On January 2nd, 1874, the Adelaide newspapers reported a “Serious Fire at Willunga”. According to the Evening Journal (page 2):
A great fire is raging close to this town, and several families have been burned out. The safety of the town itself is dependent upon the direction of the wind.
The fire started on the Meadows Road in the Kuipto forest and spread across the ranges to the outskirts of Willunga. Miles of farmland were charred. No-one was killed, although a couple of people were seriously endangered. Although many of the people of Willunga were involved in fighting the fire, there were three main protaganists in the inquest and court case that followed.
The three protagonists were:
- Andrew Doolan, who owned the farm where the fire was started;
- Mary Doolan, his wife, at home on the farm when the fire started; and
- John Dwyer, the brother of Mary Doolan and former business partner of Andrew Doolan.
In building a portrait of them, I have used testimony from the inquests and trial relating to this act of arson. The following information was tendered in inquests up to and including 15 January 1874.
Andrew Doolan was a small farmer who lived on a property on the Meadows Road in the Kuitpo Forest. His farm had a three-roomed stone house with a thatched roof, comfortably furnished. The fire, which started at one of his fences burned his house, and much of the furniture, and killed stock. His farm was largely reduced to ash. Andrew Doolan reported that he knew nothing of the fire until 7.00pm that night. He was coming home from the races when he met someone who told him about it. He hurried home, where he found his wife unconscious with some neighbours at some distance from the house.
He and some neighbours pulled the fence down, but there was 10 chains [201 metres] of fence burned. The fire spread to some scrub, and could not be extinguished. Doolan estimated a loss of about 100 pounds. The house was not insured. He had never received any threats to burn the farm, but noted that he had been rather afraid of Johnny Dwyer on account of law proceedings between them. After the fire at his farm, Doolan had been told that John Dwyer was seen going from the direction of the fire.
According to Doolan:
Dwyer several times told me when he was living with me that if the scrub took fire where it did commence it would burn the place down. When I saw him at the fire the next day I told him to leave the place, as I thought he had committed the crime. (SA Register, 24 January 1874, p. 6)
The fire was discovered by Mary Doolan, the farmer’s wife. She seems to have been a little unhappy living on the farm. She testified at the start of the inquest on 10 January:
I told my husband always that the place would not keep us and I did not like to be left alone so often in the scrub …I felt annoyed at my husband leaving home in the hot weather for fear of fire. (SA Advertiser, 10 January 1874, p. 3)
According to Mrs Doolan, she had no idea concerning the cause of the fire or who started it. Witnesses at the inquest said that Mrs Doolan had not appeared to be in her proper senses when the fire was discovered. At the time, she said to the witnesses that she saw “a shadow” and “a man” lighting the fence between 5.00 and 6.00pm. Mrs Doolan noted the time as 6.00pm in her evidence at the inquest.
Strangely though, Mrs Prendergast (a neighbour) “heard Mrs Doolan say she was frightened of her enemy, and that he would murder her, but did not say who he was.” (Express and Telegraph, 23 January 1874, p. 2)
John Dwyer was the brother of Mrs Doolan. He had been in business with Doolan, but Doolan had terminated the partnership in February 1873 and lawsuits had resulted.
According to Andrew Doolan, Dwyer “had expressed threats towards me that he would scatter my money, and leave me without any thing. He told my wife so, and that he would cause her to shed many a salt tear”. He also often told Doolan that “if the scrub took fire where the recent fire started he should be burned out” ( Express and Telegraph, 23 January 1874, p. 2).
There were reports of a man was seen passing down from the hills to the township on the day of the fire. He had on a light trousers and dark coat. Some witnesses thought it was John Dwyer, others could not swear to it.
According to John Dwyer, he was in church on New Years Day, where he was seen by Charles Small, a neighbour of the Doolans. Small testifed that Dwyer was dressed in a dark coat and brown hat. Dwyer then claimed to have gone to Mr Toleman’s public house and left about 3.00pm. About 4.00pm, he went and had a sleep at Kell’s bridge. He woke up at about 4 or half past and went home. He was home for the rest of the evening.
Among the witnesses, we have the following testimony. Elizabeth Hughes declared that she left her own house at 4.45 pm and went to John Dwyer’s house. She saw old Mrs Dwyer (probably John’s mother) who noted that the family had gone to Mr Aldam’s garden to look after it. John came in at about 5 o’clock and she noticed grass seeds on his coat. John was at his house at least until 7.00pm. George Spargo testified that he saw John Dwyer during the day. In the evening, George met Dwyer at Dwyer’s home, where Dwyer told George that he, Dwyer, had been having a sleep in Taylor’s Creek during the afternoon. Dwyer mentioned this to Samuel McCullagh as well, but also stated:
Should I be suspected to have had a hand in this fire I shall call upon you to state that you saw me on New Year’s evening.
(SA Register, 24 January 1874, p. 6)
And then …
At a second inquiry held on 22 January, Mrs Doolan changed her evidence. She said:
I remember being alone on New Year’s Day …. In the evening my brother, John Dwyer, came and set fire to our fence. I saw him standing up from the panel with something in his hand, apparently carrying it along the fence setting it on fire. I have no doubt but that it was my brother. He was outside the fence when I saw him. I cannot swear how far he was away. – I screamed out— “My brother, are you going to burn me out alone?”
(SA Register, 24 January 1874, p. 6)
After re-examining witnesses, the jury retired to confer. After only 20 minutes they returned with their verdice, and John Dwyer was taken in charge for trial.
The Supreme Court Hearing
After hearing the cross-examination of Mary Doolan and Dr Jay by Mr Stowe QC who was acting for the prisoner, Chief Justice Hanson declared that Mrs Doolan’s evidence should be treated with a great deal of circumspection. On enquiry from Mr Stowe, Dr Jay had admitted that Mrs Doolan could have been delusional when she thought she had seen her brother. Taking into account the other evidence, the Chief Justice and the Crown Solicitor then agreed that the charges against John Dwyer should be dismissed.
The 1874 bush fire caused enormous damage, but no one was called to account for it. Could it have been John Dwyer, revenging himself on his sister and brother-in-law, could it have been Mary Doolan, disliking the farm, angry with her husband and frightened of her brother? Or was it some other person? To this day, the question of who lit the fire remains unknown.
Find out more about the 1874 Willunga Bushfire at Willunga Now and Then
Written and presented by Paddy O’Toole – Willunga Courthouse and Slate Museum
Evening Journal, 2 January 1874, page 2
SA Register, 5 January 1874, page 6
Evening Journal, 5 January 1874, page 3
Evening Journal, 9 January 1874, page 2
SA Advertiser, 10 January 1874, page 3
Express and Telegraph, 23 January 1874, page 2
SA Register, 24 January 1874, page 6
SA Chronicle & Weekly Mail, 21 March 1874, page 14.