Who lit the fire in 1874?

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

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)

Mary Doolan

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

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.


Early crimes at Encounter Bay

Encounter Bay (Victor Harbor) was a tough place in the late 1830s and into the 1840s. It was the scene of many crimes. The local whaling industry was a brutal and bloody occupation conducted by hard men and it provided the background to the three cases presented here.

Attempted murder

The first crime is one of attempted murder, which is remarkable as it involved some of the early colonies leading citizens. A preliminary hearing was held before the Chief Judge, Sir J.W. Jeffcott, in November of 1837.

Sir John William Jeffcott
Sir John William Jeffcott

It involved a charge of capital felony against Samuel Stephens, the former manager of the South Australian Company, and William Wright, the master of a hired cutter. Stephens was charged with maliciously and feloniously firing a loaded pistol into a whaleboat belonging to Captain Blenkinsop, in Encounter Bay, with intent to kill a man named Mead. Wright was charged with attempting to maliciously and feloniously to shoot Captain Blenkinsop by snapping a loaded pistol at his breast (presumably it misfired).

Samuel Stephens
Samuel Stephens

During the trial Mr. Fisher, for the defence, tried to argue that under the provisions of an old British Act of Parliament a prosecution could not take place unless the offence had been committed less than three calendar months before. Upon reference, however, to the act, it was discovered that the clause upon which Mr. Fisher founded his objection, applied only to petty offences punishable by summary conviction and not felonies like these. Needless to say the objection was overruled. The defendents were ordered to pay sureties but in the end the whole case never came to trial.

One of the most remarkable features of the case was the identity of the lawyers who appeared for the defence – Mr. Fisher, the Resident Commissioner, appeared professionally on the part of his friend Mr. Samuel Stephens and Mr. Charles Mann, the Advocate General and Crown Solicitor, for William Wright.

The suitability of two government officials appearing for the defendants, including the crown solicitor who ordinarily could be expected to be prosecuting a case not defending in it, does not appear to have been seen as a problem by the Chief Judge although it certainly was seriously questioned by the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register newspaper at the time. Charles Mann went to great lengths to defend his reputation even writing to the Southern Australian newspaper to complain about the “dishonorable falsities of the Gazette”. The case proved a sensation in the press with claims of irregularities, conflict of interest and corruption being made against various parties.

A most atrocious murder

Mr. Moore, the surgeon on the colonial schooner Lalla Rookh, reported our second crime – “a most atrocious murder” committed in November 1840. Moore wrote that the local policemen who was stationed at Encounter Bay came on board the Lalla Rookh to get some medicine for his wife and mentioned to him that a native woman, named Betty, had been shockingly cut on the head by a native man, known here by the name of Tom.

The 'Lalla Rookh' in an unidentified port
The ‘Lalla Rookh’ in an unidentified port

Moore immediately went on shore and found the poor young woman, who was not more than 17 or 18 years of ago, laying close to the fishery, surrounded by a few female natives. He examined the wounds (five in number), three of which were two and a half inches long, and laid the skull bare; the other two on the top of the head were of less extent, but so deadly must the weapon have been, that the skull was fractured. He succeeded in shaving her head and applying dressings; but when he found that he could pass the probe into the brain from either of the wounds in the top of the head, he was confident there could not be a chance of recovery.

She passed a restless night, and death put an end to her sufferings at 10 o’clock the following morning. He was told that the ruffian had committed this barbarous murder with a piece of the bone of a whale, which are plentiful all over the beach at Encounter Bay.

In his letter to the South Australian Register newspaper Mr. Moore wrote:

Permit me to ask, are not the natives in this country amenable to British Law? If they are not, the murder goes for nothing, and may be committed every day with impunity; if otherwise, I trust the authorities will use every means in their power to bring the delinquent before a British Tribunal; and, if found guilty, make an example of him on the spot he showed his savage nature. This man his been described to me as the person who murdered a European Sailor at this place some time ago. The moment he committed the deed, he took to the bush, and has not been since heard of. I rather think this must be premeditated, as the wretch took the opportunity to commit the act when there was not another native man about the Bay, they having gone some distance into the country.

Police sergeant William McFarlane wrote to the Commissioner of Police describing how a search had been started for “Tom” who was reported to have gone “towards the Murray” but he does not ever appear to have been captured by the police.

Notorious for depredationS

Our final case was a series of robberies in January of 1846 that led a local correspondent to write to the Adelaide Observer newspaper suggesting that the Encounter Bay district had become “notorious for depredations”. It went on to say that:

“to enumerate every petty theft that has occurred within the last month would be a work of time. Hen roosts have been visited, and every garden worthy of the name has been robbed. Mr Newland’s was stripped a few weeks ago. On Friday night Dr Wark’s was similarly treated, and on Sunday night Mr Moorhouse’s shared the same fate: The gardens are but young yet, and peaches are rare commodities here: hitherto the owners have had but few of them. Monday night was the crowning one however. The store-room of the New Fishery was broken into, and slop-clothing, &c., carried off, to the value of about £30. Suspicions of course exist, but no active search has been instituted.”

In the same edition of the Adelaide Observer newspaper the following complaint appeared:

“The Governor was petitioned by the inhabitants of this district some considerable time ago to establish a local court… If there is a district in the colony requiring a local court it is this one. People will not be at the expense of going to Adelaide to prosecute every petty offence; offenders pass unpunished, and grow bold in their practices. An active magistracy might do much with the police to check the nefarious practices so common…”

Like all three of the cases we have talked about today this one was never solved or even brought to trial. By the end of the 1840s, however, the whaling industry was in steep decline and the early period of crimes and lawlessness in Encounter Bay was also coming to an end.

Written and presented by Mark Staniforth


Adelaide Observer 31 Jan 1846:5

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register 11 Nov 1837:1

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register 18 Aug 1838:3

South Australian Register 14 Nov 1840:4

Southern Australian 22 Sept 1838:5

Southern Australian 10 Nov 1840:3


A Horrible Homicide

Written and presented by Paddy O’Toole, Willunga National Trust

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The Crime & Arrest

A Dreadful Act of Violence - Adelaide Observer 27th January 1855
Dreadful Act of Violence – Adelaide Observer 27th January 1855

On 27 January 1865, the Adelaide Observer proclaimed that a Dreadful Act of Violence had occurred at Willunga.

The crime itself related to the stabbing of a Willunga farmer, William Thomas, but in this first article, which was repeated in other papers, the victim’s name was given as William White. The stabbing had been committed by his employee who was an American. After a quarrel, the American had “seized a bowie knife, and threw it at Mr White [Thomas] with such violence that the blade entered between his shoulder blades and produced a wound which it was feared would terminate mortally.” And the Observer writer was right about the result, even if the names were wrong. Poor Mr Thomas died, and the police were now hunting for the knife-wielding American.

Then, about 9 months after the stabbing, in October 1855, a Mr John Smith was caught by a Inspector Gardiner up near Burra. Mr Smith was said to have been of good repute. He was brought to Adelaide, his identity was confirmed, and he was committed to trial. According to the Register:

The prisoner was not represented by any professional man, and he declined to ask any question. He maintained throughout the examinations great apparent self-possession. The Court was crowded with persons, who watched the proceedings with deep interest.

But while the interested public was waiting for the trial to commence, John Smith escaped from gaol.

The whole available force of the police, foot and mounted, were dispatched in every direction through the city, suburbs, and along all the routes likely to be taken by the fugitive.

He was caught again near Walkerville. It seems that some sailors at the gaol who had been sentenced to hard labour had helped Smith by causing confusion among the guards and giving him a boost over the fence of the stockade.

On 8 December 1855, John Smith alias James Dixon was charged with the murder of Mr Thomas. Now, this alias is a new development, and there is no indication from where the name “James Dixon” orginated. He pleaded not guilty. But the trial had to be deferred as Mary, the widow of the deceased, could not attend the trial because of illness. She had already remarried in July 1855, but she still had to be involved as a witness in the court proceedings for which the accused was bound over. Later, on 30 January 1856, she was delivered of twin daughters.

Mr Smith was not deterred from his lack of success in escaping the clutches of the law. On 26 Feburary, the Adelaide Times reports that Smith made another attempt to escape by endeavouring to cut through the bars of his cell with some sharp instrument that he has secreted. Mr Smith was then placed in solitary confinement. The Times noted that he appears indifferent in his manner; but these efforts to escape show his uneasiness of mind.

The trial

Justice Charles Cooper c. 1880
Justice Charles Cooper c. 1880

The trial of John Smith alias James Nixon finally started on 5 March 1856, with Justice Cooper presiding. Justice Cooper directed that the irons restraining the accused were removed, observing that when a man was put on trial for his life, it was quite proper that he should stand as free as circumstances would allow.

During the court proceedings, we finally find out the facts of the case. It was shown that the prisoner was the servant of the deceased. The deceased lived with his wife in a two-roomed hut. The deceased and his wife slept in the bedroom, and the accused slept in the kitchen. The deceased and the accused went out in the morning and, according to one witness, both came home on the night in question slightly intoxicated. Smith entered the bedroom of the Thomas’ to be ordered out by Mr Thomas who was lying down. The prisoner refused to go and Mr Thomas gave him a push. Smith seized Mr Thomas by the throat and pushed him to the ground. Mrs Thomas ran out to call a nieghbour, Mr Chambers, who testified that Thomas was black in the face from the choking. Mr Chambers, a blacksmith, loosened Smith’s hold, and Chambers and Smith went outside to fight. Chambers threw the prisoner down 3 times and the prisoner yielded, but then Smith and Thomas started to struggle over a gun. Thomas managed to get possession of the gun, so Smith went inside and came out with a knife, with which he stabbed Thomas. Two doctors were called to assist Thomas, and Smith ran off. Unfortunately, Thomas died a week later from his injuries.

The defence counsel did not dispute the facts of the case but asked for the judgement to be manslaughter on the grounds that the accused had been intoxicated, and had had some provocation. The jury retired for 10 minutes. Their decision was crucial for Smith – if they made a finding of murder, then John Smith would be executed. The jury returned their verdict; they found Smith guilty of manslaughter.

In passing sentence, Justice Cooper noted that Smith had shown a sad want of control over his passions, and that this lack of control had been exacerbated by a terrible habit of indulgence in drink, an evil of such prevalency in the colony: Justice Cooper prevailed on all present not to indulge in what leads to such an awful crime. Justice Cooper sentenced Smith to penal servitude for the rest of his natural life. According to the Adelaide Times, The prisoner heard his sentence without the slightest emotion, except that of joy at having escaped conviction of the capital crime.


And so what happened to John Smith alias James Dixon? Well, the term of your natural life could be shortened if you were a hard worker back then. On 30 March 1867, the Observer outlined the conditions for remission of sentences. To gain a remission you could take advantage of the credit time regulation as follows:

“Every prisoner will be compelled to break one cubic yard (twenty-seven cubic feet) of hard metal to a 2 1/2 inch gauge as a standard day’ s labour. Credit time will be allowed of one half day on each day for breaking on additional half yard.”

Also included is a list of all remissions granted between May 1864 and November 1866. On the list is James Dixon, alias Smith, life – time served 10 years. So, what happened to James Dixon, alias Smith after his release? Smith alias Dixon disappeared until 1895, when a swagman called Harry Lyon, alias Dixon, alias John Smith was arrested for drunkenness, indecent language and assault and robbery at Mt Barker. He was fined £5, but not having the money, Harry had to spend a month in the Adelaide Gaol. If this is the same man, it is clear that he did not take Justice Cooper’s words to heart.


Adelaide Observer, 27 January 1855, p. 5

Adelaide Observer, 20 October 1855, p. 3

South Australian Register, 25 October 1855, p. 3

Adelaide Observer, 24 November 1855, p. 8

Adelaide Observer, 8 December 1855, p. 4

South Australian Register, 13 February 1856, p. 3

Adelaide Times, 26 February 1856, p. 3

Adelaide Times, 5 March 1856, p. 3

Adelaide Observer, 8 March 1856, p. 3

Adelaide Observer, 30 March 1867, p. 6

The Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser, 13 Dec 1895, p. 3

Willunga’s Boy Bushranger

Written and presented by Mark Staniforth, Willunga National Trust

Norman Wilfred Baker

Norman Wilfred Baker
Norman Wilfred Baker

Willunga’s boy bushranger was Norman Wilfred Baker, aged 14 years and 10 months. Baker’s mother had died when he was very young and for some years he was under the care of his grandmother and after this he lived with a sister. Then he joined his father near Willunga and, with another son, they had been “batching” for about a year.

The Baker homestead was about seven miles from Willunga, in the heart of the bush. The principal means of access to it was a rough unmade track, called Range road, which branched off the main road about a mile outside the township. There, in a little house typical of the backblocks, and comprising two stone rooms and two small galvanised iron compartments at the rear. Mr. George Edmund Baker, a widower and his son, Norman, had lived since September 1920, the other son, Rodney, aged 17, had arrived quite recently from the Lake Frome district.

Mr. Baker, who was engaged in farming and wood cutting, worked the property of 338 acres on shares with his brother, Mr. F. H. Baker, of Kangarilla, to whom it belonged.

 I’ll blow your brains out

The boy’s father stated that on Sunday 23 July 1922 his son got into a rage, and the next morning “cleared out” leaving the following note:-

“I am going to have a short life and a merry one. Don’t tell anyone about what occurred last night, or I’ll blow your brains out, both of you. Norm.”

Norman Baker left his home, which was situated in the scrub over the Range, seven or eight miles from Willunga, dressed in striped tweed trousers, a grey coat, and a short khaki overcoat. He was a big lad for his age, being 5 ft. 6 in. high, and powerfully built with a dark complexion and a prominent nose. He took with him on his excursion, two rifles and 100 rounds of ammunition and carried a loaf of bread and a tin of jam.

Fredrick De Caux
The Headstone of Fredrick De Caux in the Willunga Cemetery

On Tuesday morning 25 July he bailed up Mr. Frederick De Caux, of Dingabbledinga, who told the police that he was driving to Willunga, and when within three miles of that town he was surprised to see a person with a black mask jump out of the thick scrub along the road and cover him with a Winchester rifle. The lad said, “Stop or I’ll blow your brains out,” and he relieved De Caux of 28 shillings. De Caux told the police he took a £1 note out his purse, and the lad said he could keep it. When asked why he did not act like a man, if he wanted a few bob, Baker retorted, “I’m not a man—I’m only a boy. If you move one step I’ll blow your brains out.”

For some days the efforts of the police and black trackers failed to locate the lad, who had taken to the bush. It was reported that blankets and food had been stolen from a camp near Kuitpo Forest. But on Friday night 28 July he returned to his father’s farm, and the police, surrounding the place, went in and arrested the lad who was in bed. He remarked that he was only home for a spell, and intended taking up bush ranging again on Saturday.

Mr. C. G. Stevens who drove the police on the excursion after the boy bushranger described the lad as being on the intelligent side. Chatting with the boy as regards his experiences he found him somewhat moody at first but later on he chatted freely. Mr. Stevens also said that the country was very dense and tracking was hard, but the police stuck to their task well, although they had a trying time. Mr. Stevens characterized Mounted Constable McElroy, who led the search, as a very zealous officer.

Charged, convicted and incarcerated in the reformatory.

Willunga Courthouse
Willunga Courthouse (c. 1880’s)

Baker was charged at the local Magistrates Court in Willunga on Saturday 29 July with what was the equivalent of robbery under arms. He was committed for trial at the next criminal sittings in Adelaide and bail was refused. According to the evidence of a police witness the boy, while being conveyed to the lock-up, stated that on one occasion one of the constable’s in search of him had approached within a short distance while he was hiding in the bush. If the constable had come within 60 yards of him he had intended to shoot him through the chest.

Police reports show that Baker had been reading the history of the Kelly Gang and that his imagination had been fired by the exploits of Henry Alexander Maple, the youthful desperado who vainly sought to emulate the deeds of the Kellys in Victoria, a few months before. He had become imbued with the spirit of the boy bushranger (Ernest Clifford Hull) who had been recently captured at Clunes in Victoria. The numbers of “boy bushrangers” at the time prompted this commentary in the newspapers of the time, such as this from the Bunyip:

We should not say that a youngster who becomes intoxicated with Ned Kelly stories and goes round with a pea rifle in a ridiculous effort at bush ranging and is finally caught in bed, tired out with his little jaunt, was a hopeless character. We should say that like the biblical character of old he had played the fool, and not the man, but that he would likely get over it. It is hardly a case for the Bastille; it is rather a case for a good smacking.

Constable Wegner
Constable Wegner and Family by the Willunga Courthouse Stable

Baker was escorted to Adelaide in the custody of Mounted Constable Wegener on Monday 31 July and lodged in the Magill Boy’s Reformatory to await his trial. The boy did not appear to be at all cast down at his position. At his trial Baker admitted that he had assaulted and robbed Frederick De Caux near Willunga on July 25. In ordering Baker to be detained at the Magill Reformatory until he was 18 years of age, the judge Mr. Justice Gordon told the prisoner that he hoped the discipline at that institution would show him how stupid he had been.


Boys Reformatory, Magill SA
Boys Reformatory, Magill SA

Baker escaped from the Magill Reformatory on Saturday 11 March 1923. He had been working at a cowshed with another boy at 3.30 p.m. and was missed at 4 p.m. The search for Baker involved police on motorcycles who scouted the vicinity of the Reformatory on the Sunday evening, but without result. A posse of mounted police and a black tracker explored the hills working towards Willunga on the supposition that Baker was making for home. A tracker followed in his wake as far as Norton’s Summit, but there the tracks disappeared and no further trace could be picked up in the scrub country.

Baker was subsequently recaptured by Mounted Constable Grow near Strathalbyn on Wednesday afternoon 15 March dressed in his father’s clothes, and carrying a blanket and three knives. He said that he had been hiding in the scrub near Willunga, and had stolen his food supplies in small quantities from his father’s house. When caught, he said he was making for Langhorne Creek to get work grape picking. He confessed that he “had had very little to eat”, and it is believed that dissatisfaction with the uncertain nature of his supplies prompted “him to decide upon seeking employment at Langhorne’s Creek”. He was returned to Adelaide and the Magill Reformatory.


A List of Boy Bushrangers in Australia

Name Date Age State Comment
William Parsons Mar 1867 Vic captured
Brookman 1868 16 NSW captured and hung
August Wernicke Nov 1879 15 Vic shot & killed
Reinbold Golbracht June 1908 15 NSW captured
unknown Feb 1912 unk NSW got away
unknown Aug 1916 14 NSW captured
Henry Alexander Maple Apl 1922 16 Vic shot & killed
Robert Banks Apl 1922 18 Vic captured
Ernest Clifford Hull June 1922 17 Vic captured
Norman Wilfred Baker July 1922 14 SA captured


Advertiser 28 July 1922:9
Albury Banner and Wodonga Express – NSW 28 July 1922:45
Australasian – Vic 5 Aug 1922:39
Barrier Miner – NSW 13 March 1923:1
Border Watch – SA 28 July 1922:3
Bunyip – SA 4 Aug 1922:2
Daily Herald – SA 29 July 1922:5
Daily Herald – SA 1 Aug 1922:3
Daily Mail – Qld 16 March 1923:6
Express and Telegraph – SA 1 Aug 1922:4
Journal 15 March1923:2
Maitland Daily Mercury – NSW 31 July 1922:4
Recorder – SA 12 March 1923:1
Register – SA 5 Sept 1922:4
Register – SA 14 March 1923:8
Queensland Times 31 July 1922:5
Queensland Times – Qld 16 March 1923:4
Victor Habour Times – SA 4 Aug 1922:3
Warwick Daily News – Qld 31 July 1922:2

The Mystery of the Yankalilla Bank Robbery

Written and presented by Paddy O’Toole, Willunga National Trust

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The Robbery

March 5, 1886. Mr John Whitecross Lyall was preparing his trip to Adelaide. He was leaving his employment with the Commercial Bank of South Australia as bank manager of the Yankalilla branch. Consequently, he had decided to take all the banknotes at the branch to Adelaide. He put them in a case which he placed next to his bed.

After finishing his preparations, he went to bed with his wife, Christina, at about 11.00-11.30 pm. He planned to catch the morning coach, which left Yankalilla at 3am. He had engaged a boy named Clayton to protect his wife and children in his absence, who was staying in a room at the back of the house. Also staying in the house was a young woman who was a friend of the family, Miss Coombs.

Between midnight and 2am, 2-3 men broke into the Yankalilla bank premises through the parlour window. They made their way to the bedroom of the bank manager where he lay sleeping with his wife. Mr Lyall was awakened by someone grasping his throat and his feet were bound down. He was told to keep quiet or get his brains blown out. Mrs Lyall was asked where the money was. She pointed to the case. She saw that one of the intruders wore a black mask. The ruffians tied Mr and Mrs Lyall to the bed, gagging them both with pieces of sheet, and knocking Mr Lyall out with a stick. There was some evidence that chloroform also was used to subdue the couple. The robbers searched the premises, opened the safe in the bankroom, and carried away £1245 in bank notes (about $152556 in today’s money) from the case that Mr Lyall had intended to carry to Adelaide on the early morning coach. Over £1000 was left on the premises. Miss Coombe heard the sound of feet pattering and came into the Lyall’s bedroom to find them tied up, and the burglars gone. She sent Clayton to summon help from the neighbours. Mr Lyall remained unconscious, and, from the evidence, was severely concussed. It was found that the cords used to bind the Lyalls had come from a drawer in the room. This was reported to be the first bank robbery in the colony of South Australia.

The Investigation

Summoned to the scene of the Yankalilla robbery
Mounted Constable Thomas Stephen Tuohy

When the robbery was reported, two detectives from Adelaide, an indigenous tracker, and two local troopers, Constable Tuohy from Willunga and Constable Rumball from Normanville were assigned to the case. There is a question here, that probably needs explaining. Why on earth was Mr Lyall travelling to Adelaide with all that money? Unfortunately, the Commercial Bank of South Australia had run into severe problems. Officers of the bank had misused funds, and the Directors of the Bank had failed to prevent it. Mr Lyall was actually in the process of closing the Yankalilla Branch at the time of the robbery and transporting the notes was part of the process.

The detectives paid a great deal of attention to the scene of the crime. They looked closely at the parlour window where the burglars had entered, and noted that a flower stand was placed under the window, and no dust on the sill or the stand was disturbed. They also noted that the window made a loud noise when opened. Proceeding to the bedroom, one of the detectives wound a sheet around his face, and found that he could still emit a cry. The tracker could find no tracks around the house, although some claimed that the neighbours had trampled all around the house after the robbery, and it was unreasonable to expect clear tracks from the robbers in their wake.

Although there were accounts of Yankalilla residents hearing a horse and carriage driven through the town late that night, the team dismissed these reports. The investigation team was accused in the press of “preconceived prejudice”(Adelaide Observor, 13/3/1886, p.31) They certainly did not believe the account given by the Lyalls.

Thus, Mr John Whitecross Lyall, was arrested and committed for trial on the charge of embezzlement. This caused shock in the colony because Mr Lyall was the son of Reverend James Lyall, a highly esteemed clergyman in the colony.

The Trial

Reporting on the trial of John Lyall for the Yankalilla robbery
Excerpt of a court report on the Trial of John Lyall from The Advertiser, Wednesday 7th April 1886

The Directors of the Commercial Bank of South Australia decided to take the case out of the hands of the Crown Solicitor and employed their own counsel to prosecute Mr Lyall. The essence of the prosecution’s case was that no robbery had taken place. They claimed that Mr Lyall had embezzled the funds, and that the story of the robbery was a fabrication.

In the press after the trial, the prosecution was described as “very weakly conducted”. In fact, the prosecution counsel had done most of the defending counsel’s work for them. All the witnesses were brought in as Crown witnesses which meant that “they were witnesses of truth” (Register, 11/6/1886, p. 4) that the prosecution could not contradict or cross-examine. Mr and Mrs Lyall were not even required to give evidence. The jury, therefore, had no option but to acquit Mr Lyall.

The editors of the Register noted that,

The expenditure of the funds of a Bank under liquidation in the promotion of a private and exceptional prosecution is a question for the creditors and shareholders of that institution, but in the interests of the public it is our business to point out that very few more such failures should be required to put an end to private prosecutions altogether, and require criminal cases to be conducted by the public officer who is ordinarily entrusted with that duty.

John Lyall's employer after the Yankalilla robbery
James Marshall & Co, Rundle Street Adelaide, c1889

So, alas, because his innocence was not really tested, poor Mr Lyall was acquitted but not really exonerated. So, the question remains – did he do it? After the trial, Mr Lyall gained employment at James Marshall & Co, a large retail store, and then moved to Western Australia, where he managed sawmills. His wife, Christina, died and he married again. At the end of the century he ran into money troubles, and was declared bankrupt. He was highly esteemed in the community, however, and was appointed as a Justice of the Peace. He died in 1922 at the age of 60. Considering his injuries incurred during the robbery, and his subsequent life, I think his guilt is unlikely.

The colonial government of South Australia offered a reward of £300 after the trial, which was never claimed. So, to this day, as far as we know, the purloined money was never recovered, the criminals were never caught and the mystery of the Yankalilla Bank Robbery was never solved.


Adelaide Observer. 13 March1886: 31
Adelaide Observer.12 June 1886: 31
Ancestry.com: Births, Marriage & Death records
Evening Journal. 9 June 1886: 2
Evening Journal. 10 June 1886: 3
Evening Journal. 30 March 1886. 2
Express and Telegraph. 8 June 1886: 2
Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth WA). 4 August 1899. 15
Northern Times (Carnavon WA). 24 June 1922. 2
South Australian Register. 11 June 1886: 4
South Australian Register. 8 March 1886: 6
South Australian Register. 8 March 1886: 4
South Australian Register. 9 June 1886. 7
South Australian Register. 13 March 1886: 6
South Western Times. 3 June 1922. 6
Southern Argus: 17 June 1886: 2
The Register. 7 December 1927: 6
Western Mail. 17 February 1906. 30

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