"Big Bill", William Patrick Fanning, and his daughter Johanna & Tommy, a ward of the state, outside their home "Sunnyside" Bulla

Johanna Doyle and Catherine Doyle Fanning Bulla Victoria Australia

Emu Creek Bulla
Emu Creek Bulla

In 1862 there was an inquest into the discovery by William Patrick Fanning of the body of an infant girl in Emu Creek. It was thought to be the child of Johanna Doyle, a woman who lived and worked on the Fanning property at Bulla in Victoria.

William and his wife and two eldest children, John Henry and Catherine, were questioned at the inquest. There was not enough evidence to decide how the child died and whose child she was. William Fanning would have been 50, Catherine 44, John Henry 20 and Mary 17 at the time.

The Argus Melbourne Victoria Saturday 11 Oct 1862 reported on the inquest:

MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR DISCOVERY OF THE BODY OF A CHILD

On Thursday, the district coroner commenced an inquiry into the cause of death of an infant child, whose body was found on Sunday last in the Emeu Creek. It appeared that the child was placed in the water, dead or living, very shortly after its birth; and from the circumstances that the body was tied in a bag, in which some stones were put, no doubt can be entertained that the person who threw it into the creek had intended to conceal the fact of its existence. Some suspicion attached to a woman who had been living as servant at an out-farm belonging to Mr Fanning, a farmer, at Bulla.

The following evidence was taken on Thursday:-

William Fanning stated that on Sunday afternoon he was on his farm, and walking near the Emeu Creek, when he saw a bag in the water. Got it out, and thought from the bad smell, it contained human remains. Did not open it, sent information to the sergeant of police, who came and took it, opening it in the witness’s presence. The place where the body was found was about two miles from witness’s residence. Knew Johanna Doyle, a servant in witness’s employment up to about two months back. Sent her away because he did not want her any longer. She was not living at witness’s own farm-house. There was no woman then living at the out-farm, where she was.

Mr James McIntyre, surgeon, made a post-mortem examination of deceased female infant, now shown to the jury. Found the body in a bag. It was the body of a full-grown female child. There were no external marks of violence that witness could discover. The umbilical cord was absent, and there was no after-birth in the bag. Believed the lungs had been fully inflated. Found air in them, and did not think the air was the result of decomposition. The brain was absent, the scalp gone, and the parietal bones were open. Witness thought the child had been dead a month to six weeks. Could not say what the stomach contained, it was too much decomposed.

At this stage of the case, the coroner adjourned until the next day, when the following additional evidence was given:-

Sergeant Nolan, stationed at Sunbury, stated that on the evening of the 6th inst. he received information that a sack, supposed to contain the remains of a child, had been found by Mr Fanning, a farmer, at Bulla. Went to the place, and Mr Fanning gave witness possession of the bag, containing the child shown to the jury. Opened the bag in his presence, and found a child wrapped up in a small piece of cotton and dress lining. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition. There were two stones in the sack. In consequence of information received, arrested Johanna Doyle, now present, and brought her from Lancefield. Examined her dresses, but could not find anything to correspond with the material the child was wrapped in.

William Fanning on being re-examined, stated that the woman now present, Johanna Doyle, was in witness’s employ about two years and a half. She lived the whole time at an out-farm, about two miles from witness’s own homestead. She was in the habit of coming over to witness’s house occasionally. Witness discharged her because a man would better do the work she did – for no other reason. Did not observe any change in her figure about the time of discharging her. The place where the bag was found was about seventy or eighty yards from the hut in which she lived. The nearest house, except witness’s was about a mile from the spot. The creek had been running this year, and was running now. The bag was not floating- it was sunk in the water, and resting on the bottom of the creek, in about four or five feet of clear water. The stream was sometimes very powerful in the creek, and the bag might have been carried along, notwithstanding there were a few stones in it. It was an old flour-bag, and there were similar bags kept at the farm, but none of them, nor was this, marked. Had no reason to suspect Johanna Doyle was in the family-way when she left witness’s service, or before. A black boy, an aboriginal native, lived at the hut with Johanna Doyle, but on other male lived there.

Catherine Fanning, wife of the last witness, had known Johanna Doyle three or four years, during the last two years and a half of which she had been in witness’s service. Believed she was a married woman, and that her husband had gone back to Ireland three years before. She was in the habit of coming to witness’s house once or twice in the month. She was discharged because it required a man to go after the cattle. On one occassion witness said to her she seemed to be in the family way, and her answer was that she would be very sorry. Did not observe any difference in her size when witness discharged her. She occasionally complained of being delicate, but she never said she was in the family-way. After she left, witness was at the hut where Doyle had lived before she took her clothes away. Did not see any signs of blood about the place.

Neither of these two last witnesses gave evidence in a willing manner; and the coroner was obliged to remind the woman that he had the power to commit to gaol any person who withheld evidence, or who gave evidence in an equivocating manner.

John Fanning, a young man, son of William Fanning.- Knew Johanna Doyle, but never heard anything about her having been in the family-way, or that she had the dropsy. Knew nothing about either the birth or death of the deceased child.

Mary Fanning, a young woman, daughter of William Fanning.- Knew Johanna Doyle had been ill for some time, but did not know what was the matter with her. She was able to go about as usual. Knew nothing whatever about the death of the infant found in the bag.

Tommy, an aboriginal native, belonging to the Darling tribe, gave evidence that he had been living in Mr Fanning’s employ for the last four years. Knew Mrs Doyle, and lived at the out-farm in the hut with her. Witness minded the cows and she minded the paddock and cooked the food. She slept in the back room with her two children. Witness slept over the dairy. One day , about a fortnight before she left, she asked him for a drink of water. Went into the room and she was sitting on the bed. She did not complain of pain and witness never heard her groaning with pain at any time. Never saw any signs of a child, and Mrs Doyle was never laid up for a day. She always got the meals regularly. She was vomiting the day witness gave her the drink of water. She was faint. Never saw any signs of blood about the place.

Mr McIntyre, being recalled, stated the child might have been dead for two months, but it was impossible to state precisely. A woman might go about her work after being delivered of a child without its being suspected. Could not state what was the cause of the death of the child.

The jury returned verdict as follows:- “That the body was found dead, in a corn-sack, on the 5th October, in the Emeu Creek; but there was not sufficient evidence to show who was the mother of the child, or how the deceased came by her death.”

The information in the above newspaper article was taken directly from the inquest. These inquest files are now available online at PROV or you can open this pdf file of the inquest.

Inquest unknown baby found in Emu Cr Oct 1862

William Patrick Fanning signs his name as Fannan and Catherine Fanning leaves her mark.

Some time ago I received an email about a Catherine Doyle Fanning. This is the email: ” have been trying to find out where my great great grandmother came from, she was born Bulla Victoria in 1865, out of wedlock to a Johanna Fanning. My great great grandmothers name was Catherine Doyle Fanning born 1865 Bulla Victoria to Johanna Fanning, according to our family records she was placed for adoption, but she retained the name Fanning. With some of the records she names her father as being a William Fanning and her mother as being Johanna Doyle. There is also mention of other children, but unfortunately there are no christian names only that she has three siblings and one sibling that died. “

As far as I can work out there are two possibilities: Catherine Doyle Fanning may have been the child of Johanna Fanning, Big Bill’s daughter ( she would have been 17, how likely is that?) or she may have been the child of Big Bill himself to Johanna Doyle!! and this opens up the possibility that the child found in Emu Creek may also have been Big Bills. This would explain their reticence as witnesses.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has any information  on Johanna Doyle and Catherine Doyle Fanning. I couldn’t find any birth, death or marriage records in Victoria that seemed to apply to Johanna Doyle or Catherine. Unfortunately I have not heard back from the person who sent me the email.

Published by

Kathleen

I have done an Ancestry DNA test and also have uploaded my test results to GedMatch. My GedMatch kit numbers are A029138 and T470174. Please contact me if we are a match. kathleenmfanningAThotmailDOTcom

2 thoughts on “Johanna Doyle and Catherine Doyle Fanning Bulla Victoria Australia”

  1. Hi Kathleen,
    You may have resolved some of the issues since this post, but I thought I might make some comments on tracing illegitimate children. Firstly, there was no form of adoption in Victoria until the 1920s, more commonly children were fostered or institutionalised. As the mother (and probable father) were RC, the best place to look for records would be with the McKillop Family Services. You can check the historical agencies whose records now make up part of their archive here http://www.mackillop.org.au/Document.Doc?id=38

    While many people didn’t register their infants at birth (it wasn’t very long after civil registration began, and compliance wasn’t total), it was more common for people to christen their infants, so you or the person who contacted you should think about the most likely place that a catholic child would be christened, either locally or in Melbourne.

    The last thing I would mention is that women sometimes took the father of their child to court to obtain maintenance from him. I’ve been looking at an instance of this at the Moonee Ponds Court of Petty Sessions from 1864 where the mother was awarded 6 shillings for the maintenance of her child from the father. Unfortunately I haven’t got as far as 1865 – maybe Joanna Doyle got a mention.
    In 1865 the local court was part of a circuit – the bench sat on different days of the week in Essendon, Craigieburn (I think) and Keilor. I have no idea which one would have been considered closest to Bulla (the roads would make a difference), and sometimes cases from Bulla might have gone to the Gisborne Court.

    It struck me that William Fanning did not have to mention the discovery of the child’s body if he thought it was his, but I wondered if the wife thought it was his, seeing she was a reluctant witness.

  2. Thanks for your suggestions Lenore. I have had a look but can’t find anything yet.

    This is still an unsolved case.

    The person who contacted me, the descendant of Catherine Doyle Fanning has not contacted me again unfortunately and I have trawled the Indexes to no avail. Every now and then I go back and look again. Perhaps another member of her family will get the family history bug.

    The fact that both William and Catherine were cautioned by the judge suggests something was going on. But then it seems very bold to name your child, Catherine, if this is also the name of her father’s wife! Although Catherine may have been Johanna Doyle’s mother’s name. Very strange.

    If Catherine Doyle was the daughter of Johanna Fanning then it makes more sense for her to be named after Catherine Fanning.
    I keep going round in circles with this one.
    Thank you for nominating my blog.

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