Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Garnet South (1855–1923)

by Norm Lalor

This article was published:

William Garnet South (1855-1923), police officer and chief protector of Aborigines, was born on 8 August 1855 at Dry Creek (Modbury), Adelaide, one of ten children of Henry James South, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Moncrieff. William's early years were spent at Modbury, where he was educated at a local school established by Scottish Presbyterians.

On 27 July 1877 South joined the South Australian mounted police force. He married Fanny Stevens on 2 October 1882 at St Luke's Church of England, Adelaide. They had four children. After serving at Melrose, Blinman, Farina, Barrows Creek, Port Augusta, Yarrowie and Peake, he was appointed to Alice Springs in March 1888 as officer in charge and warden of the goldfields. Here he became acquainted with Francis Gillen, (Sir Walter) Baldwin Spencer and (Sir) Edward Stirling. South displayed greater consideration for Aboriginal people than many of his fellow policemen and in 1891 he co-operated with Gillen in the arrest of Constable Willshire for shooting two Aboriginal men at Tempe Downs station. In 1895 South was removed from Alice Springs because of his involvement in the ownership of a liquor store and mining shares. This did not affect his career, however, as he was stationed at the police barracks, Adelaide, from 1898 and promoted senior constable in 1907.

South was appointed protector of Aborigines on 1 March 1908, and chief protector in 1911. He defined part of his role as to 'provide shelter, food and clothing' to the 'full descent' Aborigines so that they would be 'comfortable and happy for the remainder of their lives'. Nevertheless, he considered as most important the necessity to train and educate the 'half-caste' Aboriginal children so that they could be 'merged' into the white community. By late 1910 a system of removing such children living in Aboriginal camps was established, using the mechanisms of the State Children's Council. In 1911 the Aborigines Act, 'to make better provision for the Protection and Control of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of South Australia', was passed. A royal commission in 1913 recommended that mission stations be taken over by the government. During the later part of his term, South sought to obtain legislation that would enable children to be removed from the former mission stations. This was to culminate in the 1923 Aborigines (Training of Children) Act.

Described by the Advertiser as 'a friend to the natives', South did display concern for Aborigines as individuals. But he believed in the inevitable extinction of Aborigines, except for those who had inherited 'characteristics of the white blood' that endowed them with the potential to be absorbed into the general population. Fanny died in 1908 and on 12 February 1909 in St Paul's Church, Port Adelaide, he married Sophia Lalor, née Reid, a widow with five children. He was a member of the board of management of the South Australian Police Widows' and Orphans' Association.

Short and lean, South had sharp facial features and a trim beard. He belonged to the Hope Valley Lodge, Grand United Order of Oddfellows. South died of heart disease on 27 May 1923 in hospital at North Adelaide. His wife and three sons of his first marriage survived him; a son had been killed in action in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), The Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909), p 760
  • J. Mulvaney et al, From the Frontier (Syd, 2000)
  • Report of the Pastoral Lands Commission, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), no 33, 1891, vol 3
  • Progress Report of the Royal Commission on the Aborigines, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), no 26, 1913, vol 2
  • Public Service Review, (Adelaide), Feb 1908, June 1923
  • Register (Adelaide), 1 July 1910, p 7
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 May 1923, p 12
  • Protector of Aborigines, Annual Report, 1911-23, 52/1(State Records of South Australia)
  • Commissioner of Police correspondence files 5/2/1894/568, and item 52/1/1912/28 (State Records of South Australia)
  • W. South, service record (South Australia Police Historical Society, Thebarton, Adelaide).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Norm Lalor, 'South, William Garnet (1855–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1855
Modbury, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


27 May, 1923 (aged 67)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.