John and Alice Harris, anti-slavery campaigners, lived at 191 East Dulwich Grove from 1910 to 1921. John Harris was born in Wantage, Oxfordshire in 1874, son of a plumber. He attended King Alfred School in Wantage. He worked in the city of London at Cooks, a gentleman’s outfitter while training to be a protestant missionary, carrying out evangelical social work in common lodging houses. He was ordained at Cliffs Theological College in Derby. Alice Seeley was daughter of a silk works manager, who was a civil service secretary, and an active Christian who heard a ‘call’ to go out to Africa from the Baptist preacher, Dr F B Meyer of Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, later known as ‘the archbishop of the Free
Churches’, the same preacher who had ‘called’ John Harris. Although they had apparently known each other for several years, Alice’s parents had objected both to Alice’s wish to be a missionary and to marry a fellow missionary. John and Alice were nevertheless married on 6 May 1898 and within a few days the newly married couple sailed to the Congo on behalf of the Region Beyond Missionary Union, which had been founded in 1892 as an inter-denominational protestant mission by Henry Grattan Guinness and his wife Fanny. The Union’s mission statement was ‘ The Lord Jesus Christ Cares for Central Africa’. Fanny Grattan Guinness had written a book on the history of the
Congo mission, ‘The New World of Central Africa’ and it seems reasonable to assume that the Harrises had read the book before leaving England and had some idea of what to expect. The Harrises appear to have kept a house in Croxted Road in West Dulwich, where they stayed while they were on furlough from the Congo mission.
Arriving at the mission at Bololo, the Harrises first sought to learn the local language and teaching the natives basic skills such as housebuilding, but soon found themselves shocked by the way in which both the rubber plantation managers and the agents of King Leopold of the Belgians, the personal owner of the so-called Congo Free State, treated the natives. In 1903, the Harrises supplied Edmund Morel of the Congo Reform association with evidence of the abuse, including a series of photographs taken by Alice on her Kodak camera. The photos were shocking, showing natives being whipped and workers and children whose hands and feet had been amputated as punishment. Some of the photographs were included in Morel’s book King Leopold’s Rule in Africa, which was published in 1904. John Harris also published a pamphlet Rubber is Death. The Story of the Bonguranga Rubber Collectors, giving the names of victims and their children. On returning to England, the Harrises became active campaigners for the Congo Reform Association, of which in May 1906, they became joint organising secretaries, speaking at some six hundred meetings between them, including an American tour, giving lantern lectures using Alice’s photographs and displaying shackles and chicottes - the slavedrivers whips. John Harris presented the evidence to the public enquiry established in 1904 by King Leopold in response to the agitation. When the enquiry report was published it excluded the Harrises’ evidence and photographs. The British consul in the Congo, Roger Casement, submitted his own report to the British foreign office in 1904, which was published in a censored version. The Congo Reform Association established a ‘parliamentary committee’, which included the leading Liberal MP, Sir Charles Dilke, a Conservative MP, Sir Gilbert Parker and the Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald. In 1903, Henry Fox Bourne, the secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, had published his own critique of King Leopold’s Rule - Civilisation in Congoland, with the sub-title A Story of International Wrong-Doing, with a forward by Sir Charles Dilke. In July 1909, John Harris had an argument with Edmund Morel after he had interviewed the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, without informing Morel, The Harrises therefore dropped out of the Congo Reform Association. Morel published a second book on the Congo, Red Rubber, in 1908. Books critical of the Congo regime were also published by Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and the Belgian socialist politician Emile Vandervelde.
In 1910, John Harris became secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, the two separate organisations having merged, a post he held until his death. Moving to Dulwich, he became president of the Dulwich Liberal Association, in succession to Allan Octavian Hume. John Harris was extremely prolific publishing at least twenty-five books and pamphlets, including Dawn in Darkest Africa (1912), Present Conditions in the Congo (1912), Portuguese Slavery (1913) and in 1933, a history of the Anti-Slavery Society: A Century of Emancipation.
John Harris was keen to get into parliament. In the 1922 general election, he stood as an independent (Asquithian) Liberal against the sitting National Liberal MP and Minister, Dr T J Macnamara in North Camberwell. Macnamara was returned. Harris came third with 3,270 votes, with the Labour candidate, Hyacinth Morgan in second place. Morgan was to win the seat for Labour in 1929, the Conservatives having captured the seat in 1924. Harris switched his candidacy to North Hackney, where he was elected in general election in November 1923, narrowly defeating the sitting Conservative, Walter Greene. However, his time as an MP was short-lived as in the election in December 1924, he was defeated by the Conservative candidate, Austin Hudson. He tried to recapture the seat in 1929, but this time came in third place. He made a final attempt to return to parliament in 1931 this time as the Liberal candidate in Westbury, Wiltshire, coming in third place again. In 1933, John Harris was awarded a knighthood for his services to the Anti- Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. He only retired from his position as general secretary in1940. Harris had lobbied on behalf of the anti-slavery society at the Paris Peace conference in 1919. He became a leading advocate of mandates to manage the former German colonies in trust for their native populations, publishing articles in the press as well as pamphlets on the issue. He had a special interest in the ’B’ mandates in Tropical Africa - Togo, the Cameroons and Tanganyika (formerly German East Africa). He represented the anti-slavery society at the League of Nations annual assemblies in Geneva. One of his main concerns was to avoid the abuses he had witnessed in the Congo where Leopold II had asserted a humanitarian trusteeship in his personal kingdom, when the practice of his administration was neither humanitarian or operating in the native interest. He was also a member of the executive committee of the League of Nations Union. Harris, given his experience, acted as an advisor to the League of Nations mandates commission and staff.
Alice continued to contribute to the Anti-Slavery Society campaigns, lecturing widely as well as writing articles. She was active in speaking out against lynching in South Africa and in the southern states of the US. She wrote about slavery in the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome, stressing the impact on women and family life.
John Harris died in 1940. Alice died in 1970, at the age of 100.
With thanks to Sharon O’Connor for Information on John and Alice Harris’ home in Dulwich
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