The Accidental Tourist

When Joseph Fenner formed a union with Penelope/Peneli Buckland, the daughter of Romany travellers Timothy and Mary, he, too, embraced the travelling life. Penelope had already had a child, Fazenta Buckland, baptised at Nuffield, in Oxfordshire, in the winter of 1825, the daughter of ‘Elepha of Great Missenden, travels with basket of goods.’ Subsequently she and Joseph would have some eight children: Benjamin, baptised in Buckinghamshire in 1835; Hector, born in 1836; Joseph, born in 1837; Rosanna, born Wycombe Union 1839, mother a Buckland, and buried four months later; Cornelius, born in 1840; Penelope, born c1842; Talitha/Matilda, born c1844; Mary, born c1846. In addition there is another sibling, Collaberry, who may have been a child of Penelope’s prior to her partnership with Joseph.

Of all these children perhaps Hector is the most documented, for he began a career in petty theft at the age of just 12, in the autumn of 1848, when he was accused of stealing potatoes, and he was to continue this with very little success until his transportation to Western Australia on ‘The Nile’ convict ship in 1857, arriving there on 1st January 1858. There are court cases in 1849, when he stole a quantity of iron, and in 1850 Hector Fenner ‘on tramp’ was reported in local papers for stealing clothes, having been arrested earlier that year on suspicion of stealing soda water bottles. Two further cases in 1851 appeared in newspaper reports, where Hector is described as a ‘notoriously bad boy’ – he was, by this time, 15 years old. Occasionally, he seems to have adopted the name Joseph Hector Fenner when appearing in court, and upon his sailing to Australia, claimed his name to be Hector George Fenner, and later George Hector Fenner.

The use of the name Joseph Hector is particularly odd, given that he had a brother named Joseph, who also appeared in court several times, before meeting up with his brother, Hector, in prison in 1856. Hector was awaiting transportation for his part in a burglary when his brother was also imprisoned for larceny. Notes against Joseph Fenner’s name, aged 19, include a reference to the governor of the prison allowing Hector to see Joseph whilst in jail, as well as a visit from a sister, ‘Collarberry Hailey of Wooburn Green.’ This extra child for Penelope, and perhaps Joseph, is not recorded in known birth records, and was, like some of her siblings, not baptised. Joseph’s records refer to him as ‘a heathen, unbaptised, C of E,’ and include a medical note dated March 1857, which probably indicated the fact that he was blind in his left eye. Joseph was released from prison in 1860, by which time Hector had been sent overseas.

Hector’s criminal career came to a sudden end after committing burglary and theft in the summer of 1855, for which he was sentenced at Winchester Assizes to be transported, some records say for seven years, others for twenty. What seems evident from Australian lists regarding his arrival and the serving of his sentence is that he was awarded a conditional pardon in the summer of 1864, and thereafter worked for himself as a farmer and sometime horse dealer.

Hector remained in Australia for the rest of his life, he married Hannah Stallard in December 1864, their first child, William Ernest Fenner, having been born earlier that year. A daughter, Eleanor Josephine, followed in 1867; Frances Penelope, named in tribute to his mother, in 1869 and George Raymond in 1870. In homage to two of his sisters, the next child was named Mary Talitha, born in 1872 and Hector remembered a brother in naming his last child Herbert Cornelius, born in 1875.

Hector and Hannah appear to have enjoyed a reasonably prosperous life, and they were married for some 40 years, until Hannah’s death in 1904. Hector remarried a widow, Elizabeth Jane Thompson, in the early summer of the following year, and this union, too, lasted a long time, given Hector’s age by the time he remarried – over 15 years. Hector lived into a considerable old age, dying in January 1921, when he would have been about 85 years of age.

An obituary appeared in the local newspaper on 21st January 1921, one that the young Hector Fenner could never have expected:

Another of the oldest and most worthy of this district’s settlers, Mr. George Hector Fenner, passed away at his residence, the Causeway, on Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Fenner, who was born in Reading, came to this State about 70 years ago, and has been one of its most industrious citizens. For sixty-odd years he has been a resident of the South-West . . . and 51 years ago built the house where he passed away. He was one of the best exponents of intense culture in the State, and, from an area of little more than an acre, produced for many years more fodder, vegetables and root crops than many who tilled scores of acres. Although his age is stated to be 86, old residents unanimously agree that that figure was well below the real one. Mr. Fenner was twice married, there being issue of the first, William Ernest, Herbert, Raymond and three daughters, Misses Josephine and Penelope Fenner and Mrs. Dawes. Some years ago Mr. Fenner married Mrs. E.J. Thompson, whose devotion during the past few years of his declining health has been most marked. Much sympathy is felt for Mrs. Fenner and the members of the family in their bereavement.

Hector had lived an extraordinary life, and the only memories of his early days in the obituary of 1921 may, perhaps, be the familiar desire to appear even older than one was – a common theme amongst the Gypsy and Traveller families of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hector’s long wait in prison, from July 1855 until the sailing of the convict ship in 1857, had furnished him with literacy – and Australia appears to have been, for Hector, the beginning of a new life.