The elder John Butler Harrison appears to have settled in Southampton c.1765; town records show him elected a burgess in September of the following year. He was the son of Thomas Harrison of Alton and he retained strong links with that town for the whole of his short life (he died of smallpox at the age of 28 in 1767). We know about him largely through the journals of his friend, the historian Edward Gibbon. They served in the South Battalion of the Hampshire militia together between 1760 and 1762 and Gibbon invited him to his home at Buriton on several occasions.

Harrison's son, also named John Butler, was born a few weeks after his father’s death. He spent all of his life in Southampton becoming one the town’s leading men. He was elected a burgess in 1788 and a bailiff and sheriff in subsequent years. He was mayor in the years 1794 and 1811. He held the post of collector of customs from 1803, and possibly earlier, and was one of the first harbour commissioners.

In 1789 he married Elizabeth Matilda Austen of Chawton, a relative of the novelist Jane Austen. During her stay in Southampton in the years 1806-1809, Jane Austen must have often visited the Harrisons.

In 1789 Harrison bought a house in the lower part of St Mary Street which was then a genteel, semi-rural area. The garden, or 'pleasure ground' as Harrison called it, was on a large detached piece of land to the rear of the house, stretching to Hoglands to the west and to the backs of the houses in Chapel Street to the south. Harrison lived in the house until his death in 1850, despite the general social decline of that area in the 19th century. On his death, the house and garden was sold to the guardians of the poor who used the site to supplement the overcrowded workhouse then situated on the opposite side of St Mary Street. The site was used for the workhouse schools, union dispensary and relieving office, while the gardens became a play area for the pauper children. A passageway running along the north side of the house and the south side of the garden, and linking St Mary Street with St Mary's Place and Hoglands, was known as Harrison's Cut. In 1851 the guardians of the poor sought to have this passageway closed to the public, as it now dissected their property. The attempts failed and, although the area around it has seen many changes, Harrison's Cut continues to exist.

Further reading:

More Stories of Southampton Streets, by A. G. K. Leonard, p69-78. (HS/h)


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