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Harness family papers


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The three collections are very different. Nearly all John Harness's correspondence and papers relate to his claim to be the first man who pressed upon the Admiralty the necessity of sufficient supplies of lemon juice to the British Navy as a preventative of scurvy. Although history has not credited him with this achievement, the present collection certainly provides evidence of Harness's role in having the fleet blockading Toulon in 1793 supplied with sufficient quantities. To support his claim, he calls upon statements of (amongst others) such personalities as Admirals Nelson, Hood and Hardy. Another theme which has a strong presence in the collection is Harness's dispute with Earl St. Vincent regarding the position of the Physician to the Mediterranean Fleet. A sequence of letters was eventually published privately in a pamphlet, present amongst the papers.

William Harness's correspondence falls into two categories. One is an almost full run of letters to his wife "Bessy." The other comprises letters from his comrades and friends, together with a small number of other papers.

William Harness's (1790-1869) collection comprises three bound volumes. The first two are William's diaries, which cover the years 1835-6 and 1838-52 respectively, and include notes, sermons, poems etc. The third volume is a manuscript copy of a work published in 1826 (but rigorously suppressed), R.C. Dillon's account of The Lord Mayor's visit to Oxford, in the month of July, 1826. This collection also includes two framed portraits of William Harness.


  • Creation: 1793-1852


0.77 Linear metres (7 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

  • English

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. Eng. b. 2070, fols. 1-2].

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Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. Eng. c. 7330-7332, d. 3725, e. 3590-3592

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 6093


Papers of three members of the Harness family, 1793-1852: John Harness (1755?-1818), naval surgeon; his brother William Harness (1762?-1804), British Army officer; and John's son William Harness (1790-1869), literary scholar .

Biographical / Historical

The papers in this collection represent two generations, brothers John (1755?-1818) and William (1762?-1804), and William (1790-1869), John's son.

John Harness M.D., F.L.S., was born c.1755. He married Sarah Dredge (born in 1765) and had five children: John, William, Richard, Mary and Henry. Except for two or three years from 1796 in Lisbon, the family lived in Wickham, Hampshire and later in Harrow. Dr Harness died in 1818.

Details of his professional training are not known. With time, he became a distinguished naval surgeon, a friend of Nelson, and godfather to his daughter. He was allegedly the doctor called to Nelson when the latter lost his eye. Harness was also a friend of Lord Collingwood. He served under the successive commands of Admirals Hood, Hotham and St. Vincent. In 1796, the year the conflict with Spain broke out, Harness was appointed Physician to the Mediterranean Fleet based at His Majesty's Naval Hospital in Almada. He was succeeded in 1798 by Dr. Weir. Around 1799 he offered his services to General O'Hara in Gibraltar and was appointed superintendent of the hospitals there. For many years (from January 1806), he held the position of a Medical Commissioner of Transport. In 1808 the Admiralty ordered Dr Harness to conduct an enquiry into a scandal concerning bad supplies sent to the Channel Fleet from the Royal Hospital in Plymouth. He retired in 1817. He devoted the latter part of his life to collating evidence that would substantiate his claim to being the person largely responsible for persuading the Admiralty to sanction a sufficient supply of lemon juice to naval ships to prevent scurvy amongst the crews.

William Harness was born c.1762. In 1791, he married Elizabeth Bigg from Aylesbury (born c.1765). Their children were Charles, Jane and Jemima. He died on 2 January 1804.

He followed a military path, spending most of his career in India fighting in the Mysore and Maratha wars. He was already a captain when he married Elizabeth. He was promoted to major before leaving Guernsey in 1794. He served in several regiments across Europe (mainly in the Netherlands) and South Africa, staying longest with the 80th Regiment, within which he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in September 1796. The next two years he spent in Trincomalee, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He reached his next destination, Madras (Chennai) on promotion to a lieutenant-colonelcy with the 74th Regiment in 1799. Following troubles after the battle of Seringapatham in May of that year, he was entrusted with command of the army during Colonel Wellesley's absence. In 1801 he marched to Egypt, where he was reappointed lieutenant-colonel of the 80th Regiment and held the temporary rank of brigadier in 1802. Back in India, he played a prominent role in one of the most decisive battles of the Second Maratha War, the battle of Assaye in September 1803. He died at the age of 42 while serving as a colonel under Wellesley.

William Harness (1790-1869), son of John, was a literary scholar and author of an eight-volume edition of Shakespeare. Further biographical details can be found in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were given by Katherine Duncan-Jones in 2006.

Existence and Location of Copies

Many of the letters of William Harness, the army officer are published in ed. Duncan-Jones, Caroline. Trusty and well beloved : the letters home of William Harness, an officer of George III. London : S.P.C.K., 1957. The Bodleian Library copy is 23168 e.153.

Catalogue of the Harness family papers, 1793-1852
Finding aid prepared by Margaret Czepiel
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom