“John Harris (alias Poisefoot) was born in 1771 in Monmouthshire and lived at the Lonk, Joyford where he made a living as a small farmer and as an agricultural labourer. He was married to Ann and had six children. He was convicted twice for offences resulting in prison sentences. On 6 June 1826, he was charged with beating his wife Ann and as a result was discharged on condition of keeping the peace, especially towards Ann for two years. On 10 August 1831, he was convicted of maliciously drawing a trigger of a pistol with intent to murder and sentenced to death commuted to transportation for life. The incident occurred when an attempt was made to arrest him for his involvement in the June 1931 Forest of Dean riots led by Warren James. An account of his arrest was given by a ‘Resident Forester’ in The Life of Warren James:
A warrant was issued for his apprehension; but the known desperation of his character, made this undertaking to be looked upon in no very pleasing point of view. But William Watkins, the same who apprehended Warry, and who had been sworn in a special constable, had hardihood enough in his composition for offices however difficult and perilous; and he proceeded (accompanied by a keeper, of the name of Powell), to Harris’s house. A person, named Smith, also repaired there, to assist in his apprehension.
As they approached the house, Harris was eating his dinner: Watkins said, “Harris, I have a warrant against you, for pulling down the enclosures.” Harris came toward the door, and swore he would stick the knife he held into the first that came inside the house. Watkins, who was a man of a resolute turn of mind, was not to be deterred by threats, and he entered, followed by his assistants. “Harris”, said he, “you had better be quiet, and come along with me: you may easily get out of it by doing a little work, or finding bail at sessions.” Harris replied, “Who the devil will be bail for me? Get out, I tell thee, or it will be worse for all of ye.” Watkins replied, “This is of no use; I am come here to take you, and will not quit without you; so come quietly, it is as well.”
Harris, at that moment, exchanging his knife into his left hand, and thrusting his right under his frock, pulled out a pistol, and swore he would blow out the brains of the first who came near him. He then cocked the pistol. Watkins attempted to get behind, for the purpose of securing him by the arms; but Harris at the moment turned round; exclaiming, “Keep Back!” and snapped the pistol at Watkins’s head: a spark flashed close to his eyes. Watkins immediately caught him in his arms, and threw him on the ground. A violent struggle now ensued: he was thrown down three several times, and in one of them, his face was cut against a chair; but he was busily employed, even when down, in cocking the pistol, which, alter some struggle, Powell succeeded in wresting from him; but so determined was he, that he made a desperate attempt to regain possession of it. He was then properly secured. Powell unloaded the pistol in the presence of the magistrates: there were two balls, and a great deal of powder in the barrel. Harris complained that ill language had been made use of to provoke him; but this charge is without foundation. He was immediately committed to prison.”
After a spell on the hulk, the Justitia, Harris was transferred to the Elizabeth III which set sail for Van Diemen’s Land on 7 October 1931 and arrived on 14 February 1832. He was initially detailed to public works and then assigned to various settlers. He obtained his ticket of leave on 13 July 1840 and conditional pardons on 15 September 1842, 9 May 1844 and 26 July 1845 with the condition that he did not return to Europe. Ralph Anstis picks up the story:
“What the old Welshman did for the next seven years is not known. He must either have saved enough money to pay for his passage back to England, or worked his way back. Back he certainly came, in spite of the terms of his pardon, because at the beginning of September 1852 he turned up in the Forest of Dean. He was now about 80 years old. He went up to the back door of the house where he had lived until his arrest over 20 years before — the very door on which Watkins had knocked when he had come to arrest him in 1831. His reception by his family was less than rapturous. On seeing him, his son, who no doubt had assumed that he had died years before, was at first surprised, then dismayed, and finally annoyed. He had taken over the house and had been living in it with his family for 20 years, and was clearly in no mood to relinquish possession of it. There was a quarrel about who was the rightful owner of the house and, within a week of Harris’s return, father and son were brought before Edward Machen as magistrate. When he was asked what he was doing in England, Harris replied that he had been given a pardon some 12 or 13 years earlier in Van Diemen’s Land but had lost it. Machen, suspicious but fair, wrote to the Home Office and asked whether Harris had, in fact, been pardoned. The Home Office said that he had, in 1845, but that the pardon was only a conditional one. Unfortunately, the remainder of the story cannot be discovered. Though he had broken the terms of his pardon by re-entering Europe, one cannot but marvel at the tenacity, courage and sheer physical strength of the old rascal who, at an advanced age and against all odds, had in seven years made his determined way home to the Forest of Dean from the other side of the earth.”