How did Nicholas Delaney die? A murder mystery (Trove Tuesday post)

Nicholas Delaney is something of a hero to me and many of his other descendants. An Irish rebel in 1798, he escaped being hung and built a new life for himself and his family in early colonial New South Wales. So it was a shock to find out that his death was tragic – possibly murdered and robbed by a man he knew.

I was idly browsing Trove, the wonderful (and free!) digital treasury of Australian newpapers, publications, pictures and more, when I came across this –

Search result on Trove

The search result that started it all

Supreme Court? Criminal? Assault? I thought. Oh, no!

Then I looked again at the date. ‘2nd September’, it said, and the newspaper, the Sydney Monitor, was dated 1834. That was they day before he died. This was getting worse. Was I reading about my own great-great-great grandfather’s murder?

I clicked on the article. “SUPREME COURT. – CRIMINAL SIDE.  SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15. – Before Mr. JUSTICE BURTON and a Jury of Inhabitants,” it started.

Nicholas Delaney's murder - Sydney Monitor, part 1

The story begins…

“John Kennedy was indicted for assaulting Nicholas Delaney, on the highway, near Penrith, on the 2nd September, and stealing from his person one coat, one handkerchief, and 4 one-pound notes. From the evidence it appeared, that on the day named in the indictment, the prisoner was at the King’s Head, at Penrith, when Delaney was paid the sum of £5. Shortly afterwards they were both seen in company on the road opposite Mrs Brooks’ premises, apparently both very much intoxicated…”

Nicholas fell “into a gulley” but the two staggered on for a quarter of a mile till they took a short cut towards his house, with Nicholas falling over again.

So far so almost comic. But, 10 minutes later, one of Mrs. Brooks’ servants, who was giving evidence, “saw Delaney lying on the ground with nothing on but his shirt, and the prisoner standing by him”.

The man raised the alarm and Kennedy was arrested. Nicholas’s clothes were in a bundle and Kennedy claimed that “he had taken the clothes off him for the purpose of taking care of them.” How kind, you might think, but why was he nearly naked in the first place? Mr Justice Burton didn’t seem to think it was odd, though.

Someone must have got Nicholas into his clothes again, though he “was unable to speak, and was removed to one of Mrs. Brooks’ huts, where he was put to bed, and slept for some hours”.


Meanwhile Kennedy was searched on his way to the watch-house, where suspected criminals were imprisoned, and a black handkerchief belonging to Nicholas was found on him, “but he told the constable that Delaney had stripped to fight him.” That would be a plausible excuse for his having the clothes, but why was the handkerchief in his pocket and not with them?

This was, of course, proof of theft. And, odd as it seems to us now, handkerchiefs were highly prized by thieves in the 19th century and before. Easy to hide, easy to sell, and fetching a good price, they were the favourites of Charles Dickens’ Artful Dodger.

The £5 Nicholas was paid was worth a lot more. Even after a few drinks, he still had four pound notes left. That would have been a huge temptation. £4 0s 0d in 1828 has been calculated as being worth £267.00 in 2010, using the retail price index, or  £2,920.00 using average earnings.

Top of the front page of the Sydney Monitor, November 15th 1828

Sydney Monitor, November 15th 1828 (top of front page)

So far, this has just been a story of drunkenness and an attempted robbery. But it gets far worse. “When [Nicholas] got up he missed the handkerchief out of his pocket…” so it was stolen, not given to Kennedy.

The report goes on: “He appeared nearly sober, and started for the purpose of going home, but was found the next morning lying dead about a quarter of a mile from his own house.”

So… how and why did Nicholas die? I’ll finish the story in my next post. (Sorry! But otherwise it would be just too long.) But I’m thinking I should put that black handkerchief on my head and pronounce sentence on John Kennedy.

Trove Tuesday

I’d planned to write this post to coincide with the anniversary of Nicholas’s death, but my own mother’s death meant that life has become a bit hectic and unpredictable. So I’m extra grateful to Amy from Branches Leaves & Pollen for coming up with the idea of Trove Tuesday posts, which celebrate the wonderful resource for genealogists and historians of Australia provided free by the National Library‘s online resource, Trove. It’s been a real incentive to get on with blogging again.



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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20 Responses to How did Nicholas Delaney die? A murder mystery (Trove Tuesday post)

  1. Pingback: Sarah Marshall 200: convict ship Friendship II | A Rebel Hand

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  3. Catherine says:

    Fantastically exciting Frances… laughed over your comment re: handkerchief on head. It reminded me of mum who nicknamed one of my brothers “the hanging judge” and every time he’d start with his judging people she’d put a handkerchief/ tissue on her head, fold her hands and sit with eyes downcast until he stopped the nonsense. ha ha ha …
    Now I’m eagerly on to part 2 🙂


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  6. Mark Bucknall says:

    Hi. I was adopted and have just discovered that my birth mother’s great great grandfather was Nicholas Delaney who I am told by my birth mother’s sister was an Irish convict who was quite famous. My birth mother was a Mcgonigal on her father’s side and a Delaney on her mother’s side. I will be most interested to explore your site and the book about Nicholas


  7. Pingback: Two today! | A Rebel Hand: Nicholas Delaney of 1798

  8. Pingback: Nicholas’s murder – the editor, the judge and the doctor (Trove Tuesday post, part 3) | A Rebel Hand

  9. Pingback: So was Nicholas Delaney murdered? Did John Kennedy hang? (Trove Tuesday post, part 2) | A Rebel Hand

  10. Crissouli says:

    and the next thing was…. ??????????????

    Pity it’s your ancestor as I can’t wait to read the rest…but I don’t want it to be murder…


  11. cassmob says:

    What an amazing story …I’ll bet your jaw dropped! It’s great to see you back blogging again and with such an awesome story. Roll on Part 2. Will the judge have common sense I wonder?


  12. Michael says:

    Sent you an email with one of the documents but not sure your getting my emails 😦


  13. what an amazing find Frances!


  14. Fi says:

    What a great find, but so sad. Looking forward to the next instalment.


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