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.”