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William Nean (c1864-) on his bicycle

William Nean (c1864-)

This photograph fascinates me as much today as it did 16 years ago when I found it. In 1900 William Nean, a gardener in Wangaratta, chose to submit this portrait to Victorian authorities to identify him on his return to Australia after travelling abroad. 

What was he thinking?
Is it a tongue-in-cheek dig at the bureaucracy Chinese Australians had to jump through? Did he want to demonstrate he was a modern sporty Australian? Did he not realise how inappropriate it was? Perhaps it was just what he had at hand? Maybe it was all these things. I will never know.
What I did discover was that this photograph, and the collection it was part of, has played an important role in the history of identification photography in Australia. Victoria was an early adopter of identification photography for the control of Chinese Australian international movement but it was used across Australia for all CEDT certificates. At this time identification photography was better known for criminal mugshots but Chinese Australians were part of the process whereby all Australians have come to accept the use of photographic portraits for identification.

So who was William Nean?
His early years remain a mystery but in 1896 he was baptised and married Ararat-born Rosey Henrietta Johnson in Wangaratta. A wedding ring is visible in the photograph, but the marriage does not seem to have lasted. William returned to Melbourne in 1902. By 1903 he was working as a gardener and hawker in Perth where he was arrested for ‘furiously riding a bicycle in King-street’. He was also fined for hawking without a licence and got caught up in a particularly nasty crackdown on mixed race relationships. By 1916 he’s back in Victoria donating £10 to the Bendigo Hospital Committee after which I lose track of him.

Sophie Couchman

Image Source: National Archives of Australia: B6443, 1139
Creator: Yeoman Co, Bourke Street, Melbourne
Date of creation: 1900
Place: Melbourne, Victoria
People: William Nean

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