Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Radcliffe Insolvency Saga

Sandridge from Hobsons Bay, 1863

Life was good for John Radcliffe, a thirty-four year old plasterer, turned building contractor, living in Sandridge (Port Melbourne), in 1861. Being in the right place, at the right time, he was awarded many lucrative government contracts and accumulated such wealth and property as would have been barely imaginable to a man of his social standing back home in Ireland.  That year, he married Bridget Flanagan and maybe tried to forget the tragic death of his first wife, Mary. Presumably, he still thought of their twelve year old daughter, Anne, my great-great-grandmother, left behind with his family, more than 10,000 miles away, in Dublin. 

In 1864, John built a substantial home, a mansion by some accounts, on Bay Street, Sandridge. He bought the site for £150 in 1863 and spent £1,000 on building costs. There, he resided with his new wife and set about making a life for himself. Sadly, his second chance of happiness was short-lived, and soon thereafter, John succumbed to ill-health. 

The following year, they converted their new home into the ‘President Lincoln Hotel’ and John applied for a publican's licence. The property included two sitting-rooms and two bedrooms, in addition to their private accommodation. Perhaps, with his illness, John was struggling to earn a living as a builder. Or, maybe he worried for his wife's livelihood, should the unthinkable happen, and decided to set her up in a profitable business she could manage on her own. Either way, the hotel did not spell the end of John's financial woes and, six months later, citing heavy losses on contracts and ill-health, he was declared insolvent. A man named Henry Shaw was appointed as the official assignee. Shaw immediately commenced the sale of John's assets, with a view to distributing the proceeds amongst his creditors. 

Town, and Melbourne & Hobson's Bay Railway Piers, Sandridge, 1862

John Radcliffe did not include the hotel in his original schedule of assets (£439) and liabilities (£1,495). He was presumably desperate to keep it for himself and his wife, especially as his failing health now seriously jeopardised his income as a builder. When questioned about this omission in the creditors' court, John claimed the hotel was mortgaged to a Mr. Gatehouse for over £600 and he had already transferred its ownership to his father-in-law, Patrick Flanagan, in settlement of a £300 debt for unpaid wages. The court did not accept this account and the official assignee took possession of the hotel. It sold for £850 at an auction held in August 1866. However, the following month, Mr. Shaw applied to transfer the publican's licence to Patrick Flanagan, and John and Bridget continued living there until their deaths. It would seem the family somehow came up with the money to keep the business and their home. 

This was, perhaps, not John's only attempt at circumventing the insolvency proceedings. He also gave two pieces of land, one in Sandridge and one in Melbourne, to his brother-in-law, Robert Flanagan, claiming it was in settlement of a debt. However, in March 1867, long after John Radcliffe was dead and buried, Henry Shaw sued Bridget for possession of the property, by then returned to her by her brother. The judge believed the Radcliffe's story was improbable and, quoting an English judge, declared ‘there was no woman who could not be either kicked or kissed out of her jointure.’ He returned the property to Henry Shaw. 

Seemingly, Thomas Radcliffe, John's younger brother, also wanted a piece of the action and, much to John's dispute, claimed he was owed £204 for goods sold, work done and money lent. To back up his claim, Thomas produced a scrap of paper, covered in figures in childlike handwriting, and claimed it was an I.O.U., signed by John. Thomas worked as a foreman in John's building business, and, if deemed to have been a partner, even a junior partner, he would have been entitled to a share of the profits, if any, not wages. The commissioner ruled the evidence produced by Thomas was suspicious and the so-called I.O.U. absurd. He concluded Thomas could not have been working as a servant, so was not entitled to claim wages, given he had allowed them to accumulate for years, while at the same time hiring and paying the other workers. Thomas's claim was unsuccessful, though it surely destroyed the brothers' relationship with each other, in the final days of John's life.

Sandridge, 1866

It was on 30 October 1866, the very day of John Radcliffe's death, that he finally got the better of Henry Shaw. In July 1865, he had taken out a £600 life insurance, for his wife's benefit. When he later became insolvent, the policy passed to the official assignee and was listed in the schedule of assets with a value of £20. In September 1866, the Radcliffe's attorney, Mr. Sterling, offered £10 for the policy, but this offer was refused and it took some time for them to raise the full purchase price. Possibly, every last penny had gone to securing their home at the auction. On the morning of 30 October, Mr. Sterling paid over the £20 asking price and the policy was returned to Bridget Radcliffe. Her husband died later that day. 

Mr. Shaw then issued proceedings against Mr. Sterling and Bridget Radcliffe, arguing they knew John was dying and, having suppressed this material fact, the policy should be returned to him. Mr. Sterling denied knowledge of his client's impending death, answering that Mr. Shaw had equal opportunity to ascertain the insolvent's state of health, being in possession of his premises. The judge agreed and dismissed the case, with costs. Bridget got the benefit of the insurance policy.

Unless meningitis had rendered John Radcliffe unconscious on the morning of his passing, he presumably died happy in the knowledge that his wife would have a roof over her head and a business to provide an income. So, after a long and painful illness, he could finally rest in peace.

My grandfather's Radcliffe Pedigree 

Source: The Argus, Melbourne, 1861-67, accessed on Trove, digitised newspapers, National Library of Australia.  

Image credits:  Town, and Melbourne & Hobson's Bay Railway Piers, Sandridge, by Arthur Willmore (1814-1888), engraver, Victoria illustrated, 1862; Sandridge, 1866, by Henry Gritten (1818-1873); Sandridge from Hobsons Bay, 1863, by Charles Troedel (1836-1906), printer, all courtesy of  the State Library of Victoria.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. What a tragic story. I hope Anne had a loving family to live with.

  2. It would be nice to think so, Ellie. Unfortunately, the earliest actual record I have for her was her marriage, when she was about 20.

  3. Dara, First of all, thank you for the kind comment about my blog! I'm trying to become a better storyteller as I tell the stories of my family.

    What a great story you have shared here! Did you get most of the information from newspaper records? I love all of the details you've shared. Incredible story!

  4. Thank you Dana. Yes, Australian newspapers, available on were my main source for this post.


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