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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Fanny Cochrane (1834–1905)

by J. Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905), Tasmanian Aborigine, was born in early December 1834 at the Wybalenna Aboriginal establishment, Flinders Island, Tasmania, daughter of Tanganuturra (Sarah), father unknown.

After the age of 7 Fanny spent her childhood in European homes and institutions. In December 1842 she entered the Queen's Orphan School, Hobart, to learn domestic service skills, but where the children learned little and were subjected to prison-like discipline. More of her time was spent in the Flinders Island home of the catechist Robert Clark, where she lived in conditions of appalling squalor, neglect and brutality. At 12 she worked for the Clarks as a domestic servant at the pittance of £2 10s. 0d. a year.

In 1847 the 46 survivors of the Aboriginal establishment were removed to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. Fanny went into service in Hobart, but soon returned to Oyster Cove to live with her mother and sister. On 27 October 1854 in Hobart she married William Smith, an English sawyer and ex-convict transported for stealing a donkey.

Upon marriage Fanny received a £24 annuity. She and William worked at fencing and shingle splitting and also ran a boarding-house in Hobart. Her younger brother Adam lived with them and her people from Oyster Cove visited. After Adam died in 1857, Fanny and William took up land near Oyster Cove. Their son William Henry was born in 1858; five more boys and five girls followed. Fanny raised her children in a simple five-roomed wooden house. Her mother often lived there and Trugernanner, William Lanne and others were frequent callers. The family grew their own produce but their income came from timber; Fanny worked in the bush splitting shingles and carried them out herself. She walked the 31 miles (50 km) to Hobart for supplies.

After Trugernanner's death in 1876 Fanny renewed her claim to be the last surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal. In recognition of the claim, parliament increased her annuity to £50, and in 1889 gave her a free grant of 300 acres (121 ha). She continued to hunt and gather bush foods and medicines, make baskets, dive for shellfish and carry out Aboriginal religious observances.

Proud of her Aboriginal identity, she also moved with confidence in the European world. She and William were early converts to Methodism in their area and one of their sons became a lay preacher. Church services were held in Fanny's kitchen until a church was built on land which she donated. She was active in fund-raising and hosted the annual Methodist picnic, people travelling long distances to sample her cooking and to see her perform Aboriginal songs and dances. In 1899 and 1903 she recorded songs on wax cylinders: held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, these are the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech.

Fanny Cochrane Smith died of pneumonia and pleurisy at Port Cygnet on 24 February 1905, William having died in 1903. Her funeral cortège was followed by more than 400 people and she is still remembered warmly as 'one of nature's ladies' who could entertain any gathering with her sparkling eyes and ready wit.

Select Bibliography

  • N. J. B. Plomley, Weep in Silence (Hob, 1987)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14 Sept 1882, 31 Oct 1899, 23 Mar 1949
  • E. Westlake, Tasmanian notes (1908-10) (1910, manuscript on microfilm, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Library)
  • G. Sculthorpe, Fanny Cochrane Smith (manuscript, 1983a, oral history project, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's Office (CSO) 11/26/378, 11/27/658 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

J. Clark, 'Smith, Fanny Cochrane (1834–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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