The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

In Search of Ngurabirding – Part 1


Resolving the identity of a man known as John Jack Maher helps tell the story of early European/Aboriginal integration inland from Albany. By following the threads we learn how Albany’s pioneer pastoralists merged with those from York in and around what later became the railway town of Katanning; most notably at a place called Eticup. Many shepherds and labourers employed by the pastoralists fathered children to Aboriginal women, angering their men, causing incidences of cross-cultural recrimination and violence. But what of those European men who engaged in this; mostly the convicts and Ticket-of-Leave men of the 1850’s and 1860’s? The story of their lives reveals backgrounds of deprivation and misery. What hope did they bring to their new opportunity and what chance of a fulfilling life did they and the result of their Indigenous unions really have?


Jack Maher, Bordenan and NgalanganAbove: The controversial photograph of John Jack Maher. The man here is either Johnny Maher the cricketer with his Aboriginal-descent wife Emily Maggs and daughter Maria Louisa, or he is Ngurabirding,  also known as John Jack Maher, husband to Waiman and father to Rachel as shown in the Bates genealogies. If the former, the photograph will have been taken around 1910 (as Maria Louisa was born 1901) putting Maher in his mid-40s. If the latter, the photo was probably taken in the 1890s when Maher was about thirty.


By the early 1850s there had been twenty-five years ongoing contact between the newcomers and the Menang Aborigines at and near to Albany. As we have seen, that contact extended to the outlying Wudjari, Koreng and Weelmen language groups as the settlers explored east-west along the coast and inland along the waterways. Also, north-south between the Swan and Avon Rivers and Albany as important communication links along what became the Albany Highway were forged. During these initial years, the ruthless pursuit of settlement tangled the filaments and strands of the traditional Aboriginal world with those of the Europeans, introducing hybrid family groups beholden to the new economy.

Despite the application of physical deterrents (iron mantraps, whips and firearms) to Aboriginal people perceived to be in breach of European laws relating to ownership, cross-cultural relations born at Albany during the initial military presence appear to have run more-or-less amicably until the 1840s when things began to break down, largely precipitated by the arrival of Captain John Hassell who commenced settlement at the head of the Kalgan River from 1839.  Relations declined further with the introduction of convict labour from 1850. As the settler population grew and the business of pastoralism strengthened its grip, mounting tensions within the wider Aboriginal world heightened and began to spill-over into recurring incidences of violence.

From Murray Arnold’s important, A Journey Travelled: Aboriginal European relations at Albany and the surrounding region from first contact to 1926.


The next census took place in 1854, four years after the arrival from England of the first batch of convicts sent to the colony. The census showed there were 97 occupiers of pastoral and agricultural land in the Plantagenet Region employing 136 labourers and thirty-two shepherds. The region, which included Albany (town) had a European population numbering 977. What is quite astounding is that only 165 of the men were aged 21 years or older, who had either been born in the colony, or had arrived as free settlers, while the much greater number of 348 were convicts holding conditional pardons or tickets-of-leave. Of these 158 were in private employ, with the remainder employed on public works. The convict presence around Albany at this time was dominant to an extent that is difficult to overstate.


This influx of single convict and ticket-of-leave men essentially comprised the pastoral workforce, a body of mostly young individuals (aged 20-40 yrs) drawn from poverty and famine-stricken Ireland as well as mainland Britain’s crowded poorer communities, where in both of which survival was largely a game of guile and wit. The social and geographical contrast between the transportee’s former lives and the one they subsequently found themselves living was dramatic; the emptiness they encountered will have been difficult to comprehend and their desire for women in a white-womanless place could of course only lead them in one direction, and it was that pursuit and the turmoil it caused within the Aboriginal world which led Bob Howard to describe the resulting conflict as a ‘guerrilla war’.

From Howard’s seminal polemic, Noongar Resistance Along the South Coast


 The guerrilla war that followed was mediated by Noongar ideas of payback and individual honour as well as organised resistance. The front line troops were wadjela (white) shepherds and Noongar women and the war was as much about women’s bodies as it was about men’s land.


On the wadjela side, Albany’s leading businessmen – the main protagonists in the settler quest for land domination – either married into each other’s families or fought battles of wits and writs against each other as they explored, leased and bought up the best grass and watering sites in a great arching swathe reaching along the coast from Wilsons Inlet west of Albany, to Doubtful Island Bay 100 miles to the east. That arch reaching inland up the Pallinup and Gairdner Rivers, across to the Gordon and along it to the headwaters of the Frankland where it ran south down the Hay River and back out into the sea close to modern-day Denmark.

Prior to 1860, apart from touching north of the Gordon River at Kojonup and west of it to the Blackwood River at Lake Muir, this was the extent of Albany’s influence. North of there belonged to southward pushing hopefuls largely based in the Avon Valley, as we saw so clearly in the previous post, Quartermaine Country. From 1860 the government inspired opening up of the so-called Eastern District drew the pastoralist presence beyond Jarramungup Station towards the Phillips River, Stokes Inlet, Esperance Bay, the Thomas River at Cape Arid and onwards all the way out to Eucla, incorporating the inland location of Fraser Range as it went.


Tindale Tribal Groups Vrs Sth Coast Settlers Map - CutAbove: Southern Tribal Groups and key settler locations east of Albany.


I began exploring the coastal migration of the settlers as they set out eastwards of Albany in a series of posts called Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection, of which there are now five, and to which I’ll add more once we’re done with the inland connection we’re discussing here. Both Quartermaine Country and this post are essential components of the Albany influence and need to be completed before we can start looking beyond Jarramungup Station, which is where the Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection series is leading us.

So, back at Albany from the late 1830’s there were four main settler groups in the mix. These were the families originally led by George Cheyne, Sir Richard Spencer, John McKail and Captain John Hassell. Individuals, including William Ponton, William Jenkins Gillam, James Arbour and John Herbert (brothers), William Sounness, John Williams (aka the notorious sealer-turned-whaler, John Bailey Pavey) and Edward Treasure also took up in the district and shouldn’t be disregarded, but their contributions pale in scale compared to those of the big four.

The reign of the Spencer family did not end with the death of Sir Richard in 1839, but extended through his sons Edward and Joseph as well as the marriage of his daughters Augusta and Mary Ann respectively to Arthur Trimmer and George Egerton-Warburton, all of whom impacted the area we are now looking more closely at. Alongside, George Cheyne introduced relations the Muir and Moir families along with William Henry Graham, that amalgamation equally successfully committing themselves to the quest for pastoral expansion. John McKail saw the value of forming alliances too, and though his did not swell nor profit to the same extent, his own land grabs were not insubstantial and of course his links to the Gillam and Dunn families ties him to the wider story of what culminated at Cocanarup. The fourth and final key element was provided by Captain John Hassell, probably the fiercest commercial competitor of the lot. Between these four men, their sons, daughters and relative households they headed, along with the employment they demanded and gave, was fashioned the culture of South Coast pastoralism; an aggressive pervasive influence incorporating the remnants of the sealing trade, jump ship seamen, aspiring imported indentured labour, a large combination of derelict, hopeful and capable convicts and ticket-of-leave men, and a small body of Albany Aborigines at least partially aligned to the by then established European presence.

Through these pages we have maintained focus on the more benign presence of the Taylor family of Candyup, and they are not excluded from the following analysis either. Patrick Taylor, financially denuded, aggrieved and depressed as he appears to have been, still could not resist the lure of pastoral investment north of the Stirling Ranges.

As these families drove the pastoral spread, the traditional Aboriginal world suffered wholesale destruction; disease wreaked havoc and together with broken marriage laws spiritual and lore-based belief systems came into question, in turn causing internal strife and further breakdown of the old family groups and their practice of maintaining the traditional kala.

On the fringes of both black and white worlds came a crude merging; an uneasy attachment of a select few non-Aboriginal men with surviving traditional Aborigines and increasing numbers of mixed-race offspring. These groups became unwittingly married to a ghostly and remote economy whose fundamental principles were designed to exploit them. The economic and social centres initiated by these newly formed groups occurred at traditional Aboriginal dwelling places usurped by the pastoralists. In particular; Kendenup, Yerriminup, Kojonup, Kattaning, Eticup/Broomehill, Gnowangerup, Jerramungup, Cape Riche/Bremer Bay, Ravensthorpe and Esperance, as well as other locations nearer to Albany itself. Most of today’s Southern Noongar families, torchbearers of the New Noongar Age, emerged from cross-cultural unions at these crucial locations.

At the time, precious few of the surviving Aboriginal groups were able to fully comprehend what was happening, nor escape the influence. A cultural consequence of this was lethargy and exposure to the sly grog trade. Introduced and shared by the struggling labouring class, the authorities sought to contain it, but alcohol was irreversibly embedded in European culture and all-too-readily transferable.

Through the story of John Jack Maher and the search for his son Ngurabirding we witness the harsh reality of life for the underprivileged of the era, characters transported from one hellish corner of the world to another, who on the one hand eschewed the economic dream in pursuit of the freedom offered by the indigenous lifestyle, while on the other were wholly unable to distance themselves from established patterns of behavior.

Essentially honorable men such as John Maher (father of Ngurabirding) who tried through the best years of their lives to make it on their own, ultimately fell short and died lonely and destitute as they ever were.


Destitute Men 1915

Above: Three unknown men at the Swan River’s Sunset Asylum for old and destitute men. The photograph was taken in 1915 by L.E. Snapcott, the original held at SLWA, this version from ABC Perth 27.11.2014




As we discovered in the previous post, Quartermaine Country, the identity of a man known to the Katanning Aborigines as Ngurabirding, apparently the son of conditionally pardoned convict John Maher of Ireland, and Bordenan, an Aboriginal girl ‘brought up with the whites’ may give clues as to the identity of Wajeran, also known as Mary Wantum, mother of the Noongar branch of the Quartermaine family.

But the search for Ngurabirding also sheds light on a great deal more, not least the settlement of Eticup, a prime farming location which became the focus of pastoral attention north of the Stirling Ranges from 1840. Eticup, or Ettakup or Yeetacup, means ‘song camping place’ and, as reflected in its name, had been a centre for Aboriginal ceremonies for a great many generations. (E.H-Hayward, No Free Kicks pg. 24). These traditional Aboriginal ceremonies attracted families belonging to the Wudjari (south east), Koreng (north west), Kaneang (south west), Menang (south) and Weelman (central and north) language groups. As European settlement at Eticup was closely linked to European settlement at other key watering sites in the surrounding area, and that many cross-cultural unions took place amidst them, the old locality of Eticup is therefore an historic component of the heartland to which many Southern Noongar families of today belong.


Eticup - Horton Map CutAbove: Eticup was the concentrated centre of pastoral expansion led by pioneer Albany settlers north of the Stirling Ranges.  Now just a graveyard on the Kojonup to Gnowangerup Road, it’s proximity to the Gordon River  surrounded it with grasslands first identified by J.S. Roe in 1835. As the map shows, the country was central to Aborigines across four separate language groups. Image: Drawn from the Horton Aboriginal Language Map, this version published by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Indigenous webpages.


Like his father, the specific identity of Ngurabirding isn’t clear. Ngurabirding was also known as John -or Jack- Maher, and he may be the same John Maher who was brought to New Norcia Mission and raised by the Benedictine Monks there; the same Johnny Maher, fast bowler and leading wicket taker, of the Aboriginal New Norcia Cricket Team written up in 2014 by Bob Reece as The Invincibles.


Johnny Maher the cricketer was the son of John Maher, Irish convict 2455, who settled at Eticup around 1855, but may also have been just one of various part-Aboriginal children to the same man. The search for Ngurabirding begins with his parents, revealing the nature of early Convict-Aboriginal Relations and the slow integration of the Indigenous into the strange new world colonising the old Aboriginal one in the rain shadow of the majestic Stirling Ranges.


Stirlings from the NorthAbove: In the rain shadow of the Stirlings.  Image Courtesy of Christian Fletcher Photography



John Maher Snr 1829-1907


Despite extensive searches there is no known register of the birth of John Maher Snr. It doesn’t mean the record doesn’t exist, it just means it hasn’t been found yet. This may be because Maher assumed an alias, at least a first name alias. On his death certificate, probably completed by a family member, John Maher’s father was given as David Maher and his mother as Anna Kelly. His place of birth was given as Limerick, Ireland, as it was on other official documents. Both the Maher and Kelly surnames are strongly associated with County Tipperary whose western borders link it with the Atlantic Coast counties of Limerick, Clare and Galway, each of which are also familiar with the historic Maher and Kelly family names.

(Postscript; 10.10.2020 – David Maher and Anna Kelly look now not to be parents of our John Maher, but of a second John Maher, also born in Limerick, though two years later, who also came out to Western Australia, but who was a Pensioner Guard stationed at Kojonup. – See bootom of post for more detail.)

According to what we can make out John Maher was born Catholic probably in 1829, and probably in county Limerick. From a general perspective, Maher will either have been a poor dweller of Limerick City – a largish port town of about 50 000 persons located at the mouth of the Shannon River on the western seaboard – where he may have belonged to a declining family whose inherited subdivision of a once substantial estate was by then insufficient to keep them, or the family had already sunk to peasant status and existed on another large estate outside the city where they toiled to raise beef and grain on behalf of a landlord who lived in England, paying punishing rents to a ruthless agent or management company simply to keep four walls and a roof around them.

West of Ireland map

Above: John Maher Senior was from the west of Ireland. His ancestry established in County Tipperary but by the time he was born, crucially just ahead of the Great Famine, they were divided both religiously and economically as well as dispersed more widely. The map here encircles the county of Clare which borders Limerick, Tipperary and Galway, all closely associated with the historic Maher/Meagher/O’Meachair clan. Image courtesy of


Pre-famine, the population of Ireland was greater than eight million, about twice what it fell to over the following sixty years and still a quarter more than it is today. Most people in the west of Ireland lived as cottiers outside the towns on small rural holdings from which they maintained a cashless subsistence lifestyle. Inside the towns and cities there were distinct divisions between wealth and poverty, and even then the wealthier precincts may not have been all they appeared to represent. At the time, the heart of Limerick City’s apparently prosperous commercial district was exposed by the visiting English novelist William Makepeace Thackery author of the satirical Vanity Fair;

. . .  even this mile-long street does not, in a few minutes, appear to be so wealthy and prosperous as it shows at first glance: for of the population that throng the streets, two-fifths are barefooted women, and two-fifths more ragged men: and the most part of the shops which have a grand show with them, appear, when looked into, to be no better than they should be, being empty makeshift looking places, with their best goods outside. (W.M. Thackeray, The Irish sketchbook (Belfast, 1985, rep.), pp. 148/9)


Another writer of the period described the poorer quarter of Limerick in correspondingly damning terms;

Nothing I had yet seen equalled the streets and the houses … For their dirty, dingy, dilapidated condition, the people … [were] ragged, half-naked and squalid in their appearance. (J. Barrow, A tour round Ireland (London, 1836), p. 279)


Outside the cities, most cottiers had just enough ground to raise a few pigs and to grow sufficient potatoes to feed them through the winter. Often, what they were able to generate from their holding was not enough to cover the rent and evictions were common. The Earl of Devon gave a report to one of many Royal Commissions on Conditions in Ireland, this one in 1845;

It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure … in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water … their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather … a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury … and nearly in all, their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property. Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1991), p.24. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849,


Peasant cottageAbove:  Drawing of an Irish peasant cottage of the famine era. From the public domain, origin unknown.


1829, the year John Maher was probably born, was also the year of Catholic Emancipation. The introduction of the Roman Catholic Relief Act finally allowed the old Gaelic Irish, who had held on to their language and religion through six centuries of increasingly savage colonial imposition, to be represented in the British Parliament. At last, it seemed, the disenfranchised had a voice which could speak of their desperation.

Until the late 1700’s crippling Penal Laws prevented Catholics from schooling, from openly practising their religion, from voting, joining the army or civil service, practising law or buying land. Additionally, families or clans who held on to their old Gaelic Irish roots (brought into Catholicism from paganism by St Patrick over a thousand years earlier) instead of joining Henry the Eighth’s new Protestant Church, had to subdivide what land they did have between their sons, thus diluting the scale of land ownership and individual power/wealth. The result of these laws prevented the resistant old Catholic Irish from any chance of climbing out of the increasingly poor living conditions into which they were born. Naturally, there was strong resentment toward the British and converted Irish Ascendency (middle) classes because of it. Ireland, well apart from being economically exploited – its rural workforce effective slaves – was riddled head to toe with conflict and social tension.

I’m including this detail because it will have informed certain decisions John Maher made during the course of his West Australian life.

The Celtic grazing lands of… Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised… the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home… The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of… Ireland… pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival. (Rifkin, Jeremy (1993), p.56-57. Beyond Beef, Plume, ISBN 978-0-452-26952-1)


So, John Maher was born into a critical period in Irish history, when with Catholic Emancipation it looked as if things were on the improve for ordinary people. In fact, however, they were worsening by the day and the most ghastly were just around the corner.

Ireland’s was an agricultural economy, there was little or no industry beyond that which had begun to establish itself in the north via the Ulster Plantation, and since ownership of much of the land had been transferred to England, most of the produce (and profit) was being exported. There had been food shortages amongst the cottiers for over a hundred years by the time John Maher was born and the Irish peasants knew very well their reliance on the potato was precarious, as it was prone to all sorts of strange infections. Over 400 000 people had died from famine and famine-induced sicknesses in one episode during the middle 1700’s and the general population, though expanding at an increasing rate, was well used to things going wrong. The first signs of something catastrophic looming during John Maher’s lifetime occurred in 1830, when he was an infant, and the potato crop failed again, this time causing the Limerick Food Riots.


. . . between 1801 and 1845 there had been 114 commissions and 61 special committees enquiring into the state of Ireland, and that “without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low. (Woodham-Smith 1991, p. 36.)


Whether he was a street urchin, pig tyke or aggrieved juvenile aggressor, and whether or not he knew it, the outlook for the boy John Maher was darkening with every day.


Thomond Bridge, LimerickAbove: A contemporary image of Thomond Bridge and King John’s Castle  on the Shannon River in old Limerick city. Apart from the street lamps and cars the view in John Maher’s time will have been the same.


Now, Limerick City was made famous in more recent times by the Irish-American author Frank McCourt who in 2006 published his autobiographic Angela’s Ashes, a portrait of impoverished childhood set in the rain-sodden town 100 years after Maher’s birth. In the story McCourt’s father, having returned from emigration to America, was a destructive alcoholic promising to do so much but each time failing, leaving his wife to bring up the family on welfare and charity handouts. The family lived in a crumbling terrace cottage at the bottom of a flood-prone, unpaved cul-de-sac and the children were almost always sick. Angela’s Ashes is a portrait of damp torment derived from the collective memory of older peasant Ireland, one that came through the famine years and one I think John Maher will have been familiar with.

Because of the dearth of fact surrounding John Maher’s actual identity all we can do is theorise about his origins, but there’s no harm in that, in fact it’s quite revealing.

The surname Maher is Anglicised from Meagher, itself Anglicised from the old Irish, O’Meachair, a large clan concentrated in the locality of Killea in Limerick’s neighbouring county, Tipperary. By the 1820s there were plenty of Meaghers and Mahers in the surrounding districts of South West Ireland, and eastwards into Kilkenny, but the clan was still mostly associated with country about 20 miles east of Limerick city.

Kelly, along with Murphy, is one of the most common Irish surnames in existence today. Anglicised in Tipperary and Kilkenny from O’Caollaidhe, the Kelly name is most strongly connected with the counties immediately north of Tipperary, notably Galway. I found a few Kelly/Maher associations in Limerick and Galway around the time of John Maher’s conviction. The key to these associations being the division of lands between the Protestant and Catholic branches of the family.

As mentioned, over the course of Irish history, particularly with the introduction of the Penal Laws in the 1600’s, the old Gaelic Irish were colonised and expected to convert to Protestantism. Those who did maintained (or increased) their wealth while those who did not (about 80%) were plunged into economic decay. Large and powerful old Catholic families originally dominated tracts of the countryside and lived in alliance with supporting families. The Meaghers in support of the overlord O’Carrolls of Tipperary for instance. When units within the larger families defected to Protestantism there was strong resentment, the defectors becoming part of the so-called Anglo-Irish or Ascendancy Class who dominated the upper echelons of Irish life between the 17th and 19th centuries.


John Maher - Landlord - Testamemt of Nicholas Maher 1843 -Above: By the mid 1800’s the old Meagher clan of Tipperary was divided, split between a minority wealthy Anglo-Irish landowning dynasty and majority poor Catholic class who will have been paying rents to their one time brothers-in-arms. The above excerpt was given by Nicholas Maher on behalf of Mr Valentine Maher and Mr John Maher, taken 19th December 1843 and published on Pg.128 of the Report from Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry Into the State of the Law and Practice in Respect to the Occupation of Land in Ireland Volume 4-5.


John Maher’s father’s Christian name of David was not common amongst the Catholic Irish of the time, suggesting some association with the Anglo-Irish. This should have led to some discovery about his family because of the high levels of literacy associated with that grouping, but the records have been limited in their revelations. There is one mention of a David Maher paying tithe taxes in Loughill, Limerick, in 1832, but nothing which ties him to an Anna Kelly or son, John. Loughill is a townland on the south-western edge of Limerick county where there was at one time an ironworks. (Postscript; 10.10.2020 – David Maher and Anna Kelly look now not to be parents of our John Maher, but of a second John Maher, also born in Limerick, though two years later, who also came out to Western Australia, but who was a Pensioner Guard stationed at Kojonup. – See bootom of post for more detail.)

Loughill is also close to Foynes, seat of the Spring-Rice family. Mount Trenchard House and Estate comprised 6500 acres during the time of the famine and though Thomas Spring Rice, 1st Baron Monteagle of Brandon, looks to have been a largely beneficent Anglo-Irish landlord by way of staving off evictions, the conditions his tenants would have had to endure would not have been much better than most others. It’s possible David Maher and his family were part of this establishment.

Mnt Trenchard, FoynesAbove: Mnt Trenchard House, close to where John Maher may have spent time as a boy. Image courtesy National Library of Ireland.


One of the things we do know about John Maher is that he was literate. This is because his Fremantle prison record shows it. During the 1840s in Ireland illiteracy amongst the male population was more than 60% (about 85% for women). In the southern half of the country (Munster), where John Maher lived, it was a little lower but overall this is a surprising figure given the exploitation of the population compared to other mainland European countries of the day; Spain and Portugal for instance where the rates were closer to 90%. And literacy, by and large, had to be paid for. Catholic education was no-longer a crime by the time John Maher was born but it still probably meant his parents had to come up with something, at least, to give him that grounding. Education, even way back then, appears to have been something prized by the resilient core population.

In other colonial records John Maher was described as a weaver, a servant and a labourer, none of which were occupations which demanded literacy during his time in Ireland. This is in keeping with the earlier presumption that he must have been poor and also in keeping with the notion Irish peasants gave their utmost so that their children at least had some sense of competitive worth in the world. Perhaps John Maher’s father had a better life than I’m prepared to assume here, and was able to provide something for his family while they were young, and perhaps John Maher himself was the cause of his own hardship, it’s very difficult to know.  Nonetheless, overall I’m prepared to think John Maher, convict 2455, was  just one of the many plain unrecorded poor of the day.

1845, the year he turned 16, potato blight once again took hold, souring Ireland’s sole peasant food source and rendering it a stinking pile of mush. Over the next three years as the blight remained, dramatic numbers of malnourished people began to fall sick. Dysentery, diarrhea, measles, tuberculosis and cholera all broke out and the mortality rate soared. If on the land, Maher may well have been forced off it, driven into the city of Limerick in search of survival. Being young and relatively strong he may have worked on road gangs, or with the rest of his family perhaps took up in the Limerick Workhouse. That we don’t know anything about John Maher until 1852 and that he was not joined by any known family members in Australia subsequent to it, begs the question what happened to them?

Did they perish, or emigrate?

Probably both.

By the time he was in his early 20s the worst of the cyclical hungers to ravage 18th and 19th Century Ireland was coming to an end, but the country was changed. More than a million had died and another million had left, many on so-called trans-Atlantic coffin ships cashing in on the vastly increased exodus to America (read Joseph O’Connor’s, Star of the Sea).  And they continued to leave. Over the following fifty years the population declined by another two million as America’s doors stayed open and the more distant southern colonies also offered promise. The resistance of the ordinary people of Ireland had been beaten into accepting an alternative. After nearly four hundred years they had learned a better life was to be had elsewhere, and it wasn’t until around 1970, six years after I arrived as an infant emigre in Western Australia myself, when the Irish home population once again commenced a period of sustained growth.

Thus, however he came to do it and whatever happened to the rest of his family, as a young man no doubt bruised by his early life experiences, John Maher came to survive poor Ireland’s Great Famine only to find himself shipped to a remote and empty corner of far off south-western Australia.



Left: The population of Ireland had grown exponentially from around 1700, despite growing dependence on a sole food source, ongoing potato crop failures and export of the main agricultural produce. Numbers peaked immediately prior to the Great Famine in 1845, falling to half over the following 60 years. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Population of Ireland since 1600.




Now, the first concrete fact ascribed to the life of John Maher prior to his arrival in Western Australia is his arrest and conviction for receiving stolen property, apparently during the summer of 1851. Convict records in Australia and Ireland show that on June 26 that year he was prosecuted at Limerick Court House and sentenced to seven years transportation, although the ship he was transported on, Pheobe Dunbar (the last convict ship ever to sail directly to Australia from Ireland) did not depart for two years and the arrival records state he was only imprisoned for a year before hand. There is also another note which says he had been previously convicted. The records pertaining to John Maher’s life in Ireland are few and contradictory.

In any case, Maher’s crime of receiving stolen property was petty and the property was most likely an item of food or clothing. At the time, seven-year sentences were standard for minor offences and because of the terrible conditions that prevailed in general it’s even possible he orchestrated his arrest in the hopes he would be shipped away.

The rise in crime during the Famine, from 20,000 on trial in 1845 to nearly 39,000 in 1849, was mainly due to nonviolent crimes against property. . . The use of cash on the relief works brought money into areas where it was uncommon before, and increased the opportunities for robbery. The most common crime was theft, of food or clothing, but large numbers of those arrested died before they could be brought to trial. The usual punishment at the time was transportation – convicted persons would be exiled abroad, to hard labour in Australia, and rarely returned. As the Famine worsened, people began to commit crimes deliberately so that they could be transported. However dreadful it might be, it could not be worse than dying of starvation or fever where they were. (The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History by Helen Litton)


Thus, John Maher found himself interned at Dublin’s infamous Mountjoy Prison awaiting transportation. Eventually, he embarked aboard the Pheobe Dunbar with near enough to three hundred others earmarked for the same fate on the basis of their relative youth and health. Importantly, however, of those 300 odd John Maher was sent with, only one was on a life-sentence and less than twelve were convicted of violent crimes. About a hundred of Maher’s convict mates were repeat offenders, but on the whole they weren’t bad men, more desperate victims of one of the cruelest eras of peasant exploitation in British colonial history. (Source: The West Australian Convicts, encapsulated thesis by W.J. Edgar)

Phoebe Dunbar

Right: The Pheobe Dunbar was just a few years old when commissioned as the last convict ship to leave Ireland directly for Australia. Image from Mitchell Families Online webpage;

As a matter of interest, during 2004 West Australian historian Paul Weaver set out a bite-sized eight-part comparative investigation into the sailings of two convict ships of more or less equal size and capacity, Robert Small and Pheobe Dunbar (700 tons and 300 convicts), which arrived into the anchorages off Fremantle more or less at the same time. The Robert Small had left from Cork (in the south of Ireland) carrying transportees from Spike Island prison there, while the Pheobe Dunbar had left from Dublin carrying at least two-thirds of its prisoners from Mountjoy Gaol; including John Maher. Weaver says the other hundred came from London’s Newgate Prison, but Dublin also had a Newgate Prison (though very small) which also served a period as Smithfield Convict Depot. As all the prisoners aboard Pheobe Dunbar were Irish I’m convinced the last hundred were held at Smithfield pending their departure.

Weaver noted;

Mountjoy was an extremely unpleasant place and many of the Phoebe Dunbar men had spent as long as four years there before being shipped to WA. It was a male-only jail and a “silent system” was enforced whereby prisoners were not allowed to speak to anyone. There were also “dark cells” to which a prisoner could be committed for long periods on bread and water, a system that continued until 1888, then was discontinued due to the high number of suicides. In Mountjoy, sick prisoners had to heal themselves or die. (Weaver – Irish prisoners for Western Australia on Phoebe Dunbar & Robert Small in 1853 – Part 2)


This would explain the two-year time difference between Maher’s conviction and the departure of the convict ship he arrived into Western Australia on. It also explains the short time Maher spent as a convict once he arrived. Within nine months of setting foot in W.A. John Maher had been granted his ticket-of-leave (probation) and gained paid employment somewhere close to Albany.

First thing first, though. As if his powers of survival had not already been tested enough, of the 37 convict ships which set sail for Western Australia between 1850 and 1868, Pheobe Dunbar was the 11th and by considerable stretch the one not to have been on.

The naval surgeon and author Peter Miller Cunningham (1789-1864), who made five convict ship journeys to New South Wales in the early part of the 19th Century (and also wrote Two Years in New South Wales) described the procedure most prisoners faced.


Before embarking, the convicts had been washed and fitted out with the regulation dress for the voyage, which consisted of jackets and waistcoats of blue cloth or kersey, duck trousers, check or coarse linen shirts, yarn stockings and woollen caps.


“Two rows of sleeping-births, one above the other, extend on each side of the between-decks, each berth being 6 feet square, and calculated to hold four convicts, everyone thus possessing 18 inches of space to sleep in–and ample space too! The hospital is in the fore-part of the ship, with a bulkhead across, separating it from the prison, having two doors with locks to keep out intruders; while a separate prison is built for the boys, to cut off all intercourse between them and the men. Strong wooden stanchions, thickly studded with nails, are fixed round the fore and main hatchways, between decks, in each of which is a door with three padlocks, to let the convicts out and in, and secure them at night. The convicts by these means have no access to the hold through the prison, a ladder being placed in each hatchway for them to go up and down by, which is pulled up at night”.


” Each is allowed a pair of shoes, three shirts, two pairs of trousers and other warm clothing on his embarkation, besides a bed, pillow, and blanket—while Bibles, Testaments, prayer-books, and psalters are distributed among the messes.


The rations are both good and abundant, three-quartes of a pound of biscuit being the daily allowance of bread while each day the convict sits down to dinner of either beef, pork, or plum-pudding, having pea soup four times a week, and a pot of gruel every morning, with sugar and butter in it. Vinegar is issued to the messes weekly; and as soon as the ship has been three weeks at sea, each man is served with one ounce of lime juice and the same of sugar daily, to guard against scurvy: while two gallons of good Spanish red wine, and one hundred and forty gallons of water are put on board for issuing to each likewise—three to four gills of wine weekly, and three quarts of water daily, being the general allowance.



I can’t say if the Pheobe Dunbar was fitted out in exactly the same way or if the prisoners were treated as the above text indicates they should, but the first suggestion things were not going to go well came from a report in Dublin’s Evening Freeman Journal on the day the ship sailed.


Pheobe Dunbar out of Dublin 3.6.53 Evening FreemanAbove: Excerpt from Dublin’s  The Evening Freeman newspaper – 3 June 1853


Paul Weaver summarized the voyage.


Those passengers on board. . . the Phoebe Dunbar, were not so fortunate…  by mid-June an epidemic described only as a ‘fever’ had broken out.


Most people including the guards and their families were ill at one time or another, and diarrhoea was common throughout the ship. On the 21 June the first convict, a young man aged 21, died of typhus and by the end of July symptoms of scurvy were appearing in many of the prisoners.


Most convict deaths occurred in August as the ship was bearing down on the Western Australian coast.


(Food and) Medicines which were carried on board were in the main ineffective. . .  (not adequately distributed- C.L.)


Including civilians, sixteen persons died on the ship en-route to Swan River or while it was at Owen’s Anchorage off Fremantle. In addition, three more convicts died not long after disembarkation, and eighteen of the Phoebe Dunbar convicts died before their tickets-of-leave had expired. (Weaver –Part 1)


Weaver goes on to explain that the Ship’s Surgeon under-reported the incidences of illness aboard as it was deemed a threat to security, which may well have been the case and doesn’t mean he didn’t treat all those who presented with illness, except that the rations allowed for the voyage were not distributed at the generally prescribed rate. When you tie this in with the report of the Pheobe Dunbar’s departure and the passengers not being allowed on decks, there is strong suggestion the Captain was overly wary of his human cargo. He either feared their interference and preferred to keep them locked away or had such low regard for the rough character of the lowly Irish male that he couldn’t bare to have them anywhere near. In the end, the Pheobe Dunbar made the journey in just over three months, losing 16 men between departure and disembarkation at Fremantle.

What adds to the torment of this journey, well apart from the under-nourishment the prisoners were subjected to while sailing, was the three-week period they spent at Owen’s Anchorage after they arrived. Neither the Robert Small nor Pheobe Dunbar were expected by the Swan River authorities and there was nowhere to house them. From the moment the ships arrived and the authorities realised what they were faced with, existing convicts were set to work building three temporary holding houses for them. So when the journey time frame was given as 89 days at sea, a relatively efficient voyage, it was added to by another 21 days, making it a lengthy and debilitating 110 days aboard.

These additional days and the mounting death toll that went with them led to a minor mutiny aboard. The uprising was soon quelled but tensions were clearly high and tempers very much at boiling point. Through all of this there is no specific mention of John Maher, suffice to say he came through it intact. Weaver makes the solemn point that the 16 persons who died aboard were not the sole victims. Of the 284 or there-abouts who came ashore, another 18 died within a few years. Most, though unrecorded, more than likely resulted from physical debilities brought on by sickness and the deprivations they endured over the course of the voyage.

Weaver also suggests the withholding of food and medicines may have been motivated by profit, knowledge the ship’s stores could be readily sold into the free Swan River market, itself crying out for all manner of produce at the time.

Things were certainly tough in those days and ordinary people had to be hardy just to survive. You can read Paul Weaver’s full account of what presents as the corrupt voyage of the Pheobe Dunbar via the following links;

Irish prisoners for Western Australia on Phoebe Dunbar & Robert Small in 1853

by Paul Weaver

Part 1  Part2  Part 3  Part 4

Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8


Owens Anchorage - Carnac IslandAbove: Looking across Owen’s Anchorage to Carnac Island, south of Fremantle. Pheobe Dunbar lay at anchor here for three weeks – her convict passengers sick, dying and mutinous – held below decks while accommodation was prepared for them ashore. The voyage killed 16 passengers before they could get ashore and curtailed the lives of up to another 18 by means of the deprivation they experienced.  Image courtesy Ingrid and Malcolm’s Blog.


John Maher, prisoner number 2455, was received into Fremantle Gaol on 31 August 1853. He was described as being 25 years of age, single, literate and (across various documents) as being a weaver by trade or otherwise a labourer or servant. His physical appearance was said to be stout. He was 5 feet 6 inches high, had dark brown hair, dark blue eyes and had a sallow complexion. On his right arm was tattooed the image of a hound, and when coming off the ship had cuts to the bridge of his nose and in the centre of his upper lip, in addition to a scar on his right cheek.  By the sounds of it Maher may have been involved, one way or another, in the mutinous affray out in Owen’s Anchorage.

A note worth mentioning here is that Maher was convict number 2455. The very next issue was convict 2456, 21 year-old John Carthy of Cork, someone Maher may have been positioned next to in the sleeping accommodation below decks. Carthy was also a minor offender on a seven year sentence but was one of those who fell sick during the voyage. Carthy survived the journey but was removed from the ship on arrival and lodged in the Establishment Hospital (such as it was) where he died seven days later.

The arrival of the Robert Small and Pheobe Dunbar more than doubled the Fremantle Gaol prisoner count and there simply wasn’t enough room to accommodate them. At this point the prison was about two years under construction, the perimeter walls being the focus of attention, so the security wont have been high. Paul Weaver describes what actions the authorities took.

A large wooden building to house more men was hastily built in the yard of the Fremantle compound and ticket-of-leave men from previous voyages were moved from a hiring depot at North Fremantle so that it could be converted to a branch-prison. In addition another wooden branch-prison was hastily erected at Freshwater Bay on the northern side of the Swan River, half way between Fremantle and Perth. Even this was not enough accommodation and a ticket-of-leave hiring depot at Guildford was also converted to a branch-prison for 80 men.


What work Maher was put to until 30 May 1854 when he was issued with his Ticket-of-Leave is hard to tell, but he was released from Fremantle Gaol, so wasn’t one of the 80 who were relocated out at Guildford. This may be critical as Weaver noted many descendants of the Pheobe Dunbar men were living in the Avon Valley and it could have been that the Guildford contingent gravitated in that direction by order. In any case, the next we know of John Maher was a year later when he made application to marry an Aboriginal woman in the Plantagenet district. This strongly suggests Maher was sent to the Albany convict hiring depot where none other than George Egerton-Warburton had been installed as Senior Assistant Superintendent.

Egerton-Warburton was an ex-Army Lieutenant who had managed the Kojonup military post which we previously discussed. By 1852, when he took up the convict depot role at Albany, Warburton was ten years married to Augusta Spencer, second daughter to Sir Richard and Lady Spencer and brother to Edward May and Joseph, both Plantagenet pastoralists. Warburton by that time also had properties at Mount Barker (St Werburghs and Ungurup) and  Frankland River (Yerriminup). In any case, sometime during the winter of 1854 John Maher was taken up and put to work as a farm labourer. We know from the 1855 marriage application that he was in the employ of the Spencers, the application being handled by the Sub-protector of Aborigines at Albany, Arthur Trimmer, who was also a member of the Spencer family, having married Augusta’s older sister Mary Ann after his nerve-wracking ordeal at the hands of his own doing  and the aggrieved Ballardong Aborigines of York in 1836. (See Quartermaine Country)


John Maher Frem Convict Record 30.5.1854

Above and Below: John Maher’s entry in the Fremantle Prison Character Book. The date here shows he was received by the Swan River establishment on 31st August, 1835, when the Pheobe Dunbar arrived into Owen’s Anchorage. It’s not clear if he was left aboard, as many of the men were, or if he was one of the few to disembark straight away. The character book also shows John Maher gave eight months of good to excellent behaviour while serving out his term and that he was issued with his Ticket-of-Leave on 30 May 1854.

John Maher Frem Convict Record 30.5.1854 - 2



POST SCRIPT 10 October, 2020

Since publication, this history of John Jack Maher has drawn attention from many family members. Indeed, the inspiration behind The View’s work here came from Maher family descendants, or at least those who recognised his presence in the wider Katanning area, as a man who married in to the Noongars and who was known to Elijah Quartremaine Jnr and family.  One of the reasons for the interest, of course, is that the story of John Maher Snrs identity appears complex, muddled and at times very much at odds with itself. Contact from descendants has provided greater detail and helped the realisation there were in fact two men of the same name, more than adequate reason for the muddled, incoherent nature of what evidence there is..

One was the convict described above, the John Maher who married Kitty Bordenan/ Bordrain in 1855. The other John Maher was a Pensioner Guard stationed at Kojonup who later became a Policeman in WA. Both being in the same area at the same time is the perfect recipe for confusion.

So, for clarification:  John Maher, convict 2455, was born in 1827 in Sologhead, Limerick while John Maher the Pensioner Guard was also born in Limerick, only two years later in 1829. David and Anna Kelly, the parents I described above as belonging to the convict John Maher actually belong to the Pensioner Guard, which makes a whole lot more sense.

Thanks to Kay Hinnrichsen for this information and the further suggestion the parents of John Jack maher, convict 2455, were James Maher and Mary Cranley. For the benefit of both families, I will look again at this history in the coming period and perhaps make a new post laying out the stories of both men.


13 responses to “In Search of Ngurabirding – Part 1”

  1. Elaine Sunter -Smith nee Burridge Avatar
    Elaine Sunter -Smith nee Burridge

    Very interesting reading.

    1. Avatar

      Thanks Elaine, plenty more to come on this subject.

  2. Andrew Markovs Avatar

    Fascinating reading thanks Ciaran. I’m looking forward to more.

    1. Avatar

      Should have Part 2 out in a week or so Andrew. Cheers.

  3. Mary Cotterell Avatar
    Mary Cotterell

    Hi, I have been researching my family tree, and there is evidence that John Maher (the convict) is my GGGrandfather. I was very interested to read your article. I was also very interested to see the photo possible of John, Emily and their daughter Maria, who I think may have been my grandmother. However I cannot locate any records for Maria Louisa Maher. My grandmother was Mary Margaret Louisa Maher and it lists on her death cert as parents John Maher and Emily Margaret. Looking to find a connection.

    1. Avatar

      Hi Mary, I would really love to have a ready answer for you but alas the search for Ngurabirding is ongoing. Please stay in touch though as I am, in time, hoping to resolve the mystery and at least get a little closer to understanding what might have happened here. From what you say above it seems to me that Mary Margaret Louisa Maher and Mary Louisa Maher were the same person, so the records you have look to be correct. You can contact me privately at to discuss further. Best wishes…

    2. Stephen Avatar

      Mary, I’ve seen your response here and would be very interested in talking with you. John Maher is also my GGGGrandfather. If you can get me at to discuss further. I have information and others in the family have good detail too.

    3. Gloria Wilson Avatar
      Gloria Wilson

      We are looking for information on waddean(Rachel)maher daugher of John Jack Maher and Kitty Maher born 1872 death 1939 the photo of John and Kitty could be my great grandmother Rachel could that be

      1. Skye Avatar

        Hi Gloria
        My great grandmother is Rachel
        Would be interested in hearing from you if you
        Have any information look forward to hearing from you 😀
        My email is

  4. Stephen Hunter Avatar


    I am interested in more conversations with you. Much of the information is fantastic and covers a lot of my Nyoongar Family from across the South West Region. JAck John Maher is my Great Great Great GrandFather

    1. Avatar

      The search for Ngurabirding is on-going, Stephen. The next post on TVFMC will be on the Albany Aborigines in response to the “Mokare; Return to Country” exhibition currently running there. After that I’ll return to look at the children of the Camfield School, researching marriages and relationships with local farmers and TofL men who worked in the Mnt Barker, Kojonup and Eticup areas. That should bring us closer again. The reaserch is slow but steady, so be patient, I’m confident we’ll get there in the end. Best wishes,

  5. Maureen Roberts Avatar

    The woman in the family photo said to be Emily Maggs wife of John Maher Aboriginal Cricketer is incorrect . Emily Maggs was not of Aboriginal descent her father Robert Aleander (Augustus Maggs was worn at Shoreditch Middlesex England and her mother Mary Garvey the first wife of Roberts Maggs was born in Ireland .Mary Garvey died in childbirth after delivering her second daughter Mary who also died leaving Robert to raise Emily . Robert then married Winifred Burke and they had 7 children . Robert also had a wife and child before being transported to WA , this unknown wife died in 1864 according to his prison records .

    1. Maureen Roberts Avatar

      John Maher said to be the father of John Maher was born at Solgohead Limerick Ireland and is parents are James Maher/Magher amd Mary Cranley who were married on the 25 February 1827 and John was baptised on 15 December 1827 according to Catholic Parish Records .So he is not the Jogn Maher who died in Albany in 1902 that John Maher was an Enrolled Pensioner Guard who arrived in 1866 he married Catherine McGough. THere is another John Maher according to the Dictionary of Western Australians ” MAHER, John. At “Woodegarup” & “Maltitup”Kojonup district where he employed 4 TIL men 1871 -1874 To ” Moodiarup ~ ‘ small farmer East of Eticup (1879-1889 ) . When sentenced to 4 months imprisonment, his wife & 2 chd. received outdoor poor relief 1/- per day 22 Sept 1885 ” It is not clear if John Mayer the convict and John Maher the farmer are one person or two different people .

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