Delaneys Corner sign at Nirranda, Australia

Early Colonial Victoria - What the Migrants Found


In her 1983 publication, “A Long Way From Tipperary” Mary O’Callaghan faithfully records the early years of the Delaneys in the new colony.

  • the arrival of John and Bridget Delaney and their 6 children at Port Fairy in Jan 1855;
  • their reunion with brother Thomas, who had emigrated earlier and resided at Dennington where the seventh Delaney child was born in 1857;
  • their selection of land at Nirranda; and much about life at Nirranda in the following decades.

This story tries to explore those things which were happening in the developing colony and which impacted on the lives of the Delaneys in the first 3 decades after their arrival. In particular, reference is made to:

The Land-grab

Human occupation of Victoria started 40-60,000 years ago with the arrival of the Aborigines. This extraordinary culture, with its own language and customs and its special relationship with the land, was to be all but destroyed in a few decades after the arrival of the first permanent white settlers in 1834-35, at Portland and then Melbourne. They came from Tasmania initially with their flocks of sheep and occupied large tracts of land. Word soon spread about the fertility of the land (which had been called ‘Australia Felix’ by the explorer Major Mitchell) and flocks of sheep poured from the north across the River Murray.

The new arrivals chose for themselves tracts of land, called ’runs’ or ‘stations’, without any permission whatsoever, let alone formal licence or title, and commenced farming. By the early 1850’s, there were 1200 different runs, with undefined boundaries, grazing 6.6 million sheep, and perhaps half these runs held by Scots. Some semblance of control over the squatters and their activities was achieved when the NSW Colonial Government moved to establish a licensing system for these lands.

The Port Phillip district as it was then known had a population of 80,000 by 1850 and in the next year it was separated from the Colony of New South Wales and named ‘Victoria’ after the Queen of England. A Legislative Council was appointed to administer the new colony and to prepare a constitution including the form of a permanent parliament.

Irish immigration to Australia accelerated after the Irish famine of 1845-48, especially after the finding of gold in 1851–270,000 gold-seekers flooded into Victoria in 3 years to 1854. Squatters lost their sheepherders to the goldfields, but this initial setback to their profits was soon forgotten as they built fences to contain the sheep (thereby cutting costs by dispensing with the need for shepherds). The local and overseas demand for meat, wool and hides sky-rocketed, along with profits to the squatters and the middlemen involved

The Gold Rush

The Delaneys’ arrival in Jan 1855 was at the peak of the gold rush. However, they came not to search for gold but for their own land on which they could start their new farming life.

The goldfields had been in an uproar for years because of the expensive licences the diggers were required to carry at all times - a system, which was ruthlessly policed. The diggers rebelled on the Ballarat Goldfields against this draconian administration. A Ballarat Reform Group was formed with close to a 1000 diggers joining, half of them Irish. They burned their licences; raised a republican flag, the Southern Cross, on a tall flagpole; and built a stockade at Eureka to protect themselves from the police and troops of the non-democratic colony.

Their leader from above was Peter Lalor, a young Irish engineering graduate of Trinity College Dublin, but ‘tough Tipperary lads’ were the vanguard of the protest. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed on December 3 1855. Five soldiers died and over 30 miners were killed, some of them after the stockade was taken. Public opinion was with the miners and the 13 of them tried for treason were not convicted by the jury and were set free.

Eureka was Irish in the same way as so much of Australian history was Irish–attitudes, impulses, and individuals. The predominance of the Irish in this and other early Australian revolts led to a perception back in Ireland that Irish Catholics were a very powerful minority in Australia. This was not so, but the belief became common that Australia was a superior destination for emigration over USA and Canada.

The Delaneys arrived in the month after the Eureka Stockade and all these events must have been the talk of the town, and the newly arrived immigrants from “Turbulent Tipperary” would have been trying to work out the different circumstances they would be facing in their new country. There, Lalor and his mates would have been dispatched summarily for rebelling against the government. Here, they were freed and what’s more Lalor was shortly to be elected to parliament.

Parliament Is Constituted

It would have been of interest to the Delaneys that the Reform League was concerned not only with the maladministration on the goldfields but also with the difficulty of getting land for farming after the first flush of ‘digging up gold’ had passed. The diggers’ grievances thus extended beyond goldfield matters to include political changes–full and fair representation, manhood suffrage, no property qualifications of members of the legislative council, payment of members and short periods of parliament.

In the event, a democratically elected legislative assembly was established in Victoria, with secret ballot introduced for the first time in the world, but the upper house, the Legislative Council, required electors and voters to have property qualifications. Accordingly, the property owners controlled the Council and therefore the squatters had an enormous influence on government. Legislation introduced by the government in the Lower House Assembly and passed had to be passed also by the upper house before it became law. Consequently any proposal contrary to the interests of the squatters had little chance of success. In addition, parliamentarians were not paid, so potential members needed to have private means of livelihood.

Land Reform

Charles Gavan Duffy [see Ireland in the 1840’s] arrived in 1856 and set about seeking election to the Legislative Assembly as a member for Villiers and Heytesbury which included the part of Western Victoria where the Delaneys were. Tom Delaney, John’s brother, collected subscriptions for the Duffy Qualification Fund and Duffy’s election and subsequent appointment as minister for lands and works would have been acclaimed by the Delaneys and all seeking to farm their own land.

‘UNLOCK THE LANDS’ became the cry as the gold rush subsided and immigrants sought alternative means of livelihood.. The squatters however had entrenched their position. They occupied runs much in excess of need and the best land at that. By 1861, 1800 stations totalling 35 to 40 million acres were held under licence by a little over 1000 squatters

The Government responded to the public call with Charles Gavan Duffy introducing the Land Act 1862, proposing that 10 million acres be relocated from squatters as agricultural blocks of 40 to 640 acres at one pound per acre. The Legislative Council passed the bill, as the squatters saw that the act was seriously flawed–they could easily circumvent the purposes of the act by arranging dummies to apply for blocks and transfer them back to the squatters. So successfully did the squatters corrupt the selection system, that by 1864, about 100 individuals had bought two-thirds of all land sold.

In the Western District the success of the squatters in holding and extending their properties was almost complete. Corruption had won out against Duffy’s idealism. Wealthy squatters built huge mansions on their runs, which were now secure in ownership. They held positions on the boards of the banks they had helped to establish, and had ready access to loans at low interest because of their priviliged position and the security provided by their huge holdings.

Subsequent Land Acts though did provide opportunities for many small farmers. Duffy considered the area around Nirranda as of inferior quality and not suitable for even pastoral purposes, let alone for agricultural purposes, being classified as “dense scrubland”. Nevertheless the land was subdivided and the Delaneys were able to take up 316 acres in three sections at Nirranda in 1866, with final payments being made on 31 Jan 1871. The applications were made in the names of Patrick Delaney and Margaret Delaney, John and Bridget’s two eldest children, and James Farrell, husband of the third child, Catherine.

Such inferior land was of no interest to the squatters and the story of these small selectors was generally one of hardship and frequent failure. Lack of finance (not enough security for the banks) or heavy borrowings (high interest loans because of low levels of security), bad seasons, distant markets (mostly England with prices set to favour England), pests and stock disease made the lot of even the most careful and industrious a burdensome one.

In spite of these burdens the Delaneys survived and the family grew. Three of the six children married spouses of English descent–the process of cultural interaction had commenced. The proportion of Irish in the Nirranda district was probably 25 per cent, so the Delaneys would have had opportunities to meet non-Irish regularly on a day-to-day and business basis.

The Irish

Many of the Irish were not worried about a move towards conformity and anglicisation in their new land. Others were perhaps disappointed that Australia was not an ‘Ireland downunder’. The reality was that Australia and Ireland was not basically alike. We were not under British domination in anywhere near the degree that Ireland was. To see Australia free whereas Ireland was not was true but the hope that Australia would be a substitute home was not realised. The differences were too great.

Many of the police who pursued Irish/Australian bushrangers in the name of the British crown were Irish. When Irish became landowners here, they could be as mean to employees as their non-Irish counterparts. Most Irish acted as both colonised and colonisers, they sympathised with the aborigines as fellow victims, yet also participated in their dispossession. (See Tain No 15 Nov 2001 “Australia is not Ireland down under” by Patrick Morgan).

In the 1860’s though recent Irish arrivals felt that an educated and informed and moderate Irish nationalism was possible and necessary in Australia. But the situation in Ireland was changing. The Fenian movement of Irish extremists had emerged as challengers to British rule in Ireland and this potential threat caused panic in Australia. Melbourne went on to virtual military alert in March 1867. All Irish came to be feared as Fenians, and there was strong and growing opposition to Irish Catholics in the community at large as Irish migration threatened to outstrip english migration.

In March 1868 there was an attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney by a demented Irishman, Captain Henry O’Farrell, who claimed, wrongly, to be a Fenian. This attempt sparked a strong backlash against Irish Catholics (the Duke’s bodyguard on his visit the following year incidentally was Detective John Christie who two decades later would set about trying to catch the Delaneys in their whiskey-making exploits). The subsequent anti-Irish hatred was led by the Colonial Secretary of NSW, Henry Parkes (later to be Premier), amid claims of a plot by the Fenians to overthrow authority. Senior police wanted to blow up Irish houses and to boil down priests. The fear of the Fenians was refuelled as Fenian prisoners were sent by the British to Western Australia and released progressively over the next 10 years. Membership of Orange Lodges increased tenfold over this period thereby changing the character of the lodges from Ulster Irish to anti Catholic.

Parkes pursued this situation for his own political ends and linked it to the controversial issue of teaching relgion in schools. Consequently, in 1872 Victoria withdrew state aid to denominational schools, whilst fully funding state schools for ‘free compulsory and secular’ education with religious teaching excluded. The impact was to wipe out practically all denominational schools except Catholic schools and those supported mainly by the wealthy squatters. The Catholics were still mainly Irish and were the poorest group in society but they strongly supported the decision of the Catholic Bishops to maintain the Catholic school system. A powerful perception developed that the Australian Irish were a victim people, persecuted souls and heroes whose socio-economic subjection was due to old wrongs, and whose suspicions about their hostile environment were amply justified.

There was no Catholic school in Nirranda and the Delaneys went to the local state school. But they also were supporters of the financing and building of the Nirranda Catholic Church that opened in the 1870’s. There were many Orangemen in the district also and one can imagine a growing tension in this environment especially as the size of Catholic families grew at double the rate of the rest.

The Kelly Gang

One element of Victorian history that roused unprecedented interest and intensity from the 1870’s on was the rise and fall of Ned Kelly the bushranger and his gang. Ned was the son of a Tipperary man who had been transported to Van Dieman’s Land. Ned grew up in the heart of a low-key land war, fought out in the post gold-rush between squatters (sheep and cattle barons) and selectors (small farmers that the colony’s government was trying to settle on squatters’ holdings). In this conflict, police were supposedly played the role of peacekeepers, but inevitably favoured the men with financial and political muscle–the squatters.

Many Irish farmers, remembering home, thought they could make a living on 100 acres of land. But so often the selection, including the Kellys, was too small and the soil too poor. Remember that the squatters had grabbed the best land, in huge runs, leaving marginal lands for these selectors, who were then often despised as poor farmers, destined to failure because they were not industrious! As the family of a convict, long since dead, the police at every complaint laid against them by the squatters hounded the Kellys. Like other small selectors, Ned took to cattle and horse-stealing to survive. This activity was not simple criminality but also a protest by the landless and the unsuccessful against the large squatters. Ned also became involved in the occasional brawl as he defended his family’s honour. But the Kelly saga may have passed into history as a series of local incidents if the Legislative Council had not witheld supply from the government in 1878.

The Council was said to be the most powerful upper house in the world–the democratically elected lower house members claimed further that Government was run from, or frustrated by, the Melbourne Club where squatters and city merchants belonged. The Council refused to endorse legislation providing for the payment of parliamentarians. Such a law would have allowed many people without independent means to stand for election against the property owners. Supply was refused and in the ensuing constitutional crisis the government sacked 300 judges, police magistrates coroners and others. The police commissioner, Captain Standish, who incompetently ran the force from the comfort of the Melbourne Club, had been under pressure by the squatters to finish the Kelly Gang’s activities. What better way to prove his worth than to pick off the Kellys?

Bad police work eventuated, which escalated the conflict. The arrest of his mother with a 3-day-old baby and her subsequent gaoling for 3 years was followed by police pursuit of Ned. Three policemen–all Irishmen–were killed (in self-defence said Ned, cold-blooded murder claimed the police). The Kellys were outlawed [] but they outwitted the police for nearly 2 years, robbing banks with consummate ease and gaining sympathy from their victims through their courtesy and charm. Finally they were surrounded at the Glenrowan Hotel, which the police burned to the ground, but not before Ned had emerged clad in a huge suit of armour which he had made from ploughshares, scaring hell out of the police. He was captured summarily tried and hanged at Melbourne Gaol on Nov 11 1881.

The Kelly saga caught the imagination of the public–the contest, the drama was fascinating even to those who despised their ruthlessness. But coming as it did at the time of the constitutional crisis, which emphasised the control of the squatters and their banks, led many land holders in the north-east to willingly support the Kellys or to withold help from the police. Their own experiences made them hostile to the banks and they cheered on the Kelly robberies of rural banks by these farm boys who, but for the grace of God, could have been their own sons. A petition of 32,000 signatures though was insufficient to bring about a stay of execution of Ned’s hanging. The governor of Melbourne Gaol who supervised the hanging of Ned was John Buckley Castieau whose son of the same name was to edit and publish, in 1913, ‘The Reminiscences of Detective Inspector Christie’ which describes the exploits of Christie in pursuing the Delaneys in their whiskey making ventures.

In the eyes of the many, no less the Delaneys of Nirranda, Ned Kelly was a courageous hero. The saying ‘as game as Ned Kelly’ entered the idiom. Songs were written and Ned became a legend. The farmers of Nirranda on their small marginal properties were struggling. By the 1880’s, John and Bridget Delaney had 48 grandchildren under 21 years of age. Prospects of getting further land remained slim. The exploits of the Kellys encouraged some of the embattled Delaneys and others to start making whiskey, an activity that was to continue sporadically for 13 years. Sure, it was against the law, but there was no shame in breaking an English Colonial law, especially one designed to protect the whiskey empires run by the City of London.


Blainey, Geoffrey ‘Our Side Of The Country: The Story Of Victoria’ Methuen Haynes Australia [1984]

Campbell, Colin ‘The Squatting Question Considered With A View To Its Settlement’ James Caple Melbourne(1861)

Duffy, Charles Gavan ‘Guide To The Land Law Of Victoria’ Government Printer Melbourne(1862)

Jones, Ian ‘Ned Kelly: A Short Life’ Lothian Books [Victoria] [1995]

Keneally, Thomas ‘The Great Shame: A Story Of The Irish In The Old World And The New’ Random House Australia [1998]

Kiddle, Margaret ‘Men Of Yesterday: A Social History Of The Western District Of Victoria, 1834-1890’ Melbourne University Press [1961]

Molony, John ‘I Am Ned Kelly’ Penguin Books Australia [1980]

Molony, John ‘Eureka’ Viking Penguin Books Australia [1984]

Molony, John ‘The Penguin Bicentennial History of Australia’ Viking Penguin Books Australia [1987]

O’Farrell, Patrick ‘The Irish in Australia’ NSW University Press Kensington NSW [1987]

‘Squatters’ Directory And Key To The Squatting Map Of Victoria’ James Blundell & Coy Melbourne [1862]

Valid HTML 4.01!
Powered by PHP!
Unless otherwise stated all text & images © Maurice Delaney, 2001-2006