and correction of spelling and wording.” You can read an example here; this letter written to the Otago Daily Times in 1914 about exploded British naval vessels was sufficiently interesting to be republished in the Hawera and Normanby Star. It must have been a proud moment when Harris was introduced to the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) during their Dunedin visit in 1901, and told them he had served on HMS Hero when the Duke’s father, later King Edward VII, travelled to North America in 1860.

The university has employed many interesting and charismatic people over the decades, but in his day William Henry Harris stood out as “a rare personality, as outstanding in his way as any professor.” He earned several paragraphs in the 1919 jubilee history of Otago, and an obituary as long as that of the classics professor in the student publication, the Review. That obituary commented, “No man loved the University more than he. His monument will be the heart of every student who knew him.” There can no longer be any former students alive who knew the wily janitor, but we can pay tribute here to one of the great characters of the university’s early decades.