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Image credit: Photograph of young boys from training ship “Sobraon”, 1898, source: State Library of New South Wales

Joseph William Melrose: The Sobraon Boy

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7 min read
Between 1871 and 1911, Cockatoo Island hosted two nautical school ships: the ‘Vernon’ (1871-1892) and the ‘Sobraon’ (1892 to 1911). These ships operated as industrial schools for wayward, neglected, and homeless boys, who were taught nautical skills as well as curriculum subjects. One of the boys enrolled with the Sobraon was Joseph William Melrose, born in Sydney on 28 March 1891.

In this article, written with the help of Joseph’s surviving family members, we offer insights into his time aboard the Sobraon as well as his later years.

Life aboard the Sobraon

On 12 March 1907, Joseph – then on the verge of turning 16 – was committed to the Sobraon, a nautical school ship that had been anchored at Cockatoo Island since 1892 and had accommodation for up to 500 youths. Although the circumstances that led to Joseph’s commitment are a mystery, he was known to have been a large youth with a missing eye, and his surviving descendants suspect it may have been damaged in a fight.

The Sobraon boys received training in essential trades, including tailoring and carpentry. Some were even permitted to attend to attend Cockatoo Island’s dockyard workshops and gain experience in ship building and repairs. Joseph received training as a fireman. The boys spent downtime at the recreation ground on upper Cockatoo Island, where they played cricket, rounders, football and other games.

On 17 July 1908, Joseph was discharged from the Sobraon, aged 17 and a half, by the vessel’s commander and superintendent W. H. Mason. The text printed on the back of Joseph’s certificate of discharge encouraged any boy who had been discharged from the nautical school ship to take heed of their education, live as model citizens and employees, and strive for greatness. It reads:

‘While on board the “Sobraon”, you have been fed, clothed, received a good education, and been rendered capable of discriminating between good and evil.

‘The best return you can make to the Institution for these benefits is to prove a credit to the Institution. Let your aim be to rise to the top of your profession. An upright, honest, loyal and trustworthy servant is always esteemed and valued.

‘Be civil and courteous to all whom you meet, careful of whom you make companions, and cultivate only those who, experience teaches, would be desirable friends.

‘Recall that in order to become efficient, you must be observant and industrious. Spring promptly to obey any order given never waiting to be named; by this means you will gain the goodwill of your officers, which means opportunities denied to the indolent.

‘Never fail to keep in touch you your relations and your former “Sobraon” Officers, giving an address which will permit of a reply reaching you.

“Visit your training ship as early as possible on return to Sydney, and thus assist and encourage boys who succeed you.

“When paid off, husband your money, and seek early re-engagement.

“Give a preference to Sailors’ Homes over Boarding Houses and on no account permit of Crimps or Runners making you surrender your hard-earned cash or independence.

“Remember your commander desired to be regarded as your friend on whom you may always rely for help where it is merited.”

Family and hardship

After departing the Sobraon, Joseph sought work as a seaman. He found employment as a coal trimmer aboard the Turbine Steam Ship Marathon, a post he held until 17 November 1908. His official log book for the Board of Trade provides a record of his short tenure aboard the TSS Marathon and also indicates he resided at 91 Fig Street in Ultimo.

Later, Joseph fell in love with Minnie Lillian Hassett. Their subsequent marriage produced two sons: Leslie Melrose, born circa 1915, and Joseph James Melrose, born 13 May 1917. Tragically, Minnie died on 6 April 1919 from pneumatic influenza, leaving Joseph to raise Leslie and Joseph Jr.

A family anecdote that suggests a period of financial hardship for Joseph’s family is that of the former Sobraon ward taking his young son, Joseph Jr, to the central markets in Sydney to collect discarded produce. Joseph was said to have tied a rope around his son’s waist and lowered him into a bin to collect fruit and vegetables for their family.   

Renewed fortune and descendants

Joseph’s fortune eventually improved. In addition to remarrying, he was able to buy a house at Abbotsford using winnings from a horse race in the mid-1930s. It is believed the house was named after Saracheri, which placed second in the 1934 Melbourne Cup, trailing the winner Peter Pan. A search of the Trove newspaper database indicates Saracheri competed in a number of races, including the Doncaster Mile at the Randwick Royal Racecourse, between at least 1933 and 1937.

Later, Joseph became involved with St Alban’s Ultimo Soccer Club, managing the team captained by his son Joseph Jr. Under Joseph’s management, the team were the 2nd grade A. Division Premiers in 1938.

Although Joseph's main occupation is no longer known, it is understood that he either worked at a dock or dockyard. More is known about the careers of his two sons. Joseph Jr served as a fire fighter with the NSW brigade for 36 years. Meanwhile, Leslie not only became a carpenter but served during World War II. In fact, he was captured and held in Changi Prison where he is known to have made wooden legs for amputees.  

Joseph passed away on 18 October 1965, aged 74. Little remains known about his second wife, including her name and when she passed away. Joseph’s surviving family members include his granddaughter Frances Melrose (b. 1940), who was born to Joseph Jr. (d. 1995) and his wife Joan (1919-1992). Frances’ siblings included Gary James Melrose (1944-2019) and Lesley Joan Melrose (1948-2004).

The Harbour Trust wishes to extend a special thank you to Susan Melrose (whose late husband was Gary James Melrose) as well as Frances Melrose, both of whom generously answered questions about Joseph William Melrose. We are also grateful for their donation of Joseph’s certificate of discharge from the Sobraon, his Board of Trade log book and a selection of images from his personal collection.


Article was originally published on 1 March 2021.


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