Saturday, 25 October 2014

Murder in the family?

This is the tragic true story of two brothers, set in Victoria, Australia in 1895, which at the time received national newspaper coverage. The two young men, Thomas Radcliffe, aged 25, and Joseph Radcliffe, aged 23, were the sons of Thomas Radcliffe from Malahide, Co. Dublin and his wife Mary Minogue. Tom and Joe, as they were known, were first cousins of Anne (Radcliffe) Carroll, making them my first cousins four times removed. No rumour of these remarkable events has survived in our family today. Perhaps this is not surprising - Australia is a long way from Dublin. Although, other myths relating to this family were remembered, in this case, one of the brothers lost his life and in Ireland, superstitions dictated that no ill be spoken of the dead, so all memory of the case was lost.

In the early 1890s, the brothers moved to a place called Waratah North, 100 miles from their home in Melbourne. There, they managed a cattle farm for their father. Waratah North was an isolated spot, near the southern-most tip of Australia. It was twelve miles from Fish Creek, a stop on the Great Southern railway line.  The brother’s nearest neighbour lived three miles away, at a place called Sandy Point.

According to newspaper accounts, ‘the brothers were well known and respected, and appeared to live together quite happily’. However, on the evening of 15 August 1895, they quarrelled and the next day Joe was found dead of a gunshot wound. To the surprise of the township, Tom was arrested on a charge of wilful murder and James Hannan, aged 18, who was employed by the brothers, was arrested as an accessory before the fact.

On hearing the shocking news of Joe’s death, his parents immediately came by train from Melbourne, bringing with them a doctor and solicitor. On 20 August 1895, the Radcliffes buried their youngest son in Foster Cemetery, eighteen miles from Waratah North. The very next day they attended an inquest into his death, at which their other son was charged with his murder. Their grief is unimaginable.

The magisterial inquiry was held at Foster before a local justice of the peace and five jurymen and it was here that the extraordinary circumstances of Joe’s untimely death came to light.

Inquest into death of Joseph Radcliffe, Melbourne, August 1895, The Argus.
Inquest into death of Joseph Radcliffe, The Argus, 22 Aug 1895, p. 5

It transpired that Tom had gone into Fish Creek on Saturday, 10 August 1895. When he was still not home by the following Thursday, Joe became angry and rode out to look for him. The brothers somehow missed each other and when Joe got to Fish Creek, Tom had already arrived home. Joe then went home in a rage and a row ensued. In a fit of temper, Joe threw a kettle into the fireplace and hit Tom with a shovel. When Tom took the shovel away from him, Joe threatened to get the gun. Tom ran out of the house and Joe fired the gun after him, but Tom hid behind a tree. (Really, I am not making this up!). Joe then threw the gun at the doorway and it went off and then Joe fell on his back in the mud. James Hannan helped Joe to his bedroom and immediately left the house, for he was afraid of Joe.

Hannan then went to their neighbours, the Frasers in Sandy Point, where he spent the night. According to the Frasers, when he arrived, James told them Joe had shot himself but ‘was only putting it on and was not so badly hurt as he pretended.’ Tom then arrived at the Frasers saying ‘It’s a bit rough. He’ll pay pretty dear for this lot. I won’t have anything more to do with him.’ However, the following morning they returned to the farm and found Joe dead. Tom sent a telegram to the police and to his father.

Edwin Wiles gave evidence that Joe had come to his hotel in Fish Creek looking for Tom and became angry when he learnt Tom had met their father at Boys railway station and had gone with him to inspect some land.  Wiles said Joe was bad-tempered and ‘always the aggressor’ in any altercation, while Tom was ‘exceptionally good-tempered, especially with his brother’. Even Thomas Radcliffe, father of Tom and Joe, gave evidence that Tom was ‘exceptionally quiet in temperament’, unlike Joe, who had a ‘hasty disposition’ and ‘having been delicate when young was permitted his own way by all the brothers’.

The medical evidence corroborated the account heard.

The jury found that Joe had died from a gunshot wound, accidentally self-inflicted and Tom and James Hannon were discharged.

So, what do you make of that?

Sources: Launceston Examiner, 22 August 1895, p. 6; The Argus, 21 August 1895, p. 6 and 22 August 1895, p. 5; Portland Guardian, 23 August 1895, p. 3, all accessed on Trove

© 2014 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Wow, what a surprise this must have been! How did you come across it?

  2. It was shocking Ellie, when I found the family in Melbourne, I then searched for mention of them in the Australian newspapers on Trove.

  3. Newspaper accounts can add many details to our family stories. Guess you just don't know what you will find.

  4. True Coleen, it’s always exciting to come across your ancestors’ stories in newspapers, even though it’s often the saddest moments of their lives that are covered.


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