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Eric Tristram Harper, 1878 - 1918

Eric Harper was killed in action in Palestine (now Israel) on 30 April 1918. He was aged 40. He was buried in the desert "about 10 miles north-east of Jericho". His name is on the Jerusalem Memorial, Jerusalem War Cemetery, Israel. A successful Christchurch lawyer, Harper was a member of the 1905 "Originals" All Black team.

Eric was born on 1 December 1878 in Christchurch. His parents were Agnes and George Harper. His father was a prominent Christchurch lawyer who represented the Canterbury District Law Society on the New Zealand Law Society Council from 1900 to 1921 and was on the Council of Law Reporting from 1919 to 1931. He was awarded the OBE in 1918 and was knighted a short time before his death on 12 March 1937. Eric went to school at St Patrick's College in Wellington before returning to Christchurch to finish at Christchurch Boys' High School. While at school he excelled in sports, particularly rugby, cricket and track athletics.

On leaving school he began to study law, working for his father. He passed his final solicitors' examination in December 1903 and on the application of his father on 29 April 1904 he was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court. He was appearing in the Christchurch Magistrate's Court shortly afterwards and he built a successful litigation practice over the next decade.

While Harper's legal career began to prosper it was on the sports field that he excelled. On leaving school he joined the Christchurch Football Club and became a mainstay of its first fifteen. He was described as a fine place-kick, "a centre three-quarter of great ability, sound in his methods, and always to be relied on in an emergency". (Auckland Star, 18 May 1918). He represented Canterbury between 1900 and 1905 and played for the South Island in 1902 and 1905. In 1904 he played for New Zealand against the 1904 British Isles team. The following year he was selected for the team which toured the British Isles, France and the United States, becoming known as the All Blacks. Harper was injured in an early match and played in  just 10 matches on tour. He was selected for the test match against France, scoring two tries.

As a gifted athlete Harper also won the national 440 yards hurdle title in 1901 and in 1902 he won the 880 years hurdles. He played club cricket in Christchurch and was also a keen mountaineer (and was involved in finding a pass to the West Coast at the head of the Rangitata River in 1908). He ceased to play first class rugby after the 1905 tour but remained active in the club scene. In 1914 he turned out for the "Old Timers" against "Veterans of the Merivale Club" in a benefit match. "Perhaps the youngest player was Eric Harper, now a staid and sober member of the legal profession..." the Star newspaper commented. Harper's nickname while touring with the All Blacks was "Dean Eric".

Alongside his sporting interests his legal career flourished. On 1 January 1906 his father took both Eric and GD Pascoe into partnership, the firm becoming George Harper, Son and Pascoe. In 1987 what was then known as Harper Pascoe merged with Anthony Polson to form Anthony Harper. He appeared many times in the Magistrates' courts and also in the Supreme Court and sometimes the Court of Appeal - often as junior to his father. 

In 1914 Harper appeared as counsel for Albert Crozier in a long-running paternity suit. The weekly newspaper Truth reported what became a fierce argument between Harper and a Magistrate in one of many attempts to secure a change of venue and thereby sidestep a Christchurch magistrate. A legislative glitch meant the other party, Myers, was able to bring new proceedings in the Magistrate's Court each time he lost. As reported by Truth, Harper began: "Before the start of the case or what I may rightly call another phase of this farce." "This farce! Why a farce?", Magistrate Day responded. Harper dug in and after an increasingly acrimonious exchange, revealed his plans to call the Christchurch Magistrate, Mr T.A.B. Bailey. "Mr Bailey! You don't suggest that Mr Bailey is going to give evidence," Day SM responded. "Mr Bailey will give evidence if I want him to," replied Harper. After Day SM objected strongly Harper responded: "I say that Mr Bailey IS going in the witness-box. This matter needs thrashing out. My client has had years of his life wasted with this threat hanging over him. He has been summoned on bogus charges and Myers [the plaintiff] has been granted adjournments endlessly." (NZ Truth, 12 September 1914).

The report reveals that Harper was a determined counsel who was not afraid to take on the bench on matters of principle. He got his wish. This time, on appeal in the Supreme Court, Harper was able to call Bailey SM to give evidence of the three hearings he had held on the matter. Harper won the case, and Denniston J referred to the Magistrate's evidence in his decision.

On 27 July 1913 Harper was married to Beatrice Anne Sibella Malet at Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral in England. The couple settled in Christchurch and had two children, Frederick (born on 25 March 1914) and Anne (born 12 November 1916).

When World War I began Harper was aged 35, a father and with a well-established legal practice. He could probably have avoided military service, but he enlisted on 4 October 1916. He was posted to the 26th Reinforcements, Mounted Rifles and underwent training at Trentham Camp. His medical examination report shows he was 5 foot 11 3/8 inches tall (1.81 metres), weighed 155 pounds (70.3 kg) and had blue eyes and fair hair. He was appointed Regimental Sergeant Major on 31 May 1917, the day his unit embarked from Wellington for Suez in Egypt.

On arrival he was posted to the Training Regiment at Moascar on 19 October 1917. Shortly afterwards, on 1 November, he reverted to the rank of Trooper at his own request. A letter to the Press on 10 May 1918 by (later Justice) Oscar Alpers said "on the authority of an officer of his regiment" when Harper arrived in Egypt, "he begged to be relieved of his stripes; he wished to get into the firing-line at once, and he refused to be set over men who had been in action till he himself had been tried in the ordeal of battle." On 10 November 1917 Trooper Harper was posted to active service.

As a member of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, Harper was involved in an often-overlooked campaign in Palestine against the Turks. This involved 17,723 New Zealanders, of whom 640 were killed in action and 1,146 wounded. On 30 April 1918 Harper was killed in the fighting which resulted from the allied attack on the strongly fortified Shunet Nimrin position. He was buried somewhere in the desert, Army records noting it was "about 10 miles NE of Jericho, Palestine."

Back in New Zealand there were many tributes paid to Trooper Harper. One widely-published obituary described him as "one of the best footballers Canterbury has produced" and said "Eric Harper was at the same time one of the most popular players that ever put on a jersey, and in this case the popularity was based on genuine respect for his sterling qualities ... in every branch of sport that he took part in he 'played the game' in all respects, setting an example of high honour and clean sportsmanship that won the esteem and admiration of his fellows".

Christchurch Magistrate TAB Bailey SM also marked his passing at the beginning of a session at the Christchurch Magistrate's Court on 9 May 1918: "Mr TAB Bailey SM said that before beginning business he would like to express on behalf of his colleague and himself deep sorrow at the loss that the legal profession had sustained in the death of Trooper Eric Harper. Trooper Harper, he said, was a young man of great promise, and he could not let the occasion pass without expressing sympathy with his parents, widow, and family. Members of the legal profession present stood in silence during the time that the Magistrate was making his remarks." (Press, 10 May 1918). 

Harper is remembered on the Canterbury Lawyers' Memorial Plaque in the Canterbury Law Library (his name is recorded as A.T Harper) and also in the New Brighton Surf Bathing and Lifesaving Club Memorial Window.

Sources: NZ Tablet, 27 June 1890, page 15; Press, 16 December 1903, page 5; Press, 29 April 1904, page 9; Star, 21 June 1904, page 3; Press, 17 January 1905, page 1; Wanganui Chronicle, 19 December 1905, page 4; NZ Tablet, 16 September 1909, page 1455; Press, 13 June 1910, page 4; Dominion, 8 August 1911, page 2; Press, 8 September 1911, page 8; Press, 4 September 1913, page 1; Star, 13 June 1914, page 9; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, 4 September 1914, page 3; NZ Truth, 12 September 1914, page 8; NZ Truth, 10 October 1914, page 5; Waikato Times, 11 July 1916, page 4; Press, 10 May 1918, page 6; Auckland Star, 18 May 1918, page 14; C Guy Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine (Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, 1922), page 221; Robin Cooke, editor, Portrait of a Profession (AH & AW Reed, 1969). Stats.allblacks.com, "Eric Harper", "Eric Tristram Harper", Kete Christchurch, 11 July 2015.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph soldier profile.

This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.

Lawyers Roll of Honour.

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: geoff.adlam@lawsociety.org.nz.

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Last updated on the 16th December 2016