A Savage Brute?

Don’t forget…  Captured: Portraits of Crime 1870-1930 opens at CSU Regional Archives on Tuesday, 15 May 2018.

This is William Fanning.

He was charged with the robbery and assault of Lillian Duffy at Wagga on 8 February 1902. He pleaded not guilty. The Judge, in his sentencing, described him as “a savage brute” but was there more to Mr William Fanning than just that simply-applied epithet?

Portrait of William Fanning from Goulburn Gaol Photographic Description Book at State Archives NSW.
William Fanning, born in Victoria in 1879 [source: State Archives NSW, NRS2232, 3/5973, pg 236].
On 8 February 1902, a Saturday, Mrs Duffy, a drover’s wife, was walking home at about 8.30pm along Morrow Street, carrying a purse and a newspaper in her hand. Passing the Salvation Army Barracks, she heard footsteps behind her.

A man rushed up to her, struck her in the face, snatched her purse and then ran off. She screamed and two men ran up to help her.

One of them, Richard Savage, a butcher, followed a man through the right-of-way beside the Bushman’s Home, along Baylis Street, then into Thompson and Peter Streets. Mrs Duffy’s purse was found the following day near the Thompson St corner.

William Fanning was arrested by Sergeant Coveney on the Junee Road the next day with almost the identical amount of cash Mrs Duffy said she had had in her purse.

Acting-Judge Browning said William’s assault on Mrs Duffy “proved him to be a savage brute.” The law allowed him to sentence William up to 14 years in gaol but since nothing was known of him, he would have to be treated as a first offender. He sentenced William to five years penal service at Gouburn Gaol. (1)

William Fanning's entry in the Goulburn Gaol Photographic Description Book.
William Fanning’s entry in the Goulburn Gaol Photographic Description Book at State Archives and Records Authority of NSW [NRS2232 Item 5/5973 Page 236].
A search through the Digitised Newspapers in Trove quickly brings up another William Fanning who was before the Sydney courts, aged 13 years, in 1894. Given that William Fanning (the adult) gave his birth year as 1879 and birth state as Victoria, could this child be the same person and he simply fudged his identity?

13 year old William Fanning, along with another boy, William Noble, found themselves up before the Central Police Court charged with breaking and entering a tobacconists’ shop and stealing tobacco and other property to the value of £5. They were both discharged as no evidence was offered on the prosecution’s behalf. (2)

The very next month young William was arrested again, this time for stealing a bunch of flowers from Catherine Croke’s cart, valued at 3s 6d. The Australian Star’s reporter described “Master Fanning” as an intelligent-looking boy who kept the court amused “by describing the evidence adduced against him as ‘all lies'”. (3)

From the Australian Star, 30 October 1894 [Trove Digitised Newspapers, National Library of Australia]
Mr Delohery, the magistrate, considered that a stay aboard the Sobraon might have a beneficial effect on William, “considering his proclivities.” At this pronouncement, little William “melted in to tears”.

The Sobraon replaced the Vernon as Sydney’s Industrial School and Reformatory ship in 1892. These ships had been originally created to provide industrial schooling for destitute boys.  They provided them with a combination of moral training, nautical and industrial instruction and some elementary schooling. The schooling improved somewhat overtime, including music, recreation opportunities, etc. But after changes to the State Children Relief Act in 1881, those committed to the Vernon or the Sobraon were increasingly boys with criminal convictions – rather than sending them to gaol, magistrates and judges chose to order the young boys to the industrial ships instead, hoping this would give them a chance to improve themselves. (4)


Exercising on the deck of the NSS Sobraon [from State Archives NSW].
Boys exercising on the deck of the NSS Sobraon [NRS 4481, State Archives NSW]

The NSS Sobraon school room [from State Archives NSW]
The school room on the NSS Sobraon [NRS 4481, State Archives NSW].
It is interesting to read the widely disparate reports on the Sobraon that appeared in the papers at the time. They vary from the description of a vice-regal visit in 1896, where the boys were shown off to the Governor’s party, looking healthy and contented, to the letters from Old Boys of the Vernon and the Sobraon, relating harrowing instances of punishments meted out to recalcitrant boys.

Young William spent at least three years on the Sobraon. In November 1897, he was apprenticed to Mr R. O’Brien of Trundle but was quickly sent back for misconduct. (5)

We have not been able to decide if ‘Sobraon William’ and ‘Wagga William’ are one and the same person. But from his unsuccessful apprenticeship, it appears that the young William was not “saved” by his time on the Sobraon as Mr Delohery had hoped; presumably it did not succeed in dissuading him from a life of crime either.



(1) The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 22 February 1902, pg 2 [CSU Regional Archives]

(2) Evening News, Sydney, 27 September 1894, pg 6 [National Library of Australia, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/113322406%5D

(3) Australian Star, Sydney, 30 October 1894 [National Library of Australia, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/227506921%5D

(4) Nautical School-ship “Sobraon” (1892-1911) Agency Description [State Archives NSW, https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/agency/411%5D

(5) NSW Entrance Book for Sobraon (1867-1911) State Archives NSW, NRS3902 [Ancestry.com]

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