History with Brian James: A gold mining family

Victoria Gully Saw Mill (Maurice McCaffery's). Photo: contributed

Victoria Gully Saw Mill (Maurice McCaffery's). Photo: contributed


The death of William Thomas O'Connell was recorded in the Young Witness on Friday, September 28, 1917 under the heading of "A Pioneer's Death".

According to the article in the Witness O'Connell after a residence of over 50 years had died at the age of 78 years.

Mr O'Connell had been a hale and hearty man until a few years before his death.

He was recently confined to his bed and he deteriorated rapidly.

Mr O'Connell was a native of County Clare, Ireland, but left early in life for Cape Colony, South Africa, where he spent some years.

Later arriving in Australia he followed the quest for gold on various fields.

He came to Lambing Flat shortly after gold was discovered here, and successfully worked several claims, principally at Tipperary Gully and Victoria Hill - where he afterwards acquired a fair sized area of land and made his home.

William O'Connell began mining at Victoria Hill in partnership with George Briggs.

The story is told in the family that the early Chinese riots, in 1861, came about after these two noticed that during the night the wash-dirt they were putting aside was going missing.

They both stayed up one night to keep watch and at about 4am.

They caught five Chinamen filling their buckets with gold bearing dirt.

A brawl followed, in which, according to a grandson of O'Connell's, one of the Chinese was killed.

Following which O'Connell and Briggs came down to the township, drinking around the shanties, and told the other miners what the Chinese had done.

Others said that their dirt had been disappearing too, and before the day was over there were riots.

At the time of the roll-up of miners, when the riots took place against the Chinese, he was at Tipperary, and often spoke in later life of the great excitement which prevailed, and the wild scenes which he witnessed.

After coming to Young he married a daughter of the late Patrick Fitzgibbons and they had a family of four sons and six daughters.

Mr O'Connell was a well known identity of the district and for many years carried on the occupation of a dairyman.

A typical and honest Irishman, he rarely missed the annual St Patrick's Day sports, and generally took part in the procession.

At funerals he was a familiar figure, always riding on horse back.

Patrick Fitzgibbons, also an Irish immigrant, over the years had purchased considerable freehold land in the Blackguard Gully and Victoria Hill area and had taken up leasehold land as well.

A large portion of the leasehold land had been abandoned by the Victoria Hill Sluicing Company, which had been floated by John Gough and others.

In 1895 Patrick Fitzgibbons committed suicide and his freehold land and leases passed to his son-in-law William O'Connell.

When O'Connell died in 1917 his leases and freehold land was left to his widow Margaret and son Maurice.

According to an article in the Young Witness of Saturday, December 2, 1922 in the Wardens Court, Young of the preceding Thursday, James O'Connell made an application to have declared forfeited certain mining tenements taken up by his grandfather, Patrick Fitzgibbons, and now held by his mother and brother, in the vicinity of Victoria Hill.

His grounds were that the claims were not being worked, labour conditions not being fulfilled and there are no boundary marks.

One of the claims is a water race about 300 yards long from a dam in Blackguard Gully to Garribaldi Gully creek; another a 300 yard tail race and the third a sluicing claim of about two acres.

Apparently when cleaning out their dam about 18 months ago, the Murphys, put the spoil into the race and it had been blocked ever since.

After hearing all the evidence the Warden found for the plaintiff and declared the three tenements forfeited from a date to be fixed by him.

At one stage the Young Council considered establishing a public baths on the site but this did not eventuate.

In 1924 Patrick Fitzgibbons former leases were declared a Public Recreation Reserve and in 1925 Margaret O'Connell obtained an occupancy lease of some of the area.

In 1956 the Blackguard Gully area was dedicated as a Public Reserve.

Margaret O'Connell passed away in 1942, aged 93, she was born at Ballylooby, Tipperary, Ireland and came to Australia at the age of three with her parents, the late Mr and Mrs Patrick Fitzgibbons.

  • Brian James produced most of the information in this article from the Young Witness for publication each Tuesday.
  • Visit www.youngwitness.com.au/news/history/ to keep up to date, or catch up on, Brian's weekly history columns in the Young Witness.