Rosa Harris’ Corner Shop, Beckenham 1919

Rosa May Harris, nee Barnes at work in her shop. Detail taken from photo by Steffano Webb. [1]
It is the start of the second week of June 1919 and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, William Massey and the Minister of Finance, Sir Joseph Ward, are in Paris awaiting the signing of the Peace Treaty with Germany.

Back home in Christchurch, shop owner Rosa Harris’ stands next to the till with a receipt in her hand and smile on her face, filling orders for her local customers. Located at the corner of Colombo and Strickland Streets in Beckenham, her grocery shop is packed floor to ceiling with food and essentials like Bell and Ambertips tea, Lifebuoy and Sunlight Soaps, Highlander Milk – brands still familiar to us today.

Rosa wears a telephone headset over her dark hair, ready to take orders from anyone who telephones 2303. She pauses whilst filling an order for a fashionable customer in a fur stole, just long enough for photographer Samuel Heath Head to take this photo. At the opposite end of the counter another customer, a working class man with a heavy moustache, his sleeves rolled up, waits to make his purchase of tinned Highlander Condensed Milk from Rosa’s assistant.

Inside R M Harris Grocer 1919
Inside R M Harris, Grocer, Beckenham. [1]
A Balancing Act for Success

The dark rings under Rosa’s eyes suggest many hours working behind the counter as well as late nights balancing business and family life. Now age 41, Rosa has spent the last four years working hard to bring the family business back from the brink of bankruptcy while adjusting to life without her husband and father of her two children, aged 13 and 15.

Neatly lining the shelves, labels facing forward are packets of Colman’s Mustard, Old Dutch Cleanser, bottles of Lea & Perrins, tins of fish, preserved fruit, vegetables and corned beef, shaving brushes for 6d each, large tins of Aulsebrooks biscuits, Shear’s Digestive Rusks, Fairy Cakes, Ajax, malt vinegar, Leslie Salt, Cerebos, Rex Luncheon Cheese, Ambertips Tea, Oak, Bensdorp Cocoa, Radium Polishes, Oatina Rolled Oats, Roma and Bell Teas, Irish Moss, Syrup of Figs, Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, Semolina, Tapioca, Arrowroot, Rice, Bird’s Custard, Bournville Cocoa… and lots more.

The War Is Over

As Rosa pauses for the photograph, elsewhere in Christchurch, mothers and wives anxiously await the return of their men serving overseas.

At 34 Carlyle Street, Sydenham, Mrs Louisa Cox has just received word that her 25 year old son, Harold is sailing home on board the troopship ‘Maunganui‘, due in Port Chalmers in late June carrying 1,128 soldiers, mainly from the South Island. Prior to his enlistment in the 9th Reinforcements, Sapper Cox had worked as a French furniture polisher and been part of the staff at Christchurch’s Central Fire Station.

Mrs Lydia Green at number 26 Elgin Street, Sydenham, has also received word that her eldest son, Private Alfred Green, is on board the same ship. Her second son William and son-in-law Wilfred Woodham area also serving. Lydia’s husband Henry lived long enough to witness the Armistice in 1918 but not long enough to see his sons’ return.

On the same ship is Gunner Robert Mercer, returning home to his wife of four years at number 358 Selwyn Street. Annie and Robert had been married only two years before he embarked for England as a member of the 32nd Reinforcements.

Playing Tonight at the Sydenham Pictures

For those seeking a respite from the worry and waiting, Will Rogers’ first silent film “Laughing Bill Hyde” is playing at the Sydenham Pictures. It’s a tale of an escaped convict with a conscience, who takes up the cause of a beautiful ‘half-breed’ cheated out of her share of a gold mine. Filmed the previous year, its leading actor is Native American cowboy/comedian, Will Rogers of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Rosa isn’t waiting for the return of a husband or son and her children are too young to have served.

Rosa May Barnes – Tailoress

Lyttelton born, Rosa Barnes is the daughter of English immigrants who arrived in Napier in June 1874. The family went through many trials as early settlers. Just four days after arrival two of their three small children from died from whooping cough contracted during the voyage.

Rosa’s father, James was a joiner and builder and the family were forced to moved around in order for him to find work. In 1875 the family moved to Lyttelton where Rosa was born in 1878. The family came to Christchurch in 1898 and lived in Manchester Street. James had musical talent. He became a member of the Christchurch Musical Society and the Cathedral Choir and was well-known as a singer and conductor. His musical genes were passed on to his grandson Walter. At the age of nine, Walter gained a choir scholarship to attend Christ’s College Grammar School in 1912.

Rosa’s talents fell towards the literary, and she competed in recitation competitions, entertaining and winning prizes with her poem and hilarious recitations and readings. It was a skill she also shared with daughter Lilian.

Rosa worked as a tailoress before she married Benjamin Walter Harris on 12th March 1903 at the Church of St. Matthew’s in St Albans. A little over six months later their first child, Walter Benjamin, was born. Daughter Lilian May arrived three years later in 1906.

The Brick Store 1910
Docket from The Brick Store, 1910. [2]
Benjamin Walter Harris – a troubled man

Born in Akaroa in 1878, Harris became a land agent and continued in that profession while he ran the small family grocery store called ‘The Brick Store”, selling ‘all goods at town prices.

But by 1914 business was not going well.

Wracked with worry over the business’ finances and concerned he would need to call a meeting of creditors, Benjamin had not been sleeping or eating well, and was keeping his worry very much to himself.

On the night of 24th April, Rosa retired to bed at 11.50 pm, leaving Benjamin to his Friday night stocktaking in the shop. When Rosa awoke the following morning at 6 am, Benjamin was not in bed, nor could she find him anywhere in the house or shop. After noticing a light burning in the storeroom, she went in to find her husband’s lifeless body hanging by a rope from the ceiling.

She immediately went for the doctor and for the help of a family friend, Alfred Napier, who lived around the corner in Baretta Street. Alfred was an engine driver for the Sydenham Borough and Benjamin’s friend of 12 years. To him fell the task of retrieving his friend’s body, in the process discovering a length of small clothes-line wrapped several times around his neck.

The years after Benjamin’s death challenged Rosa’s strength of character. As the country was dragged into the First World War, Rosa wasn’t the only woman to face an uncertain future without a husband and father for her children. Thrust into the role of the family’s sole breadwinner, Rosa became one of countless women during wartime dealing with life on her own, a business to run, and growing children to feed and clothe.

Harris Grocer at 147 Colombo Street
Rosa May Harris stands on the threshold of her shop, at 147 Colombo Street, on the corner with Strickland Street, Beckenham. [3]
The Brick Store at 147 Colombo Street

By 1919 Rosa’s shop is a success, the shelves are well stocked and her name is above the door.

Outside the shop, the path is swept clean even though the brickwork has been graffitied and painted over with advertisements for Sunlight and Lifebuoy Soap. The verandah is emblazoned with signage for the popular tea of the day, Moates Tea.

On the Colombo street side of the store, a poster featuring the distinctive figure of Will Rogers in his lead role as Laughing Bill Hyde advertises the show at “Sydenham Pictures To-night!“.

Metal kitchenware clutters the window on the Strickland street side of the shop, not frequented enough by potential customers to warrant special attention. The main window facing onto Colombo Street shows more care, with an arrangement of canned and boxed goods to attract passing shoppers.

Rosa the Business Woman

Although Rosa is not waiting the return of anyone from Europe, alongside hanks of home spun wool and hand knits to keep out the winter chills, Union Jack flags are on sale to help celebrate the Allied victory and the return of Christchurch’s sons and fathers.

A remnant of her husband’s tenure remains on a sign advertising ‘B W Harris‘ as agent for Brown’s Highbury Laundry, a business set up by Mrs Ellen Brown at 65 Armagh Street as far back as 1891. It had grown into a large and successful entity, with a board of directors and a Crown contract to wash military blankets during WWI.

However it is the main sign, crowning the shop, which advertises in large letters that Rosa is now in charge!

Rosa eventually left Sydenham and moved to Merivale where she owned a large two storey nine bedroom residence off Carlton Mill Road on about 500 square metres. She later moved to Wellington. Sadly, she was committed to Porirua Mental Hospital in November 1959 and died there in January 1960 at the age of 81.

Image Sources:

  1. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head, Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-007488-G
  2. Will of Benjamin Harris. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch.
  3. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head, Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-007487-G

Reference Sources:

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Zoe Roland says:

    We live just near where this corner shop was and my daughter’s name is Rosa. She is 7 and will love this.


  2. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    If you like to combine geocaching with local history, we have also made Lost Christchurch: Rosa’s Brick Store into a geocache

    The Groundspeak Geocaching Logo is a registered trademark of Groundspeak, Inc. Used with permission.


  3. Charles Claxton says:

    Thanks Wendy for that interesting article on Rosa Harris. She was my mother’s aunty and I knew her when she recided at her holiday house at Wairoa St. Bexley..She used to visit us usually to borrow a preserving pan to make ‘the marmalade’ and travel home on her bike.Unfortunately she was hit on a pedestrian crossing at High and Cashel Streets and I didn’t see much of her after that. Being quite deaf was a contributing factor of the accident. The family gatherings at her place in Bexley were always looked forward to .Thanks again, Charles Claxton


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