HARRIS (family)

Please quote the reference below when making enquiries about this item:  26846

Extensive notes on the Harris families of the Sandford area, by Sandra Phillips. Also a very detailed book of Harris/Middleton FH research.

Actually, Sandra's request for copies of our documents, to which she refers below, was a bit embarrassing at first, as we couldn’t find them! It turned out that renumbering had temporarily hidden them in plain view, prompting a bit of a re-think about how we control things. However, the enquiry was an encouraging demonstration of the value of our website archive, leading to further improvements which have already borne fruit. (Please note that, as of 24/01/2023, the Ruxford Barton documents haven’t yet been re-listed).

With some relief, we eventually got copies of the documents to Sandra. She also benefited from material from Sandford historian Mike Maddock and CAHMS's John Heal and Tony Gale, and made good use of her copy of Daphne Munday’s ‘A Parish Patchwork’.

In January 2023 Sandra contacted us again, having made substantial progress with her research and written a story which covers identifying her 4th great grand-father (William Harris) from our 1764 Indenture document. She also wrote a short addendum noting the four separate Harris family lines she identified in the area, having disentangled the records of 15 different William Harrises].

Here is her story, so far: 

A Harris Family History - and its Crediton Area Farmsteads

This article is written with thanks to CAHMS, which has been instrumental in helping me break through some brick walls in my family history research. The friendly volunteers have answered many questions over the last few years and provided me with documents from their archives that brought my research to a much higher level than I could ever have imagined.

My interest in genealogy began over fifty years ago when my paternal grandmother gave me a small envelope from a cache of mementos brought to America from Devon in the late 1800s by her dressmaker grandmother, Jane Sharland. The envelope, postmarked 1855, bore the address: “Westacott, Shobrooke, near Crediton.

harris envelope


I was lucky indeed to have been given an actual address which set me on this adventure so many years ago. But I was luckier still, some years later, to find that the dwelling at that address was still very much intact, and had a long and interesting history. On a visit to Devon in 2011, I was able to do some research on Westacott at the Devon Heritage Centre. I discovered that it was originally a Tudor farm, part of the Little Fulford Estate, and had been inhabited since at least 1551. Parish records showed a sole tenant farmer there at that time, and then later with two families of farmers. Much later, according to the census of 1841, it formed three cottage households. In one of those households, three generations of my ancestors were listed as occupants. My grandmother’s grandmother, Jane Sharland aged 9, her sister Rebecca, aged 6, their parents John and Mary Ann Sharland and Mary Ann’s father, William Harris, a widower, aged about 70. Both John and his widowed father-in-law, William, were “agricultural labourers.”


harris westacott

Westacott, Shobrooke

I first visited Devon and set my eyes on Westacott in 1980. It was an awe inspiring experience to see this large and very solitary, thatched roof structure that was completely surrounded by open fields as far as one could see. It didn’t look inhabited at the time, but neither was it run-down. I felt as if I had been taken back in time, that I was seeing Westacott as it would have looked over a hundred years ago when my ancestors lived there, or even as it might have looked in centuries prior, and yet it still appeared to retain its original presence in the present day, now as a single family residence.

Over the years, I began to put together a family tree and assumed that it would show at least several more generations of my family in the Shobrooke parish records. I did find baptismal records there for John Sharland, his wife Mary Ann (Harris) and the two children as well as the marriage record for John Sharland and Mary Ann. However, William Harris did not appear to have been baptized in Shobrooke, nor was there a marriage record for him in Shobrooke. I only knew an approximate birth year, around 1771, based on his approximate age in the 1841 Census, and the first name of his spouse, from his daughter Mary Ann’s Shobrooke baptismal record, which was “Jane.” I eventually found a marriage for a William Harris and a Jane Taylor in 1799 in nearby Crediton. This William Harris was resident in Sowton (near Exeter) at the time of his marriage, and his spouse, Jane, was from the parish of Crediton. However, I could find no baptismal record for a William Harris in Sowton, though there were several William Harris baptismal records in the Crediton/Sandford area that could fit in my estimate of his baptismal period. My search came to a halt with no significant progress for William’s baptismal record or hope for advancing to the previous generation.

It was at about this point in my research that I came across the Crediton Area History and Museum Society website when doing a general online search for information about the Crediton area. I was impressed with the museum’s extensive list of archival documents. It was under a tab for documents listed by names, where I noticed a long list of records under “William Harris.” The first one on the list was a document dated 1764 regarding an indenture of lands between William Harris of Sandford and his son William Harris regarding Ruxford Barton in Sandford. It seemed like a long shot, but I was curious and it was dated around the time that my 4th great grandfather was likely born, so, eventually, after mulling it over for a while, I decided to go ahead and request a copy of the document.

When I received the document, despite having to deal with the 18th century legalese of Yeomen farming practices, I was quite stunned to find that it had not been a long shot at all. The document clearly named all the parties involved and I was able to establish birth dates for William Harris the elder (1696-1784), Yeoman, and his son William the Younger (1729-1814), due to the name of the younger Harris’s intended wife, Jane Read, whose marriage the agreement was predicated on. The document, dated March, 1764, also referred to an earlier lease agreement for Ruxford Barton in Sandford dated 1750, between William Harris the Elder and Mary Hooper, the landowner. With this one document, I was able to document two prior generations of William Harris ancestors and establish with certainty that my 4th great grand-father William Harris was the second child and only son of William Harris the Younger and his wife Jane (Read), having been baptized in Sandford on 6th January 1767. William and his two siblings, an older sister, Betty, and a younger sister, Grace, were all raised at Ruxford Barton in Sandford. What was left unexplained, was the fact that William, the only son and heir apparent, did not follow in his father’s path as a Yeoman farmer. Instead, he seemed to have left Ruxford to work as an agricultural labourer in Sowton, and after marrying Jane Taylor in Crediton in 1799 the couple and their family settled at Westacott in Shobrooke. William’s wife Jane died in 1838 and William died in 1849, and both were buried in Shobrooke. Their daughter Mary Ann and her husband, John Sharland and their two daughters, Jane and Rebecca stayed on at Westacott until they moved to Cornwall around 1858 and later the two daughters and their families emigrated to America in the late 1880’s.


harris ruxford

Ruxford Barton, Sandford 

It is interesting to note that Ruxford was the home for this Harris family for over forty years from about 1750 until sometime after the 1793 Sandford Census when the family were noted to be still living at Ruxford. However, the 1800 Sandford Census, showed another unrelated William Harris family were living in Ruxford Barton from then until about 1876. This conundrum was solved after taking some time to delineate the many William Harris entities in the Crediton/Sandford area that were showing up in my research and separating them into three other family groups. Brief summaries of these groups are attached as an addendum to this article.

Ruxford Barton itself was an ancient farm with parts of the original structure dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period. There are several large cob barns, one of the oldest of which may have been built on the site of a thirteenth century chapel by its owner in 1254, William Raleigh. During its long history, the farm has been owned by two of the major Devon estate owners, the Chichesters and the Davie family of Creedy Park. The farm is surrounded by many acres of fertile farmland, as well as a number of orchards around the house and has continued to be a large and prosperous Sandford farm over the centuries to today.

Though I have not been able to find many other details about my 4th great grandfather William Harris through my research, I did find some information about his sisters. His oldest sister, Betty, married another prominent Yeoman farmer, John Lane, and lived at nearby Woolsgrove Farm in Sandford. They had nine children, six daughters and three sons. A great-great grandson through their son John Lane (1787-1831), Percival Dunning Lane (1881-1959), who never married, was the last Lane to farm at Woolsgrove.


harris woolsgrove

Woolsgrove, Sandford

William’s younger sister, Grace (1774-1852), married a local serge maker, James Emes in 1813. They both married rather late in life, when he was 55 years old and Grace was 39. James and Grace had one daughter, Jane Harris Emes, born in 1814, who married a renowned British sculptor and painter, Edward Bowring Stephens, in 1845.

My research thus far has been an amazing journey of discovery and insight. Through the process, I have gained glimpses into the lives of both the agricultural labourer as well as Yeomen farmers in this rich farming area. But one of the most meaningful aspects of my research has been discovering the very dwellings that my ancestors inhabited. I’m grateful that these dwellings are still vital parts of the landscape on which they themselves dwell and I feel richly rewarded for my efforts to uncover some of the stories of both these dwellings and their erstwhile inhabitants.

Research going back two further generations from my 4th great grandfather is still in process and will eventually take the form of a further chapter.

Addendum: Four Harris Family Groups in Crediton/Sandford (1700-1800)

(Trying to reproduce Sandra's diagram on a webpage wasn't completely successful, especially if viewed on a mobile phone. For a clearer alternative, Sandra's original PDF can be downloaded here.)


Group A - Harris Families of Ruxford, Sandford:


        William Harris/Mary Doddridge (1696-1784)


        William Harris/Jane Read (1729-1814)


        William Harris/Jane Taylor (1767-1849)


Group B - Harris Families of Westwood Farm:


        William Harris/Mary Melhuish (1665-) Westwood


        John Harris/Mary Melhuish (1702-) Westwood


        William Harris/Susanna Hockin (1732-1812) Westwood

                              |                                                                                              |

        William Harris/Jenny Francis (1768-1813) Lower Creedy         John Harris/Sarah Harris (1787-1817)  Westwood

                              |                                                                                        No heirs

        William Hockin Harris (1794-1813)


Group C - Harris Families of Ruxford (from 1800-1876):

        William Harris/Agnes Crooke (1714-1800) of Churston Ferrers, settled in Sandford around 1748


       William Harris/Susanna Perkins (d. of Christopher Perkins Sr. Group D) (1748-1826) Henstills


       William Harris/Elizabeth Tremlett alias Newton (1775-1839) Ruxford from 1800

                 |                                              |                                     |                                           |

          John Harris (1800-1840)   William Harris (1805-1872)   Robert Harris (1806-1858)   Joseph Harris (1812-1876)  all of Ruxford

            No Heirs                                No Heirs                            No Heirs                                 No Heirs


Group D - Harris Families of Sandford:

    William Harris/Thomzin Collins (-1666) married in Crediton in 1629


    William Harris/Katherine Melhuish (1632-) bp Sandford


   William Harris/Frances Jenkyns (1669-) bp Sandford


   Frances Harris/Christopher Perkins Sr./Anne Harris (d. of John Harris of Shobrooke) (1703-1739)


                                    Susanna Perkins(1745-1803) /William Harris (1748-1826)(son of Wm Harris (1714-1800) Group C  


                                                                       William Harris/Eliz Newton alias Tremlett (See Group C for 4 sons) (1775-1839)


We are grateful to Sandra Phillips for permission to publish her work. It’s an excellent example of a successful research project, to which we are pleased to have made a modest contribution - eventually. Sandra is willing for others to compare notes, and we will be glad to put other researchers in touch. JK

 Harris researchers may also be interested in Roger Middleton's book The Power of Two, available in our library.